All criticism of Israel isn't 'delegitimization'
12/23/2010 - 20:25
James Besser

With “delegitimization” public enemy number one for pro-Israel leaders and the Israeli government these days, isn't it about time we define exactly what we mean by the term?

I say this because I hear it used loosely, to cover a variety of positions on Israel.

To me, “delegitimization” refers to efforts to promote the idea that Israel is not a legitimate member of the community of nations – that its creation was improper, or that it has somehow rendered itself beyond the pale through its actions.

What I sometimes hear is something else. Too often, criticism of current Israeli policy is attacked and portrayed as part of a conspiracy to delegitimize Israel. Essentially, the delegitimization charge is used to delegitimize – pardon the expression – even legitimate criticisms, the kind you can read in just about any Israeli newspaper or hear on any Tel Aviv street corner.

Unless I'm missing something,  delegitimization doesn't mean thinking Israel's Gaza policies are counterproductive, or expressing sympathy for the Palestinians, or criticizing settlements. It's not delegitimization to say that compromise solutions must be found for Jerusalem, or using the terms “occupation” and “occupied territories” in referring to the West Bank, a jaw-dropping argument I heard recently..

Supporting boycotts, sanctions and divestment efforts that are clearly aimed at Israeli policy, not at the state itself,  is not necessarily delegitimization.

Before you start writing angry letters, let me state that I do not support such tactics, and believe they will make peace harder to attain.

But I know some people who do who are committed Zionists, who believe in the need for a Jewish state  - and who believe economic leverage is the only way to dissuade Israel from policies they believe will lead to its ultimate destruction.

Admittedly, there are lots of blurry lines here, made blurrier by the fact legitimate criticism sometimes conceals delegitimizing motives.

Arguing the Palestinian cause on campus isn't necessarily delegitimziation – but it can be, if the argument somehow devolves to assertions Israel doesn't have the same rights other countries have because it lacks international legitimacy.

Is holding Israel to a different standard of behavior than any other country delegitimization? I don't think it is automatically so – you can be unfair without meaning that you want Israel to cease to exist - but it can be.

Many Jewish leaders say the Palestinian campaign to win recognition from European and South American countries before a negotiated statehood deal is one front in the delegitimization campaign (see this week's Jewish Week story on the issue).

I don't buy it. Maybe some proponents of that effort want Israel eliminated, but clearly many don't, since what they are calling for is recognition of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders -- next to Israel, not instead of it.

People on all sides play word games meant to conceal their real motives. I have no doubt some critics who insist they just object to Israel's policies, not the state itself, are playing a two-faced game – just as I'm sure some ardent Zionists who fight delegitimization are sneakily using the term to cover the fact that what they are really opposing is the idea it's OK to criticize current Israeli policy on settlements.

I understand the alarm of some mainstream Jewish leaders who are organizing against delegitimization. It's a real issue and a real threat to Israel's future.

But to have credibility, the campaign against delegitimization needs to be semantically accurate, and it must be clear that the goal here isn't to quash the kind of robust debate and criticism that Israelis themselves are so good at.

Now might be a good time to define exactly what the term means - and what it doesn't.

