A Political Struggle: Cancellation of AILA District's Israel Conference Reveals 'Ugly' Schism

by Simon Butler

Though immigration law has never been immune to political vicissitudes, a simmering controversy over the cancellation of an Israel-set conference is threatening to tear apart the membership of one of the industry’s leading organizations—and that spells trouble for all practitioners … including those in EB-5.

The ruckus began with an email from a lawyer at a London-based U.S. visa firm who is a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association ("AILA"). The email, sent to AILA’s Rome District–European, Middle East, and Africa Chapter ("RDC-EMEA") members, announced the cancellation of the chapter’s Spring Continuing Legal Education ("CLE") conference, which was slated to be held in Tel Aviv, accompanied by U.S. consular post tours in that city and Jerusalem in Israel, as well as in Amman, Jordan.

Employing an apologetic tone, the author of this message claimed that the tense regional situation and concomitant security concerns led to the decision. Additionally, the missive alluded to the potential for certain members to be treated poorly in Israel while being shut out of the conference, though the writer did not specify whom those members were, what kind of treatment they expected to receive, how it was known that they would not be allowed to attend the event, or why they would conceivably be blocked from doing so.

The email also stated that this decision—made, apparently, with the awareness “that the choice of Israel as a conference location could be divisive”—was, it was noted, “not taken lightly and has been made after discussing the issues with lots of our members.” The email continued: “However, since many of us AILA members who are from opposing sides are friends, we believed we could be a group that was working together to foster diplomacy in the region and peace. Given what is happening we cannot hope for that any longer.”

Rigorous Preparations

In explaining the background behind the cancellation, the author described how intensive the planning process was for the conference. Per this individual’s original email, discussions about the event involved “those members and friends who may have issues entering Israel to elicit their thoughts on having a conference in Israel,” as well as “experts in the field of Israeli immigration law.” Other sources of information that were tapped included non-governmental organizations ("NGOs") that would be able to educate the team about “the issues that are occurring in Israel and Palestine."

The email also provided a look into how the planning for this event was done. Settling on a site for the conference, bringing in speakers, making travel arrangements, and outlining the agenda were all part of the exertions—with plans even including tours of U.S. consular sites in Israel and Jordan.

Nevertheless, the decision was made, though the email acknowledged those who worked to see the conference through, including volunteers. At the end of the email, the writer expressed the hope that communications with the consular posts would still be possible, despite the limited number of participants expected.

Is Bigotry to Blame?

Reactions to this announcement were nearly immediate, with most respondents to the email expressing substantial outrage. Some conveyed their dismay that the event was cancelled because they already had made arrangements to travel to Israel for the conference. Other respondents, however, emailed back with concerns that hinted at something more troubling: antisemitism. (The names of the email’s writer and respondents have not been included in this article owing to the sensitivity of this issue.)

Some respondents hinted at the specter of antisemitism informing the cancellation decision. But is that true?

One particularly prominent AILA member cited the fact that a substantial number of RDC-EMEA primary members are located in the country, suggesting that at least, an option could have included meetings with consular staff while the conference itself was held elsewhere—as was the case in the past with an invitation from the United Arab Emirates; that resulted in discussions with UAE officials while the conference was held in Brussels. This AILA member also alluded to a “boycott,” calling it disrespectful to the consular officers who sent them invitations to the nation; those who planned the conferences; and the chapter’s primary members in Israel.

So what is this boycott being referred to, and why is it important? Does it constitute antisemitism?

A BDS Primer

This question is loaded, but in a nutshell, the answer is this: The boycott cited here is likely a reference to BDS, which stands for “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions.” A controversial effort that has divided supporters of Israel and Palestine alike, BDS aims to put economic and political pressure on Israel until, as the BDS website explains, “Israel meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people's inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with the precepts of international law” in three ways. Per the website, those are:

  1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands[1] and dismantling the Wall[2]
  2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
  3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.

