view counter
Combating Delegitimization Requires A Big Tent
Mon, 02/14/2011 - 19:00
Special To The Jewish Week

Jewish tradition teaches us the Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred within the Jewish people. Recent events are proving we need to learn far more from this tragic history of infighting. Today, internal squabbling and hurtful accusations of anti-Israel behavior are providing a dangerous distraction from the far more significant threat: delegitimization.

For those of us who are passionate supporters of Israel, it’s often difficult to hear views that depart from Israeli government policy or the current conventional wisdom. Some of us are infuriated when those on the left question particular policies or decisions of the government, as some did during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. Others are angered when groups on the right consistently resist the efforts of successive Israeli governments to negotiate with the Palestinians on the basis of land for peace. But however much we may differ with those positions — and those differences should be debated vigorously — we need to recognize that the positions come from groups firmly invested in the Jewish people and the welfare of the State of Israel. They may differ on how Israel ought act to best secure its future, but they share a deep and abiding commitment to that future.

Contrast this with delegitimization, which is the denial of the Jewish people’s moral right to a democratic, Jewish state of Israel. Delegitimization takes many forms, ranging from advocating a “one-state” solution that would ensure that Jews would be a minority in their own land to demonizing Israel by calling it an apartheid state. We need to rally together against boycotts, divestments, and sanctions (BDS) when they are used in service of delegitimization, and we need to expose the often anti-Semitic roots of delegitimizers.

But we do harm to our community and ourselves when we confuse haters of Israel (and Jews), who push delegitimization, with supporters of Israel, such as Israeli artists who refuse to perform beyond the Green Line as a way of expressing their opposition to specific policies of the Israeli government.

That’s why it is especially disturbing to read articles in the Jewish media about accusations of anti-Israel behavior leveled against supporters of Israel because they provide a platform or have a connection to an organization that is deemed “beyond the pale.” If we draw a tighter and tighter circle around those whose views and actions on Israel are considered kosher, we create a real danger that many Jews will simply disengage — in effect declaring, “a pox on both your houses.” This is particularly true on college campuses, where there is an acute need to make a sharp distinction between delegitimizers and those who support Israel but disagree with some of its policies.

As just one example among several in recent weeks, the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan is being castigated for screening Israeli films that present aspects of Israel’s underbelly. Some critics are upset that there are links on the film series’ website to two non-governmental Israeli-Arab advocacy organizations, among others. This is the same JCC that hosts the only ongoing Ulpan program in New York, sponsors Birthright Israel trips for our young, undertakes annual leadership missions to Israel, created the Israel Film Center, presented a 24-hour “Israel Non-Stop” cultural marathon, and far more. And some of the films in question were funded in part by the government of Israel.

The much respected Reut Institute, led by Gidi Grinstein, recently published a report on delegitimization, which states: “Often Israel fails to differentiate between critics and delegitimizers and thus pushes the former into the arms of the latter.” Rest assured, the JCC cannot be pushed into the arms of the delegitimizers. But by pressuring and attempting to constrain people and institutions that present views different than our own, opportunities to engage and educate are stifled.

We are part of a people that has never shied from robust debate. Just as we seek to grasp the teachings of both Hillel and Shammai, learning about modern Israel means understanding positions different than our own. I have long argued that in conflating Israel advocacy and Israel education, we deny members of our community opportunities to deepen their own engagement and bonds to Israel by developing their own perspectives. We must both advocate and educate. At its best, Israel education prepares each of us to develop our own unique visions about what Israel can and should be. While encouraging our children to be advocates for Israel on the college green, we do them a tremendous disservice by failing to educate them about Israel so they can effectively participate in debates in the classroom and the dorm.

With events in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East still unfolding and Israel facing a drastically altered geopolitical landscape, we need to nurture a communal environment that recognizes that there are differences within our community about how to secure Israel’s future. Providing educational opportunities for more members of our community to deepen their own thinking and develop their own views about Israel is no small feat and must be undertaken by schools, synagogues, summer camps, Hillels on campus, and community centers.

Such efforts will result in our hearing voices that may make us decidedly uncomfortable. Some may even repel us. But we need to engage with people with whom we may disagree, for ultimately we will emerge far stronger and better equipped to challenge those who would deny Israel’s right to exist. This is not easy, to be sure, but the threat of delegitimization requires no less.

John Ruskay is executive vice president and CEO of UJA-Federation of New York.

Our Newsletters, Your Inbox


The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Comment Guidelines

The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.


Boycott is not "a civil rights tool". Boycott is an economic and cultural genocide tool. Anyone who is boycotting Jews because they live beyond some imagined line with no legal significance, is a hater, plain and simple. What the Arab murderers did in Itamar, the BDSM crowd wish to achieve by starvation. You think this is legitimate? I think you've lost the right to speak in my name.

Mr. Ruskay's article rehashes the attempt of the Reut Institute to split the Zionist left from the non-Zionist left. It hasn't worked, because the Zionist left refuses to delegitimize the non-Zionist and anti-Zionist Jewish left. Look at the J Street conference, where Rebeccal Vilkomerson, who champions BDS, was given a platform, and three of the four speakers endorsed partial sanctions. Not even Ameinu's Ken Bob, of the "I-was-once-a-leftist" school, refused to participate.

