The new buzzword in the world of pro-Israel activism is "delegitimization." This term, used to describe an array of criticisms of Israel and its policies, such as the continuing construction of settlements in occupied territories, has become a major rallying point for established Jewish organizations.
Supporters of this emerging strategy point to the campaign to boycott, divest from and sanction (BDS) Israel as a marker distinguishing "delegitimizers" from genuine critics.
"The delegitimization and BDS movement is nationally coordinated, and it requires a national response," said William Daroff, vice president for public policy of the Jewish Federations of North America. "We need to move forward as a community to counter this cancerous growth."
In fact, the campaign against "delegitimization" is an effort to ignore the fact that criticism of Israel is based on specific policies of the Israeli government, which increasingly are at odds with both international law and U.S. interests in the Middle East. "To be frank, the ‘delegitimization’ issue is a fraud," declares historian Tony Judt, director of New York University’s Remarque Institute. "I know no one in the professional world of political commentary, however angry about Israel’s behavior, who thinks that the country has no right to exist…’Delegitimization’ is just another way to invoke anti-Semitism as a silencer, but sounds better because it’s less exploitative of emotional pain."
The very idea of "delegitimization" came from a report issued by the Reut Institute, an Israeli think tank, entitled "The Delegitimization Challenge." According to this report–”which is now the basis for the activism by American Jewish groups–”the main global threat facing Israel is not Iranian military nuclear capability or Palestinian terrorism, but the international campaign in the West, including on American campuses, aimed at boycotting Israel through divestment and sanctions. In response, the Israeli government has not only mobilized American Jewish groups on its behalf but has initiated a campaign to turn every Israeli into a traveling public relations officer, with the Information and Diaspora Ministry issuing pamphlets to passengers on Israeli airlines, coaching them on how to counter the alleged anti-Israel campaign.
"I think it is puerile," Prof. Shlomo Avineri told The New York Times. "Some of the information is ridiculous, and behind it I find a Bolshevik mentality–”to make every citizen an unpaid civil servant for the policy of the government. There is never any intimation that some of our problems have to do with actual policies."
The fact is, of course, that it is Israel’s policies which have led to its increasing isolation, not only in the world, but among the majority of American Jews as well. While Jewish organizations speak of "delegitimization," and are highly critical of the policies of the Obama administration, they are hardly representative of American Jewish opinion.
In March, in the aftermath of the impasse exposed during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel (see May/June 2010 Washington Report, p. 10), J Street commissioned a poll of American Jews and their views on the Middle East conflict, including America’s role in resolving the conflict. We learn that American Jews, by a 4-1 margin (82 percent-18 percent) support Washington playing an active role in helping the parties to resolve the conflict; and by a 63 percent to 37 percent margin, those who support American activism say they would continue their support even "if it means the U.S. exerting pressure on Israel to make the compromises necessary to achieve peace."
To charge that the mounting criticism of Israel is part of a campaign of "delegitimization" is to ignore reality.
Nevertheless, American Jewish opinion is sharply divided. At AIPAC’s annual meeting in Washington, DC, reported The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank on March 23, "The crowd got…raucous when Netanyahu…took a shot at the Obama administration. ‘Jerusalem is not a settlement–”it’s our capital,’ he said. The unrepentant prime minister nodded, waved and thanked the crowd for the extended applause…The audience was rather less enthusiastic as Hillary Clinton defended her criticism of Israel…It remained quiet as she called for a settlement ‘based on the ’67 lines with agreed swaps of territory’…In the audience, the majority just sat and stared at their old friend."
In contrast, the new Jewish lobbying group J Street urged the administration to "turn this crisis into an opportunity for progress on two states" by addressing the need to establish a border between Israel and the future Palestinian state. "Bold American leadership is needed now to turn this crisis into a real opportunity to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," declared J Street.
According to Newsweek, one recent study found that only 54 percent of non-Orthodox Jews under 35 are "comfortable with the idea of a Jewish state" (as compared with more than 80 percent of those over 65). "If you want examples of the shift in sentiment," wrote columnist Jacob Weisberg in the magazine’s March 29, 2010 issue, "read just about any Jewish columnist for a major newspaper. Thomas Friedman of The New York Times spent last week arguing that Biden underreacted to Israel’s announcement about the new housing units in East Jerusalem, comparing Israel’s policies to drunken driving. Richard Cohen of The Washington Post is writing a book that argues that the founding of Israel was a well-intentioned mistake. One might fill a book with the possible explanations for rising liberal–”and, in particular, Jewish liberal–”qualms about Israel. But it has to start with Israel’s occupation of Arab lands and its settlements policy–”Decades of harsh occupation have made dispossessed Palestinians, the majority of whom have long favored a two-state solution, the sympathetic victims in the conflict."
In Weisberg’s view, "Revisionist Zionism–”the biblically based claim that Israel has a right to the territories–”has wrought tremendous damage to Israel’s moral standing. Encouraging religious and political extremists to settle in those territories set a wedge between Israel and its liberal supporters, who see annexation as both impractical and immoral…American liberals are an external part of Israel’s conscience, and when it disdains them, it becomes a harder and more isolated place."
A New Mantra
In the face of all of this, it is unusual to see the word "delegitimization" being used as a new mantra to discount the widespread criticism of very specific Israeli policies and actions. In an open letter to President Obama from Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, published as a full page advertisement in the April 15 Washington Post, it is stated that, "Jews around the world are concerned today…We are concerned that the Jewish state is being isolated and delegitimized."
Around the world, Israel’s defenders, ignoring the very legitimate criticisms of Israeli policies which are widespread, particularly within the Jewish community itself, repeatedly use the Israeli-coined term of "delegitimization."
South African Jewish leaders, for example, initially threatened disruptions to the May bar mitzvah ceremony of the grandson of Judge Richard Goldstone if the author of the Goldstone Report and currently visiting professor at Georgetown University Law Center were to attend. Mooneyeen Castle, chairwoman of the South African Zionist Federation’s Western Cape Council, said that the anger at Goldstone was so great that it would "result in an almost certain barrage of protestors" on the day of the ceremony. Using the officially approved language, Warren Goldstein, the chief rabbi of South Africa, stated that the U.N. has an "anti-Israel agenda," and the investigation of war crimes in Gaza was "merely a cover for a political strategy of delegitimizing Israel."
Goldstone’s friends rushed to his defense. Justice Arthur Chaskalson, who served with him on South Africa’s Constitutional Court, said the threats "reveal a level of bigotry and intolerance meant to shut down any diversity of opinion."
The charge of "delegitimization," it is clear, is simply a well-coordinated campaign to avoid a real discussion of the Israeli policies which have led to a rift with the U.S. and are contrary to any movement toward real place. Just as the repeated charge of "anti-Semitism" has failed to silence critics, so will the robotic use of the term "delegitimization." The stakes are too high–for the U.S., for the Palestinians, for the real best interests of Israel–to permit any such effort to stifle free and open discussion to succeed.