On March 6, 2017, the Israeli Knesset, by a vote of 46 to 28, passed a law banning entry to all foreign nationals “if he or she, or the organization or the body for which he or she operates, has knowingly published a public call to engage in a boycott against the State of Israel or has made a commitment to participate in such a boycott.” The law has stirred worry, both within Israel and without, for its seeming compression of the idea of supporting boycotts as political speech or intellectual expression, and the idea of boycotts as security threat. That much is the subject of healthy debate among Israeli citizens, in universities, newspapers, as well as in the Knesset.
For noncitizens of Israel, however, the debate about boycotts and divestment has carried a different toll: Since the law’s passage, a variety of foreign individuals, NGOs, and other organizations have been banned or deported from the country, including the American Friends Service Committee. One such banning that sparked particular international concern was the detention and deportation of Columbia Law School professor Katherine Franke. I should disclose that I am also a Columbia Law professor and therefore a colleague of Franke’s. I interviewed her recently; the following is an edited transcript of the conversation.
—Patricia J. Williams
Patricia J. Williams: What happened?
Katherine Franke: I was traveling to Israel and the West Bank as part of a 20-member delegation of civil-rights leaders from the United States. When we landed in Tel Aviv on the morning of April 29, 2018, four members of the delegation, including me, were detained, interrogated, and then deported. [The rest of the delegates exited the airport without issue and proceeded to Jerusalem to start the trip.] I was told that I would be banned from entering the country—one person said it was for life, another for five years. The deportation order I received did not clarify this.
PW: What was the purpose of your trip?
KF: First, I am the chair of the Board of Trustees of the Center for Constitutional Rights, and CCR had organized the delegation. The group included lawyers and activists working on Native American resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline; advocates fighting police violence in Ferguson; human-rights defenders in Puerto Rico; lawyers challenging the Muslim ban in the US; and the cochair of the Women’s March. We had scheduled visits with civil-rights advocates and others in Israel and in the West Bank.
Secondly, I was traveling in my capacity as Columbia faculty, to meet with two graduate students whose dissertations I am supervising. One is an Israeli citizen living in Haifa. The other is a Palestinian human-rights advocate in Ramallah who cannot get a permit from the Israelis to exit the West Bank. The only way for us to meet in person is for me to travel to Ramallah.
I had also scheduled a meeting with a scholar in Ramallah to discuss a possible collaboration between several law schools in the West Bank and Columbia for a joint human-rights masters program. Further, I had scheduled meetings with colleagues at Adalah, an NGO in Israel with whom the Center for Palestine Studies has been collaborating for several years as part of our Palestine and Law program. We had planned to discuss programming for the next academic year.
PW: Did that activity constitute the stated basis for your deportation?
KF: I was not given the opportunity to tell the immigration officer who detained me about the purpose of my trip as I just described it, because he was convinced that I was traveling to the region to promote the Boycott-Divest-Sanctions (BDS) movement. I told him I have been to Israel a half-dozen or so times, the first time in 2000 and most recently last October. All of those visits had been for work-related purposes. Several years ago I was hired by the EU to do capacity building for the Women’s Committee of the Palestinian Bar Association. Last October I was invited by Adalah to speak about academic freedom at a Palestinian Law Students conference in Bethlehem.
After I told him this trip was a mix of work and tourism the interrogation took a more hostile turn: He yelled at me: “You’re here to promote BDS in Palestine, aren’t you?” I responded that I was absolutely not. He yelled again: “You’re lying!” He then asked me if I volunteered with any groups in the US. I wasn’t sure what he was getting at, so I said I volunteer with many groups, including CCR. Then he barked: “You work for JVP, don’t you?” I said I did not work for JVP, which is true. “You’re making my job easy, you’re lying to me,” he said, at which point he showed me his cell phone, displaying what I believe was Canary Mission’s page on me. This went on for over an hour.
KF: JVP, Jewish Voice for Peace is a nonprofit membership organization based in the US that advocates for justice and peace in Israel/Palestine. JVP has institutionally endorsed the call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel (BDS). The BDS call came from civil-society groups in Palestine in 2005 as a way to engage the international community in their struggle for justice, borrowing a tactic that had been used by anti-apartheid activists in South Africa. The call asks the international community to boycott the state of Israel, divest from investments in all Israeli companies and from international companies involved in violating Palestinian rights, and that states impose sanctions on Israel until it comes into compliance with human-rights laws and norms.
The BDS movement has three primary goals: (1) ending the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land in the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights, and East Jerusalem; (2) securing the rights of Palestinians living in Israel to full equality, and (3) recognizing the right of Palestinian refugees living across the globe to return their 1948 homes and properties as stipulated by UN Security Council Resolution 194. Prominent supporters of and organizations that have participated in BDS in the past include Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Angela Davis, Alice Walker, Stephen Hawking, Naomi Klein, Black Lives Matter, Dream Defenders, United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers, Connecticut AFL-CIO, the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, and several Quaker bodies.
Several years ago I served on the executive committee of JVP’s Academic Advisory Council, which has since been dissolved. I am not a member of JVP, but do work closely with them on issues of academic freedom, defense of free-speech rights, and other issues on an ad hoc basis. I am also a donor to JVP. None of this do I consider to amount to my being a “leader of JVP” or holding a “prominent role” with them. That said, even if I were a leader of JVP I would object to being banned from entering Israel on account of my political views or that of JVP.
USACBI is a related campaign calling for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. It asks academics and cultural workers to boycott any event or activity that is funded in whole or part by the Israeli government. Over 1,400 academics, myself included, and nearly 500 cultural workers have endorsed the academic and cultural boycott. This means that I will not participate in a conference funded by the Israeli government, for instance, but I do collaborate with Israeli academics and supervise dissertations of Israeli graduate students. I have not endorsed a boycott of all of Israel or all Israelis, but rather only the current Israeli government because of its human-rights record.