Advocates of this movement say that it empowers Palestinians to seek and achieve justice in their quest for statehood, an effort for which negotiations between Israel and Palestine have ground to a halt. This is despite the fact that a Palestinian state is part and parcel of the endeavor to bring about a two-state solution: namely, the nations of Israel and Palestine existing side-by-side in peace.

Activism or Antisemitism?

Critics of BDS assert that BDS is inherently antisemitic, as it endeavors to single out the only Jewish state on Earth and does not address despotic regimes in other countries. The Anti-Defamation League ("ADL"), the leading U.S.-based organization that fights antisemitism, calls BDS “an international campaign aimed at delegitimizing and pressuring Israel, through the diplomatic, financial, professional, academic and cultural isolation of Israel, Israeli individuals, Israeli institutions, and, increasingly, Jews who support Israel’s right to exist.”

Critics of BDS assert that BDS is inherently antisemitic, as it endeavors to single out the only Jewish state on Earth and does not address despotic regimes in other countries.

Furthermore, BDS Founder Omar Barghouti has been criticized for what has been perceived by many as antisemitism, a precedent that is not lost on Jewish individuals worldwide—most of whom support Zionism. The latter ideology is defined by the ADL as “the movement for the self-determination and statehood for the Jewish people in their ancestral homeland, the land of Israel.” This movement is informed by the Jewish diaspora’s provenance outside Israel, which was spurred in part by an exodus of Jewish populations from the region following the Romans’ destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. As such, most Jews regards anti-Zionism as antisemitic, as they view the movement as a way to deprive Jewish communities of their heritage and history, along with a state of their own to protect them from persecution … which this ethnoreligious group has suffered for millennia.

The conflicting ideologies of anti-Zionism, BDS and Zionism have made for strains in the political landscape. More troubling, however, is the upswing in violence between Palestinians and Israeli settlers that has arisen in the West Bank in the last month. This violence, which began with the murder of two Jewish brothers by a gunman who shot them in their car, came to a head during a rampage by Israeli settlers through the Palestinian town of Hawara in the West Bank that left many vehicles and homes destroyed, as well as one Palestinian dead. Fanning the flames was far-right Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who reportedly called for Huwara “to be erased,” a statement that led to swift censure from the United States. A day after the Huwara violence, a Palestinian gunman shot and killed an American citizen near the Jericho in the West Bank, which also elicited condemnation from the United States.

Israeli raids in the West Bank to counter militancy have become more frequent of late. One recent foray by the Israeli military resulted in the deaths of six Palestinians in Jenin in the West Bank. With the violence spinning out of control, any security concerns from RDC-EMEA may be valid. Still some respondents to the original email observed that such concerns may be unfounded—citing planned trips and past experiences as evidence of their faith in the country’s security measures.

Damage Control

In response to the emails commenting on the original message, the writer of that missive clarified the team’s commitment to member safety. But the author also cited as the primary catalyst for the cancellation “the increasing civil unrest that is occurring in the streets of Israel”—a reference that likely alludes to the mass protests over right-wing Israeli Prime Minister’s judicial reforms, which are seen to undermine the democratic process in the Jewish state. Yet these protests have mostly been peaceful, with demonstrators taking the streets to voice their demands. Some members responding to this second email expressed scepticism that such unrest was the catalyst behind the cancellation of the conference, with the subtext being that something more disturbing, antisemitism, was probably at work.

Neither the first nor the second emails from this author mentioned this perturbing possibility, and many of the other revelations in the message seemed relatively innocuous. For instance, the author divulged that the team mulled holding the event in Amman instead but refrained from doing so owing to safety concerns. (The email did not provide details on what those concerns were.) The missive also noted a third site was in the mix as well, though it was nixed owing to financial and time constraints.

These explanations did little to satisfy most of the members. As one particularly astute practitioner wrote: The situation is “ugly.”

The situation is “ugly,” noted one member in an email. That may be an understatement.

