When Julie Weinberg-Connors, a bubbly, smiling 23-year-old Jewish woman from Boston, arrived at Ben Gurion Airport in September, she was first interrogated, then informed by an Israeli security agent that she would not be allowed to enter the country.
Her obvious response was, “Why?”
“Because you’re here to make trouble,” the officer said.
That’s odd, considering that Weinberg-Connors, far from being a bomb thrower, was there to study at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies – a respected academy where even Louisville rabbis have gone to learn. She also plans to make aliyah.
But she happens to be politically liberal and, on a previous visit, had gone to Khan al-Ahmar, a West Bank Bedouin village that the Israeli government has slated for destruction for several reasons. The Israel High Court of Justice has upheld the eviction of its residents.
Still, Weinberg-Connors’ political beliefs, and her willingness to act upon them, drew from authorities the accusation of “trouble.”
For the record, Weinberg-Connors was eventually permitted to enter the country, but not before she was made to sign a pledge not to travel to certain areas in the West Bank under Palestinian control.
Perhaps, but moves against people such as Weinberg-Connors can lead to trouble of a different sort.
This past August, Peter Beinart, a journalist and columnist for the Forward, who has called for a boycott of products made in Jewish West Bank settlements – what he calls a “Zionist BDS” – was also detained and questioned at Ben Gurion Airport. He later wrote that he was asked whether he had participated in violent protests or events that promoted anarchy or opposed Israeli democracy.
BDS – Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions – against Israel is deplorable; I believe that. So is the suppression, even harassment, of people whose politics differ from ours. In this country, we have tolerated Klansmen, Nazis, communists (though Hollywood blacklisting remains a dark page in U.S. history), religious extremists and flag burners.
These days, some of us get offended when some football players take a knee at the National Anthem. Still, our democracy has demonstrated time and again how its real strength lies in tolerating speech of all sorts. The house won’t collapse if people are permitted to express things we dislike, or even hate.
Like the United States’, Israel’s democracy is being tested. And the stress tests frequently involve how Jews may live and worship in the Jewish state.
For instance, when Reform and Conservative rabbis – men and women – holding Torah scrolls have marched into the Western Wall plaza to worship there, only to face phalanxes of guards and haredi Jews determined to stop them, up to and including trying to rip the Torahs from their arms, that is trouble.
When the government passes legislation prohibiting gay couples from using an Israeli surrogate to become parents and raise Jewish families, all because of their sexual orientation, that is trouble.
When a Masorti rabbi is arrested before dawn for having the audacity to marry people, that is trouble.
Trouble can also mean body searches at the Western Wall plaza, which happened to female rabbinic students on August 24, 2017, including lifting their shirts and skirts. The security service didn’t say what they were looking for, but women have been detained and searched for Torah scrolls and other religious items.
Many the world over describe Israel as the only true democracy in the Middle East, and for good reason. Arab leaders have served in the Knesset, the Cabinet, even the Supreme Court. Political parties representing the gamut of philosophies compete in each election. No trouble there.
And for many Jews in Israel and the Diaspora, real trouble stems from the hostile external forces facing the country: Hamas, Hezbollah, ISIS, Iran – all keeping the country on a constant war footing with their rocket attacks, violent rhetoric and, in Iran’s case, a nuclear program.
But there are warning signs, as the above examples show. What is worse, these cases don’t involve non-Jews, but Jews themselves, all taking political, religious and social stances that the powers that be – government and religious authorities – find inconvenient.
For the sake of the only true democracy in the Middle East, that kind of trouble, which threatens to divide the Jewish world and overshadow Israel’s achievements, must be resolved.
(Lee Chottiner is the editor of the Jewish Louisville Community.)