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More on Lara Alqasem

By TTN Blog

This cartoon is from the the anti-Israel/anti-Zionist webzine, Mondoweiss.net, exemplifying the harm Israel’s government has inflicted by detaining and attempting to deport Lara Alqasem, to bar her from graduate studies at Hebrew University.  TTN (The Third Narrative) participants have been intensively discussing this odd case of an American grandchild of Palestinians who led her college chapter of the extreme anti-Israel group, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), and now wishes to be a graduate student at Hebrew University, where she’s been accepted.  Most in this discussion see Israel’s decision to deport her as wrong-headed, and many have signed a statement published at our website by TTN’s Alliance for Academic Freedom, hoping that Israel’s judiciary will reverse this decision.   

To be fair, there’s been pushback from some at TTN, given the hyper-militancy of the SJP which Alqasem was active in.  But her decision to apply to an Israeli university violates the international BDS movement’s boycott of Israeli institutions and has drawn fire from this movement.

At the same time, the pro-Israel New York Times writers Brett Stephens (a past editor of the Jerusalem Post and a conservative) and Bari Weiss (a moderate liberal), have co-authored “Why Is Israel Scared of this Young American?,” seeing this as harmful to Israel; their article’s subtitle is: “Societies that bar their critics aren’t protecting themselves. They are advertising their weakness.”  

There were many relevant observations made in the course of our TTN discussion, too numerous to share.  The following from Prof. Susannah Heschel of Dartmouth, published here with her permission, is somewhat novel in the points made:

Regarding Lara Alqasem: It is terribly dangerous to rely on websites for information. We all know of people, including ourselves, who have been mistakenly associated with political ideas based on websites; they function sociologically like rumors. I was told of a case of a student who was pretty left-wing (but not BDS) and placed on Canary Mission’s website. While an undergraduate, she changed her politics – and even began the process of converting to Judaism. She came to understand Zionism in a very sympathetic way, but her name remained on Canary Mission. Friends of hers intervened and asked CM to remove her name. They refused. And so it goes. 

Let’s keep in mind that the brain doesn’t reach full growth until age 28. Undergraduates are not yet fully adult. They are impulsive and easily influenced. One student told me recently that he wants to get a PhD in Jewish history – after taking just one course! Very sweet, but very young. I understand: I felt that way when I took a great college course on Russian history – I was all set to get a PhD in Russian history for several months – then realized while I loved the course and the professor, that field was not going to be my life. Do we have any measurements of kids changing their politics during their undergraduate years? Or whether their political views influence their voting patterns after they leave college – perhaps five years down the road, when they have steady jobs, perhaps families? Are there any gender differences? I asked someone from Camera about this a few years ago – and the answer was: we have no idea. 

I also worry we may be distracted by the concern about BDS on campus. It is serious, yes, but it is part of a larger problem. I worry about the widespread assault on the academy – on science, on scholarship – that is always part of radical political movements, both fascist and communist. A woman at a local synagogue recently told me that all universities in the US are full of antisemitism and should be avoided – a good ploy to discredit the work we do. She was getting this from her rabbi, among others. I often receive emails from people offering to give a lecture about the ‘assault against Jews’ on college campuses, etc. 

P.S. This is from a Haaretz op-ed by another esteemed TTN colleague, David Schraub, a legal scholar at UC-Berkeley:

…if the Israel’s government objective is to undermine BDS, then blocking someone like Ms. Alqasem from entering the country until she issues a patently coerced show-confession is obviously counterproductive.

But if the goal is to put the squeeze on liberal social, political, and cultural institutions – academia foremost among them – then the government’s behavior is quite productive.  …

And again, if the goal is … to wither liberal Zionism away and make the choice a stark one between which “River to the Sea” ideology you prefer – then there are few directions more productive than squeezing the life from Israeli academia and other sites from where a liberal Israeli alternative might emerge.

So a misbegotten alliance emerges: the Israeli government and the BDS core may not agree on much, but they certainly agree that Lara Alqasem shouldn’t go to Hebrew University to study. But this connection is more than just an idiosyncratic odd-coupling. It is reflective of a broader, and more dangerous, decay in the basic liberal ideals that animate free societies.

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