The assault on Israel’s legitimacy has taken the Jewish people by surprise and driven a wedge between Israelis and many Jewish communities. Commonly referred to as delegitimization, the aim of the campaign is to deny the right of the Jewish people to self-determination and deny the right of the State of Israel to exist. Yet like most challenges, this one also presents a new opportunity: to reconnect across the dividing lines in our communities and to re-engage with Israel in new ways.
The delegitimization campaign thrives on gaps between Israel’s myths and its complex realities. While the vast majority of Jews and non-Jews see the world in shades of gray, many representatives and friends of the State of Israel and diaspora Jewish communities seek to justify Israel’s actions using a coherent, if black-and-white, narrative.
Delegitimizers have understood the potential of this gap for their cause and seized on it. They realized that a call to dismantle Israel would keep them marginalized. Therefore, they focus their energy on Israel’s policies. Using false logics and euphemisms, they single it out, delegitimize its existence, limit its ability to self-defense and work to severely sanction it. This is how they have had impressive successes, and built inroads into liberal and progressive circles as well as into the mainstream Jewish community, which does not share their vision.
For example, the logic of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement argues that Jewish control of politics renders common ways of protest against Israel’s policies ineffective. Therefore, only grass-roots coercion would force Israel to correct its ways. Hence, boycott Israel, divest from it or sanction it. The call for a one-state solution, which purports to offer a democratic solution for Israelis and Palestinians in all of the area west of the Jordan River, is, in effect, an attempt to eliminate the Jewish state by undermining the principle of two states for two peoples embodied in the two-state solution.
Yet the greatest unexpected asset for the delegitimizers has been the growing distance between many among world Jewry and Israel, and the decline of Jewish communal institutions. Jews were often preached Israel’s simplistic myths, such as the famous statement about a land without people for a people without a land, and were expected to extend unwavering political and financial commitment to the State of Israel. Meanwhile, a more sophisticated engagement with Israel was discouraged, and a nuanced understanding of Zionism, with all its dilemmas, complexities and even idiosyncrasies, was avoided.
For the reasons sketched out above, the delegitimization of Israel represents an elusive challenge to our community. There are few delegitimizers who explicitly state their intentions. Most of them conceal their true motivation, which can only be exposed through deeper exploration of their logic or patterns of conduct. For example, they would demonize Israel, never offering a single context where Israel’s actions could be understood, or advocate a return of Palestinians refugees to the area of the State of Israel, in order to reverse the Palestinian defeat in the 1948 War, which Arab states initiated.
In addition, while delegitimization is a relentless assault on the right of all Jews to self-determine and is itself a modern form of anti-Semitism, its tactical focus on Israel’s actions allows many to conveniently view it as Israel’s problem, which can and should be resolved by a change in Israel’s policies. And the delegitimizers put forth a narrative that embraces the ideals of human rights and international law, and strikes a chord with many Jews with liberal and progressive leanings. Hence, it should be no surprise that well-intentioned yet uninformed Jewish youth are repeatedly confused and co-opted by targeted and polished intellectual assaults on Israel, which they face on campus.
Therefore, the response to the delegitimization of Israel must start from within world Jewry. First, we need a community-wide deliberation on the definition of “delegitimization” and “pro-Israel” that can shrink the former and expand the latter. In order to succeed against delegitimizers, those on the right will need to collaborate with groups and individuals that criticize Israeli policies but will fight any assault on its fundamental legitimacy; and those on the left will need to give Israel the benefit of the doubt, even when critical of its policies, and to establish clear red-lines with regards to their actions and associations. Such a debate is essential for forming an ideologically diverse coalition that will credibly and effectively confront the delegitimization of Israel.
Second, local leaders, who possess nuanced knowledge of local culture and practices, are often most effective in facing attempts to delegitimize Israel in their own communities. For example, it is the collective leadership and wisdom of the community in Orange County, Calif., that has the highest prospects of diminishing the delegitimization campaign against Israel on UC Irvine campus. Therefore, Jewish institutions and the government of Israel will have to get used to a geographically spread and loosely coordinated response, which they cannot control, manage or lead, but nonetheless will have to support. And in some cases, the most effective stance against delegitimization may come from those groups that are most critical of Israeli policies or Jewish establishment.
Third, we have an opportunity to direct the tension that presently exists around Israel in many Jewish communities into a re-engagement with Zionism. This time, instead of myths we need a nuanced approach that fosters understanding of and compassion to the painful balancing act Israel plays with its identity, democracy, security and prosperity.
Since its inception, Zionism has thrived between several different ideals of nationhood, peoplehood, religion and tikkun olam, or repairing the world. The individual richness of each of these ideals, as well as the tensions among them, have been a source of strength and an engine of exceptional creativity for nearly two centuries. Now, they can serve us well as we mobilize against delegitimization. Zionism is the unique creation of our people and an amalgamation of every Jewish voice and belief. Therefore, Zionism has something to offer every passionate Jew and can serve to bridge the divide within our community.
Gidi Grinstein is president of the Reut Institute, a Tel-Aviv based strategy group working to catalyze change on the most pressing issues in Israel and the Jewish world. Reut partnered with the American Jewish Committee last weekend in Washington on a conference on response to delegitimization.