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Israel's travel ban strikes Liberal Zionism at its core

Israel’s new anti-BDS law is antagonizing some of the state’s most loyal supporters, rewriting a decades-old relationship.

Passengers sit in an empty departures hall at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Passengers sit in an empty departures hall at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Israel ramped up its fight against the global boycott movement last week, when the Knesset passed its own travel ban: a new law barring entry to any non-citizen or non–permanent resident who has publicly called for or pledged to support a boycott of Israel — or its settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.

How this new approach will play out politically — whether it will energize the BDS movement or scare off potential supporters — remains to be seen. But one thing is clear: the new law will necessarily redefine Israel’s relations with diaspora Jews.

By re-configuring alliances based not on whether a person is Jewish but whether they are sufficiently “pro-Israel” — which to the current government means being pro-settlement, pro-occupation, and anti-Palestinian — Israel has indicated it is no longer interested in the ingathering of Jews simply because they are Jewish. What matters now is whether a person toes the government line, regardless of whether they are Jewish or not.

One group that has been particularly rattled by the new law is American liberals, and specifically American Jewish liberals. These are men and women who strongly oppose settlements and the occupation while remaining loyal to the fading ideal of Israel as Jewish and democratic state; who have continued to promote the idea of a two-state solution with vigor even as Israel takes step after step to undermine it and even renounces it.

They are people who condemn the BDS movement, often stridently, even as some of them advocate for a boycott only of Israel’s settlements. They are people who, time and again, have gone to bat for Israel even as it has spat in their faces. They are some of the most invested and engaged Israel supporters, true believers who grapple with the contradictions and complexities of the country, and are critical of it because they care.

With this law, Israel is pushing them into a corner where they must choose once and for all which side they are on: the side of universal values and human rights, or the side of Jewish nationalism, perennial military occupation, and inequality.

An El Al plane is seen through a barbed wire fence at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

An El Al plane is seen through a barbed wire fence at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Already, leading American Jewish liberals have come out against the law, among them Peter Beinart, who publicly called for a boycott of settlements in 2012. Letty Cotty Pogrebin, a veteran American Jewish leader and founder of Ms. magazine, wrote in Haaretz, “If supporting a non-violent boycott of the settlements makes me an enemy of the Israeli state, so be it.”

Meanwhile, over one hundred Jewish studies scholars, including “those who oppose the BDS movement, those who oppose BDS but support a settlement boycott, and those who support BDS,” have threatened to not visit Israel in protest, and have announced a petition opposing the law on grounds it is bad for Israel, bad for democracy, and bad for free speech.

Several American Jewish organizations, including J Street and Americans for Peace Now, are sponsoring an open letter to Israeli Ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer, entitled “Democracies don’t punish dissent,” which advises that “it’s time for Israel to stop using political litmus tests.”

As the new law threatens to upend these old relations, it is worth recalling an earlier moment in Israeli and American Jewish history. After Israel was established, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion quickly pushed for American Jews to fulfill the Zionist mission and move to Israel. That generated considerable consternation in some circles, particularly among some in the Jewish American leadership who rejected the claim that American Jews were in exile and, wary of accusations of split loyalty, asserted their place firmly in the United States.

As tension mounted, Ben-Gurion and Jacob Blaustein, the leader of the American Jewish Congress, which was then an unabashedly non-Zionist organization, engaged in 1950 in a series of exchanges known as the Ben-Gurion-Blaustein Agreement. In the exchange, Israel made clear it did not expect Jews to move to Israel, and that, “they owe no political allegiance to Israel.” Nonetheless, over the years American Jews formulated a functional consensus of support for Israel from afar, eventually building a strong political and emotional allegiance that became known as being “pro-Israel.”

In some ways, Israel’s new anti-boycott law takes us back to that landmark moment and redefines the agreement by freeing American Jews of any expectations. Israel is sending the message that it does not want or need American Jewish involvement if that involvement takes the form of pitched criticism or dissent, and that the cultural or historical connection is just not that important to them. Now that there is a robust pro-Israel base in the United States composed of Islamophobic Republicans, messianic Christian Evangelicals, and right-wing Jews who unconditionally support Israel, the government no longer feels the need to deal with critical American liberal Jews.

Most Americans — not just Jewish ones — have over the decades supported Israel on the basis that it provided a safe haven for Jews following the centuries of anti-Semitism that culminated in the Holocaust. But in practice, Israel’s policies of dispossession and discrimination have long overshadowed its raison d’être, fostering increasing dissonance among American “pro-Israel” liberals.

In the face of its diminishing legitimacy, Israel has gone on the offensive by attacking the legitimacy of criticism and dissent. It has been doing so for years by attempting to quash Palestinian nonviolent resistance, and more recently by silencing Israeli human rights activists and organizations. Now it is turning this policy outwards against its greatest allies abroad.

The law passed last week by Israel’s Knesset makes clear that being pro-Israel has nothing to do with being Jewish, or liberal, or supporting democratic values, human rights or critical thinking. By trying to fend off criticism of its democratic infractions, the Israeli government has doubled down with its counter-democratic policies, declaring war on American liberals, and with regards to the Jewish community, turning Israel’s greatest allies into its greatest nemeses.

A longer version of this article first appeared in The Nation on March 13, 2017.