Comments

Good for Mr. Besser. This article is so important and correct. Some of the reaction to it illustrates just the problem Besser is citing. 'You're associating with Israel's enemies." So critics are enemies and saying that some of them may have a point means Besser is guilty by association. That's what's called a circular argument, folks...not a fact-based, analytical one. "What planet are you living on?" Why not discuss the message instead of trying "to kill the messenger" through ridicule or nastiness? That's just intellectual cowardice. And the perennial stand-by: "you want to influence things, come live in Israel." So if we don't live in Israel we shouldn't try to influence what happens there? Really? No American Jewish tourism or philanthropy in Israel, no fundraising, no exerting political influence in Washington for Israel? All those things influence Israel's life and fate big-time! Or should Jews just be like the groom's mother at a wedding? "Keep your mouth shut and bring your checkbook." P.S., you can't have it both ways in another sense: Israel INVITES everyone's attention with its Biblical claims, as the professed "only democracy in the middle east," as a hi-tech center or, as Ben-Gurion formulated, the modern Jewish "light unto the nations." Well, what if we pay lots of attention to Israel...but don't engage in "avodah zoroh," in idolatry of the State. What if we see something wrong? Then it's "O God, you gotta ignore what goes on in Israel. Why are you focused on Israel? Why don't you critique some other country?" There is so much lack of intellectual rigor and, therefore, of moral rigor in the standard argumentation for Israeli policy and in the hostiliity to criticism. Bravo for Besser for challenging Jewry to an intellectually honest and, therefore, morally defensible approach to the questions of the hour!
Ideally, this word "delegitimization" should have specific boundaries and an accurate definition. However, definitions can sometimes be based on a person's subjective view. Like the parable, we can all see an elephant, but depending on our perspective, we see only certain aspects of that elephant. One person's criticism is another person's delegitimization. Simple as that. So, of course, a valid criticism of an Israeli gov't action is acceptable to those that understand that Israel has the same rights as others, but, to those that do not accept Israel, their criticism is really subterfuge for further efforts to delegitimize Israel. Why is this difficult to understand? Furthermore, whose definition of "delegitimization" should we accept? Your's and mine, because probably we could accurately define it together? Or, should be accept a UNESCO definition of it, considering that this august body is so honorable? Sadly, once you start to try to define something, you've already created the proverbial "slippery slope".
Much of it is aimed at delegitimising Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state, at least what I have heard in the UK. Arguing semantics is, I believe, the last vestige of a Theobald. Delegitimisation is, as any intelligent person would know, a PROCESS and a gestalt wherein the whole is greater than the sum of its parts - and in this case the whole is the gradual erosion of public perception of Israel's right to exist in freedom and security and to defend herself if her neighbours deny her that right by attacking her. By denying her that right, and by using semantics to try to obfuscate that very denial, you are adding to that process. Arguing the Palestinian cause is fine, provided they are held to the same high standards of behaviour as is Israel, rather than excused, babied and given a free pass for every atrocity they perpetrate against their own people as well as against Jews. That rarely happens, which adds to the delegitimisation process and the shoring up of the belligerent self-pity of the Palestinian street. And it matters little how few want Israel eliminated. It should concern all decent people who should be protesting against ANY who want her wiped out. So why aren't you?
If you wish to change Israeli policy you are welcome to do so in the most democratic way. Bring yourself and your family here to Israel and put your life on the line with each decision you make or each concession that you demand. Even then your influence will be that of one among millions and you won't be attempting amoral leverage by damaging one of our growing industries.
I think making common cause with Israel's many enemies is delegitimziation. You are trying to draw straws here. When you stand with the enemies of Israel and welcome the tactics they use then even if in your heart you believe what you are doing is right for Israel, then I believe you are wrong. It is one thing to criticize Israeli policy internally amongst ourselves. Joining in with the wider world in criticizing Israeli actions that other nations do daily is essentially accepting the right of the world to define what Israel can and cannot do. That is deligitimization. We Zionists need to stand together. We can debate policy internally. Anyone who would support "economic pressure" by the anti-Zionists on Israel to get it to change its policies is no Zionist. In my opinion.
@James "Supporting boycotts, sanctions and divestment efforts that are clearly aimed at Israeli policy, not at the state itself, is not necessarily delegitimization." What planet are you living on? Perhaps before spouting such rubbish you should educate yourself a bit more on the subject. I see for example that you follow the Reut Institute on Twitter. You clearly havent read any of their reports have you. To address your statement above, BDS is designed to establish the one-state solution which is one of the central tactics of the delegitimization network. The fact of the matter is that the reason why delegitimization is such a problem is because of articles like this that intentionally try to obfuscate the issue.
before you write another opinion piece...why not brush up on history before 67, there were no "borders"...there was an armistice line. part of the negotiations is to determine legal borders israel does not, nor should it, return to the armistice line...which is indefensible those who do wish that, indeed question the legitimacy of the state...for they wish to ultimately destroy it. ive got a better idea. let all the arabs reside in the true palestine...the original one...created by the british mandate....jordan.

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