US students denied academic freedom by Israel
On 23 August, a young couple from Michigan landed at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport on their way to the West Bank city of Nablus, ready to spend a year studying Arabic abroad. But instead of admitting them and sending them on their way, immigration authorities questioned Devin Johnson and Erica Cook* for hours, denied them entry into Israel, banned them from returning for 10 years, and locked them in separate cells overnight before sending them on a flight back to the US.
“During our 24 hours in Israel we were interrogated, repeatedly verbally abused, lied to and placed in a detention center,” Johnson wrote on his Facebook page after landing in Washington DC.
Leetsma had full funding from Grand Valley State University (GVSU) to study at the Palestinian university al-Najah for up to a year and a half. He had with him a detailed letter from GVSU, explaining his plans to the Israeli authorities. He had also thoroughly followed the US State Department’s recommendations for travel to the West Bank. Even so, Johnson describes his experience as nerve-racking and frightening.
In an interview with Middle East Eye, Johnson gave a full account of his and Cook's experience at the airport.
While the couple was standing in the customs line after landing in Israel, Johnson says he was feeling confident.
“I had complete proof of what I was doing. I was being totally honest, which I was told to do. I had a letter and tons of money from Grand Valley - a prestigious scholarship,” he said.
The woman at the customs booth told the two to sit and wait for security officials to come talk to them. After about a half hour, Cook was called into a room, where she says she was asked basic questions for about 10 minutes. Some time later, Johnson's name was called.
“My memory’s kind of foggy about what happened with me, because it was just like - from the get-go they were just super aggressive with me,” Johnson told MEE.
“They asked, ‘So what are you doing here?’ They didn’t just ask - they kind of barked it at me, you know? And I was like, ‘I’m studying Arabic.’ And they’d repeat questions, too, like, ‘Why are you here?’ as though my first answer wasn’t satisfactory. Their questions were crazy - they asked about my volunteering past. I don’t know how they’d know where I’ve volunteered in the past. At one point they said, ‘We know everything.’ Which was kind of scary. That was yelled at me.”
The authorities also drilled Johnson about his religious beliefs, and pressed him about whether he planned to go to Gaza or to organise protests in Nablus.
“Then they started asking me about my passport, which they were super mad about. They were like, why do you have this passport, and I told them I had it because my last one was going to expire on 26 March, which was true, and then they were like, ‘That’s bullshit, you have another passport!’”
The US Consulate in Jerusalem recommends that US citizens whose passports are expiring within six months obtain a second valid passport. The State Department also grants citizens second passports if they fear they may face issues traveling to various Arab countries after visiting Israel or vice-versa. Johnson had studied in Lebanon in 2012.
After the authorities asked him about his second passport, Johnson's interrogation got considerably more intense.
“From there out, they just screamed, like, ‘empty your shit!’ I don’t even remember what was said after that because they’d ask me a series of questions, and when I’d answer, they’d snap at me to like - they’d say something like, ‘Shut up! I’ll tell you when to talk.’”
“I’ve never been talked to like that,” he added. “It was crazy.”
At this point, Johnson was very concerned. He had in fact been denied entry to Israeli-controlled territory before, in 2012, after studying in Lebanon. That time, he was planning to study at Birzeit University near Ramallah. He says that when he signed up for classes at the university, Birzeit sent him an email telling him not to mention his studies there, given that students who did so were often denied entry. Leetsma was interrogated at the Allenby Bridge for hours, and he said he was planning to visit a friend in Israel, as recommended by the university. But the Israeli authorities told him he needed to give them his Gmail password. They found an email from Birzeit welcoming him to the program, and subsequently denied him entry.
The authorities brought up the incident at the airport.
“At one point they said, like, ‘We know what Americans with two passports are up to. Don’t think you can fool us. We know everything about you. You’ve been denied before. You’ve been to Lebanon. You lied the first time.’ And I really didn’t have any response to that. It’s like they thought I was conspiring against them or something.”
The US Consulate in Jerusalem on its website recommends that anyone who has been denied entry in the past contact an Israeli embassy before attempting to return. Johnson did so, and received an email back saying that there was nothing the embassy could tell him about his status. It was all up to the immigration authorities, the email said.
After about 45 minutes of interrogation, the authorities yelled at him to “get out.” Then he and Cook waited “at least four or five more hours.”
Denied and banned
After the long wait, an older man led him and Cook to another waiting room and then brought Johnson into an office with another airport official, who said at this point they were going to decide whether or not he would be allowed to enter the country.
“Why are you here?” she asked him again.
After he went through the details of his plans in the West Bank again, the man said Johnson had no proof that what he said was true.
“The man said, ‘Okay, well, why don’t you have a letter?’ And I was like, ‘I do have a letter,’ and then I pointed to the pile - they had this pile of papers with information about me. And he said, ‘Well, there’s no letter here.’”
Johnson told him he had handed the letter to the officials during the first round of interrogation.
But the man did not seem to believe Johnson, and asked him why he looked nervous.
“I’m quite nervous. The next year of my life is being decided,” he responded.
Then the man told Johnson he was giving him a 10-year ban from Israel and the West Bank, saying, “You’re not being honest this time, and you had an incident before.”
“And I said, ‘Well, I am being honest this time. I have a letter. I have funding from my university. I don’t know what else you want.’”
But the man’s decision was final. The authorities fingerprinted Johnson and took his picture. Then the man invited Cook into the room and explained what had been decided.
The man told Emily, “David’s banned from Israel for the next 10 years, but I have no problem with you - you can enter.” And Emily said, “Well I don’t want to enter without him.” And he said, “You’re making a great decision. Now you guys will go to a waiting area where you guys can stay together. And then you’ll fly out probably the next morning.”
