Comment: Chomsky ban shows up bad border policy

Outside of the extreme right, it was hard to find this week in Israel someone who would justify the decision to deny entry to Professor Noam Chomsky. Even the various agencies of the government seem to agree belatedly that there was no reason to prevent the professor from travelling from the Jordanian border to Bir Zeit University in the West Bank and delivering his scheduled lecture.

The decision to deny entry to the 81-year-old Jewish academic was taken by a low-level Interior Ministry official, who was in charge of immigration at the Allenby Bridge Crossing that day.

She had no authority to make that call since Mr Chomsky was not planning to enter Israel proper but only travel to the West Bank.

The decision should have been made by the Civil Administration authority in charge of all cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

But for some reason, which is still unclear, the Civil Administration was not notified about Professor Chomsky's arrival in advance. When they were finally involved, he was already on his way back to the Jordanian capital of Amman.

An Israeli bureaucratic foul-up is hardly a surprise to anyone who has ever visited the country. The question, though, that still lingers from this incident is how can Interior Ministry immigration officials be allowed to make these decisions with such ease, causing Israel untold public damage in the international media - and not only in this latest case.

A recent government report revealed that one in every 20 visitors to Israel are detained for questioning at Ben Gurion Airport and other points of entry to the country. While most of these are only for a few extra minutes, some are told to cool their heels for hours and asked a long list of embarrassing questions.

After this treatment, many formerly friendly visitors vow never to visit again.

While security has its demands, there is a growing feeling, not only within liberal circles but also in the government, that a more discerning policy is needed.

There is nothing new about visitors to Israel and the Palestinian Authority who are vociferous critics of Israeli policies. The feminist writer Naomi Wolf also visited a few months ago, gave a couple of lectures and left.

There is certainly no security risk attached to these visits and whether or not these lectures and any newspaper articles written in their wake influence anyone is immaterial. A democracy should be self-confident enough to allow its critics to visit.

No one is claiming that Professor Chomsky was planning any kind of incitement to violence in his Bir Zeit lecture, which would have been the only legal reason to prevent it. He even lectured in Israeli universities in 1997.

While some Israelis who are aware of Professor Chomsky's status as a figurehead of the anti-Zionist Left may not be concerned by his treatment at Allenby Bridge, there are others who, while not sharing any of his beliefs, will see this as a further reminder that the border controls need a radical overhaul.

    Last updated: 1:48pm, May 21 2010