Columbia Students Question Israel’s Move to Eject Human Rights Researcher
By: Cate Brown
This past January, nearly 50 students from Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) had the opportunity to meet with Human Rights Watch Israel and Palestine Director Omar Shakir as part of a student-led policy tour.
Omar is authoritative, measured and direct. A Stanford lawyer and a Fulbright scholar, Omar’s polish certainly shows through: he spoke to our group for almost an hour and not a single word seemed out of place.
Precision is critical if you intend to work in Israel and Palestine. More critical still, if your work frontally challenges the ideology of Israel’s increasingly conservative political regime.
Omar currently works for Human Rights Watch in Jerusalem and Ramallah. Because the West Bank is under Israeli military occupation, Omar requires an Israeli visa and work permit in order to reach his office.
On April 16, 2018, the Israeli Ministry of Interior issued orders to revoke Shakir’s work visa and ordered him out of the country-- the first such ordering of an HRW staff member since the organization began monitoring events in Israel and Palestine three decades ago. In response, Human Rights Watch filed a lawsuit against the Ministry of Interior, arguing that the revocation of Shakir’s work permit and visa goes beyond the authority of Amendment 28, The Prevention of Entry into Israel Law, a statute that can prevent the entry of foreign nationals who promote a boycott of Israel, but does not allow the Ministry to revoke existing visas or deport foreign nationals who are already lawfully present in Israel.
Given Israel’s increasingly draconian interpretations of Amendment 28, we were lucky that all 49 members of our student group were permitted to enter Israel. Like Omar, our student group does not support the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement.
Excerpted from Human Rights Watch’s January 2018 Argument brief on behalf of our clients Mr. Shakir and Human Rights Watch
c. Allegations of “active support” for BDS against Israel
13. In stark contrast to the statements made in the recommendation of the Ministry of Strategic affairs, neither HRW – nor Shakir as its representative – advocate boycott, divestment or sanctions against companies that operate in the settlements, Israel or Israelis. HRW is not part of the BDS movement and takes no position on this movement
And as a student in Columbia’s human rights program, I join Omar in supporting the tenets of international law that are designed to enshrine and protect universal rights. On certain days, that means holding members of Palestinian society accountable for abuse; on others, that means holding Israeli lawmakers to the same standards that govern nations party to the Geneva Conventions I through IV. Professional advocacy organizations like Human Rights Watch work hard to strike this balance every day.
It seems short-sighted for the Israeli government to revoke Omar’s lawful right to live and work in Israel. In every free and democratic nation on Earth, it is customary for journalists, lawyers, professors and human rights advocates to hold both their central government and their fellow citizens accountable to the rule of law. Without this institutionalized system of checks and balances, democratic societies could be better characterized as illiberal or authoritarian regimes.
Israel enjoys great privileges as America’s lauded ally in the Middle East. And many pragmatic American policymakers in my generation are prepared to work with good faith Israeli actors to promote the constitutional ideals of a free and fair democratic society.
No doubt, we have a long way to go at home in the United States. Still, if Israeli policymakers continue to erode their rule of law and eliminate the checks and balances that qualify a ‘democratic’ regime, then our next generation counterparts will have even further to go.
As a young policy student and a 2011 graduate of Israel’s Arava Institute, I would like to see the Israeli government abide by their own laws and demonstrate that their commitments to both The Geneva Conventions and stated democratic ideals actually mean something.
Next year, another group of Columbia students will return to Israel and Palestine. What will they find? An intellectual desert where open and rational discourse with internationally recognized leaders like Omar Shakir has been suppressed? What message will this send to our group of aspiring government leaders and academics?