Criticizing the occupation and Israeli policies towards the Palestinians
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Thinking Outside of the Box: A Dialog on the Fight Against Both the Occupation and Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions
On December 9, 2014 a group of 18 prominent academics and scholars, who had been engaged in discussion as part of the Scholars for Israel and Palestine (SIP), an academic group affiliated with The Third Narrative Initiative (TTN), signed a statement as individual scholars and academics calling for personal sanctions on four individual Israeli leaders. These four were identified for their actions to “insure permanent Israeli occupation of the West Bank and to annex all or parts of it unilaterally in violation of international law.” The total number of signatories has grown to 27.
On December 24, 2014 Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, responded in The Times of Israel with a thoughtful critique of the Personal Sanctions statement and its relationship to his views on “trends [in Israel] such as the deepening social inequalities brought about by years of security fears, terror, and occupation.”
TTN, in consultation with Dr. Kurtzer, has decided to publish a series of exchanges on the questions raised by the Personal Sanctions statement. This effort seeks to discuss the specifics of the original statement within a broader framework of how academics, scholars, intellectuals and other thoughtful activists can work constructively to oppose the delegitimization of Israel inherent to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement while thinking outside of the box on ways to end the corrosive occupation of Palestinian lands and the dangerous attacks on Israeli democracy.
We look forward to this dialog and encourage members of the SIP, TTN, Hartman and general communities to comment and participate as well.
To kick off this discussion, we are republishing the original Personal Sanctions Statement, Dr. Kurtzer’s Commentary with some additional reflections and a response from Professor Sam Fleischacker of the University of Illinois at Chicago, a signatory of the statement and a member of the SIP. Future contributions from these and other writers will be posted shortly.
Looking forward to a compelling and robust discussion.
Executive Director, TTN Initiative
Personal Sanctions Statement
The perspective contained in the following statement are the collective thinking of the signatories, as developed through discussions of the Scholars for Israel and Palestine (SIP) Pro-Israel, Pro-Palestine, Pro-Peace. It does not represent the views of the SIP as a whole, The Third Narrative or any other institution.
For More Information about this Declaration by Members of the SIP, please contact: Professor Gershon Shafir, email@example.com
Israel: A Time for Personal Sanctions
December 8, 2014
A central obstacle to a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians is the continuing occupation of the West Bank. Accordingly, we call on the United States and the European Union to impose personal sanctions on a cluster of Israeli political leaders and public figures who lead efforts to insure permanent Israeli occupation of the West Bank and to annex all or parts of it unilaterally in violation of international law.
There is a compelling current precedent for such moves. In response to Russia’s unilateral annexation of Crimea and its ongoing campaign of aggressive destabilization in eastern Ukraine, the United States and the European Union implemented, among other measures, personal sanctions—visa restrictions and foreign asset freezes—against government officials, public figures, and others who play especially significant roles in promoting and implementing violations of international law. (1) We propose that similar personal sanctions be imposed on Israeli political leaders and other public figures who play central roles in Israel’s systematic, long-term violations of international law.
UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 allowed for a temporary Israeli occupation in the territories captured in the 1967 war, while calling for a negotiated peace settlement that would include Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories in return for recognition of Israel’s right, along with other states in the area, “to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.” These resolutions did not authorize permanent occupation, large-scale ongoing Israeli settlement in the occupied territories, or creeping annexation in the West Bank. Those policies plainly violate international law.
Continuing settlement and piecemeal annexation directly violate the Hague Regulations and the Fourth Geneva Convention, which regulate the conduct of belligerent occupations, and also violate the ban on acquiring territory by force which is one of the foundations of the modern international order. In addition, they deliberately aim to prevent the kind of negotiated peace settlement envisioned by Resolutions 242 and 338. These policies threaten to lock both Israelis and Palestinians into an inescapable path toward catastrophe. They demand an urgent response.
That response, we believe, should not take the form of generalized boycotts and other sanctions that indiscriminately target Israeli society and Israeli institutions. Such measures are both unjust and politically counterproductive. In particular, campaigns for boycotts and blacklists of Israeli academia attack the most basic principles of academic freedom and open intellectual exchange.
