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.