Nuance in the delegitimization debate: why is the Jewish establishment so scared of it?

You want to know what bothers me the most about Jewish communal life?

In our zeal to protect Israel and our anger at a world that is habitually unfair to the Jewish state, we insist on rigid orthodoxies that can only undermine the cause we say we believe in.

There’s no place for thoughtfulness and nuance in this world, only slogans, litmus tests and exclusion of those who disagree with specific ideologies about what’s best for Israel.

I was thinking about this as a watched the frantic response of the Jewish leadership to Martin Raffel’s comments in the Jewish Week last week in a story headlined “Consensus Seen Taking Shape On Boycotts.”

Raffel, assistant executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), is the point man for the Israel Action Network, the joint task force set up by the Jewish Federations of North America and JCPA..

I’ve always found Martin one of the most thoughtful people in American Jewish life. He’s the one I often turn to when I really want to understand an issue, not when I want some organizational talking points or bits and pieces of press releases.

He’s about as establishment as you can get in terms of his views on Israel, but he understands that nuances matter in matters of advocacy.

In the Jewish Week story, Raffel tried to get at what it means to be pro-Israel in today’s turbulent environment and what it is that puts a Jewish organization outside that tent.

Jewish Voice for Peace is outside the tent, he said, because of a combination of factors, including its “unwillingness to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, its demonstrated support for the BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] movement — history has shown it goes beyond boycott of settlements — and the tactics JVP employs of disrupting the speeches of Israeli officials.”

But he dared say that this delegitimization thing can get complicated.

He tried to get at the difference between being anti-Israel and just being – in his view – wrong. Although both he and his organization are staunchly anti-BDS, he said “being misguided in one’s policies doesn’t mean one necessarily has become part of the ranks of the delegitimizers.”

Since then, the Jewish Federations of North America, which is more or less in charge of the Israel Action Network, has been burning up the Tweetosphere and sending out press releases to “clarify” that “we want to make clear that we, along with The Jewish Federations of North America, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and the Israel Action Network, do not support boycotts of any kind against Israel and Israelis, regardless of where they live.”

Well, yeah; nobody said they didn’t. I’ve talked to Raffel about the BDS movement, and it’s clear he and his organization are opposed, period.

What he did say is that the landscape of “delegitimization” is complicated. Like the responsible official he is, he is trying to understand that complexity rather than paper it over with talking points that turn every issue into stark black and white.

Why does that make others in his coalition so nervous?

Maybe reducing everything to simplistic slogans is good for fundraising and for rallying the troops, but it does not make for effective advocacy in the broader world – which, after all, is the place you’re trying to have an impact.

In this particular context, it also allows those with a narrow political agenda to effectively argue that “delegitimization” can mean simply opposing the Israelis policies they support.

And it sure as heck does nothing to maintain the big-tent approach to pro-Israel activism that has been one of the most effective tools the movement has had over the decades.

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.