Moreover, a response to Israel’s settlement and annexation policies should not suggest that Israel bears exclusive responsibility for the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy, or that, if pressured, Israel could solve it unilaterally. Achieving a just and durable negotiated solution requires constructive efforts by actors on all sides of the intertwined Israeli-Palestinian and Arab-Israeli conflicts. However, if the door is to be held open to the possibility of a just, workable, and peaceful solution, one requirement is to prevent actions that would sabotage it. For this reason, we propose targeted sanctions to focus on political actors engaged in such sabotage.
We single out four powerful Israeli political leaders and public figures who promote these unjust, unlawful, and destructive policies in their most extreme and dangerous form. These four explicitly support policies of permanent occupation and unilateral annexation. They reject efforts to negotiate peace and actively sabotage US-led efforts to promote them. They advocate and implement unilateral actions designed to preclude a negotiated peace. They are therefore legitimate targets for personal sanctions by the US and the EU.
1. Naftali Bennett, the leader of the Jewish Home Party and Minister of Economy, Religious Services, Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs. From 2010 to January 2012, Bennett served as the Director General of the Yesha Council (the umbrella organization of municipal councils of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and previously in the Gaza Strip as well). He led the struggle against the 2010 settlement freeze. In February 2012, he published “The Israel Stability Initiative,” which flatly rejects any possibility of ending Israel’s occupation of the West Bank or allowing the creation of a Palestinian state. Instead, Israel would unilaterally annex and bring under its sovereignty Area C, which constitutes 62 percent of the area of the West Bank; Palestinian autonomy would be allowed in Areas A and B, but under the permanent security umbrella of the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet. (2) In November 2014 Bennett reiterated this program in a New York Times op-ed (3), and as a member of the government coalition he has continued to press strongly for a policy of creeping annexation. (4) Recently he threatened to break up the government coalition unless Israel continues building new and expanded settlements. (5)
2. Uri Ariel, a Member of the Knesset from the Jewish Home Party and Minister of Construction and Housing. In the past, he served as the Secretary General of both the Yesha Council and the Amana settlement movement. He explicitly advocates having “just one state between the Jordan River and the sea, and that is the State of Israel.” (6) He has been a consistent advocate of accelerated settlement building. As Minister, he is responsible for issuing building tenders for housing east of the Green Line, such as the 1,400 housing units authorized this year to be built in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Moreover, Ariel sought to undermine US peacemaking efforts by announcing those tenders just four days after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s January 2014 visit to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. (7) Ariel has also confessed to informing Israeli settlers about Israel Defense Forces’s attempts to evacuate outposts that are illegal even under Israeli law; thus he has worked behind the back of the government of which he is a member. (8) Finally, in July 2014, in a dangerously incendiary violation of long-standing Israeli policy, he publicly called for a Third Temple to be built on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. (9)
3. Moshe Feiglin, a Member of the Knesset from the Likud Party and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset. Feiglin stands out for his straightforward and undisguised extremism. His annexationist program goes beyond Bennett’s. “The Feiglin Platform” of 2012 calls for complete annexation of both Gaza and the West Bank, and advances an unambiguous formula for permanent rule over a politically disenfranchised subject population. (10) In July 2014, Feiglin also called for removing most Arabs from Gaza and replacing them with Jews to solve the housing crisis in Israel. To Palestinians “choosing to remain” there, and to Palestinians in the West Bank who have lived there their whole lives, he offers just “permanent resident status” – or citizenship on condition that they accept the supremacy of the Jewish way of life throughout the land. (11) Feiglin has already been banned from entering the UK on the grounds that his sweeping anti-Arab and anti-Muslim diatribes “propagate views which foment and provoke others to serious criminal acts and also foster hatred which might lead to inter-community violence in the UK.” (12)