Nevertheless, when journalists have asked the Israeli interior minister about why I was deported the answer was: I am a prominent supporter of BDS and/or a leader of JVP.
PW: And what is Canary Mission, the site whose page you said that the immigration officers had on his cell phone?
KF: Canary Mission is one of a number of sites—AMCHA is another—that track thousands of academics and students in the United States and labels them anti-Semites based solely on their critique of Israeli government policies or their support of Palestinian rights.
PW: This is an official government site?
KF: We don’t actually know who is behind Canary Mission; the site is run anonymously.
PW: That sounds as though it may present problems of procedural fairness, if a private or anonymously sourced list of names becomes the metric for passing through a legal checkpoint.
KF: The current Israeli government seems to have outsourced the determination of who is an enemy of the state to unaccountable online entities and rumor mills, with no procedural mechanisms to counter hearsay or trolling. The individual gatekeepers—the border guards and airport security agents deciding who may enter Israel—seem to rely to some considerable degree on such sites.
PW: In recent years, universities—in Israel as well as the US—have become the sites of our most relentless head-butting about the possibilities and fears of censorship. Do you think the Law Against Damage to Israel Through Boycott poses a real-world test of those principles?
KF: It is a concern shared across boundaries, especially in Israel and Palestine. A core value of democracy is protection of academic freedom and the rights of political dissenters. Eighty Israeli law professors, representing all 13 law schools in Israel, have signed a letter protesting my deportation, stating: “Preventing a scholar from entering the country due to criticism the scholar emitted is an anti-democratic act that undermines freedom of expression and academic freedom.” Jewish law professors in the US have circulated a letter as well and a similar statement was issued by nearly 100 Jewish-studies scholars,
What is more, citizens of Israel are harmed by the denial of entry to critics of the government, denied the opportunity to meet with allies from abroad. Part of the purpose of our delegation was to meet face-to-face with human-rights defenders in Israel and Palestine in an effort to build bridges and strategies across movements.
Of equal importance is the fact that entry to Palestine is controlled entirely by the Israeli government. When scholars and advocates such as myself are banned entry into Israel, we are also effectively banned entry into Palestine, and the airport becomes nothing more than a checkpoint, a key instrument in Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine. Thus, we cannot meet with colleagues at universities in the West Bank, such as Birzeit University outside Ramallah, Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem, or An-Najah National University in Nablus. This is particularly problematic since residents of the West Bank cannot leave without being issued a permit from the Israelis, something that is very difficult to obtain. They are already systematically restricted in their ability to attend conferences and other academic gatherings in Europe, the US and elsewhere. Our ability to travel to the West Bank is essential to Palestinian academics’ ability to engage a global community of scholars.
Finally, it is essential that scholars and human-rights activists be able to document conditions in Israel and Palestine, and to monitor the state of human-rights compliance or noncompliance. By denying entry to its critics, Israel has essentially walled itself off from international accountability to human-rights monitoring. It is right to denounce the Egyptian and Russian governments when they refuse access to human-rights inspectors, and so too we should criticize Israel when it deploys similar measures.
PW: How Israel might patrol, protect, or occupy the vast penumbral range of its borders—particularly in Gaza or the West Bank—surely raises issues of international law. Yet why is it that American academics should expect protection of the constitutional traditions of First Amendment speech and academic freedom when seeking admission to another country?
KF: While these values are embedded in our Constitution, they are not exclusive to it. Such notions reflect very basic aspects of human freedom. Free speech, liberty of movement, collective study, and exchange of ideas—these are essential to the very idea of democratic self-government and human flourishing, and are protected under international law regardless of the context. Banning the movement of scholars based on their research or political speech violates fundamental principles on which the legitimacy of any government stands.
PW: My final question: Could you say just a word about the similarity between Israel’s anti-boycott law and the growing movement to pass nearly identical laws here in the US, at both state and federal levels?
KF: As the BDS movement has gained momentum internationally, measures in the US to punish its supporters have been introduced in legislatures across the country. Since 2014, more than 100 anti-BDS measures have been introduced in state and local legislatures across the country. At least 24 states have enacted anti-BDS laws. These laws take different forms, but many of them, such as an executive order issued by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and a law passed by the Arizona legislature in 2016, bar any business or organization that supports the boycott of Israel from bidding on public contracts and requires the state to publicize a blacklist of their names. So, for instance, the Presbyterian Church would be blacklisted and prohibited from running homeless shelters with public money because of its decision to divest from companies involved in the demolition of Palestinian homes. These laws treat constitutionally protected political activism as a form of treason. A federal judge in Kansas recently blocked enforcement of an anti-boycott law in a case brought by a public-school math coach who cannot take part in a state program to train other teachers because she refuses to sign an anti-boycott certification.
Almost every social movement has at some point deployed boycotts as a tactic to advance its political goals, along with demonstrations, picketing, strikes, sit-ins, and other forms of direct action. Yet the ardent defenders of Israel portray boycotts as a kind of hateful, dirty trick—an ironic position to take given that American Jews convinced the World Jewish Congress to call for a boycott of German goods in 1936. And when the Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of black citizens’ boycott of racist businesses in Mississippi in the 1960s, the American Jewish Congress submitted a friend-of-the-court brief coauthored by Nathan Dershowitz [Alan’s brother] arguing that “politically motivated economic boycotts have a long and honored history in America,” and that boycotts “are forms of expression undoubtedly protected by the First Amendment.”