Israel’s order to deport alum incites pushback from SLS, EU, U.S. Democrats

May 17, 2019, 2:11 a.m.

Israel wants no more of Human Rights Watch director Omar Shakir ’07 J.D. ’13.

After charging Shakir with violating the country’s anti-boycott laws, Israeli lower courts seized his work permit in early 2018, ordering him to leave Israel. Since then, Shakir, a U.S. citizen, has appealed their decision twice, and is currently awaiting the Israeli Supreme Court’s final motion on his deportation.

Shakir and Human Rights Watch demanded that companies such as Airbnb cease work that benefits Israel’s settlements in the West Bank. However, Israel criminalizes activists, like members of the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, that call for similar disengagement.

Supporters of BDS pressure companies to discontinue business in Israel, consumers to stop the purchase of Israeli products and scholars to stop collaboration with Israeli colleagues.

To justify his expulsion, Israeli courts have scrutinized his actions reaching back to his undergraduate years at Stanford, pointing to his Twitter and history of activism in deeming him an anti-Israel advocate.

But Shakir and his supporters argue the issue extends beyond BDS. With much of the European Union as well as 17 U.S. Democratic lawmakers and 19 Stanford Law School faculty members behind him, Shakir feels his deportation could have consequences for future human rights advocates.

Israel’s deportation order of Shakir is the first of its kind — Israel has not previously sought to expel someone legally present in its country based on accusations of boycott activity. Shakir and his supporters argue his case could set a dangerous precedent for future of human rights workers hoping to reside in Israel. Israel aims to separate their denouncement of Shakir’s actions from their stance on organizations like Human Rights Watch.

Shakir argues that the judge’s April 16 ruling, however, contradicts this distinction between him and the organization.

“The judge directly states in the opinion that she considers Human Rights Watch’s advocacy around businesses that operate in settlements to constitute boycott-promoting activities,” he said.  

Israel’s case against Shakir

Supporters of BDS champion the movement as reminiscent of breaking down apartheid in South Africa in its aims to secure rights for Palestinians. Opponents label it as an anti-Semitic campaign to take down Israel as a Jewish state. Elan Carr, President Donald Trump’s special envoy for combating anti-Semitism, previously deemed the BDS movement anti-Semitic.

Human Rights Watch maintains that it neither supports nor opposes the BDS movement.

“In line with our work across the world where we document the human rights abuses of corporations as part of our business and human rights division, we call on companies, in adhering to their obligations under the UN Guiding Principles, to ensure that they are not contributing to serious rights abuses,” Shakir said. “Companies cannot operate in settlements without facilitating serious rights abuse, and have called for them to stop that activity in light of the human rights impact.”

Jerusalem District Prosecutor Moran Brown argued that regardless of the organization’s declared stance, Shakir’s work and public statements violates the law.

“The organization is not defined by us as a boycott group, but it takes part in activity that supports boycotts,” he told Reuters.

Israel’s Ministry of the Interior’s letter to Shakir’s attorney, Michael Sfard, in May 2018 emphasized that the deportation is a result of Shakir’s specific actions, rather than his affiliation with Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch does not appear on its list of boycott organizations.

“It is inconceivable that a BDS activist who calls for a boycott of the State of Israel be granted entry into Israel under the guise of representing an organization,” it read. “We note that this decision does not constitute a general, blanket refusal to allow the organization to employ a foreign expert, but rather relates specifically to the request to employ Mr. Shakir.”

Shakir argues that the judge’s April 16 ruling, however, contradicts this distinction between him and the organization.

“The judge directly states in the opinion that she considers Human Rights Watch’s advocacy around businesses that operate in settlements to constitute boycott-promoting activities,” he said.  

Since receiving the order to have his work permit revoked, Shakir has been able to remain in Israel after appealing the decision to higher courts, which places a freeze on his deportation until proceedings conclude. On April 16, the court motioned to uphold their decision, ordering that Shakir must leave by May 1. Shakir appealed the decision a second time to the Israeli Supreme Court, whose final decision is forthcoming.

This is not the first time Shakir has been forcibly removed from a country on account of his human rights work. In 2014, he was asked to leave Cairo, Egypt, where he spent two years working primarily to document the massacres at Rab’a al-Adawiya square, in which over 800 people were killed. Since his deportation from Egypt, Human Rights Watch hasn’t had access to the country.

But Shakir’s activism on Israel-Palestine issues dates back to his undergraduate years at Stanford — and Israel is reaching back to that work to defend their ruling. Courts scrutinize Shakir for co-founding the organization Students Confronting Apartheid by Israel — currently a branch of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) — in his junior year, and his 2011 call for Stanford to divest from companies that profit from human rights violations in Israel and Palestine.

The dossier that announced his initial deportation ruling also cited his encouragement of European countries to adopt BDS as a way of ending “unjust systems regardless of the political solution” in a 2016 panel as reason for his deportation. They also cited his characterization of BDS as “the most noble form of nonviolent resistance” in another panel that same year.

