Among the most pernicious consequences of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) movement has been the wedge driven between Israel and liberal Americans, including liberal American Jews. The relentless misappropriation of human rights and anti-racist discourse, the slanderous talk of Israeli "ethnic cleansing" and "genocide," and the bitter, ad hominem attacks against Israelis, their international supporters, and the peace process itself have taken a severe toll on American civil discourse. It is therefore especially dismaying to see the new call by leading American Jewish figures of the academic left, most prominently Michael Walzer of Princeton University, Todd Gitlin of Columbia University, and Alan Wolfe of Boston University, for sanctions against right-wing Israeli politicians whom they deem "annexationist." These academics, 14 in all, are members of the "Scholars for Israel and Palestine," a subgroup of the leftist pro-Israel, anti-BDS organization called "The Third Narrative." They state that these views are their own, not The Third Narrative's as a whole. (The declaration is available here on The Third Narrative's site.)
In their declaration, these intellectuals calls for the U.S. and European Union to implement "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." These sanctions, namely asset seizures and visa restrictions, are aimed specifically at Naftali Bennett, Uri Ariel, Moshe Feiglin, and Ze'ev Hever, who "promote these unjust, unlawful, and destructive policies in their most extreme and dangerous form." Specifically, "These four explicitly support policies of permanent occupation and unilateral annexation. They reject efforts to negotiate peace and actively sabotage U.S.-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 U.S. and the EU."
The call for annexing the West Bank is controversial, above all in Israel. The settlement enterprise as a whole is also contentious. But nowhere in its call for sanctions does the Third Narrative distinguish between settlement blocs, supported by the vast majority of Israelis, and territory deeper within the West Bank. What about Israeli politicians who advocate retaining some settlements and not others? Are they to be sanctioned as well? The Third Narrative does not specify the borders of what it regards as acceptable versus unacceptable Israel.
This BDS-style call for official censure is, above all, an attempt to criminalize ideas. One may find the idea of an Israeli one-state solution unworkable, ill-advised, or even reprehensible, but to sanction its advocates rather than debate them openly is hardly liberal or tolerant. The Third Narrative's call is evidence that it regards the issue of annexation as above debate and above politics; they are unwilling to trust in Israel's deeply flawed democracy and demand, as so many have done before, that Americans and Europeans intervene. Need it be said that American Jewish intellectual opprobrium is unlikely to influence the Israeli electorate positively? Quite the opposite will result. But perhaps real political traction is not what is sought here, so much as moralistic posturing.
The call is also dramatically one-sided; no parallel call to sanction Palestinian politicians who advocate a one-state solution has been heard, from this group of intellectuals or anyone else. Indeed, a list of Palestinian politicians who reject the existence of Israel and who wish to "annex" it would include most of the Palestinian Authority and the PLO, all of Hamas, and, if polls are to be believed, most of Palestinian civil society. And if such a call to ostracize Palestinian annexationists were to be raised by, say, American Jewish intellectuals, the din would be immense. They would be accused of censorship, criminalization, and a slew of other evils both immediately and vociferously. Asset seizures were not proposed as a remedy even for the vast siphoning-off of foreign aid by Yassir Arafat and his successors, yet these intellectuals demand such measures be used against Israeli politicians, merely because they dared to suggest something unlikeable.
Nor have we heard calls to ostracize or otherwise sanction Palestinian advocates who incite to homicide or celebrate the murder of Israelis, or those who glorify the "martyrdom" of Palestinian murderers. This list, too, encompasses virtually every member of the Palestinian elite. Such activities are arguably more destructive to peace, and life, that Israeli calls to annex the West Bank or to limit Palestinian sovereignty.
But the unwillingness to look seriously at Palestinian politics and discourse is one of the fatal flaws of the Western liberal view, and the American Jewish intellectual view, on the Arab-Israeli conflict. But a significant portion of the Israeli electorate has disenthralled itself, through close examination and bad experience, of the view that they are the only moral agents, indeed, the only actors at all, in what is self-evidently a multi-sided affair. What sort of Israeli policies flow from this conclusion–that Palestinians are unwilling if not unable to make serious compromises, much less coexist peacefully—is a question still unanswered. At the very least, condemning those who have reached that conclusion, however unpalatable one finds it, shuts down democratic discussion.