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    1. R5

      Wishful thinking. Most liberal American Jews don’t support a settlement boycott, because they understand its a slippery slope. Beinart is hardly American in the first place, and represents only the far-left.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        That’s odd, the Wikipedia article about Peter Beinart says he was born in Massachusetts, which would appear to make him fully American, not hardly American.


        Here’s the website of the BDS movement, people can decide for themselves if it’s a ‘slippery slope’, whatever that means.

        Reply to Comment
    2. carmen

      The Cambridge, Massachusetts born Peter Beinart is ‘hardly American’? WTF nonsense are you spouting here R5? Because he finally realized ‘liberal zionism’ is no different than zionism and can no longer pretend slapping liberal in front of zionism doesn’t make it more palatable to the Palestinian people, Peter Beinart represents only ‘far-left’? Is that what it takes to lull you into sleep at night?

      Reply to Comment
      • Itshak Gordin Halevy

        Dear Carmen,
        We Zionists do not care about the so called “Palestinian People”. We are here to free and to develop the Jewish State. If the minorities do not feel good here they can leave as did the Jews from the Arab countries. The foreigners or minorities who respect the law can stay and live happy in Eretz Israel. If this Peter Beinart does not agree with the democratic Israeli government, I suggest him to make alya. He will so be able to express his opinions. Otherwise he should be quiet. He cannot be inside and outside at the same time..

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          You illustrate Mairav Zonszein’s point, Halevy. (“By trying to fend off criticism of its democratic infractions, the Israeli government has doubled down with its counter-democratic policies, declaring war on American liberals, and with regards to the Jewish community, turning Israel’s greatest allies into its greatest nemeses.”)

          But then stop taking our money. Y’all talk a good game about doing that but never do it. And stop taking our help. And stop taking our endless forbearance, and our saving of your behind in the United Nations every time. And I tell you, Halevy, the day Peter Beinart gets rudely stopped at Ben Gurion Airport and turned around and put on a plane back to the United States is the day Israelis can kiss American Jewish support goodbye. Americans for Peace Now and JVP will have so many new applicants and donors they will have to buy new computer systems to handle it.

          And you will still be sitting there muttering “we expect our minorities to be quiet and behave themselves….”

          You have talked about how well behaved you were in Switzerland because minorities should know their place and it comes across to me as a kind of cringing shtetl mentality of 1930 imported to 21st century Switzerland, and the only difference is now you think, in your hills of Samaria version of the ‘Sound of Music’ the Palestinians are the new Jews.

          Reply to Comment
          • JeffB


            America currently has political groups that can’t get a visa. Americans including American Jews have little problem with groups who are aggressively opposed to America (Al Qaeda and offshoots, New People’s Army, about 100 others). I’m not going to abandon Israel over the fact that it is tired of foreign anti-Israeli activists breaking the law, encouraging rebellion and often propagandizing for terrorism. I don’t have a problem with this applying to groups like JVP, SJP… which go well beyond activism within the society and actively collaborate with anti-Israeli foreign agents as well as urging western powers to engage in a regime change.

            I consider Peter Beinart to be within the circle of legitimate criticism and activism, same as “If not now” that has also objected (and seems to represent his views). But that being said at worst this law is overly broad. It is not a game changer.

            Reply to Comment
        • carmen

          You’ve mistaken me for someone who actually gives a shit about what you believe or think. Your opinions and histionic hysterical false history is like the cheese of your former home – full of holes. And you’re full of something else.

          Reply to Comment
    3. Ben

      R5: And what slippery slope is that that we’d be slipping down? The slope towards the relinquishing of the Greater Israel fantasy and coming to our senses? The fearsome fair peace agreement slope? The shared Jerusalem slope?

      The whole occupation and settlement “enterprise” is one enormous, design-engineered slippery slope to the other side of the mountain, a slope the Israeli government greases constantly.

      Israel wants it both ways. It wants to say there is no difference between Ma’aleh Adumim and Tel Aviv when it comes to settlers, while at the same time it wants to say the rule of Israeli law stops at the Green Line for Palestinians. That’s apartheid. Pure and simple. It is more than a slippery slope from a boycott of the settlements to a boycott of Israel, it is a direct and immediate connection. Because the Israeli economy is so intertwined with the settlements and the Israeli economy so exploits the resources of the West Bank, there is no actual way to boycott the settlement economy without boycotting the Israeli economy. So a boycott of the settlements would do more than impact the Israeli economy, it would expose the whole charade.

      How on earth is Peter Beinart “hardly American”? He’s as American as apple pie. His thinking and spirit is quintessentially American. And in this article he shows how America has been manipulated and led into propping up un-American things:

      Is Israel’s President an anti-Semite?
      President Rivlin just called Israel a ‘sick society.’ If he was an American politician, he’d be probably forced out of his job.
      Peter Beinart (22.10.2014):

      “…This double standard is nothing new. Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak have both warned that Israel risks becoming an apartheid state. Yet they provoked none of the rage that greeted Jimmy Carter when he offered a similar warning. In 1998, Barak declared that, “If I was [a Palestinian] at the right age, at some stage I would have entered one of the terror organizations” – and was elected Israel’s prime minister the following year. An American senator who said that probably wouldn’t even get the chance to win another election. His party would force him to resign….”

      Reply to Comment
    4. Mark

      I’m finding it hard to distinguish between BDS of Israel and BDS of the settlements. Consequently, my first thoughts are why it is that those who promote a boycott wish to visit Israel at all.

      Does boycott have a different meaning in the lexicon of BDS supporters?

      Reply to Comment