One of the big headlines in Israel this week is that the Supreme Court of Israel ruled to allow a student to enter the country to attend Hebrew University in a Master’s program even though this student has a history of supporting the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement against Israel. It was among the first test cases of the anti-BDS entry law that Israel passed last year blocking entry to Israel of people who actively advocate BDS and act against Israel. (*Note: this is not the law that allows suing for damages if Israel is harmed by BDS activism. That was a different test case.)
Crash course on Israel’s governmental structure
Israel is not at all like the US system and is much more similar to the UK system. The Prime Minister is the head of the party that wins the election (thus the executive branch and legislative branch are combined). The President of Israel is a ceremonial position and is filled by a person elected by the Knesset, usually after a long career in politics. The President appoints the 15-member Supreme Court based on the recommendations of a judicial committee. Judges on the Supreme Court may serve until the age of 70 unless they resign for other reasons.
The Supreme Court in Israel serves two functions. Like the US Supreme Court, it is the final court of appeal. But unlike the US Supreme Court, the Supreme Court in Israel – operating as the High Court of Justice – may also hear petitions to rule on the legality of laws or other issues that would not normally be heard in a court of law. Since Israel doesn’t have a constitution, the Court uses the Basic Laws of Israel as its guide.
In 2017, a law was passed in the Knesset that said that a non-citizen who actively uses a public forum to call for a boycott of Israel and has a reasonable expectation of causing a boycott to occur, can be barred from entering Israel. This more-or-less applies to leaders of organizations, not someone who supports BDS on Facebook.
It’s pretty divisive issue in Israel. The Left says that the law and its application violates freedom of speech and that Israel has nothing to hide. The Right points out that the democratically elected members of Knesset are acting on behalf of the will of the people and defending Israel at the border against enemy agents trying to destroy Israel from within.
Other BDS activists/supporters have been turned away at the airport, but the student in question here decided to take it to court.
The Court ruled that the law itself was in accordance with the Basic Laws, but that it did not apply in the student’s case. She claimed not to be involved in BDS for the last year and a half and was not planning to be a BDS activist while in Israel. So she’ll be starting at Hebrew U. next week.
Academia the world over tends to lean to the left and it’s the case in Israel too. There are a good number of Israeli academics who support the BDS movement – even if it sometimes backfires and they themselves are uninvited to conferences or blackballed in publications. So while it seems on the face of it that the student wanting to attend Hebrew University, and who was backed in court by Hebrew U., is not supportive of BDS, I’m not so sure that it is quite so clear-cut. I guess we’ll see what this student does while she’s here.
This court case is a microcosm of the existential question of what kind of state Israel will be. Will Israel be a state of wide-ranging freedom for all or a repressive state that only allows opinions that agree with the majority?
And that’s where the Court comes in. It should not be a question of political Left or Right, but a question of what is just, not only legal. When the Court took upon itself the responsibility of protecting human rights, the Right called it an “activist court.” And when the Court allows a law to stand that the Left feels is repressive, the Left calls the Court a “rubber stamp.” The truth, of course, is somewhere in between. The Court must act to stop tyranny of the majority, but they must also allow the state to act on behalf of the safety and security of its citizens. The principle is simple, the application is complicated.
“Justice, justice shall you pursue.” – Deuteronomy 16:20