All criticism of Israel isn’t ‘delegitimization’

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.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.