Three Thoughts on Liberal Zionism and BDS

So this is an interesting development.

A group of prominent liberal Zionists—including Michael Walzer, Michael Kazin, and Todd Gitlin—is calling for “personal sanctions” against “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.” The personal sanctions they’re calling for include visa restrictions imposed by the US state.

Three thoughts about this move.

First, good for them. It’s limited and makes several assumptions that I don’t accept, but it ratchets up the pressure. That’s great.

Second, it shows just how aware these intellectuals are of the power of BDS. There’s little doubt that without BDS—especially the ASA academic boycott—this never would have happened. Indeed, as Haaretz explains, the group that organized this statement was formed in 2013 explicitly in response to BDS.

The signatories are all members of a group called The Third Narrative established in 2013 by the Labor Zionist group Ameinu as a Zionist-progressive response to far left attacks on Israel – including BDS.

“All of us are very engaged in opposing the academic boycott and other boycotts,” said Walzer in an interview. He is author of numerous books, including “In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible,” (Yale University Press) and last year retired as co-editor of Dissent magazine. “But at the same time we always insist we are against the occupation. This seemed to be a usefully dramatic way of focusing attention on where it should be focused and not where some of the BDS people are trying to put it,” Walzer said.

“This would provide a way of mobilizing votes against blanket boycotts but equally against the attempts to make the occupation irreversible,” Shafir said….

“We really are fighting on two fronts,” said Shafir, who was born in Ramat Aviv and began his career at Tel Aviv University, before moving to California in 1987. “That is our identity.”

By opening that second front, we in the BDS movement give this group an identity (albeit a negative one), and I for one am happy to serve them in that capacity. We’re moving the needle, and as predicted, liberal Zionists are following us by deliberately staying five steps behind. That’s how politics works, and that’s all to the good.

Third, I am curious about the free speech implications of this move. As Haaretz reports, Cary Nelson opposes this petition on free speech grounds because it punishes these four figures merely for their statements (apparently, it’s okay to punish other individuals for their statements), but I think the move raises a different problem.

If a student group or scholarly association were to call for a ban on these four Israeli figures from speaking on a US campus or at an academic convention (or shout them down), I suspect the individuals signing this petition would immediately object on two grounds. First, not that the rights of these four individuals, but the rights of potential audiences in academia to hear them, were being violated. And, second, that by banning these speakers, students and academic associations were imperiling and narrowing open academic discussion.

But if the American state bans these four figures from entering the US, which would mean they couldn’t speak on US campuses or at an academic conventions, this group of signatories is okay with it.

It tells you something, I think, about the state of contemporary liberalism that when it comes to academic freedom and freedom of speech, some of its most thoughtful voices have a more permissive and indulgent view of the state than they do of students and scholarly associations.

Update (December 13)

As I pointed out to Michael Kazin last year, when he raised the call against the ASA academic boycott, the very same objection that he leveled against the boycott—why are you singling out Israel?—could be made against any move to oppose Israel. So in this case: seems like anyone who has bought into the “why single out Israel” line has to object to this move by Walzer et al. After all, why aren’t they calling for personal sanctions against four officials of the Chinese regime over their treatment of the Tibetans?


  1. Frank December 12, 2014 at 11:21 pm | #

    In general, I think you have to be more charitable with movements like this. Granted, BDS has pushed them into taking a more overt stand against occupation, and this is great. However, I think you’re post ignores, or misrepresents, the substantive difference between their movement and BDS. The question isn’t about state power vs. students, etc., but about finding a way to allow Jews to have a state of their own (even if you – and others- don’t include yourself among those Jews who want such a state), which doesn’t come at the expense of Palestinian statehood. Your decision that the American state is your state, and that you have no need for an Israeli state, shouldn’t begrudge those many Jews who do find their form of national self-expression in the Israeli state.

    Granted, if you’re absolutely convinced that Israeli statehood is illegitimate, and that only a one-state solution is acceptable, then the conversation devolves into the question of tactics. It becomes a formal problem, rather than a substantive one. But I think the more fruitful conversation, and the more difficult one, is how to juxtapose the need that many Jews do feel for a state of their own, with the obvious need that Palestinians have for a state of their own.

