Sticks, Stones and Delegitimization
October 4. For a decade, the international attacks have been coming one after another: academic and cultural boycotts of Israeli institutions, trade embargoes and threats of divestment. Then, the Goldstone Report on the 2006 war in Gaza and, last spring, international reaction to the Israeli raid on the Gaza-aid flotilla challenged Israel’s right to defend its citizens.
The Jewish state’s place in the family of nations is being disputed in the same way that Jews were for centuries perceived as other—and not an organic part of the societies in which they dwelt.
“It’s shocking to open YouTube and discover that Israel-As-Apartheid Week has been commemorated on campuses for years,” says Shulamit Levi, a history teacher in Jerusalem.
“Islamic terrorists set the stage,” says Irena Kabanov, a Jerusalem-based physical trainer. “And we cannot but become actors in their setting. They hide ammunition in hospitals, schools, people’s homes and attack us from there. When we defend ourselves, we are blamed. The flotilla was the same. A radical group of Islamic toughs sent boats claiming to be bringing humanitarian aid, and we fell into their plot.”
While criticism can be a legitimate and even invaluable challenge for a democracy, Israel is singled out for international opprobrium: 80 percent of abuses raised by the United Nations Human Rights Council target Israel alone. This is despite the well-known human rights abuses that take place in countries such as China, Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The delegitimization process can be traced to a forum of NGOs at the United Nations 2001 World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa.
The forum produced The NGO Declaration, which, while not an official conference document, was signed by groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. The declaration reflects a concerted effort to undermine Israel. “It is a thought-out strategy whose express goal was ‘the complete and total isolation of Israel as an apartheid state,’” says Gerald Steinberg, chairman of the political science department at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan and president of NGO Monitor, a foundation that analyzes NGO activities. “It included bringing Israel to the international criminal court and the UN Security Council as well as promoting BDS—boycotts, divestment and sanctions.”
NGOs receive millions of dollars from the European Union, the United States and Canada. “Some do fine work,” he adds. “But there are those that have been hijacked by anti-Israel ideologues. Human rights groups should be universal. When they single out Israel and have a double standard, they defy the moral standards upon which they are founded.”
There are two kinds of delegitimizers. One is truly upset by the plight of the Palestinians and will accept Israel more readily when there are two separate states.
The other, according to the Reut Institute, a nonpartisan Tel Aviv-based think-tank that has studied hubs of delegitimization in England and San Francisco, use the “occupation” as a way of questioning Israel’s right to exist. These groups—such as NGOs War on Want and Adalah—are seeking a one-state solution with a Muslim majority, which would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state.
In a June statement before the European parliament, Steinberg pointed out that the European Union funds organizations that “fuel the conflict, increase the already formidable barriers to compromise and mutual acceptance between Israelis and Palestinians and empower divisive groups.”
“Those who use the apartheid onus are not interested in the rights of Palestinians,” notes D.J. Schneeweiss, Israel’s Foreign Ministry representative in charge of antiboycott policy. “They have discovered a simple strategy—put a label on Israel as the epitome of evil. Then they don’t have to discuss the Middle East or Israeli history.
“No doubt there is Arab money facilitating this campaign,” he says, “but it’s a mistake to see it coming only from one group. It is a broader phenomenon with far-left groups who don’t see themselves as stooges of Islam, aligning with radical Islam to oppose Israel.”
In Israel, the reaction to being singled out is mainly disbelief. “How can liberal groups ally themselves with the most reactionary antifeminist, antidemocratic radical Islamic elements?” asks Naomi Mirsky, a Jerusalem realtor.
But there is also a fatalistic response—a shrug of the shoulders as if to say, So what else is new?
There are also those who feel the criticism has legitimacy.
In a June Jerusalem Post blog posting, Gil Troy, professor at McGill University in Montreal and a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, noted that although no other country has been kept on probation for 62 years, Israel must take responsibility for its predicament. “Just because you are demonized,” he wrote, “doesn’t mean you don’t make mistakes.”