4. Zeev Hever, also known as Zambish, Secretary General of Amana since 1989. Since 1978, Hever has been one of the most persistent and influential organizers of settlement construction. Amana taxes settlers to enable its subsidiary, Binyanei Bar Amana, to become the major builder of houses in outposts that even Israeli governments view as illegal. In 1984, Hever was arrested as a member of the Jewish Underground and sentenced to 11 months in prison for attempting to plant an explosive charge in the car of Dr. Ahmed Natshe, a Palestinian leader from Hebron. Since then, he has abandoned direct participation in violence, but not the path of systematic illegality aimed at rendering any negotiated peace agreement impossible. (13)
Annexationist policies pursued by these four individuals, and others like them, have created a genuine emergency. They slam the door not only on peacemaking at present but for the foreseeable future. They rule out the prospect for any two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Therefore, it is not sufficient to reiterate calls for negotiations. It is equally and urgently imperative to oppose the occupation itself, and especially those policies that seek to make it permanent and irreversible. It is necessary for the U S and the EU to go beyond verbal protest. They must take active measures to penalize lawbreakers. Well-aimed sanctions can play a constructive role in this respect if they focus on figures who bear the greatest responsibility for policies that deepen and extend the occupation and render the march to catastrophe increasingly inescapable. Therefore we propose personal sanctions as elements of a larger campaign to preserve and advance the possibility of a negotiated peace, resulting in Israeli and Palestinian nation-states coexisting side-by-side. Only such an outcome can offer both Israelis and Palestinians the basis for a free, secure, and hopeful future.
The undersigned are members of the Scholars for Israel and Palestine, affiliated with The Third Narrative (14):
University of California, San Diego
Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton
University of Illinois at Chicago
Alan Jay Weisbard
University of Wisconsin, Madison
Arizona State University
Zachary J. Braiterman
University of California, Irvine
Steven J. Zipperstein
Jeffry V. Mallow
Loyola University Chicago
Rachel F. Brenner,
University of Wisconsin, Madison
University of California, Los Angeles
University of California, San Diego
University of Illinois, Chicago
Sonoma State University
University of California, Los Angeles
Einstein Forum, Potsdam
University of Nevada, Reno
University of Washington
University of California, Riverside
(2) “Naftali Bennett’s Stability Initiative”, 26 December 2012 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n1oFOEY_6lM).
(3) Naftali Bennett, “For Israel, Two-State Is No Solution”. New York Times op-ed, 6 November 2014 (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/06/opinion/naftali-bennett-for-israel-two-state-is-no-solution.html?_r=0).
(4) David Remnick, The settlers move to annex the West Bank—and Israeli politics. The New Yorker (21 January 2013)
(12) http://www.haaretz.com/news/britain-bans-likud-s-moshe-feiglin-from-entering-country-1.241081 & http://website.thejc.com/home.aspx?AId=58606&ATypeId=1&search=true2&srchstr=feiglin&srchtxt=0&srchhead=1&srchauthor=0&srchsandp=0&scsrch=0
Responses to the Personal Sanctions Statement from Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America
When did we all agree to substitute coercion for persuasion? What is happening to the increasingly lost art of firmly, passionately arguing our positions – to say with respect and conviction to another person, “This is why you are wrong”?
The most recent – and in many respects, most surprising – offenders in this elision were the members of a group of Zionist professors, educators, and journalists who issued a statement calling for “sanctions” against four Israeli political figures (Naftali Bennett, Uri Ariel, Ze’ev Hever, and Moshe Feiglin), protesting their actions to “entrench” the occupation and what this group perceives as an explicit flouting of international law. Evidently frustrated with Israel’s rightward drift and with their own inability to achieve measurable change from far away against these trends, rhetoric gave way to a kind of retribution.
I understand and relate to the impulses that led to this action. I too am frustrated – as an American Jew, as someone with deep ties to friends, colleagues and institutions in Israel, and as a Jew who believes that the State of Israel is an essential and inextricable feature of Jewish identity – to see that there is seemingly little I can do from far away to work in fighting trends such as the deepening social inequalities brought about by years of security fears, terror, and occupation.
