In an article on the recent General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, The Jewish Week’s Gary Rosenblatt noted the delegates’ understandable “angst” over “international efforts to delegitimize Israel.” Then he asserted: “Many of the 4,000 delegates witnessed that effort firsthand [my italics] when a tiny group of hecklers … disrupted the keynote address by Prime Minister Netanyahu.”
But those young people were not trying to delegitimize Israel or destroy it.
They protested policies that many delegates to the GA also found appalling, such as the loyalty oath and settlement expansion.
The inclusion of the protestors into the same category as true delegitimizers exemplifies the hazy, imprecise definitions of the “enemy” that are being tossed around in the Jewish community’s conversations about heated, anti-Israel rhetoric and activity. Fortunately, a multimillion-dollar campaign to confront delegitimization is being organized by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the JFNA. This initiative must distinguish carefully between vehement opposition to Israeli policies and pernicious efforts whose ultimate goal is to unravel the Jewish state. If it doesn’t, it will be perceived as mounting a generalized assault against any passionate criticism that mainstream Jews find grating, rather than rhetoric that is truly dangerous.
In an influential report on delegitimization that has helped to catalyze this effort, the Re’ut Institute, an Israeli think tank, notes that “criticism [of Israel] should be viewed as legitimate, even when harsh or unfair.” But without more precise definitions of what is over the top vs. what is simply unpleasant, the effort will lack credibility — especially on university campuses — and be seen as an initiative of Jewish thought police.
Re’ut misses the mark when it claims that “criticism against Israel becomes delegitimization when it exhibits blatant double standards, singles out Israel, denies its right to exist as the embodiment of the self-determination right of the Jewish people or demonizes the state.” The first category of criticism — exhibiting double standards or singling out Israel — is not as objectionable as the second. It is possible to harangue Israel for human rights violations or other actions, and unfairly ignore similar behavior by other nations, yet not be guilty of trying to destroy the Jewish state.
It would be more helpful to distinguish between two categories of rhetoric or activities, and to respond to them differently: defamatory claims that assert or strongly imply that the very existence of a Jewish state is immoral; and claims that are simply wrong, but which can be credibly made in intelligent conversation and need to be answered cogently and respectfully.
Here are some examples of truly delegitimizing actions and rhetoric that should be vigorously denounced and countered:
The signs at rallies that proclaim “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Shall Be Free.” The claims that Israel is a “Nazi state” and/or one that is “genocidal,” implying that there is a moral duty to oppose the Jewish state.
“Lawfare” initiatives that seek the arrest of Israeli officials when they touch down in England or other countries, which imply that Israeli governmental institutions are, by definition, illegal and the embodiment of all evil.
Another dangerous strain of criticism, often heard in comments in the blogosphere and bolstered by some academics, attacks the whole notion of the “Jewish people” as a distinct collective with the same right to self-determination as any other people.
On the other hand, mistakenly calling Israel an “apartheid state” or referring to an “apartheid wall” is not necessarily an act of delegitimization. Those who use the apartheid analogy often cite Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s statements comparing Israeli policies to those perpetrated by the Afrikaners. Bishop Tutu is not someone who rejects the premise or existence of the Jewish state and surely he knows something about apartheid. I think his opinion is wrong, but worth taking seriously and countered in a respectful manner.
What about the movement known as BDS, referring to boycott, divestment and sanctions? Some activists clearly are for the eventual internal collapse of the Jewish state. But many are pressuring Israel to change its policies. They — and the larger, more important audience of people who are following this conversation — cannot be convinced that there is something intrinsically wrong with pressuring Israel, particularly when the BDSers target policies deeply offensive to many American Jews who want Israel to survive and thrive.
The best argument against BDS is that it is tactically counter-productive because it will accentuate Israelis’ us-against-the-world mentality and make them even less likely to compromise. The worst arguments are those that accuse BDS supporters of harboring motives that they may not have.
Some argue that even if they don’t intend to undermine Israel’s existence, harsh critics of Israeli policies are being duped and manipulated by those who do have that intention, and all of them are creating a climate of public opinion that is an existential threat to the Jewish state. Even if that were true, it is unwise to treat all vociferous critics as if they had the same goals. That is a surefire way to lose those who can be convinced to tone down their rhetoric and take a more balanced approach to a conflict in which neither side is blameless.
Dan Fleshler is the author of “Transforming America’s Israel Lobby –The Limits of Its Power and the Potential for Change,” and a board member of Ameinu and Americans for Peace Now.