Some Israeli NGOs support delegitimization as the only way to make the country leave the territories. “If there was no occupation, Israel would be treated like every other nation,” says human rights activist Shira Harzvi.
This viewpoint has prompted a strong reaction. This past summer, Ze’ev Elkin of the Likud Party introduced a bill in the Knesset seeking to fine citizens who initiate or incite boycotts against their country. It also prohibits Israelis from receiving funds from international organizations that do so. If the bill becomes law, it will most likely be ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Still, it reflects the discomfort the situation has created.
Michael Feige of the political science and Israel studies department of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev notes other manifestations of moral panic. “There is much less tolerance for those who criticize Israel,” he says. “Minister of Education [Gideon] Saar also feels the government should act against academics who call for academic boycotts of Israel. Yet, most Israelis maintain the view that academic freedom and civil liberties must be protected at all costs.”
In the past, there were those who exposed Zionist failings without incurring the same level of condemnation. For example, when historian Benny Morris wrote The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 (Cambridge University Press) in the 1990s, exposing abuses perpetrated against Arabs in the 1948 War of Independence, there was a public outcry, which hurt his career. But he was eventually able to find a job at Ben-Gurion University. “Avishay Braverman,” recalls Feige, “present-day Knesset member and then-president of Ben-Gurion, declared that the university was named after Ben-Gurion, not Stalin. The situation is much more difficult today.”
Israel has also been under greater scrutiny because the world, Europe in particular, does not trust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government, specifically Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, to move forward on peace with the Palestinians. And it is not clear if September’s peace talks in Washington between Israelis and Palestinians changed the attitudes of those who criticize Israel.
“I’m an agnostic as to whether recent events will help,” says Steinberg. “Also, it’s disappointing that the talks have not led to a withdrawal of the war crimes allegations in the UN led by the Palestinian Authority and the Arab League. There are four or five sessions planned to discuss Israel’s war crimes based on the Goldstone Report or the flotilla.”
“The peace process is at a standstill, and the world is tired of the occupation,” explains Feige. “People are acting over the heads of their governments to pressure Israel.” He also feels the left is using the criticism to avoid facing difficult issues for which the West is responsible, such as economic exploitation in the third world.
And Israel is far from unique on many issues for which it is being censured. For example, the security wall is a rallying point for protesters, yet there are 60 similar walls around the world, including a partial one between Mexico and the United States. “As long as Israel and the P.A. are not two separate countries,” says Feige, “and the occupation continues, delegitimization can take place.”
At the same time, recent years have seen bright spots in Israel’s global relations. The country’s economy is estimated to grow 4.1 percent in 2010, due in part to a technology industry aimed at international businesses.
And the academic boycotts have generally been unsuccessful because scientists in other countries work closely with Israelis researchers and want access to Israeli innovations. Building partnerships and alliances provides a firewall against the poison, notes Schneeweiss.
“Most of all,” he says, “we must develop a high level of science and culture. Between 2005 and 2006, we organized an academic exchange program with the British government, which undermines the academic boycotts. Our acceptance into the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development also makes us part of the elite economic club of the world.”
Israel can also counter delegitimization. “We must not forget our own strengths,” Schneeweiss declares. “We have to make the case that we have a historical right to be here. The apartheid analogy is false. Apartheid is a racial phenomenon. There is no racial dimension in our relationship with the Palestinians. We are not a colonial power. There has always been a Jewish presence here.
“It is true that there are two separate communities, two networks of roads. Arabs don’t have full rights. But,” he emphasizes, “this is a consequence of a failure to solve the conflict, and terrorism is responsible for much of the failure. We seek a two-state solution, but it must meet our security needs.”
Steinberg feels one way to fight delegitimization is to “name and shame,” pointing out anti-Israel bias among NGOs. For example, in exposés in The New Republic and The Wall Street Journal, Sarah Leah Whitson, head of Human Rights Watch, was shown to be pro-Palestinian, accepting money from Saudi Arabian sources. This led some donors and board members to resign from the organization.
“The greatest weapon against delegitimization,” concludes Schneeweiss, “is to develop our own agenda, be constructive and maintain our level of excellence.”