I first recall hearing the term ‘delegitimisation’ applied to Israel six or seven years ago at a rather turgid conference in Brussels, when Nathan Sharansky presented it as part of his 3D test for unfair criticism of Israel. The way you could detect this ‘new antisemitism’, he said, was if the critic was applying double standards to Israel, demonising the state, or delegitimising its very existence. Cute and tricksy, I thought at the time. But it seems to be a concept which has now come into its own. Delegitimisation has become the catchword of defenders of Israel, a new battle-cry in the fight to defend the Jewish state — and, if some are to be believed, one which presents an existential threat to its existence.
This theory was crystallised in the landmark, influential policy document produced by Israeli think-tank the Reut Institute earlier this year. Lengthy and articulate, this report was the product of much research and meetings in both London and Israel and credits numerous scions of the debate around Israel in the UK, both on the right and the left. But the scenario it presents is hard to recognise: a shadowy ‘Resistance Network’ of Islamist radicals which has formed an unholy alliance with the ‘Delegitimisation Network’ of those dedicated to vilifying Israel. International in nature, these two networks bond with spiritual and organisational centres in London and other major cities. Their strategy: to make Israel implode through both internal stress and the outside pressure of isolation as a pariah state.That 3D test is set out again, with even stricter parameters. And now the enemy is clear and visible in the gunsights of Israel’s supporters. It comes in the shapes of human-rights movements, students and lecturers unions, NGOs and law firms, all part of the growing network which is steadily closing around the Jewish state, squeezing ever tighter.
Delegitimisation is a ‘strategic-existential threat’, according to Reut. Israel with its superior army, flourishing economy and international allies is no longer militarily vulnerable — its only existential threat comes from the possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons — but the modern danger comes from those, within and without Israel, Jews and non-Jews, who want to demolish the moral foundations of that society. What is striking about the lengthy Reut document is that there is only passing mention of the ‘occupation’ — coyly written in quote marks throughout. Although the authors acknowledge that this is a problem which should be resolved, the report insists that this will have little impact on the phenomena of delegitimisation. The solution? Rebranding Israel, improved public diplomacy, strategic planning and creating a counter-network to the delegitimisers.
There is no shortage of volunteers willing to take part in this counter-network, first and foremost among them Israel’s current prime minister and good friend of Sharansky.Netanyahu has always been a master at shifting the debate and it seems no accident that this trend has grown during his premiership. The makeup of his coalition prohibits any credible response to the international demands for progress in the peace process and in the absence of real policy, he has chosen to focus on matters as tangential as possible. Witness his landmark speech on the two-state solution: there would be no final status solution until the Palestinians accept the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state. In other words, there will be no peace until the Palestinians become Zionists.
The fight against delegitimisation has become all encompassing, a rallying call for those eager to find reasons why ‘there is no partner for peace’ and who believe that any significant concessions to the Palestinians would be self-defeating since they are interested only in Israel’s demise. The Reut report is at pains to stress that part of the strategy to combat this new threat is to engage positively with genuine critics, while isolating the delegitimisers. But apply such 3D tests as you will, the reality has proved very different. Among its recommendations are ‘establishing a “price-tag” for attacking Israel by “naming and shaming” delegitimisers’ and this is advice that seems to have been taken to a sinister extent by some of the leading proponents of the delegitmisation theory.
Recent months have seen something akin to a witch-hunt both within Israel and in the diaspora, one which numerous commentators have described as a contemporary form of McCarthyism. Leading the way have been groups such as Im Tirtzu, a neo-Zionist movement posing as a grassroots student group, which has dedicated itself to attacks on critics of Israel. Most prominent in their sights was the New Israel Fund and its president, Naomi Chazan. She was notoriously depicted in posters with a horn on her head; groups supported by the New Israel Fund we were told, were responsible for providing most of the information which went into the Goldstone Report. No New Israel Fund, no Goldstone Report, was the conclusion, the part the Gaza War played in that equation was strangely ignored.The conduct of the Israeli government during the offensive and its failure to put in place its own enquiry were also glossed over. Im Tirtzu went on to distribute 15,000 copies of a warped version of a memorial prayer to synagogues on the day of Remembrance for Fallen Soldiers, pouring wrath on those who support lawfare against Israelis. They commissioned a saccharine ballad from a popular singer about ‘my brother who hates me.’
