NEW YORK –A nascent group of well-known academics is calling on the U.S. government and European Union to impose personal sanctions on four prominent Israelis “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.”
Scholars for Israel and Palestine (SIP) a group that describes itself as “pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, pro-peace” is asking the U.S. and EU governments to impose visa restrictions and to freeze the foreign assets of Economy Minister and Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett, Housing Minister Uri Ariel, Likud MK Moshe Feiglin and Ze’ev “Zambish” Hever, a former Jewish Underground member who heads the Amana organization, which oversees the settlement enterprise, including illegal outposts.
“We chose four Israeli leaders and public figures to start with because they stand out by working to make the occupation permanent and irreversible,” said Gershon Shafir, a professor of sociology at University of California San Diego, who came up with the concept.
These four “were particularly dismissive of Secretary of State Kerry’s peace-making efforts, and explicitly call for and work towards the formal annexation of the West Bank or part of it, and thereby push Israel in the direction of violating international law. They are the ones who cross particularly sharp red lines,” Shafir said in an interview initially conducted by email. The approach is being invoked for the first time in the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict, he said later by telephone.
The call’s 20 signatories include several well-known academics from UCLA to Boston College and Columbia University, including renowned political theorist Michael Walzer, professor emeritus of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. All the signatories to SIP’s call are Zionists, Walzer said in an interview, and are deeply opposed to academic boycotts.
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. One who signed the new call for personal sanctions, Columbia University sociologist Todd Gitlin, published an article last month asserting that broad anti-Israel BDS is a “legal and moral disaster.”
The new SIP call, which is titled “Israel: A Time for Personal Sanctions,” was also published on the Third Narrative website, though it was not endorsed by the group as a whole.
Its backers say that it is completely distinct from the BDS resolutions being fought on campuses nationwide, which would effectively ostracize all Israeli academics. This, in contrast, targets some of the individuals most personally responsible for expanding the occupation. It is similar to the approach adopted by President Obama earlier this year when he signed an executive order freezing the assets of seven top Russian officials for their involvement in the annexation of Crimea, they claim.
“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.
In their petition, the academics detail their reasons for choosing the four targeted individuals. Bennett is cited for “leading the struggle” against the 2010 settlement freeze during his tenure as director of the Yesha settlements council, for advocating the annexation of Area C, which constitutes 62% of the West Bank, and for “pressing strongly for a policy of creeping annexation” as a cabinet minister. Ariel is blasted for issuing housing tenders across the Green Line and thus undermining Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace efforts and for calling for the establishment of a Third Temple on the Temple Mount. Feiglin is targeted for his “straightforward and undisguised extremism” and anti-Arab statements, while Hever “has been one of the most persistent and influential organizers of settlement construction.”
Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology and longtime participant in protest movements, said that he signed on because “I felt it was time to move the conversation to a different plane.” He first supported a boycott of apartheid South Africa in 1965, he recalled in an interview with Haaretz.
“The call to condemn right-wing governments is insufficient to get their attention,” he said. “We are holding Israeli figures whose declarations are inimical to a just and peaceful settlement to account,” Gitlin said. “They undermine American policy and security in the Middle East. We think it’s a matter of American policy to say we do not consider these people to be friends of America, but adversaries.”
Eric Alterman, Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, is a Third Narrative member who elected not to sign onto the new call for personal sanctions. “I don’t believe in politics that are purely symbolic,” he told Haaretz. “Some people do, and that’s fine. But I only believe in politics when I can see how what I’m supporting might actually happen.”
Indeed many of The Third Narrative’s Academic Advisory Council’s members did not sign on to the new personal sanctions effort, though Shafir, Gitlin and other signatories to the new call are members of that body as well.
“This proposal would take us down a route of increasing hostility that can only further isolate Israel from the world community and undermine efforts to build the cooperation necessary to a negotiated settlement,” said Cary Nelson, Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “While I support condemning the views these politicians hold, I cannot support sanctioning them for exercising their free speech rights,” he wrote by email from Israel, which he is visiting.
The SIP’s call for personal sanctions very specifically opposes wide boycott efforts and its backers are not worried about being lumped together with the BDS proponents who are widely regarded as working toward Israel’s destruction.
It is “utterly different than anathematizing an entire category of persons like the academic boycott efforts,” Gitlin said. “In this case there is a proper target, people whose activity is toxic and we think they need to be named.”
“This would provide a way of mobilizing votes against blanket boycotts but equally against the attempts to make the occupation irreversible,” Shafir said. “It would allow us to find a place in the middle and remain distinguished from but remain part of the ongoing dialogue in a productive way that is protective of Israel’s ties with the U.S., the world and liberal intellectuals.”
“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.”
Other signatories to the petition include Jeff Weintraub, a political theorist who has taught at the University of Pennsylvania and Israel’s Haifa University; Sam Fleischacker, a philosophy professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago; Alan Wolfe of Boston College; Alan Weisbard of the University of Wisconsin; Rebecca Lesses from Ithaca College; Joe Lockard from Arizona State University; Zachary Braiterman from Syracuse University; Irene Tucker from the University of California, Irvine; Michael Kazin, coeditor of Dissent and professor of history at Georgetown University; Steven Zipperstein from Stanford University; Jeffry Mallow of Loyola University; Rachel Brenner of the University of Wisconsin; Chaim Seidler-Feller of UCLA; Jonathan Malino of Guilford College; Miriam Kastner of UC at San Diego; Barbara Risman from the University of Illinois and Ernst Benjamin, an independent scholar.