Jewish Opinion being alienated by Israeli Policies, Not by any "Delegitimization" Campaign

There is an effort by the Israeli government and the organized American Jewish community to make it appear that there is a concerted international effort to "delegitimize" Israel. Thus, when there is criticism of particular Israeli policies, the treatment of Palestinians under occupation, or the growing influence of the settler movement and religious extremists, it is all said to be simply an effort to "delegitimize" the state.

In June, one of the panels at the Third Annual Presidential Conference in Jerusalem was titled "Delegitimization: Who is at fault? Us or them?" Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, provided as a working definition for delegitimization the questioning of "The right of Israel to exist. It’s not about policies, it’s not 1967, it’s 1947. It’s denying Israel the right that all other countries have."

According to Abraham Foxman, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League, delegitimization is "Rejection of Israel. Period. It’s just a fancy name for non-acceptance of Israel."

Quite to the contrary, however, the fact is that world opinion, including Jewish opinion, is changing with regard to Israel not because there is an effort to challenge its right to exist as a state, but because of sharp disagreement with its policies and its retreat from the democratic values it repeatedly says it represents, as in its claim to be the "only democracy" in the Middle East.

In an article published in the June 23 Huffington Post entitled "Netanyahu is the One ‘Delegitimizing’ Israel," M.J. Rosenberg argued that it is Israel’s own actions that are eroding its legitimacy. He described attacks upon critics as "delegitimizers" as an effort "to change the subject from the existence of the occupation to the existence of Israel…That is why Prime Minister Netanyahu routinely invokes Israel’s ‘right to self-defense’ every time he tries to explain away some Israeli attack on Palestinians…If the whole Israeli-Palestinian discussion is about Israel’s right to defend itself, Israel wins the argument. But if it is about the occupation–”which is, in fact, what the conflict has been about since 1993 when the PLO recognized Israel–”it loses…Israel is not being isolated because it is a Jewish state and hence illegitimate, but because of how it treats Palestinians."

Prof. Lawrence Davidson of West Chester University in Pennsylvania, writing in the June 6 issue of Consortium News, pointed out that, "The distinction drawn by the Zionists between acceptable and unacceptable criticism works only if one assumes that the policies and tactics of the Israeli state leading to, on the one hand, expansion into the occupied territories, and on the other, the segregation of its non-Jewish minorities, are not structural. Or to put it another way, that Israel’s imperial and discriminatory policies are not a function of the ethnic/religious definition of the state. But what…if the behavior of the government flows from the very nature of a country designed first and foremost for a specific group? If that is the case, you cannot separate out criticism of this or that policy from criticism of the very character of the Israeli polity. Policies and state ideology are all of one piece."

Dr. Davidson makes clear that he is "not singling out Israel in this regard…Actually, it would not matter if Israel (or any other country) was Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, White, Black or created for little green men from Mars. If any state (a) is designed to first and foremost serve one specific group while (b) having in its midst minorities which it systematically segregates by, (c) either structuring its laws in a discriminatory way, and/or purposely educating its citizenry to act in a discriminatory fashion, (d) then from the standpoint of civilized, modern democratic principles, one can justly question not only its tactics and policies, but the legitimacy of the social/political structure that generates them."

Beyond all of this is the reality of Israel’s movement away from the democratic principles it has always proclaimed to embrace. Writing in the July 13 edition of Haaretz, Carlo Strenger reported that, "The flood of anti-democratic laws that were proposed, and partially implemented, by the current Knesset, elected in February 2009, constitute one of the darkest chapters in Israeli history. The opening salvo was provided by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party with its Nakba law, that forbids the public commemoration of the expulsion of approximately 750,000 Palestinians during the 1948 war. Since then, a growing number of attempts were made to curtail freedom of expression and to make life for human rights groups more difficult."

In July, the Israeli parliament passed legislation that effectively bans any public call for a boycott against the state of Israel or its illegal West Bank settlements, making such action a punishable offense. Critics and civil rights groups denounced the new law as anti-democratic and a flagrant assault on the freedom of expression and protest.

The so-called Boycott Bill was sponsored by Ze’ev Elkin of Likud, the conservative party led by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. In an opinion issued prior to passage of the bill, the legal adviser to parliament, Eyal Yinon, determined that elements of the bill bordered on unconstitutionality and struck at the core of political freedom of expression. Nevertheless, Attorney General Yehuda Weinberg gave the bill his approval.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel and other human rights groups said they were preparing to challenge the law in the High Court of Justice. The association described the law as "an anti-democratic step, intended to create a chilling effect on civil society." Ilan Gilon, a legislator from the leftist Meretz Party, said, "I do not know of anything that creates more delegitimization of Israel abroad than these laws."

Last year, Israeli theater artists refused to perform at a new cultural center in the urban settlement of Ariel and in other West Bank settlements, causing a public uproar. They were followed by scores of liberal Israeli academics, writers and intellectuals who said that they would not lecture at the center or in any of the settlements.