On the other side of the world, Jewish left-wing groups in San Francisco warn that funding is being withheld from organisations that do not toe an unswerving pro-Israel line. The local Jewish federation has revised its funding guidelines saying that it will not fund groups that ‘advocate for, or endorse, undermining the legitimacy of Israel as a secure independent, democratic Jewish state, including through participation in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, in whole or in part.’ But they continue: ‘organisations or individuals that are critical of particular Israeli government policies but are supportive of Israel’s right to exist as a secure independent Jewish democratic state’ are ‘generally in accord with the policy statement,’ but ‘early JCRC [Jewish Community Relations Council] consultation is strongly encouraged and the programming should be presented within an overall program strategy that is consistent with JCF’s core values.’ Still, in free-thinking San Francisco, at the beginning of May, the home of Rabbi Michael Lerner, veteran editor of the left-wing magazine Tikkun was vandalized and defaced by right-wing pro-Israel slogans.
This is a hysteria which is sweeping through Jewish communities worldwide. Leaders of the European Jewish Congress branded J-Call, the new gathering of Jewish European intellectuals that called upon Israel to end the occupation, as ‘delegitimisers’ and in Johannesburg, lengthy mediation was needed to allow Judge Richard Goldstone, one of Jewish South Africa’s favourite sons in the not so distant past, to attend his grandson’s barmitzvah at a local synagogue.
Since when did Jews regard internal criticism as an existential threat? At the height of the terror bombing campaign of the Second Intifada, a senior Israeli officer admitted that the real worry would be if the Palestinians suddenly laid down their bombs and Kalashnikovs and adopt a non-violent policy. The IDF would have no remedy for that, for once it would be up to the politicians to deliver a solution. But a political solution is as distant as ever, and if one accepts that the occupation is unjust, it is hard to object to peaceful forms of resistance. Take the Palestinian Authority’s newly-announced ‘diplomatic intifada’ — a strategy to encourage divestment, boycotts and marginalisation of Israel in the international arena, combined with peaceful demonstrations in the West Bank. Problematic for Israel, sure, but nonetheless a non-violent means for people under occupation to oppose the status quo.
Not according to Israel’s deputy foreign minister, who deems this to be yet another sinister example of delegitimisation. In response to the latest legislation of the Palestinian Authority prohibiting commerce of products made in the West Bank settlements, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said that ‘the boycott of Israeli products from Judea and Samaria in the Palestinian Authority is likely to hamper progress in the proximity talks.’ If the connection wasn’t clear, he added that Israel ‘does not distinguish between Jerusalem, Kiryat Tivon, or Ariel. From our perspective, the boycott is part of an ongoing incitement and delegitimisation campaign by the Palestinian Authority against Israel.’ This was the same Danny Ayalon who bolstered strategic relations with Turkey by summoning its ambassador to a televised ticking-off in which the diplomat was forced to sit on a low chair. Indeed, the Netanyahu government seems to have embraced the very policy of boycotting they denounce so hotly; in Washington, the Israeli embassy has boycotted the left-wing J-Street lobby group. The fact that J-Street enjoys considerable influence and access to the current administration is immaterial. Netanyahu has not acted to prevent ‘sources’ within his own office from attacking the president of Israel’s most crucial ally and branding him as ‘anti-Israeli.’ Indeed, he has offered lawyer and author Alan Dershowitz, who appears to have dedicated the last decade to increasingly hysterical defence of Israel and demonisation of its critics, the post of Israel’s next ambassador to the United Nations. According to Dershowitz, Israel’s greatest enemies are not radical Muslims, but Jews and Israelis who attack it. He used a ceremony at Tel Aviv University this month to attack left-wing members of the faculty.
Israel’s singular claim to moral superiority has always been that it is the only democracy in the Middle East. But democracy means more than one man, one vote. A recent survey showed that more than half of Jewish Israelis think human rights groups which expose alleged violations by the state should have their work restricted; they also believe the country enjoys too much freedom of expression. The parameters of democratic debate have been redrawn. Red lines have been set which increasingly prevent free speech, creative thought and legitimate criticism. Yes, Israel does have enemies and it’s true that other countries have far worse human rights records. It is unjust that only Israel is considered so objectionable that its very right to exist is questioned. Perhaps much of the media’s obsession with the conflict is disproportionate. But Israel is doing itself no favours by branding what is mostly an increasing intolerance with the occupation as a threat to its very existence. This purported attempt to distinguish the boundaries between fair and unfair criticism of Israel has only served to blur them yet further, with freedom of speech and creativity of thought the loser.
Daniella Peled is editor at the Institute of War and Peace Reporting. A former Foreign Editor of the Jewish Chronicle, she writes widely on international affairs.