On the humid evening of October 2, University of Florida graduate Lara Alqasem landed in Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv.
Before she could enter the country, where the 22-year-old had been granted a student visa to pursue a master’s degree in human rights and transitional justice at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israeli border officials took her aside. They had typed Alqasem’s name into Canary Mission, a shadowy, right-wing website that tracks pro-Palestinian students and professors on American college campuses. The database listed Alqasem as the president of UF’s Students for Justice in Palestine during the 2016–17 academic year and showed that she had an event that called for a boycott of Sabra Hummus.
That was enough for Israeli officials to deny her entry to the country, despite her visa, and detain her. Israel says she is free to return to the United States. She has remained in detention for the past two weeks, initially being denied access to the bathroom, food, and her Epipen, as well as her computer and cell phone. She has not been allowed to speak to the press.
But despite her access to lawyers being restricted, Alqasem has challenged the Israeli state’s deportation order, making her the first student to do so.
Alqasem had planned to learn Hebrew and become immersed in the culture of the region where her grandparents, who are Palestinian, lived decades ago. On October 4, however, an Israeli judge ruled she would be deported to London, after initially ordering a stay of execution. Alqasem appealed the ruling to a Tel Aviv District Court; on October 8, the district court rejected Alqasem’s appeal. On October 17, her case will be heard by Israel’s Supreme Court, which will make the final decision.
This isn’t the first time Israel has denied entry to a prospective student. In July this year, Israel deported Ariel Gold, the national co-director of Code Pink, an international organization that advocates for justice in Palestine. Gold had gone to pursue Jewish studies, like Alqasem, at Hebrew University. Also like Alqasem, Gold reportedly had been granted a student visa before traveling to Israel.
But unlike Alqasem, Gold is Jewish and has the right of return granted by Israel to all Jews—meaning that though Gold will likely not be granted a student visa again, she may be able to return as a citizen. Activists say that Alqasem could be banned from Israel for 10 years or the rest of her life, depending on the outcome of her case.
And while students have been denied entry before—for example Nerdeen Kiswani, a 21-year-old student at CUNY Staten Island and Hunter College in New York City who in July 2015 was questioned on her involvement with Students for Justice in Palestine and ultimately denied entry—Alqasem is the first to challenge the Israeli state’s deportation order. “She’s moving forward and challenging some of the oppressive policies of the Israeli state,” said Cody O’Rourke, an activist with Holy Land Trust, a social-justice organization based in the West Bank. “A lot of people have been denied entry, but they haven’t gone through the process of financially getting a lawyer or been willing to face days in detention.”
Alqasem’s case is also significant because it could force Israel to define how it determines exactly who is a supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. In early 2017, Israeli parliament passed a law barring entry to foreigners who’ve publicly supported the movement. “Preventing BDS supporters who come here to hurt us from the inside is the very least we should be doing against haters of Israel,” Knesset member Bezalel Smotrich, co-sponsor of the bill to bar entry to boycott supporters, told The New York Times.
Roughly a year after the 2017 law was passed, Israeli’s Strategic Affairs Ministry released a “ “BDS-blacklist” of organizations. The list included about 20 groups, including National Students for Justice in Palestine. According to Haaretz, anyone who holds senior leadership positions in blacklisted organizations will be denied entry, as well as key activists, even if they hold no official position.
Currently, Israeli border officials rely on Canary Mission, which they used to flag Alqasem, to determine whether someone intent on entering the country is affiliated with an organization on the blacklist. Activists say this is problematic, because Canary Mission, whose tagline, “If you’re racist, the world should know,” is a privately run website that does not screen who reports the information. “Anyone can be a BDS activist,” O’Rourke said. “If you were to just post something on your Facebook page about BDS and Israel and if the Israeli authorities were to see that, it would be grounds for detention and deportation.”
O’Rourke also pointed out that the pages aren’t updated and may not be accurate. “What happens if you’re engaged in one event and you get put onto the Canary Mission?” he asked. “What if your politics change?”