    • freespeechlover December 13, 2014 at 1:21 am | #

      But the fact that they have a permissive attitude toward the state, the state that as we know now without any doubts has been involved in torturing Arabs and Muslims (one reason why the torturers, the torture designers and managers, and the top brass that supported it+ the political class that showed little serious interest in its role to provide oversight), is telling. How can anyone who has lived through the past weeks of non-indicted police who killed black men and of the intelligence sector of the state, a sector whose architects were essentially pardoned by the President upon entering office, think that it’s better for this state to handle Israeli affairs, is surreal. Particularly in light of the traffic between Israeli intelligence and the CIA, I can understand why Corey would home in on that aspect of the petition.

      How can someone not have the state on their mind, somewhere, when they consider many different issues, given how much our minds have been focused on the state of exception that has become the US (that’s the legacy of no prosecutions). Given Israel’s recent attempts to pass laws and in some cases pass them that are patently discriminatory on the basis of ethnicity combined with three wars on Gaza in a relatively short time, but mostly Israel’s ties to the US in terms of being security states and being allies in “securitizing” the world, all of that seems to bring the state which claims to represent Jews into sharp critical relief akin to that of the US this past week.

      The cruelty of these states, and in frankly bizarre ways, makes it impossible to wonder about why a state would act the way Israel does “on behalf of” or “in the name of” Jews everywhere.

    • Andrew Miller December 13, 2014 at 7:59 am | #

      “Your decision that the American state is your state, and that you have no need for an Israeli state, shouldn’t begrudge those many Jews who do find their form of national self-expression in the Israeli state. ”

      The problem is that the idea of a Jewish state of Israel relies on an artificial demographic majority created by ethnic cleansing. The right of those forced off of their homes in the Nakba to return to their homeland is sacrosanct, both morally and legally. And the ideal of an exclusivist Jewish state cannot survive the recognition of this right because the Palestinian minority would no longer be small enough to be marginalized and ignored. I don’t see why maintaining a Jewish majority through the denial of Palestinian human rights is any more acceptable than say, white southerners demanding the ability to curtail black people’s rights in order to maintain a white-run society/government.

      But leaving that aside, BDS argues for a one-state solution because for over 40 years, Israel has occupied Palestinian land; has built illegal colonies in the most important areas(East Jerusalem and environs, Hebron, areas rich in natural resources and arable land, key strategic points, etc.) and has made it clear they do not intend to surrender most of them; and has built an economic system in which the OT are economically dependent on Israel(while suppressing Palestinian industry and trade.) And considering that a solid majority of Jewish Israelis are fiercely opposed to any solution that would create a sovereign Palestinian state, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the 2 state solution is simply impossible.

      But as people have said before, BDS is a tactic, not an ideology. If a genuine 2 state solution were to be proposed, it would almost certainly be approved by the Palestinian people(assuming it was a genuine 2 state proposal and not a “1 state, 1 collection of bantustans” offer, which is the most Israel has ever been willing to concede.) And if a peace offer were approved by the Palestinian people, BDS would cease to exist.

      As this movement shows, even Zionists are becoming aware of the fact that Israel will not make peace unless it is forced to through outside pressure. BDS is the best way to do that, whether you support a 1 state or 2 state solution.

  2. zjb December 13, 2014 at 12:56 am | #

    As a co-signer to the statement, I would like to concur with Frank. While BDS gives liberal Zionists like myself plenty of agita, the symbolic political gesture to which we signed on has little to do with BDS as an organized activist movement. Most of us are old enough to have been in this game for much longer than BDS has been around. Most of us came of age opposing the first Lebanon War and supporting Peace Now already in the early 1980s. I’m guessing that all of us opposed the occupation long before most of us got behind the idea of a 2 state solution in the early 1990s. To be sure, most of us worry about the impact of economic boycotts, divestments, and sanctions if not about BDS as an organized activist movement with a formal agenda pushing an academic boycotts that almost of all us regard as extreme in its anti-Zionism. Certainly, we did not need BDS to know that the 1967 occupation is a disaster for Israel, for Zionism, and for the Jewish people, if you don’t mind me calling it that, and that all these are clearly on a very bad and dangerous tipping point.

    • freespeechlover December 13, 2014 at 1:45 am | #

      What concerns me is why you didn’t do this sooner, because it seems to me that liberal Zionists (for lack of a better term), could have, should have acted much sooner in this manner earlier on in the second intifada. i say this, because some of us came to a “one-state solution” belatedly, after watching the possibility of two states disappear not in political parlance in DC or eventually Tel Aviv, or in the NY Times-media like that-but on the ground.

      • zjb December 13, 2014 at 2:08 am | #

        I can only speak for myself, but would say that the second intifada was different with bombs going off everyday in Israeli cities. In other words, I saw no reason to sign on to something like this sooner, and there was no one out there who thought any sooner to put together such a proposal.