The actual constructive choices at my disposal, such as moving to Israel to vote, giving on a small-scale to NGO’s working on progressive issues, and teaching as part of my work about inspired engagement with Israel, are fundamentally limited. And combined with a prevailing anxiety in the Jewish communal establishment about the limits of legitimate American Jewish “interference” with Israeli policies, this frustration feels more like impotence. I see in this august roster of scholars, wise teachers, and colleagues a network of longtime Zionists who I admire for their legacy of support for Israel, and I respect their belief in their own courage and capacity to effect change.
And yet, I believe these actions and this decision to try to punish rather than persuade signal a deep failure of imagination, and negate the very values these scholars have worked hard to uphold.
Michael Walzer, one of the signatories and a longtime colleague at the Shalom Hartman Institute, has written about the fundamentally intertwined nature of pluralism and democracy as characteristics of “the American Idea.” In his argument against fundamentalism, Walzer suggests that in a thriving democracy, policy emerges from “freewheeling debate” and open debate on ideas. Implicit in Walzer’s argument is the corollary as it comes to the outcomes of such debates: namely, that losing an argument is still an act of participating in a democracy. Civil society loses its moorings when dissenting voices – after they have been given a legitimate airing – insist on destabilizing the society because of their failure to win the day.
In this regard, there is something deeply unfair about the insistence of these scholars that the rules of the debate no longer apply now that their own positions are losing. Honestly, I too feel some sense of deep foreboding about the rise of ultra-nationalism in Israel as an authentic, even if dangerous, response to the intractable conflict. But to turn in this moment to these tools of coercion is not only to quit the game, it is to question the very rules of the contest. It might signal the last gasp by loyal adherents to Zionism who feel that absent this kind of desperate effort, they may no longer feel at home in this story. But their exit will have more ramifications for them than the faraway society that they hope to transform.
Saddest of all is that this effort toward changing the outcomes by sanctioning the actors echoes of the efforts in Jewish institutional life that these scholars detest, which close down the discourse on Israel through the setting up of “red lines” and boundaries of who can speak, and where, and about what. Both of these responses entail a resistance to difference of opinion by avoiding it, either slamming a door in its face or seeking to undermine those who hold contrary opinions. Israel’s democracy is far more robust these days than that of the American Jewish community when it comes to talking about Israel’s realities; there is great irony in the higher levels of anxiety about Israel’s domestic challenges and the narrower parameters of loyalty to Israel from 7,000 miles away than within its borders. Here, too, the response to fear of alternative political realities cannot and should not be repressing the ability of people to speak their viewpoints. It is in the harrowing insistence of moral rectitude that right and left are beginning to converge.
Even in this moment of adversity, when it seems the trends are against the liberal agenda, it must be possible to adduce a quality argument without silencing or sanctioning the more powerful opposition. No one likes being “wrong”; it is uncomfortable and demoralizing to be on the losing side of the communal consensus or the will of the electorate. But just as losing a debate is not the same as being silenced, there is no excuse for the silencing or sanctioning efforts as shortcuts to the debate itself. Right and left are conspiring with sanctions and red lines to undermine the legitimacy of serious debate in the Jewish community; it is time for the rational and reasonable to take it back.
Dr. Kurtzer expanded on his ideas for constructive alternatives to Personal Sanctions in a follow up Facebook post, included below, December 28, 2014 at 7:13pm
A number of folks have asked me privately and publicly what the “constructive” alternatives to the boycott/sanctions approach might be for the progressive camp, in response to my latest TOI piece (ICYMI, see below). Here are four – by no means exhaustive, and subject to debate; but let’s start this conversation and not allow a deeper entrenchment between left and right that yields no alternatives to radical, dead-end approaches:
1. Donate to progressive candidates in the upcoming Israeli elections. Like it or not, this is how the game is played. Naftali Bennett raises his campaign dollars in America, but I don’t see mass efforts galvanizing behind the progressive alternatives. So long as every candidate represents a possible plurality – none comes close to a majority – supporting any candidate for office during an election season should fall fairly under the “support for Israel’s democratically elected government” blanket rule. Given the animosity on the American Jewish left towards Bibi and Bennett, Herzog and friends could clean up if and when people put their money where their mouths are.