As long as the Zionist left (i.e., the J Street crowd), work together with the non-Zionist left; as long as the Zionist left applauds the Israeli activists that annoy the mainstream and are called "delegitimizers", as long as the Zionist left criticizes Israel for Gaza, the Mavi Marmara, etc. -- the Reut strategy of driving a wedge between the two will fail.

While I have great respect for John Ruskay as a Jewish Communal leader, I have concerns with his suggestion that “a big tent” is what is needed to combat anti-Israel actions. The question that is not raised and not addressed is “are there any limits? to acceptable Jewish behavior” We all recognize that everyone, certainly every Jew, is entitled to his/her opinion and should be able to express his/her views on the State of Israel and other topics of common interest. However, when leaders speak on behalf of Jewish organizations which represent collective Jewish voices and spend communal dollars, I think it is appropriate for there to be limits on behavior that is harmful to the Jewish people. One such issue is the so-called BDS movement, an international effort to make one nation, the Jewish State of Israel, a pariah. In a world that is confronted by conflicts between Hindu India and Islamic Pakistan, between Shi’ite and Sunni Arabs, with the threat of Iran’s theocratic state gaining access to nuclear weapons and Saudi Arabia’s denial of rights to religious minorities, this maniacal focus on delegitimizing the one Jewish nation makes no sense. As such, it can rightly be inferred that, whatever Israel may be guilty of, this is a display of anti-Jewishness on a scale not seen since the Holocaust. I do not dismiss the fact that Israel is guilty of not being a perfect society, but compared with most other nations, it is hard to imagine it is THE worst offender in the world. When Jewish Organizations turn a blind eye to such efforts, and even find common cause, they do the Jewish people harm. The Jewish Community’s failure to confront these misguided forces, whether observant Jews who deny Israel’s right to exist and consort with our enemies or leftist Jews who see Israel’s actions as “worse than the Nazis”, is reckless. So, while our institutions should be welcoming, we must stand on at least one bedrock principle, that we do no harm to the Jewish people as a whole. A big tent sounds nice, but when the world aims to destroy the Jewish State, Jewish organizations must protect and defend the Jewish people. Howard Wohl
Very well put, but I think Mr. Ruskay is missing the point. There is no problem with the JCC screening films on the tough topics. The criticism is of the partnerships the JCC fosters. I have looked over the partner of The Other Israel Film Festival and although I would not donate to any of them, they were all legitimate groups, none of which support BDS. However, some of these groups that the JCC partners with including organizations supported by Ruskay's organization, share links to other organization's sites and some of these links are to organizations that in ways support BDS. Ruskay is right, we should focus our energy on those who support BDS, go straight to the source.
A "one-state" solution would not necessarily mean a Jewish minority. There are ways to keep both democracy and Jewish majority. There is a Serb majority in the Republika Srpska in Bosnia, there is a Walloon majority in the South of Belgium, there is an Italian majority in the South of Switzerland, there is a German majority in Italy's Bolzano province. For Israel that would mean to make the status of the cities, local councils, and regional councils similar to the status of the cantons of Switzerland. This would ensure Jewish majority in most of these municipalities.
This is a very nice piece. However it fails to ask the question of values... take BDS for example... I have strong problems with sweeping BDS efforts. At the same time, the Knesset, in its attempt to force BDS outside the law and to criminalize its advocates fail to see that Boycott is a civil rights and human rights tool. The Knesset would similarly make MLK into a criminal under the letter and spirit of its law... De-legitimizing or not: The argument is often made by many of us on the left that that which de-legitimizes Israel is its own behavior... The argument that the Occupied Palestinian Territory is "disputed" territory, for example is proving its lack of credibility even among a growing group of rational, democratic and progressive Jews in the Diaspora. These Jews can no longer accept Israel's violations of Palestinian rights and refuse to be fooled much longer by the long and tired security argument... Settlers, now demand that they be seen as the reincarnation of the civil rights movement... too often the violence (albeit not by a majority of them) against Palestinians goes un-investigated, and of course the institutional violence of the entire system of settlements is easily swept under the rug by the Jewish establishment... there is among the establishment a call for universal values of rights and democracy except for when it comes to Israel. This long-term indifference is the problem and is what has driven our democracy into the ground... And now, those who protect democracy and human rights are being offered up on the highest ranking settler in the Government, Lieberman's show trials, while official Judaism cries foul, yet remain silent in the face of grotesque law proposals that, for instance would require Israeli film makers to swear allegiance to a Jewish, Zionist State in order to get public film funding... So if the law passes the JCC will not have to worry, they will have nothing to show but Israeli tourism films... Back to BDS... for a growing number of people, settlement products, be it fruit, vegetables or academic matters are as Kosher as pork... We do not say that a Jew or Muslim who refuses to eat pork "de-legitimizes" the Pork industry and so too, refusals to fund the settlements, actually legitimizes democracy in Israel. The attempts to shut off and shut up dissidents de-legitimizes Israel. Like I said, Sweeping BDS is problematic... The boycotters among us must think like MLK and Ceasar Chavez with whom many Jews for Justice and human rights walked arm in arm... Now Israel's Knesset would likely throw rabbis like them in Jail.
John, thank you for this wonderful and unifying piece.