        As for a one state solution, I think I can safely say that people like me continue to reject it for reasons suggested by Frank in his post above. Beyond that, it’s hard to imagine what a bi-national state might actually look like.

        Particularly now when the Middle East is splintering along sectarian lines, it’s hard to see how putting together such a state would be anything but an intensification of the disaster currently unfolding now on the ground since the murder of the 4 kids last summer.

        Back to the issue of timing, it’s my own sense that the sense of an “emergency” has been bubbling among Liberal Zionists and many liberal Jews since the formation of the first Netanyahu-Liberman-Barak government. It has only gotten worse still since the formation of the outgoing Netanyahu-Liberman-Bennett government. The timing just seems right now then it did 14 years ago.

    • freespeechlover December 14, 2014 at 2:09 pm | #

      Coming back to your point re: suicide bombings-I think this is where I have to part ways, because I don’t believe in turning them into rhetorical weapons of the kind that you flirt with above. The first suicide bombing was in Israel was in response to Baruch Goldstein’s massacre in Hebron, well before the second intifada began. But more importantly, I have problems with the assumption that suicide bombings are beyond the pale in ways that Barak’s response the start.

      I also think that there is a strong tendency in the focus on suicide bombings to forget what set off the second intifada. No one in the camp above ever answered the question, Why did Barak allow Sharon to go to the Temple Mount? I never saw that question addressed with any seriousness in the media or among so-called liberal Zionists. Why did Barak come out of Camp David and fall on his own political sword in the then upcoming Prime Minister’s race? I think this is where Zionism has an ideology has something to answer for that is less about the broad logics of settler colonialism-the need to try and erase the people already on the land in order to replace one society with another, but these kind of details where regardless of political party, the militaristic machinery of Israel as a particular kind of state grinds on. It’s Golda Meir and her “why do the Palestinians make us have to kill them?” that’s the problem. It’s the grotesque twists and turns of Zionism as an ideology (yes all ideologies do this, but not all with the same depth of denial and US and European support for such denial) that is at issue for me at least.

      That and the fact that I was at one time a strong supporter of the two state solution, visited Israel and the OT many times, lived and did research in Ramallah and witnessed the land grab since Oslo. I saw the pre-intifada conditions “from the ground up,” so I wasn’t surprised when the second intifada broke out. But I was surprised and concerned when everyone thought there was a peace process going on, when I saw what was happening on the ground.

      BTW, I don’t agree with Peace Now’s political position, but I think that they have been crucial to documenting settlement building and activity. Their documentation is solid, important, and I respect that.

      • zjb December 15, 2014 at 1:46 am | #

        So this then is where we part ways, The Goldstein massacre was a horrendous crime and condemned as such across the Israeli political spectrum. But that doesn’t seem to matter to you, since you identify it with Israel tout court. But the suicide-murder attacks were also and just as much horrendous crimes, recognized by the international community as a war crime, but which you don’t seem to want to condemn for whatever act of solidarity with the Palestinian people. For my family and friends in Israel this was not a merely a rhetorical foil but a matter of life and death, regardless of what one thought about the occupation and about Sharon’s provocations as head of the opposition.

  3. Andrew Miller December 13, 2014 at 7:37 am | #

    I understand the politics of triangulation, but their argument hardly seems coherent. They say that sanctions should be levied against “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” and yet they only target 4 people. But occupation and apartheid are the national consensus in Israel, opposed only by a small leftist minority. If they were apply those criteria evenly, that would mean also sanctioning every politician from Labor, Kadima, Likud and the far right. After all, Labor governments constructed illegal settlements at an even faster pace than their right-wing counterparts. Perhaps they’re drawing an imaginary line in the sand with Bennett’s attempts to officially annex parts of the West Banks instead of the status quo of de-facto annexation, but that’s a pretty meaningless distinction. And what about say IDF leaders who committed war crimes against Gaza or Lebanon and have deliberately impeded UN investigations into their conduct? By their own professed standards, half the Israeli state would be a legitimate target for sanctions.

    • Todd Gitlin December 13, 2014 at 11:27 am | #

      I find this argument fairly comical as well as uninformed. If the argument is that others are co-responsible aside from the four we named, this does not make our argument wrong (surely these four are worth sanctioning) or “incoherent” (any more than BDS is coherent for targeting Israel but not Turkey, Russia, China, and a whole host of other bad actors). As for “occupation” and “apartheid” as an Israeli national consensus, I’d like to see evidence. But even if it were true, this would not negate the value and justice of targeting certain loud, prominent, and influential Israelis.

