Florida student detained in Israel for alleged ties to boycott movement and ‘anti-Semitic activities’
Student Lara Alqasem is being held at Ben Gurion International Airport as Israeli authorities decide if they will deport her back to the US
When Lara Alqasem got off the plane in Israel on Tuesday, she figured she would head to her new flat in Jerusalem, where she was about to begin a master’s degree programme at Hebrew University.
But Israeli authorities had other plans for the 22-year-old University of Florida and West Broward High School graduate. They are holding her in detention at Ben Gurion International Airport as they decide whether to allow her into the country or deport her back to the United States.
According to her mother, Karen, the Israeli authorities believe Alqasem has links to an advocacy group, Students for Justice in Palestine, that supports the rights of Palestinians in Israel and its occupied territories. Many SJP members back a controversial movement, known as BDS, short for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, which urges investors and consumers to stop buying Israeli products.
The boycott movement, begun in 2005, has been bitterly opposed by many Jews around the world. Still, the movement has gained supporters, including celebrities, such as Roger Waters, formerly of Pink Floyd, and the late scientist Stephen Hawking.
As a response to the movement, Israel passed a law in 2017 prohibiting the entry of foreigners who call for bans on Israel or its settlements. The law has tripped up several Americans who sought to visit the country, including journalist Peter Beinart and Ariel Gold, director of Code Pink, a women’s peace group.
Lior Haiat, the consul general of Israel in Miami, gave this statement to The Miami Herald about Alqasem’s case: “Every country has the sovereign right to decide who is admitted to enter its borders. Once we realised that Ms Alqasem is involved in anti-Israel (and anti-Semitic) activities through the BDS movement, she was denied entry. She appealed to the Israeli courts and the case is still being reviewed. We find it ironic that someone who calls on the indiscriminate boycott of Israel, as a tool to harm and destroy the State of Israel, wishes to study in the very country which they call to boycott.”
Karen Alqasem said Lara was only involved with Students for Justice in Palestine for one semester at UF. But a website called Canary Mission, which says it documents anti-Semitism on college campuses, has a page on Lara that reports she was the “2016-2017 president and primary contact for Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Florida”.
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The site says she was a member of the group since 2014 and was involved in a 2016 event that urged UF students to boycott Sabra Hummus, which is owned in part by an Israeli company.
Karen Alqasem said she believes this posting by Canary Mission is what the Israeli authorities saw when they searched her daughter’s name on the internet. Especially surprising to the family: Lara, who was born in Miami and has lived in Southwest Ranches for the past 15 years, visited Israel in December and got a student visa from Israel’s consulate in Miami for this trip without any challenges.
At UF, Lara majored in Arabic and also studied Hebrew, her mother said. At Hebrew University, she plans to get a master’s in Human Rights and Transitional Justice, a degree that explores the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and educates students for careers in government and international relations, according to GoAbroad.com.
“As far back as I can remember she has been interested in the two cultures,” said her mom, a native of Wales. Her father is from Qatar.
“She was not going there to cause any trouble,” her mother said.
Karen Alqasem said her daughter called her after she was detained but has since had her phone taken away.
Hebrew University wrote a letter of support to Alqasem’s lawyer, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. The university expressed concern that her arrest and potential deportation could negatively affect its international reputation and relationship with fellow universities.
According to Haaretz, the evidence on Alqasem’s involvement with BDS is thin. An Israeli Strategic Affairs Ministry report on her detention said: “It should be noted that in this case we rely on a relatively small number of sources found on the internet.”
In the meantime, the Bethlehem-based Holy Land Trust, which works on human rights and conflict resolution issues in the Middle East, said supporters of Alqasem have been flooding Florida’s US senators with letters of support. Trust spokesman Cody O’Keefe said Alqasem could return home but has chosen to fight the Israeli order.
“She’s challenging oppressive laws which target freedom of speech and political thought,” O’Keefe said in an email.