In Israel, American Jews can kiss their privilege goodbye

The recent harassment of left-wing American Jews by the Shin Bet is a sign that their privilege may no longer be enough to protect them.

Simone Zimmerman. (photo: Rafael Shimunov)
Simone Zimmerman. (photo: Rafael Shimunov)

American Jews have good reason to be afraid. Recent interrogations, harassment, and deportation of left-wing Jewish American activists over their political beliefs and activities have ushered in a new political moment in the relationship between Israel and diaspora Jewish communities.

No longer is Jewish identity enough to protect American activists from the reach of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency. Jewish privilege is no longer enough to guarantee entry into the Jewish state should one’s ideology or political views contradict those of the Israeli government.

When Simone Zimmerman and Abby Kirschbaum were detained and interrogated on their way back from a weekend in Sinai, the Shin Bet and border authority interrogators were almost exclusively interested in why the two wanted to work with Palestinians. They wanted to know about their politics.

A week earlier, when Israeli-American author Moriel Zecher-Rothman was held by the Shin Bet at the airport, an agent warned him against going down a “slippery slope” of anti-occupation activism and demanded he provide intelligence on fellow left-wing activists.

Ariel Gold, who held a student visa to study in Jerusalem, was detained and deported for her political affiliations. Meyer Koplow, a prominent Jewish philanthropist, was questioned by security officials at the airport about a Palestinian tourist pamphlet and specifically asked what he would tell his community back home about what he saw in the West Bank.

The trend these interrogations, deportations, and harassment point to cannot be divorced from the wider context of Israel’s clampdown on internal and external dissent through a fusillade of dangerously anti-democratic laws. One turning point was the BDS entry law, passed last year, which blocks foreign BDS activists from entering Israel. The law was written in a way that even boycotting settlement goods counts as support for BDS, giving the Israeli government leeway for a maximalist interpretation and near-carte blanche for deportation of anyone who is outspoken about the occupation.

Jewish activists protest the segregation of Shuhada Street in the West Bank city of Hebron, October 25, 2013. Seven activists were taken to the Hebron police station and charged with violating a closed military zone order. The activists, from a group called All That's Left, went to Hebron on the eve of Shabbat Chayei Sarah, which is when the Torah portion of the same name is read. Religious-nationalist Jews descend on Hebron over the weekend to mark the text they believe to be proof that Jews own Hebron.
Moriel Zecher-Rothman (right) takes part in a protest against the segregation of Shuhada Street in the West Bank city of Hebron, October 25, 2013. (

In an attempt to make order of the travel ban, Israeli officials later published a blacklist of groups that were banned from entering Israel, ostensibly over their support for BDS, although the list also included distinguished groups like the American Friends Service Committee. The blacklist has had an immediate effect on Jewish Americans, leading to the deportation of Gold, the denial of entry to a group of left-wing American rabbis, and an unknown number of cases that have not made the news.

The Israeli government has decided to cast liberal and left-wing American Jews as potential threats to the State of Israel. It no longer matters whether they believe in nonviolence, whether they work for peace organizations in Israel, or even if they have family in the country — their privileges in the Jewish state do not stand the government’s political litmus test.

Of course, these latest incidents are a mere blip when taken in the bigger picture of the decades of harassment, deportations, and worse experienced by Palestinian-Americans and Arabs at Israel’s borders, if they dare try and enter. It is no longer considered newsworthy when these things happen to Palestinian and Arab Americans — the cases are simply too many to count.

The latest harassment and deportation of Jewish American activists is significant for one reason: it sends a message to liberal and left-wing Jews around the world that they are unwelcome here, and that they should be ready to face the consequences if they try to enter. The irony of Israel recently crowning itself as the “Jewish Nation-State” at the same time as it is turning away increasing numbers of Jews due to their political views should not be lost on anyone.

Yet despite all the fear mongering, harassment and intimidation, Jews will remain a central part of the struggle against the occupation and for justice in Israel-Palestine. That will likely mean more interrogations, more deportations, more blacklists, and more silencing of dissent. That means that for American Jews, like it has always meant for Palestinians in the diaspora, the fight for justice in Israel-Palestine may soon only be possible from afar.