Supporters of the peace process are understandably frustrated with the stalemate in the Middle East. Israeli and Palestinian leaders are exchanging threats and retaliation when so many hoped they would be answering the hard questions that would allow both sides to achieve a separate, secure peace. Israeli politicians on the Right are suddenly talking about undemocratic “one-state” solutions of their own to match the similarly dangerous one-state solutions of the Far Left.
While many progressives continue to fight the good fight, some have taken their frustration in troubling directions. Last month, a group of Zionist professors, including the renowned political theorist Michael Walzer, urged the U.S. and EU governments to impose visa restrictions and other “personal sanctions” on four Israeli right-wingers, including Economy Minister and Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett. “We chose four Israeli leaders and public figures to start with because they stand out by working to make the occupation permanent and irreversible,” Gershon Shafir, a professor of sociology at University of California San Diego, told Ha’aretz.
Oddly, some of these very same Jewish academics joined an earlier initiative rejecting academic boycotts of Israel. The case against academic boycotts is predicated on the notion that the free exchange of ideas is the best way to foster the kinds of values the boycotters only pretend to stand for. Urging sanctions on Israeli politicians, no matter their political stripe, sets a dangerous precedent and sends a message that free speech applies to me, but not to thee.
Yehuda Kurtzer, who promotes deep engagement with Israel as president of The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, wrote a sensitive piece criticizing Walzer and his colleagues, saying that it “must be possible to adduce a quality argument without silencing or sanctioning the more powerful opposition.” That’s a lesson, he writes, that applies to all sides of the Israel debate: “Right and left are conspiring with sanctions and red lines to undermine the legitimacy of serious debate in the Jewish community; it is time for the rational and reasonable to take it back.”