      • Andrew Miller December 13, 2014 at 12:59 pm | #

        Of course these 4 deserve to be sanctioned; that we can agree on. But so do Netanyahu, Livni and pretty much every other major Israeli politician; they all support the continued occupation of the Occupied Territories and the continued construction of illegal settlements. If you accept the obvious truth that Israel has no interest in making peace unless it’s forced to do so by outside pressure, then it makes no sense to only target a small fraction of those who support the status quo. If you agree that pro-settlement, anti-peace Israeli politicians deserve sanctions, then why only choose 4? Certainly it would be more effective to target every Israeli politician who supports the continued occupation. Targeting these 4 politicians might succeed in harming their political careers, but how does it bring Israel closer to ending the occupation?

        “…any more than BDS is coherent for targeting Israel but not Turkey, Russia, China, and a whole host of other bad actors). ”

        This is a very common argument against BDS- though I’m glad you agree it’s bunk. The issue of Palestinian human rights is separate from say, Tibetan human rights or gay Russian human rights. While I wouldn’t be opposed to boycotting any of these countries assuming such a boycott was feasible and had the support of the populace which it’s intended to help, it doesn’t make sense for pro-Palestinian activism to be combined with pro-Tibetan activism any more than it makes sense for Greenpeace to become part of Amnesty International. On the other hand, the policies of Bennett are virtually indistinguishable from those of the Israeli political mainstream; the difference is primarily how brazenly he does it. Most Israeli politicians “have created a genuine emergency… slam the door not only on peacemaking at present but for the foreseeable future… seek to make it[the occupation] permanent and irreversible.” To combine, say, anti-Erdogan activism and pro-Palestinian activism makes little sense since they have different targets and different contexts, but it does make sense for someone who accepts the legitimacy of sanctions and who opposes Israeli occupation to sanction every Israeli politician who supports the continued occupation instead of just 4 of the most outspoken ones.

        I guess my question is: now that you’ve accepted that sanctions against Israeli targets are acceptable and your target is the occupation, why stop with 4? Why shouldn’t Netanyahu be on the list? What about Lieberman? Or officers/commanders who are complicit in torturing Palestinians or using violence against protestors in the name of maintaining the occupation? How do you respond to those who say we should also target companies complicit in the occupation(like Motorola, Veolia, Sodastream, etc.)? Or that since the occupation is a state-level affair, that we should target the state as a whole?

        “As for “occupation” and “apartheid” as an Israeli national consensus, I’d like to see evidence.”

        This should be obvious to any half-informed observer. The vast majority of Israelis are opposed to a Palestinian state(, and a solid majority say they are against any compromise with Palestine( Every party to the right of Meretz supports the settlements; under Labor governments, settlement construction continued at a higher pace than under Likud. Nor have any mainstream Israeli parties done anything to give Palestinians under occupation anything resembling basic human rights. If almost all the major parties and the majority of Israelis support continued occupation and oppose human rights for those under occupation, how can you deny that occupation and apartheid are the political consensus?

      • freespeechlover December 14, 2014 at 2:09 pm | #

        Right. Put “apartheid” in quotes, as if the rest of us were stupid. That’s persuasive.

  4. Costa December 13, 2014 at 9:04 am | #

    You are being somewhat generous regarding the motivations of this group. Their concern is not so much the right of Palestinians to their own state, but the silencing of voices that unmask the defining characteristic of the state of Israel, which is the disparity in treatment of different groups of citizens, a disparity enshrined in law, hence the name Jewish State.

    • freespeechlover December 14, 2014 at 1:55 pm | #

      I tend to agree with this. I think this mostly becomes obvious when people foreground suicide bombings but not the terrorism of the IDF or frankly armies in general. There is a problem that comes down to “intention,” as in when they do it it’s because of malice, but when we do it, it’s for good.

