This Sunday afternoon, at the Old Reform Church two blocks away from the Park Slope Food Coop, a group opposing a boycott of Israeli goods is holding a panel that will include Michael Walzer, the longtime editor of Dissent and a board member of the left-wing group Americans for Peace Now. We spoke yesterday about why he opposes boycott, divestment, and sanctions. I sensed a small symbolism in this pillar of old-line Upper West Side leftism taking the 2/3 out to Brooklyn.
How’d you get involved in this issue?
I just got a phone call from one of the organizers, telling me his Brooklyn coop was in the middle of a big debate over whether to support the boycott, and I thought it was important to have this public discussion of the issues. I’m surprised that I did, but I did.
What do you plan to say at the panel?
Some of [the other panelists, Brooke Goldstein and Zuhdi Jasser] are going to be talking about lawfare and universal jurisdiction, that sort of thing. For me, the object of the boycott is not the occupation, for the greater number of the boycotters, especially Europe and also here. The object is Jewish sovereignty, and since I am a defender of Jewish sovereignty, my talk will mostly be devoted to an argument in defense of the nation-state and especially the Jewish nation-state. I’m opposing people who are against the nation-state and in particular the Jewish nation-state. I don’t much like boycotts anyway, especially not academic and cultural boycotts. In this case I think there is a very clear-cut political issue, and it has to do with the existence of the state of Israel as a Jewish state.
How would you feel about a boycott solely of goods produced by Israelis in the occupied territories? (Which, to be clear, isn’t what some are seeking at the Coop.)
Many, I think most, of my friends in Israel support a boycott of that sort, precisely because it is a way of telling Israelis, ‘We do not oppose Jewish sovereignty, we oppose the occupation.’ It is a way of making that distinction very clear. I’m not sure it’s terribly effective, given that the occupation is subsidized, it’s not self-sustaining, and when you go after its economy, there’s really not much of a target there. But I think I could support a boycott designed precisely to make that point—that we oppose the occupation.
What should American Jews who are against the occupation be doing?
If you do oppose, not Jewish sovereignty but the occupation, then you are an ally of a very substantial part of the Israeli population, and you are joining with Israeli opponents of the occupation. What I think you should do, first, is to ask them what kind of help they want from us. They want our political support, they want our financial support, they want us to contribute to their organizations. They want our moral support, so that they can tell their fellow Israelis that they have legitimacy in the larger Jewish world. And I think they want us to visit, to hold hands, to tell them how to advance.
How have you seen the American left, and the American Jewish left, evolve in its stance toward Israel over the past half-century?
There is a period before ‘67, when engagement is relatively weak. Then there is this dramatic moment, which changes a lot. And then a long, long period of struggle, because the glorious victory of ‘67 has unexpected consequences that force us into a kind of oppositional role. And now we are in the middle of an argument about the character of American Jewish engagement with Israel. I think it’s probably true that there is an erosion of commitment among young American Jews to Israel, which is partly a consequence of an erosion of their Jewishness and partly a consequence of their dislike for what’s going on there. I think people with more direct contact with young American Jews will have to sort that out.
Earlier: The BDS Debate Comes to Park Slope