Jennifer Spitzer
Jennifer Spitzer

New Israel Fund scrutinizes travel ban on Israel’s critics

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Jennifer Spitzer has spent much of her career supporting foundations and projects in Israel, as chief executive of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation from 2010 to 2014, and for the past three years at the New Israel Fund.

So she was “upset and really sad” last year when she was detained and questioned at Ben Gurion Airport on a trip to Israel, part of the government’s recent crackdown on some American visitors aligned with left-wing organizations.

Spitzer’s brief detention was among those highlighted last week on a conference call organized by the NIF for its donors to examine the tightened border scrutiny procedures.

“I was thinking I was about to be rejected by a country I always thought was my second home. It was turning my entire belief structure upside down,” said Spitzer. “The experience left me really upset, but only increased my resolve to double down on the important work of promoting democracy in a shrinking democratic space.”

The Knesset in March 2017 amended the Law of Entry to block visas or residency rights to foreigners who call for economic, cultural or academic boycotts of Israel or its West Bank settlements. Four months later, Rabbi Alissa Wise, the deputy director of Oakland-based Jewish Voice for Peace, was turned back at Ben Gurion Airport because of her support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

In January of this year, the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs released a list of 20 international organizations covered by the travel ban, including JVP. At that time, the ministry said the ban was a move that any country would make to prevent entry to “critics coming to harm the country.”

“The State of Israel will actively prevent such groups from spreading their falsehoods and odious methods from within the country,” added Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan at the time. “The boycott organizations need to know that the State of Israel will act against them.”

The NIF conference call featured several Jewish Americans who recently were stopped and questioned at the airport, including journalist Peter Beinart and Simone Zimmerman, a co-founder of the social activism group IfNotNow.

Beinart, who was traveling to Israel with his family for his niece’s bat mitzvah, wrote about his hourlong detention in his column in the Forward. A day later, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a statement saying it was an “administrative mistake.”

Beinart and Daniel Sokatch, the NIF’s chief executive, said on the conference call that such interrogations are new to progressive Jewish American visitors to Israel but routine for Palestinians and other non-Jews.

“We are seeing a bolder hand in Israel in making ideological or political tests on whether someone can enter Israel. We believe this is part of a new path in Israel, part of a broader global rise in neo-authoritarianism,” Sokatch said. “What is new, of course, is that it is now happening to Jewish supporters of Israel.”

Zimmerman, who lives in Israel and works for Palestinian rights, said she was interrogated for four hours while trying to cross the border from the Sinai Peninsula to Eilat a few weeks ago.

“The work that I am most proud of in my life, they wanted me to feel that was a source of shame,” she said. “I will admit it was quite intimidating. It was a disturbing and uncomfortable experience. These kinds of actions are intended to have a chilling effect; they are there to serve as a warning to those of us who do political work.”

Spitzer, NIF’s vice president of finance, operations and administration, was on her way to an NIF board meeting in February 2017 when she was detained at the airport. She said the experience had such an unsettling impact “it feels frankly like it was yesterday.”

“I said, ‘What’s happening here? I’m a Jew, I’m a Zionist.’” In 2010 Spitzer (then Gorovitz) became the first woman to head one of North America’s 20 largest Jewish federations.

“When I called my mother to let her know I had been detained, she became really teary, and there were words like it’s time to give up,” Spitzer said on the conference call. “To the contrary, this is not a time to give up, it’s time to double down and to increase our pushback and to increase the heat.”

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster z"l was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.