2. Support the NGOs working directly on issues of democracy, antioccupation, and civil society in Israel. Happy for people to post suggestions in the comments. Contrary to the boycott approach, the left should be pouring resources into this work. Irving Moskowitz singlehandedly remakes the map of East Jerusalem and destroys the possibly of territorial continuity while the NGOs who could challenge him on the ground live hand to mouth. Boycott is splashy but it’s long term effect is to extract Jewish money from a system and from causes that sorely need it. Imagine what a dramatic influx of capital could do to the progressive sector in Israel.
3. USE THE EXISTING PIPELINES OF INFLUENCE: AIPAC, the Conference of Presidents, AJC, whatever. The paradox of the critique often leveled at the establishment is that it is both 1) on the decline and out of touch and 2) underrepresentative of Jews with progressive politics. If 2) is true, 1) is probably sour grapes. Like them or not, these organizations do have a voice and do have influence, and they do push back against the Israeli government periodically on the basis of that credibility – sometimes publicly, sometimes privately. I believe there is also space for the J Streets and IPFs et al; but some strategic alignment with the mainstream could help get the antioccupation agenda more airtime *in the context* of the security/support agenda, rather than where it lives now as implicitly against it.
4. Educate – and more importantly, reshape the face of public thought leadership on Israel to include – rather than avoid – Israel’s challenges. Needless to say I am closest to this piece as a core element of my/our line of work; but it still needs much more attention, investment, and nuance. An educated stakeholder is a more powerful and motivated stakeholder, and right now most of Israel education is hostage to particular advocacy agendas. We have yet to see a fully realized alternative.
I appreciate your thoughtful and heartfelt response to the statement I and others signed, calling for personal sanctions to be placed by the US administration on Israeli leaders who use their office to try to entrench the Occupation of the West Bank. But I’d like to take issue with some of your points — above all, with the idea that measures of the sort we propose amount to giving up on democratic debate, and substituting coercion in its place.
“When did we all agree to substitute coercion for persuasion?” you ask, arguing that relying on persuasion alone is basic to democracy. But in the first place, this dichotomy is too stark. Democracies regularly adopt policies in response to pressure tactics — the giving or withholding of campaign contributions, acts of civil disobedience, public shaming campaigns — as well as persuasion. And those policies themselves, of course, involve coercion of a variety of kinds: from a loss of government funding to fines and imprisonment.
In the second place, there is a world of difference between laws and policies that affect people all of whom are already members of a democratic polity, and laws and policies that affect people who are outside that polity but under its control. Your argument turns, I think, on a conflation of these things. You write:
[T]o try to punish rather than persuade signal[s] a deep failure of imagination, and negate[s] the very values these scholars have worked hard to uphold. Michael Walzer, one of the signatories and a longtime colleague at the Shalom Hartman Institute, has written about the fundamentally intertwined nature of pluralism and democracy as characteristics of “the American Idea.” In his argument against fundamentalism, Walzer suggests that in a thriving democracy, policy emerges from “freewheeling debate” and open debate on ideas. Implicit in Walzer’s argument is the corollary as it comes to the outcomes of such debates: namely, that losing an argument is still an act of participating in a democracy. Civil society loses its moorings when dissenting voices – after they have been given a legitimate airing – insist on destabilizing the society because of their failure to win the day.
Your quotes from Walzer come from an article he published in the Atlantic, in 2007, as part of a symposium on “The American Idea.” He began that piece by identifying the “American idea” with the thought that people of different religions, ethnicities and races can “live together in a single commonwealth” and govern that commonwealth democratically, participating equally in the decisions about what it should do. Then he said:
The greatest threat to pluralism and democracy in the contemporary world is the belief that virtuous government requires religious homogeneity and clerical dominance: a single faith and a single version of God’s law. Religious fundamentalists hold that believers, heretics, and infidels cannot govern themselves as equals, and that state policy cannot be the result of an open competition and a freewheeling debate in which everyone participates.