Though the dossier was released on July 12, 2017, Human Rights Watch’s difficulty with Israel began as soon as Shakir arrived in October 2016. The work permit that was eventually revoked took eight months to secure, in a process Shakir said typically takes 60 days. In February 2017, Israel denied Human Rights Watch a permit to hire a foreign employee for engaging in “Palestinian propaganda.”

“This deportation proceeding is the culmination of this multi-year effort,” Shakir said.

Stanford, U.S. and European opposition

“In Israel today, if you were to call to boycott a company because they mistreat their workers, or because they discriminate against women, or against Ethiopian Israelis, that would be permissible,” Shakir said. “But if an individual calls for boycotting the company because they violate the rights of Palestinians and operate in the settlements, that’s illegitimate.”

Opponents of Shakir’s deportation denounce the move as one that stifles critical human rights work.

“One of the world’s most reputable human rights organizations is having one of their workers expelled from a country because of his human rights work,” U.S. Representative Jim McGovern (D-Mass) told the Washington Post.  

McGovern was one of the 17 Democrats who authored a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asking Israel to reverse the deportation order. The letter argued that the deportation “reinforces the impression that Israel is increasingly hostile to human rights defenders.”  

Twenty-seven European nations — the entirety of the EU excluding Hungary — agreed. In a statement to the United Nations Security Council, representatives urged Israel to allow Shakir and Human Rights Watch to “continue their humans rights work unimpeded.” Finnish representative Kai Sauer told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that the EU is “concerned that, within the current political landscape, those on all sides who seek to bridge the gap between Israelis and Palestinians are undermined” by Shakir’s deportation order.

Stanford Law School professors joined the international wave of support on May 4, with 19 faculty members authoring a letter to Netanyahu urging him to not to deport their alumnus.

“As a student at Stanford Law School, where Mr. Shakir was trained by leading experts in international law and human rights, he developed a reputation for thoughtful, principled criticism of rights violators,” they wrote. “In his work both before and after graduation from Stanford Law School, his positions on both Israeli and Palestinian human rights practices … though often highly critical, have always been well-researched and evidence-based.”

The letter further argued that Shakir’s deportation is a violation of free speech and stands in contrast to Israel’s democratic values. Law professor Allen Weiner J.D. ’89, one of the letter’s signatories, emphasized this second point.

“A mature democratic society should be prepared to accept and engage in a debate and discuss rather than just silence people whose views [they] disagree with,” said Weiner, who taught Shakir in his international law and ethics of war classes. “What Omar stands for are the values we want in a university and the values we want in our public discourse.”

But law professor and Stanford Human Rights Clinic Director James Cavallaro, who also taught Shakir in several clinics and seminars, argues against calling Israel hypocritical. Shakir’s deportation order, he said, is “totally consistent, unfortunately, with the current political moment.”

“It is exceptionally worrisome that Israel seeks to deport one of the few remaining credible international human rights organizations,” he said. “When states want to eliminate international credible witnesses of rights abuses or potential rights abuse, generally, it’s because they plan to continue to violate human rights.”

Shakir’s deportation order comes in the wake of a ninefold jump in refusals of entry to Israel between 2011 and 2016. Of the 16,534 who were denied entry in 2016, 82 percent were refused on the basis of “preventing illegal immigration,” which includes non-cooperation and people for whom the purpose of their entry to Israel was unclear. In what Shakir calls “a shrinking of space for human rights defenders,” Israel also denied entry to Amnesty International staff and the former UN Special Rapporteur for the Occupied Palestinian Territories in recent years.

Cavallaro thinks, however, there is a chance the Israeli Supreme Court will overturn their decision.

“If the judicial authorities in Israel feel enough pressure and recognize that the cost of deporting Omar Shakir and effect of evicting Human Rights Watch from the country … is greater than the cost of them allowing Human Rights Watch to continue to do human rights work, then the justices I think, are more likely to find the appropriate judicial doctrine required to reverse the executive decision of deportation,” he said.

Shakir cited the October 2018 case involving Lara Alqasem, a Palestinian-American student who intended to pursue a masters in human rights and transitional justice, as one that makes him hopeful for the Supreme Court’s decision. Alqasem was allowed to remain in Israel when Israel’s anti-boycott laws was interpreted such that it should only be applied in instances in which an individual is seeking to use their presence in Israel to advance boycotts.

The stakes are high for future human rights advocates in Israel, he said.

“If a court validates [the deportation], it could be the precedent for targeting other foreigners in Israel—whether they be the spouses of Israelis, students at universities, tourists hoping to visit the country,” he said. “The ruling is dramatic in its potential ramifications for a wide range of different people in Israel, or hoping to be in Israel in the future.”

This article has been corrected to more accurately reflect James Cavallaro’s name, title and relationship with Omar Shakir. The Daily regrets these errors.

Andrew Moore and Amanda McCaffrey contributed to this report.

Contact Julia Ingram at jmingram ‘at’

Julia Ingram ’21 was The Daily's Volume 256 editor-in-chief. She is a New York City native majoring in English literature and working toward a career in news reporting. Contact her at jingram ‘at’

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