At another level, the American Jews demanding sanctions on Israeli politicians are blind to the strategic goal of the BDS movement whose methods they imitate: to eliminate Israel by stages. By adopting these tactics, they validate the larger movement's methods, if not its goals. By endorsing sanctions, they create the implication if not the expectation that ever-increasing sanctions on Israel might be justified—and thus, by extension, that if Israel becomes unsatisfactory enough, its very legitimacy and existence may be questioned. Of course, this is precisely the goal of the BDS movement, and one for which no supporters of Israel – as Third Narrative claims to be -, however appalled by its policies or politicians they may be, should provide cover.
Though conceived by Palestinians, the Western BDS movement is an unholy alliance of far left organizations and foundations (like the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, the WESPAC Foundation, and the American Friends Service Committee, among many others), and Muslim Brotherhood backed Islamists, notably Students for Justice in Palestine and its supporting organization, American Muslims for Palestine. These latter organizations grew out of the network of Muslim Brotherhood organizations in America, above all CAIR, the Islamic Society of North America, and the North American Islamic Trust. The Islamist view on the Arab-Israeli conflict is uncompromising.
Convincing Jews that the path to higher morality is to anathematize other Jews has been one of the BDS movement's signal successes. This project has been made easier by the cadre of Quislings, notably Jewish Voice for Peace, a full partner to the Islamists, who have played on Jewish sensitivity to "social justice" and Jewish guilt to call for Israel's demise through sanctions and, eventually, the Palestinian "right of return."
But arguably the unstated object of the BDS movement has been to mobilize American Muslims' solidarity regarding the Arab Israeli conflict in order to bring them into the Islamist fold. There is a growing emphasis on "anti-normalization" from Students for Justice in Palestine and its supporting organization, which demand that no Muslim or Arab engage in any way with poisonous Israelis or even Jews, lest the cause of restoring a wholly Muslim Palestine be compromised. Even interfaith dialogues have been criticized.
This demand for ideological purity takes the exclusion of Jews to entirely new levels. It effectively puts Hamas's view that Palestine is sacred Muslim territory above debate in America, and mandates that true Muslims, American Muslims especially, support that view unswervingly. Inculcating this religious viewpoint among college students and American Muslims is a part of the Islamist BDS strategy.
Now, American Jewish intellectuals have placed other Jews in the same category, of people who cannot be debated or remain unpunished for their views. Moreover, the Jewish double standard still applies–Jewish organizations like Hillel must include anti-Israel voices or be deemed intolerant or racist. Jewish intellectuals must engage in dialogues with BDS representatives or other Palestinian advocates who demand the ethnic cleansing of Israel, lest they be called cowards, and in the process be subjected to insults. And now, leading American Jewish intellectuals have adopted the rhetoric and methods of BDS, to be applied to Jews only. Perhaps the next step is to follow the Palestinian lead again and call for certain Israelis to be charged in international courts. If nothing else this would demonstrate fealty to the secular religion of "international law."
The Third Narrative splinter group has declared that Bennett and other Israeli "annexationists" must be effectively excluded from civil discourse and civil society, at least among Jews. The divide between American Jews and Israeli Jews has thus been enlarged. And the American Jewish intellectuals of the Third Narrative group have given their tacit blessing to the tactics of the racist and eliminationist Students for Justice in Palestine, American Muslims for Palestine, and the Muslim Brotherhood. But at least these liberal American Jews may now feel safe inside the cocoon of their sanctimony. Perhaps that is the real goal.
Alexander Joffe is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow of the Middle East Forum. Asaf Romirowsky is the Executive Director of Scholars for Peace in Middle East (SPME) and an adjunct fellow at the Middle East Forum. They are co-authors of the book Religion, Politics, and the Origins of Palestine Refugee Relief.