    • BillR December 15, 2014 at 2:01 pm | #

      This is just a preemptive stunt. Liberal Zionism is about as intellectually and morally defensible as Liberal Apartheid. The Israeli poet and author, Yitzchak Laor tackled the conceits of the likes of Amos Oz, A. B. Yehoshua, David Grossman, etc. in ‘Myths of Liberal Zionism’. Joshua Cohen did a fine review of it in Harpers Magazine (available online if you google for the terms from his poem, “Balance”):

      The gunner who wiped out a hospital the pilot
      who torched a refugee camp the journalist
      who courted hearts & minds for murder the actor
      who played it as just another war the teacher
      who sanctioned the bloodshed in class the rabbi
      who sanctified the killing the government minister
      who sweatily voted the paratrooper
      who shot the three time refugee the poet
      who lauded the finest hour of the nation
      who scented blood and blessed the MiG. The moderates
      who said let’s wait & see the party hack
      who fell over himself in praising the army the sales clerk
      who sniffed out traitors the policeman
      who beat an Arab in the anxious street the lecturer
      who tapped on the officer’s back with envy of the officer
      who was afraid of refusing the prime minister
      who eagerly drank down the blood. “They ”
      shall not be cleansed.

  5. Corey Robin December 13, 2014 at 10:33 am | #

    The problem with zjb’s claims here is that the written record belies it. I didn’t make up those quotes about BDS and the academic boycott; they’re from key signatories and organizers of this movement. I of course know that Walzer and others have had this anti-Occupation position since long before BDS — that’s why, in part, I call them liberal Zionists and distinguish them from ultra-Zionists — but this particular iteration of the campaign (calling for personal sanctions) arose in a very particular context of opposing BDS. And, as I said, that context is all over the written record.

  6. Frank December 13, 2014 at 2:59 pm | #

    PS In response to your update, the reason the claim of exclusivity doesn’t apply to this movement, is because its members identify with Israel. They aren’t calling for an end to Israel, they’re calling for it to act responsibly. And this reflects a fundamental sympathy that they have with its people, and their desire for national self-determination, none of which has to come at the expense of Palestinian statehood.

    In other words, there is a fundamental philosophical, ethical, and political difference between attempting to define, or redefine, oneself and one’s own national group, as opposed to defining, or redefining, the “other.” Insofar as you don’t identity with Israel (which, of course, is completely up to you), and insofar as many other members of BDS don’t identity it either, it’s extremely problematic that they’re attempting to define what Zionism and what Israel is/are. This is especially curious (hypocritical) given that BDS is often quite steeped in postmodern/post-colonial thought, which itself is supposed to be extremely sensitive to questions of an other defining you. Put differently, this is the fundamental exception that BDS trafics in, and it’s surprising blind to it.

    I suppose that members of BDS avoid dealing with this problem by framing it as a question of power. That is, if Israeli’s were to define the essence of Palestinian identity or nationalism, we’d obviously have a problem with that, because most of us would recognize it as an attempt to define the other with the intention of subjugating them. With the case of Israel, because they’re powerful, we can try to let ourselves off the hook, because we’re identifying with the weaker party. That is, we can’t possibly be defining the other (i.e. Israel) with the intention of subjugating them, because they’re the oppressor. Nonetheless, this doesn’t change the fundamental problem. Moreover, if you’re looking for an actual explanation for why those sympathetic to Israeli statehood respond to BDS in the way that they do, it’s for this reason. From they’re point of view, which is one I share, they might be strong vis-a-vis Palestine, but there are many ways in which they’re weak. And defining what Israel means, and what Zionism means, might not aid BDS’s attempt to dominate Israel (which they obviously don’t want), but it does provide useful philosophical justification for those who do want this.

    • freespeechlover December 15, 2014 at 12:24 pm | #

      Are you sure that “none of it has come at the expense of Palestinian statehood?” Put another way, where does Zionism stop in terms of expansion? Where are the Jewish state’s borders? Not in anyone’s wishful thinking but on the ground. Today, as we speak?

  7. Michael Kazin December 13, 2014 at 5:11 pm | #

    Frank’s comments are the most intelligent thing in this thread. But, Corey, I wish you’d stop referring to me as a “liberal Zionist.” That is an accurate description of Michael Walzer, and, perhaps the others who signed this statement. But I am not a Zionist — and like to think I’m to the left of most liberals. I oppose BDS because it’s both opposed to academic freedom and the freedom of speech — and because it grants no legitimacy to an Israeli state which has been in existence for over 66 years. Calling for the end to that state is tantamount to advocating endless war.

    • Corey Robin December 13, 2014 at 5:50 pm | #

      Happy to not call you a liberal Zionist, Michael; that was my mistake. I didn’t realize you were not a Zionist.

    • Frank December 13, 2014 at 10:27 pm | #

      Thanks for the compliment Michael, I appreciate it. Makes me wish I didn’t use a pseudonym. 😉

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