But what Walzer clearly means here is just that those who participate as equals in a freewheeling public debate, and a decision-making process that arises from that debate, should be willing to yield to others when they lose an argument. If a group loses a public debate over gay marriage or school vouchers it should indeed accept that loss gracefully: only then can it expect its opponents to accept their losses gracefully should it win the next round of the democratic process. The situation is very different if we are talking about what should be done when some people are excluded from the democratic process altogether: when there is no democracy for some subjects of the commonwealth, and the losers in a public debate over this, if there is one, are those who are trying to secure democratic rights to those subjects.
This point is of course crucial to debates over the Occupation. Those of us who signed the personal sanctions letter agree with you that debates over policies within democratic Israel —Israel within the Green Line — should be determined wholly by the participants in that democracy, not by outsiders. It is also important to us to stress that Israel within the Green Line is a democracy, and should be trusted to overcome even its flaws in that respect by itself. But the same does not go for Israeli rule beyond the Green Line. There coercion replaces democracy, and an agreement among Israeli voters that the Occupation is acceptable does not legitimate it. All the more so, the entrenchment of that Occupation by Israeli leaders, regardless of what the voters think, cannot legitimate it. Coercion of the coercers, in this case, may be entirely appropriate.
Again, even as regards everyday issues, it is not true that policy in a democracy arises solely from “freewheeling debate.” Among the powerful, money and connections and clever lawyering and quiet horse-trading shape a good deal of policy. Among the less powerful, strikes and acts of civil disobedience and boycotts are used as ancillary tools to discussion (think of the boycott on Arizona, after it passed a harsh anti-immigrant law a few years ago). But strikes, street blockages, and boycotts are all exercises of coercion, to some extent. They may however be necessary, given asymmetries of power. For the powerless to rely simply on persuasion, while moneyed and otherwise entrenched interests get their way regardless of public debate, would be for them to resign themselves to living forever with injustice. No struggle for workers’ rights, women’s rights, or the rights of African Americans could have succeeded by talk alone.
This is especially true where the struggle is over the right of a group to participate in democracy at all. The sit-ins and boycotts in the American South, in the 1950s and 60s, aimed to end social segregation of many kinds, but its overall goal was to ensure that black people could vote, and participate as equals in public debate. Civil rights activists were also utterly unwilling to allow their success to depend on whether the majority wanted black people to be equal citizens. The same goes for activists against British colonial rule in India. There, the effort to secure democratic rights took the form of trying to set India up as an independent state, rather than to incorporate Indians into the British electorate, but there was a similar understanding that democracy among Britons alone could not legitimate British rule over India. Making sure that everyone can vote is logically prior to making law by way of majority vote, in a democracy: we do not have democracy where people subject to law are not free and equal participants in the making of that law.
We see Israel today as facing a problem of this sort. As long as Palestinians in the West Bank have no vote — which they will get, we hope, in a state of their own — they are subject to laws they have no hand in making. In practice, this results in daily humiliation, arbitrary punishments they cannot appeal, decisions about land and water, or whether they can build a home or walk in their streets, over which they have no control, and theft of their lands and destruction of their olive trees and mosques by settlers who go unpunished. It is a basic axiom of democratic politics that government officials will not treat a group fairly if they know it has no say over their continued hold over power. And Israeli actions, like the actions of the British in India and Southerner whites in the Jim Crow era, daily prove the truth of this axiom (Gershom Gorenberg’s The Unmaking of Israel spells out the details). So unless the Occupation ends, there will be no Israeli democracy, just the coercive rule of one people by another.
The Occupation is thus not just one democratic issue among others, like a tax cut or health care policy, over which the winners and losers of a debate should be equally willing to accept the result. It is not as if Israelis and Palestinians together voted for an Occupation and now the Palestinians do not want to live with the result of that vote. The problem is precisely that the Palestinians have no say in the regime under which they are governed. It is not, cannot be, undemocratic to oppose this breach of democracy itself: even by way of measures that go beyond voting and talking.