Elkin, the sponsor of the legislation, said that its principal importance was "the fact that the calls to boycott the State of Israel increasingly have come from within our own midst, and that makes it hard to wage a battle against a boycott in the world."

Haaretz‘s Strenger wrote that, "After talking to a number of right-wing politicians, I am unfavorably impressed by their total lack of understanding of the international scene. They have profound misconceptions about the Free World’s attitude toward Israel, and very little real understanding of the paradigm shift toward human rights as the core language of international discourse. They buy into Netanyahu’s adage that Israel’s existence is being delegitimized, rather than realizing that Israel’s settlement policy is unacceptable politically and morally to the whole world. Out of their utter confusion between international criticism of Israeli policies and existential danger for Israel, the right-wing coalition members look for a scapegoat to be blamed for Israel’s unprecedented isolation. The Israeli left and human rights organizations are an easy target. Instead of understanding that Israel’s settlement policy is a genuine catastrophe, they claim that NGOs provide the international community with ammunition for criticizing Israel, and are trying to silence them."

Of growing influence in Israel, and perhaps the driving force behind the current anti-democratic initiatives, is the Yisrael Beiteinu party, which represents largely the nearly one million Jews who arrived in Israel after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Twelve years after its founding, it has become the third largest party in the Knesset, and its leader, Foreign Minister Lieberman, is now the kingmaker in Israeli politics. Prime Minister Netanyahu now holds office primarily because Lieberman chose him.

In an article in the July 8 Forward entitled "Israel’s Soviet Political Party," Liam Hoare pointed out that "Yisrael Beiteinu has a strikingly Soviet response to the question of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Soviet historian David Shearer in his essay ‘Elements Near and Alien’ asserted that the Kremlin governed the empire as a succession of ‘special areas,’ which required careful management. As such, in borderland regions judged to be more vulnerable to external, non-socialist influence, so-deemed untrustworthy national groups were transported en masse to ‘safer’ parts of the union. This was the rationale behind, for example, the wholesale deportation of Crimean Tatars from the Ukraine to Uzbekistan and the Kazakh steppe in 1944."

Hoare went on to argue that "Lieberman’s thesis is that the current consensus on a two-state solution is ‘based on a disturbing disparity,’ namely one that calls for ‘a Palestinian territory with no Jewish population and a Jewish state with a minority group comprising over 20 percent of the general population,’ the Arabs. To counter this perceived demographic imbalance, Yisrael Beiteinu proposes annexing all settlements on the West Bank which rest along the Green Line, thus abandoning some outposts, and in return areas of Arab concentration in the Galilee and Judean Desert would become parts of an autonomous Palestine…Writing off this political manifestation of Russian Jewry as simply a fringe influence clearly isn’t going to work anymore."

At what cost?

According to Eric Alterman, distinguished professor of English and journalism at the City University of New York, until the establishment of Israel in 1948 "Zionism was never required to define its goals. Was it a national liberation movement for the Jewish people, allowing them to create a society where they could be free of persecution and in control of their own destiny in their biblical homeland? Or was it a movement to liberate–”or, more accurately, conquer–”the land itself, regardless of the cost not only to its previous inhabitants, but also to the other values that modern Jews hold dear, including, most particularly, democracy and human and civil rights ?"

In the past, Alterman declared in a July 15 Forward article, the refusal of Palestinian leaders to become serious about a negotiated settlement allowed these two versions of Zionism to co-exist. "But those days are over," he wrote, "and the tragedy of recent history is the fact that just as a majority of Palestinians have finally come to recognize that they must accept the inevitable and bargain from their position of relative weakness, the ascendant Zionist right has no interest whatsoever in peace, whatever the costs to Israel or to world Jewry, if it means parting with even an acre of ‘holy land.’"

Outgoing Mossad chief Meir Dagan recently made headlines in Israel when he complained that the Israeli government had failed to put forward a peace initiative with the Palestinians and that it had foolishly ignored the Saudi peace initiative, which promised full diplomatic relations in exchange for a return to the 1967 boundary lines. Dagan, a decorated hero, also warned against an attack on Iran. Needless to say, he has come under brutal criticism. According to the June 10-16 edition of the International Jerusalem Post, "Minister-with-out-Portfolio Yossi Peled (Likud), a former head of IDF Northern Command…claims Dagan’s outspokenness ‘damages state security.’ Netanyahu’s associates and advisers have reportedly accused Dagan of ‘sabotaging democratic institutions.’ Science and Technology Minister Daniel Herschkowitz (Hebayit Hayehudi) said Dagan should stand trial for his comments."

There can be little doubt that Israel’s policies and its retreat from democratic values, rather than any campaign of "delegitimization," is causing its increased isolation in the world. Changing those policies–”and moving toward genuine peace–”is the most effective way to end that isolation. Israel’s American friends would aid Israel far more by urging such a change in policy than by assaulting those–”both in Israel and elsewhere–”who point to the counter-productive policies of the Netanyahu government. Friends, as we like to say, don’t let friends drive drunk.