Here’s some really smart thinking on the part of the government of Israel. You’ve just had a slap across the face from Elvis Costello, who has decided to join musicians like Carlos Santana, Snoop Dogg and Gil Scott-Heron in declining to play in Israel. "There are occasions when merely having your name added to a concert schedule may be interpreted as a political act that resonates more than anything that might be sung," Costello wrote on his website, and "it may be assumed that one has no mind for the suffering of the innocent."
Now you have the most famous Jewish intellectual on the planet on your doorstep, trying to enter the West Bank across the Allenby Bridge from Jordan. Noam Chomsky, who is critical of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, is scheduled to give a series of lectures at Birzeit University near Ramallah in mid-May. He’s the guest of Mustafa Barghouthi, a Palestinian leader who espouses nonviolence and human rights, and he’s scheduled to meet with Salam Fayyad, the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, with whom Benjamin Netanyahu wants to have direct peace negotiations.
So what do you do? If you’re Israel’s Interior Ministry, you tell your border official to stamp "Denied Entry" in Chomsky’s US passport and to read out the view of the Interior Ministry, that "Israel does not like what you say"—thus ensuring a worldwide clamor while simultaneously driving a stake through the heart of the argument against the boycott that it inhibits free speech.
The interrogation at the border focused on two issues, Chomsky wrote to me later. "First and clearly most important, why am I going to Bir Zeit but not to an Israeli university (as I’ve done often before, with side trips to Bir Zeit, with no questions asked)? That amounts to their demanding that they have the right to determine who Bir Zeit is permitted to invite.
"The other issue, in the background, is that they don’t like what I write. That needs no comment, except for one significant fact. The issue never arose when I was invited to speak at Israeli universities [in 1997 and 1998], though what I was writing then is no different from now…. This reflects the way Israel has changed, radically in the past few years, particularly since the Gaza attack. It’s become far more paranoid, defensive, irrational, and ultranationalist. That’s emphasized by the press coverage in Israel on this. Some of it makes the Dershowitz-Horowitz types look like reasonable human beings. All inconceivable a few years ago…. The series of contradictory excuses the Israeli government started concocting when they saw the international reaction are ridiculous, and when they sank to blaming the official at the border for a ‘misunderstanding,’ cowardly as well. They know perfectly well that he had nothing to do with it. He was in direct contact throughout the several hours of interrogation with the Ministry of Interior, and was simply relaying their statements, queries, and finally decision."
An important aspect of this episode was muddied over by some inaccurate reports right after the event. AP, for example: "An Israeli official says academic and polemicist Noam Chomsky, who is a fierce critic of Israel, has been denied entry to the country." ABC News ran the headline "Noam Chomsky Denied Entry to Israel." In Ha’aretz: "Noam Chomsky Denied Entry Into Israel." Entirely untrue. Chomsky was denied entry to Ramallah, not Israel. This distinction highlights, among other things, that Israel controls the borders into occupied Palestinian areas.
As the veteran Israeli journalist Uri Avnery says, "What Chutzpa is it to prevent Palestinian students from hearing a lecturer of their choosing? And what does it tell us about Netanyahu’s perorations about ‘Two States for Two Peoples’? What kind of a Palestinian state is this supposed to be, if Israel can decide who is allowed to enter, and who not?"
Border control is a constant fact for foreign human rights activists, peace activists and political leaders. And it is a daily, humiliating reality for Palestinians and their relatives. Gaza is a vast prison camp, with rigorous border control by land and sea, with Palestinians and vital supplies interdicted. "I’ve had relatives who are U.S. citizens marry Palestinians in the West Bank—they had to leave every three months because that was the duration of the visa Israel gives them." So writes Sam Husseini of the San Francisco–based Institute for Public Accuracy. "I’ve seen Israeli forces take little girls into a room to be strip searched at the border from Jordan into the occupied West Bank. Israel in many respects is trying to make life for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza difficult so they will simply leave."
In February the Tel Aviv–based Reut Institute presented a big report to the Israeli cabinet, long in the making, called "The Delegitimization Challenge: Creating a Political Firewall." It has sinister recommendations for a strategy of "offense." Israel’s government is embarking on a methodical assault on human rights groups and kindred NGOs seen as delegitimizers. It’s not paranoid to expect COINTELPRO-type black-bag jobs sponsored by Israel on solidarity groups here and around the world.
Israel is plunging into deeper darkness. As Gideon Levy recently told one interviewer: "In the last year there have been real cracks in the democratic system of Israel…. It’s systematic—it’s not here and there. Things are becoming much harder." And Levy also wrote in Ha’aretz, "When Israel closes its gates to anyone who doesn’t fall in line with our official positions, we are quickly becoming similar to North Korea. When right-wing parties increase their number of anti-democratic bills, and from all sides there are calls to make certain groups illegal, we must worry, of course. But when all this is engulfed in silence, and when even academia is increasingly falling in line with dangerous and dark views…the situation is apparently far beyond desperate."