This fracas could conceivably have wide-ranging repercussions. According to RDC-EMEA’s website, AILA, which was established in 1946, is “a nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization that provides continuing legal education, information, professional services, and expertise through its 39 chapters and over 50 national committees.” But any adoption of BDS into the organization’s policies would directly contradict its nonpartisan status.

Although it is not clear whether this is official AILA or RDC-EMEA policy, the email announcing the event’s cancellation and that missive’s follow-up suggest that BDS may have been a factor in the decision to nix the conference. That may spur a host of complications, including litigation from members who believe they may have been discriminated against, as well as complexities relating to the organization’s status as a nonprofit adhering to its stated mission.

Industry Reverberations

Where EB-5 is concerned, the ramifications also could be substantial. Israeli investors seeking permanent residency in the United States through the EB-5 Immigrant Investment Program could find themselves without a trusted advocate in this AILA chapter, which could conceivably elicit fewer applications from the country. Indeed, ever since Israel gained E-2 status under former President Trump, there has been a significant increase in awareness of the EB-5 program. Some states, such as New York, have laws in place that set boundaries with regard to investments. For example, per New York’s Office of General Services website, Executive Order No. 157 mandates “[state] entities to divest all public funds supporting the [BDS] campaign against Israel. The first-in-the-nation action will ensure that no State agency or authority engages in or promotes any investment activity that would further the harmful and discriminatory Palestinian-backed [BDS] campaign in New York State.”

All of this antagonism is an anomaly among the AILA membership. Like doctors, lawyers are in the business to help people, and practitioners involved in the organization more often than not stick together. AILA as a whole is known for its ethical stance, which is informed by tolerance and altruism, and can be attested to by its constituents. In that vein, this controversy is very much out of character.

Like doctors, lawyers are in the business to help people—and AILA members are no different.

While it has not been determined whether this could impact investments bolstered by the EB-5 program, it is possible that any advocation by AILA of investments, sectors, or other considerations could come under scrutiny by state authorities if the organization or any of its chapters could be deemed to be engaging in discrimination. It is also conceivable that any tarnishing of AILA’s or RDC-EMEA’s reputation could have serious consequences, including membership declines, which could lead to a substantial decrease in the concomitant fees, as well as attendance at any future conferences and other events.

Regardless of the issues involved in this situation, RDC-EMEA ultimately should provide clarification on its messaging as to the reason(s) behind its decision to cancel the Israel conference. At this juncture, damage control may not have a significant effect, owing to the large number of RDC-EMEA members whom the announcement and follow-up emails have offended. One cannot be cautiously optimistic in this regard, but one can hope for some kind of resolution amenable to all parties.

Like the prospect of peace between Israel and Palestine, that may sadly take a long, long time to happen.

[1] Israel occupies the West Bank, a region it took during the Six-Day War in 1967 that has not been recognized internationally as legitimate territory of the Jewish state. In September 2005, Israeli forces withdrew from the Gaza Strip, which it had occupied as well; the region is now governed by Hamas, recognized as a terrorist group not only by Israel, but also by nations such as the United States. (See https://www.state.gov/foreign-terrorist-organizations/ for more info.)

[2] The “Wall” refers to the wall built by Israel as a security measure to separate the West Bank from Israel and mitigate terrorism against Israelis. Critics of the wall deem it a restrictive measure that curtails Palestinians’ freedom while separating them from Israel in a discriminatory fashion.

About The Author

Simon Butler is a writing assistant at Mona Shah & Associates Global, where he works on business plans, blog articles and other content. During his 20-plus-year career, he has served in a variety of roles (mostly in the publishing arena), including as features editor at On Wall Street magazine and senior editor at Zagat. Simon has interviewed personalities such as chef David Bouley, director Whit Stillman, and singer-songwriter Carly Simon, as well as executives such as Mary Schapiro, former head of the Securities and Exchange Commission. A graduate of Columbia College with a B.A. in English from Columbia University in New York, Simon also has written opinion pieces for publications ranging from Kyiv Post to Algemeiner. He lives in New York City.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.