Leaving no room for debate

Alexander Joffe and Asaf Romirowsky’s article in The American Interest (“With Friends Like These: What Type of Zionism is Acceptable?”) is an attempt to narrow the debate about Zionism. The authors seek to stigmatize Jewish Leftists who actively oppose Israeli settlement policies. Using guilt by association, they indict the Jewish Left for being little better than those who demand Israel’s overthrow.

Joffe and Romirowsky’s start by objecting to a proposal by Prof. Michael Walzer and others members of “Scholars for Israel and Palestine” for “personal sanctions” against four Israelis. According to Walzer and his colleagues, these Israelis deserve to have their visas denied and their assets frozen because they “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 individuals in question are Naftali Bennett, Uri Ariel, Moshe Feiglin (members of the outgoing Knesset), and Zeev Hever (a promoter of settlement activity). The Walzer proposal appeals to the precedent of U.S. and EU measures taken in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine.

Although the sanctions proposal seems to be on its face unconvincing, Joffe and Romirowsky’s counter arguments are certainly self-defeating. The authors are exercised that individualized sanctions would be “one-sided” because there are Palestinians who should also face such restrictions. The logical conclusion of Joffe and Romirowsky’s approach is that personal sanctions on Israelis are acceptable if they are also enforced on Palestinians. The authors have thereby unwittingly provided a rationale for personal sanctions on Israeli politicians.

What Joffe and Romirowsky miss is that “personal sanctions” are powerful because they are rare. The U.S. aims at individual foreign officials for flagrant misbehavior—whether human rights abuses (such as in Russia and Iran) or gross violations of international law (such as the Russian annexation of Crimea). Imposing “personal sanctions” on Israeli behaviour at odds with U.S. policy, but short of actual annexation, lowers the threshold. It would also set an absurd precedent. The U.S. could slap visa bans on Canadian officials for promoting Canada’s claims to the Northwest Passage. After all, freedom of navigation and sovereignty are more vital U.S. national interests than Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

That should be the end of the argument, but Joffe and Romirowsky want to do more than tell us that Walzer and company are wrong. Rather, they want to convince us that Scholars for Israel and Palestine are fellow travelers of the movement to isolate and end the state of Israel. Criticism is apparently a precursor to destruction. Joffe and Romirowsky link the call for “personal sanctions” to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) movement, whose target is Israel as a whole.

However, the link is faulty. “Personal sanctions” are about just four named individuals, not the 8.3 million Israelis that the BDS movement is pursuing. Furthermore, official censure of Israel does not equate with BDS. President George W. Bush, not a man known to support BDS, deducted over $1 billion from Israel’s loan guarantees over two years in response to settlement activity. Every U.S. president since the Six Day War has opposed Israeli settlements beyond the 1949 armistice lines and some have taken measures against them.

Part of the problem is that Joffe and Romirowsky are inconsistent. By describing Scholars for Israel and Palestine’s proposal as “BDS-style,” they engage in the “slanderous talk” that they claim to oppose. Not content with connecting Walzer with the campaign to destroy Israel, they hand out charges of treason. Joffe and Romirowsky describe Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) as a “cadre of Quislings.”

JVP is indeed contemptible. Despite its name, JVP is not interested in peace. It supports Hamas—a dictatorship that wants war, that represses Palestinians, and that indiscriminately attacks Israeli civilians. JVP is all about hating Israel and not about supporting Palestinians. That is why JVP does not protest against the Syrian regime’s starving of Palestinian refugees in the Yarmouk camp. Nonetheless, Joffe and Romirowsky trivialize the Holocaust by comparing JVP to Vidkun Quisling, the archetypal traitor and Nazi collaborator whose police arrested Jews and deported Jews to their deaths.

Joffe and Romirowsky’s approach is not new. It is merely the latest attempt to narrow the debate within Zionism. There was a similar argument in 1982 in The New York Review of Books, when Ivan Novick, then President of the Zionist Organization of America, objected to Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg’s support for the Reagan peace plan. Novick could not bear that Hertzberg, a card-carrying Democrat, preferred the policies of Ronald Reagan to those of Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin. He was also unhappy at Irving Howe’s New York Times op-ed entitled “Warm Friends of Israel, Open Critics of Begin-Sharon.” Novick lamented that “Jewish dissenters” such as Hertzberg and Howe were not accepting “discipline.” Novick must have regretted putting the letter in the post. Irving Howe pounced on the mention of discipline, asking “I was never aware I was supposed to be subject to “discipline.” By whom? Through which democratic (or undemocratic) agency?”

So what do Joffe and Romirowsky, today’s disciplinarians, mean by “acceptable” Zionism? Apparently not the Zionism of Walzer’s Scholars for Israel and Palestine, and its parent organization “The Third Narrative.” The purpose of both these awkwardly named groups is to allow the Jewish Diaspora to disagree with Israeli politicians without siding with those who want Israel’s destruction. This was also Hertzberg’s and Howe’s point. Scholars for Israel and Palestine’s position is incompatible with a blanket boycott of Israel, but it does not pass the Joffe-Romirowsky acceptability test.

One person who Joffe and Romirowsky do not subject to their acceptability test is Moshe Feiglin. Indeed, they defend him against the personal sanctions proposal. Feiglin is a member of the outgoing Knesset, who has just been forced out of the Likud Party. In 2008, the British government excluded Feiglin from the country for such statements as “War now! A holy war now.” Feiglin has also said that only “transfer,” a euphemism for the mass expulsion of Palestinians, will lead to peace and “tikkun olam” (the repairing of the world). Last summer, Feiglin suggested that Israel temporarily “concentrate” (or “assemble” depending on how you translate it) the civilian population of Gaza in “tent encampments” pending their “emigration.” Do Joffe and Romirowsky find this type of Zionism acceptable?

Perhaps the oddest part of Joffe and Romirowsky’s article is their reference to “Israel’s deeply flawed democracy.” Such a negative characterization of Israel diminishes the country’s main strength and its most powerful argument for international legitimacy: its democracy.

Contrary to Joffe and Romirowsky, Israel’s democracy is remarkable. Most immigrants to Israel had never lived in democracies, yet they managed to build one. They created a democracy that is resilient and broad. Israel regularly, indeed increasingly frequently, holds free and fair elections. There is general election on average a little over every three years. Moreover, the country conducts its polls in a professional and transparent manner—there are no “hanging chads.” Election results are detailed and reliable—down to the lonely Haredi in one polling station who voted for the marijuana party in 2013. Even low Israeli turnouts are impressive by the standards of other democracies, particularly the U.S. and the U.K.

Better yet, Israelis have a parliament that accommodates a far broader range of opinions that most democracies. The outgoing Knesset contains hardcore Communists, Jewish religious and Arab nationalist (secular and religious) anti-Zionists, ultra-orthodox Zionists who oppose religious Jews serving in the army, modern orthodox Zionists who favour religious Jews serving in the army, annexationists, free marketeers, socialists, and fans of Vladimir Putin—and that’s a thumbnail sketch. The only other assembly with a similar range of parties is the largely toothless European Parliament.

It is the Israeli political system that answer’s Joffe and Romirowsky’s question “What Type of Zionism is Acceptable?” Although they set themselves up to judge others’ Zionism, they never actually reveal their own preference. They may find that the best version is Israel’s democratic Zionism.

Dedicated to the memory of Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg z”l, who participated in the struggle for civil rights.

About the Author
Andrew Apostolou is a historian based in Washington D.C. He has a D.Phil. in history from Oxford University and has worked on human rights campaigns in the Middle East.