I hope it is now clear that there is an enormous difference between the religious fundamentalists whom Walzer chastises for being unwilling to accept the results of democracy and those who support coercive measures, where persuasion fails, to change policies that exclude a range of subjects from participating in that democracy. The fundamentalist is unwilling to subject questions about the right and the good in general to public debate, insisting instead that only he and his coreligionists have the right to decide such questions. This is fundamentally undemocratic: indeed opposed to the idea of democracy. The uncompromising defender of democratic rights is by contrast willing precisely to subject all questions of policy to democratic decision-making — except those questions that make it possible for people to have democratic rights at all. This position is fundamentally democratic: indeed flows from the idea of democracy.
In the Facebook posts you wrote after your article, you made two additional points that I’d like to take up. One is that there are noncoercive measures that critics of the Occupation can take instead of the ones we proposed, such as donating to progressive Israeli candidates, supporting NGOs that promote democracy and civil society in Israel, or educating people about the Occupation. I think that these are excellent suggestions, and indeed follow through on a number of them myself: a large proportion of my charitable giving goes for instance to organizations like the New Israel Fund, Rabbis for Human Rights, the Israel Religious Action Center, and Yahel. These measures do not preclude also supporting something like the personal sanctions statement, however. And restricting what we do about the Occupation to noncoercive measures suggests that it is just one democratic issue among others, to be settled by the current majority of Israeli citizens however it sees fit, regardless of its impact on Palestinians. That is a deep moral and pragmatic mistake. It is important to make clear that the Occupation steps over the line of acceptable democratic policy, that it undermines democracy itself. Which is to say: it amounts to coercive, rather than legitimate, rule over a large population. And coercion is justifiable, even required of us, in response to coercion, according to a long liberal tradition. So measures that do more than persuade are in this case called for, in response to those who coerce, rather than persuading, millions of Palestinians.
Second, you have worried that promoting coercive measures against Israeli leaders will build a wall between American Jews and Israel, which will in the long run undermine the ability of Jews here to identify with their people in Israel. I see the force of this point, and respect it. But a “Jewish nation” is for me as for most Zionists not just a country with a lot of Jews in it; it is also a country that upholds Jewish values. A country devoted (exclusively) to Russian culture or New Age spirituality would not be “Jewish,” regardless of the genetic heritage of its citizens, and an undemocratic country would not be Jewish either, I think. For me as for many other Jews, respect for the dignity of all human beings is a basic Jewish value, and for me as for many others, that value entails democratic governance, at least in the modern day. I am shomer shabbat and daven with an Orthodox community, but my democratic values have deeply shaped my religious ones, and I would drop my observance if I thought Judaism was opposed to democracy. I think I am far from alone in this (indeed, it is my religious observance, and not my commitment to democracy, that may make me eccentric among American Jews). But if so, then how long can Jews like us be expected to maintain a connection with an undemocratic Israel? Should Israel make the Occupation permanent — which looks not at all unlikely these days — why suppose that we will regard it as anything but an embarrassment, something to distance our children from and assure them that it doesn’t represent “real” Jewishness? So I see a fervent, uncompromising opposition to the Occupation — one that sees it as so deeply wrong that it cannot be legitimated by majoritarian acceptance — as essential to maintaining a Jewish connection to Israel, not inimical to it. And I rather suspect that progressives in Israel — most Israelis, at one time, and still a significant element — would agree. We help them, in their struggle for the Israel of their ideals, by saying that we will not simply resign ourselves to an apartheid or fascist Israel: and that we recognize, unlike many mainstream Jewish leaders in America, that the danger of such a horrific Israel is real, and imminent, and needs to be fought, with every weapon we can decently take up.
I suspect that we don’t disagree much on these points, but I’d be curious to hear from you on that.
Professor Sam Fleischacker
Department of Philosophy
University of Illinois, Chicago
The conversation continues. Addition posts will be up shortly. We also invite readers to comment and ask questions that can help frame the ongoing dialog. [TTN Editor]