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News Analysis: Israel’s Ban on American Jews Reflects Tense Political Climate

December 26, 1995
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Israel’s announcement last week that it would bar entry to seven American Jews because they pose a danger to the state was met with grim recognition of the tense political climate after the killing of Yitzhak Rabin by a right-wing Jews.

“It is part of a whole series of surgical strikes against terrorism in the aftermath of the assassination,” said Gideon Mark, consul for communications and public affairs at the Israeli Consulate in New York.

Such a ban is one of the tools “a democracy can use to protect itself,” he said.

“It is understandable that in this extraordinary environment, there would be an effort to isolate extremists,” said Kenneth Jacobson, director of international affairs for the Anti-Defamation League.

At the same time, the move has elicited concern in some quarters over the extent of Israel’s commitment to protecting democratic freedoms in general and those of Diaspora Jews under the Law of Return.

That law affords the right of immigration to all Jews except those who pose a threat to public safety.

“Even in the aftermath of the assassination and the trauma in Jewish and Israeli society, it is very important to find an appropriate balance between democratic values and security,” said Shula Bahat, associate executive director of the American Jewish Committee.

One of the seven to be banned as both tourists and immigrants was Brooklyn’s Orthodox Rabbi Abraham Hecht.

A statement issued Dec. 20 by Israel’s Interior Ministry said he was targeted for having proclaimed last summer that Jewish law justified the killing of Israeli leaders who endangered Jewish lives by giving away land in exchange for peace.

The other six Americans were barred for either their alleged “connection to planned illegal activities in Israel” or their ties to “extremists organizations which have been banned in Israel,” according to the statement.

Such groups include Kahane Chai and Kach.

Although virtually no one disputes the right of Israel to deny entry to those believed to be associated with criminal activity, some are disturbed by the ban on Hecht for his speech.

“If he was involved in conspiracy or found to be connected to actions that endangered the peace process, then Israel as a sovereign nation has every right” not to let him in, said Hebrew University’s Steven M. Cohen, an expert on Israel-Diaspora relations.

But, Cohen said, “while I find his statements repugnant, I don’t want him to be denied entry on the basis of speech.”

For his part, Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Avraham Burg said in an interview from Jerusalem that the ban “falls within the parameters of the Law of Return.”

At the same time, he acknowledged that “the intensity of the day creates unconventional solutions.”

But, Burg said, “I promise my overseas partners I won’t automatically” implement the government’s instructions in this area without examining their fundamental fairness.

Burg, whose agency oversees Jewish immigration, has been asked by the Interior Ministry to cooperate with the ban.

Burg said he has requested more information on the cases of the six besides Hecht.

Referring to Hecht, he added, “In principle, I am against ideological selection in aliyah, because today I select you and tomorrow you select me.”

“Israel for me is the national home for the entire Jewish people, not just those who agree with me.”

At the same time, he said, it is impossible to ignore the ideological export “from a very problematic corner of American Jewry” trumpeted by the slain Brooklyn-born right-wing Rabbi Meir Kahane and Baruch Goldstein, the Brooklyn- born murderer of 29 Muslim worshipers in Hebron in 1994.

For them as well as for Hecht, “the sanctity of life and civil war are prices they are willing to pay for an ultimate value, whether it be Greater Israel or Messianic Israel,” he said.

He added that the recent ban is part of “a multifront struggle to combat [such] Jewish fundamentalism.”

After the assassination, the Israeli Cabinet announced it would crack down on extremist Jewish groups.

It said that based on provisions in the Law of Return, it would bar entry to activists in extremist groups that support violent actions and are outlawed in Israel.

The announced crackdown elicited protests from members of the Likud opposition party, which said it amounted to a witch hunt in the politically charged aftermath of the Nov. 4 killing.

One American was subsequently barred entry.

Then, last week, Interior Minister Haim Ramon published a list of names of seven American Jews he said would be denied entry into Israel both as tourists and immigrants.

There was no indication that any had provoked the ban by seeking entry.

The pre-emptive nature of the list appeared unprecedented, though repeated attempts to confirm this with the ministry were unsuccessful.

What is clear, however, is that Israel has rarely used the Law of Return’s provision against Diaspora Jews. In one example, reputed gangster Meyer Lansky was denied immigration in 1971.

Cohen charged that Ramon’s move to ban Hecht was “his contribution to secular attacks on the religious.”

But Burg said he believed that the impetus for the list came from the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security service.

Another official Israeli source said he thought that the list was the fruit of cooperation between the Shin Bet and U.S. law enforcement.

Two of the Americans banned from Israel, Marc Bluestein and Howard Friedman, both longtime Jewish Defense League activists from Philadelphia, were arrested in December 1993 on suspicion of smuggling arms and conspiring to carry out attacks against Arabs.

Bluestein’s brother, Hal, also of Philadelphia, and Michele Benveniste were also listed for ties to alleged illegal activities.

George Mostanza, a JDL activist from New York, and Bezahd Cohen, of Los Angeles, were also barred after allegedly supporting banned extremist organizations.

Israel’s actions are understandable in their context, said Steven Bayme, director of the AJCommittee’s Institute on American Jewish-Israeli Relations.

“The Law of Return is a wonderful principle,” he said, “but it should not be regarded as absolute.”

“Any state has the right to protect itself” and the right of immigration “doesn’t extend to those who deny the legitimacy of the State of Israel,” Bayme said.

Gad Ben-Ari, the head of the North American delegation for the Jewish Agency, also welcomed the action.

Those who have engaged in campaigns “to discredit government authority and democratic structures should know very well that the minimum price they will have to pay is they will not be allowed to enter Israel,” he said.

The ADL’s Jacobson sought to downplay the incident.

“One shouldn’t make more of this than it is,” he said. “We all believe in the right” to “speak and oppose government policies.”

Jacobson also said he did not believe that the action “necessarily” had “broader implications” for Israeli democracy or Israel-Diaspora relations.

Hecht, who wrote an apology for his pronouncements to Rabin a few weeks before the killing, could not be reached for comment. He has been suspended from his pulpit at Congregation Shaare Zion in Brooklyn.

Efforts to reach the Bluestein brothers and Friedman also were unsuccessful.

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