What happens when the Israeli government establishes a political litmus test for who can enter the country?
An NIF Vice President is held at Ben-Gurion Airport. Support pours in from around the world, creating a backlash against the right-wing’s campaign to silence dissent and freedom of speech.
In February 2017, Jennifer Spitzer, NIF’s Vice President of Operations, was detained upon landing at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. She was taken aside for three separate rounds of questioning by Israeli immigration officials, who interrogated her about NIF’s work. While they initially claimed she was held due to “security considerations,” this move was seen by many as part of a campaign to intimidate critics of the Netanyahu government’s policies on settlements and the occupation.
Following legal intervention, Jen was released. The Interior Ministry issued a tepid apology for any “unpleasantness,” hoping that the attention would subside and that the news cycle would move on. But this story did not end there. Instead, it became a powerful force for organizing those who cannot accept an Israel that conditions freedom of movement on political litmus tests.
At NIF, we knew that this was not a simple misunderstanding or an isolated incident. It was one moment in a wider context of intimidation, repression, and harassment of progressive activists. That’s why as soon as Jen was released, NIF focused the conversation towards the repression of free speech. Jen’s background as a veteran leader of the American Jewish community revealed the cynicism of these policies.
Israelis responded with a groundswell of support for Jen. Many were upset that their government was questioning people about their political beliefs when they arrive in Israel. Members of Knesset joined the outrage about Jen’s detention, with one calling it “political persecution, harassment and an attempt to silence those who fight for Israeli society.”
A few weeks later, Omar Shakir, an American citizen who took a job with Human Rights Watch in Israel was denied a work permit. The government initially acknowledged to the press that the denial was politically motivated, proving that Jen’s detention at the airport was not a limited incident but the start of a troubling new trend. Yet, as this story grabbed more headlines – and with the Jen Spitzer incident fresh in their minds – Israeli officials quickly changed course and invited Shakir to re-apply. By the end of April, he was in Tel Aviv, ready to begin work.
We Were Ready
NIF recognized years ago that powerful political forces within Israel wanted to trample its democratic norms, just as similar movements have done in once-democratic regimes around the world. It was for this reason that NIF launched our New Initiatives for Democracy (NIFD), which has incubated startup organizations such as The Whistle, a watchdog group that monitors the media for misinformation and bias and protects democratic norms. And it's also why we are committed to defending the rights of freedom of speech and protest, from protecting activists against SLAPP lawsuits to ensuring that the police treat Arab and Ethiopian protesters with respect.
These are the kind of efforts that are needed right now. Through its years of strengthening democratic norms, NIF laid the groundwork for the backlash against Jen’s detention and against the abuse of immigration authorities to try to silence dissent.
While this fight against a political litmus test to determine who can enter the country is far from over, NIF will continue to protect democratic norms and freedom of speech – including, and especially, for those who dare to criticize the Israeli government’s policies.