There’s nothing exciting about being stopped at the border entering Israel. There’s no dramatic speech, no hopping over barriers like the little boy in “Love, Actually” did.
In real life it’s depressing, dehumanizing and rather frightening. When I was questioned at passport control on Feb. 8, interrogated and finally allowed to enter Israel after an hour and a half of uncertainty, I felt relief. But I was also angry and heartbroken, both personally and professionally — and I still am.
My privilege as a Jew means I never imagined that Israel could or would deny me entrance. My parents taught me that Israel is a safe place and the homeland of all Jews. I’ve spent my career as a leader in the American Jewish community, including my current position as a vice president of the New Israel Fund. All these factors kept me from truly empathizing with the experience of uncertainty faced by every Palestinian, Arab, Muslim and many other non-Jews entering or leaving Israel.
And so I was not prepared for a passport control officer to sneer at my explanation that the New Israel Fund (and Shatil, NIF’s operating arm in Israel) support civil society: “You mean Palestinian civil society.” Or to sardonically reject my self-definition as a Zionist. Or another officer interrogating me from a cheat-sheet with “BDS” written on it in prominent letters, despite the fact that NIF doesn’t support or fund the global BDS movement. After multiple interrogations focusing on NIF’s work, it became clear that I had been detained for political reasons; no other explanation fit.
As I returned to the detention area, I thought about the new reality in the U.S., too. About those traveling to the U.S. since President Trump banned Muslims and refugees from entering the country. I later learned that, just a day before I was detained in Israel, Hina Shamsi, one of our peers at the ACLU, was stopped at the U.S. border and questioned about her work.
It breaks my heart to see America do this. It breaks my heart to see Israel do it, too.
However, given the trajectory of the Netanyahu government’s repression of dissent, perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. Attacks on Israeli civil society are on the rise, supported and sometimes led by the government. Violence and hate have been incited against NIF and our grantees. Legislation has been passed to marginalize those working to protect human rights.
At NIF, we now devote considerable resources to defending the rights of freedom of speech and protest in Israel, from protecting activists against SLAPP lawsuits to ensuring that the police treat Arab and Ethiopian protesters with respect.
Freedom of expression now comes at a cost and criticism has become tantamount to treason. How did we get here?
The day after I was detained, NIF’s board chair, Talia Sasson, received a phone call from a Ministry of Interior official. He said he was “sorry I felt anguish.” When Talia suggested he call me personally and make the apology public, he refused.
We all know that’s a nonapology, though perhaps a first step. The government has tried to justify my detention in three troubling ways: First, they claimed I was a national security risk. Then, they tried calling it a “simple mistake” — the mistake, presumably, was to detain a Jewish leader instead of a Palestinian or Arab. Finally, they said they were interested in my prior trips to Israel, yet none of the officers asked me about any of them.
If they had, I would have told them about my first trip at 17 to plant trees with my father who was dying of cancer, or my study abroad program with Stanford at Haifa University, or the trips I led for San Francisco’s Jewish Federation. What about any of that could have raised suspicions?
Border security should be used to keep all of us safe, not to discriminate on any basis: religious, ethnic, or political. Democracies should not use political litmus tests at their airports; they shouldn’t use border control to harass, intimidate and humiliate visitors. Misusing the security apparatus for political purposes robs everyone of the real security we need.
In Israel and in America, we will not be stopped or cowed: not me, not my colleagues at the New Israel Fund, not any of our partners, nor the activists we support. We will remain devoted to the values of a democratic society: justice, equality, democracy and the fair treatment of every citizen. And we’ll all keep coming back.