This is the point where Johnson says the authorities began lying to the couple.
“Then I told him again that we were studying Arabic, and it didn’t make sense for us to fly all the way back to DC. We asked if we could fly to Jordan. And he was like, ‘Of course - I will set all of that up for you.’ He gave us flight information for Jordan. He said, ‘Tell people we had this conversation and don’t worry about it.’”
“And then we never saw him again. And of course after that we just went through the bureaucracy, and I don’t think he had any intention of going through with that anyways.”
After waiting for another hour, Johnson and Cook were taken to a room where they were told to unpack their luggage, which was swiped for explosives. They were under the guard of a woman who interrogated them yet again, and was considerably verbally abusive.
“She was like - words don’t describe how condescending. ... She was the definition of a power trip,” Johnson told MEE. “She also said really stupid things, like, ‘If you’re interested in Arabic why don’t you study in Syria?’”
Soon after that, the couple was escorted by a three security officials to a van to be taken to a detention center. While walking, they encountered more verbal abuse.
“Emily was ahead of me. She slowed down to wait for me and this woman just started screaming at her, which eventually brought Emily to tears. At one point she was like, ‘I’m telling you to come, I’m not asking you!’”
When the van arrived at the centre, located about five minutes away on the grounds of Ben Gurion airport, rocket sirens started going off. Indeed, the two had landed in Israel just three days before the announcement of a ceasefire with Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.
“I don’t know if they were rockets (from Gaza) making impact or if it was the Iron Dome. So we actually ran into the detention centre,” Johnson said.
“What’s interesting about the rockets going off was later at night I was in my cell with someone and he was saying how around six, they were going off also and he was just left in his upstairs cell. That seems totally backwards to me, because every time they went off, (the detention centre workers) would evacuate into the basement. Whoever was in their cell was just left there.”
The couple was eventually separated, despite earlier assurances that they would be allowed to stay together. First, however, Johnson was finally able to phone the US embassy, a privilege he had until then, been denied.
“I told (the embassy official) everything, and what I emphasised at that point was that Emily had done nothing wrong according to them, and she was now in a cell. I think that was actually the most egregious thing that happened was that she was told they were totally fine with her and then she was locked up. She was encouraged to make the decision (not to enter) without knowing what the consequences - while being lied to about what the consequences would be.”
The guards then forced Johnson to hang up the phone mid-conversation. The US embassy worker told him there was little she should do, given Israel’s sovereignty. He and Cook then spent the night in separate jail cells. In Johnson's cell was a British citizen of Sri Lankan descent and a migrant worker from Eritrea.
The next morning the couple was allowed to wait together before a van brought them back to the airport terminal. They were dropped off at the same airport gate from which they’d arrived. Their passports were handed to the airplane captain, and soon the plane took off.
“It was a weird flight back, because we were surrounded by Israelis, which shouldn’t feel weird, but it did feel weird,” Johnson told MEE.
He says his friends and family back home were shocked and troubled when they heard about his experience. While Johnson was obviously upset about the ordeal, he says it pales in comparison to the way Palestinians are treated by Israeli authorities.
“Talking to friends and family back in the States, it’s frustrating because like, of all things this is the thing that matters, you know? Like, everything that happened this summer in Gaza and the West Bank doesn’t matter, the past 40-something years of occupation don’t matter, or like, the ethnic cleansing doesn’t matter, but like, when two white Americans don’t get in, that’s when it matters, you know? That’s what kind of makes me kind of uncomfortable.”
Johnson and Cook have since traveled to Amman, Jordan, where they will live and study Arabic for the next several months.
Foreigners being denied entry at Israeli borders is far from uncommon, especially for activists and travelers of Palestinian or Arab descent. Students being denied entry is also nothing new; al-Najah faculty say that one or two incoming international students are denied entry per year. Meanwhile, some 10-20 prospective students of Birzeit University are turned away at Israeli-controlled borders each year, according to Birzeit staff. But Johnson and Cook's experience stands out in two ways - the fact that they were given 10-year bans and that this was Leetsma’s second failed attempt to study in the West Bank in two years due to customs issues.
Mark Schaub, chief international officer at Grand Valley State University, told MEE via email that the fact that Johnson was denied entry for “legitimate academic purposes” constituted a restriction of his academic freedom. He said it was “always a possibility” for GVSU students to have difficulty obtaining visas or entering countries abroad, but that the gravity of Johnson's situation was a real surprise. Schaub said he knew of no other situation quite like this one, not just at GVSU but even among an international coalition of study abroad programs at several universities.
Johnson's situation “raises doubt and concern about Israel as a destination for study abroad in the future. This week, our faculty advisory committee is considering a faculty proposal for a group study abroad program in Israel. The situation faced by Johnson is raising an issue that we previously hadn’t considered: what if a faculty-led group arrives to Israel for several weeks at the archeological dig site but one or more of the students gets turned away?”
A US Embassy official contacted by MEE said he could not comment on Johnson's situation in particular, citing privacy reasons. Neither would the official provide statistics about the number of US citizens denied entry to Israel per year, but he said the embassy took such cases seriously.
Ultimately, Johnson's and Cook's experience raises serious questions about Israel’s respect for the academic freedom of scholars wishing to visit the West Bank, whether to study or to conduct research.
This is not the first time such questions have been raised. In December, the American Studies Association voted to enforce an academic boycott on Israeli institutions of higher education. The ASA cited “solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom and an aspiration to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians.”
*Not their real names