Amanda Nelson, a 24-year-old UF graduate, joined SJP in 2014 and was a part of the group with Alqasem. She said her Canary Mission profile was created in 2015 and includes links to her Facebook posts and online campaigns she’s signed. Though it was updated as recently as March, the site still lists Nelson’s “organizations” as BDS and SJP three years later, despite her no longer being a part of these campus groups. Canary Mission’s website claims it documents people and organizations that “promote hatred of the USA, Israel and Jews on North American college campuses.”
“To be labeled as that with the only proof being I’m in solidarity with the Palestinian people and other oppressed people over the world? It sucks,” Nelson said. “It’s the first thing that comes up when you Google me; my employer knew about it. It feels like being branded and not being able to speak for yourself.”
Nelson said she joined SJP, which she estimated had between 10 and 20 regular members, because she cares about advocating for people who are oppressed by systems of inequality around the world. The club was a way for Nelson to make connections between Palestine and resistance struggles in the United States, like Black Lives Matter, and meet other students who felt like she did. Though her Canary Mission profile has followed her, she said that as a white person she doesn’t face the same level of harassment as her Palestinian friends in SJP. “People have to understand that this isn’t just discrimination on the basis of ideology, it’s also racist,” Nelson said. “[Alqasem] is Palestinian. She can’t walk away from the fact that her life and her experience is inconvenient and unacceptable to people who want to preserve a narrative of Israel as a haven of free speech.”
On October 4, Alqasem was transferred in a white van from Ben Gurion, where she’s being held, to a courthouse in Tel Aviv. At the hearing, Alqasem said she had joined the chapter, which has few members, two years ago but left in April 2017. “Not to minimize the importance of student groups, but one could hardly say a group of eight college kids, all taking 20 credit hours and trying to navigate college life, fits Israel’s definition of major ‘BDS leadership,’” O’Rourke said.
Alqasem also said that she did not consider herself in a “senior leadership position,” the criteria for denial of entry per Israeli’s new law, and that she did not plan to engage in any BDS-related activities while studying in Israel.
The Lior Haiat, Israel’s consul general, in Miami told the Alligator, UF’s student paper, that is seemed like Alqasem wanted to promote BDS during her time in Israel, noting she allegedly could not explain to the judge why she had deleted all her social-media posts prior to entering the country. Haiat denied that Alqasem wasn’t given access to food, water, and her lawyers. “It wasn’t just an innocent student going to study in Israel,” Haiat told the Alligator.
According to Haaretz, while the judge ruled that he would not intervene, he noted that
“My main concern with the appellant’s case was that, in fact, all the material that the respondent is presenting now for the justification of his decision could have been obtained by easy and simple means when she approached the consulate in the United States and asked to come to Israel as a student at the university.”
Alqasem’s mother, Karen Alqasem, learned what happened six hours after Lara landed on October 1, when her daughter messaged her via WhatsApp about the detention. Karen Alqasem said she had been surprised, as just last December her daughter had visited Haifa, a city on the northern coast where her Palestinian grandparents are from. Alqasem was questioned for three hours last year, her mother said, but ultimately let in to the country.
“It’s just a very narrow way of looking at things,” Karen said. “Just because you might want to criticize a country doesn’t mean that you wouldn’t find value in going there, meeting the people, learning the language and learning more about the culture.”
Alqasem will be held in detention as she waits to hear the result of her appeal to a Tel Aviv district court. Karen said that, more than anything, she’s saddened that her daughter may not be able to study at the university, even if she’s ultimately allowed in to the country. The family has already spent $5,000 intended for Alqasem’s school on her defense. On Friday, Dalia Figueredo, a college roommate, created a GoFundMe to cover Alqasem’s court costs. (So far, the GoFundMe has raised over $12,000.)
Figueredo met Alqasem in 2016 in a class on representations of the Holocaust offered by UF’s Jewish studies program. The 22-year-old UF graduate said she was drawn to Alqasem’s kindness and passion for human rights. Two years later, when they lived together and spoke about politics nightly, Figueredo had encouraged Alqasem to apply to Hebrew University’s program.
“The conflict in Israel and Palestine really spoke to her,” Figueredo said. “She wanted to work in the trenches there and build solidarity between both groups. That’s the kind of person Lara is. It made sense for her to study in the place where she wanted to make a difference.”