Delegitimization and Criticism: Driving a Wedge

In an opinion piece in the Jerusalem Post, Reut analyst Calev Ben Dor explains the importance of driving a wedge between critics of Israeli policies on the one hand, and delegitimizers of existence on the other, and suggests a framework to help distinguish between the two.

Calev Ben Dor, Jerusalem Post, 04/01/10

Apart from their stereotypically Jewish-sounding names, there is seemingly little similarity between Hagai Ben-Artzi and Naomi Klein. Ben-Artzi, brother in law of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, is a champion of the settlement movement. Klein is a strong supporter of both "Israel Apartheid Week" and the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign.

However, two recent events suggest that their positions may actually represent different sides of the same coin. Last week, while discussing the recent Israel-US disagreement over building permits in Ramat Shlomo, Ben-Artzi called President Barack Obama an anti-Semite. The same day, Klein defended her support for BDS and Apartheid Week by arguing that any attempt to term her a "delegitimizer" was a "flat-out lie."

While both are popular in their respective camps, they seem to lack a certain form of subtlety when discussing the rights and wrongs of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For one, all criticism of Israel - even if given by the leader of its closet ally - is anti-Semitic and illegitimate. For the other, all criticism of Israel - even when adopting phraseology like apartheid or genocide - is legitimate political discourse.

For one, everything constitutes delegitimization. For the other, nothing does.

Absent from both philosophies is the line between criticism of Israel's policies, which is legitimate, and undermining or delegitimizing its existence, which is not.

Unlike former US Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart's ruling regarding pornography, we may not always be able to identify delegitimization when we see it. The line separating the two is often purposefully blurred. Indeed, such blurring has allowed the delegitimizers - who on their own possess only marginal support - to harness large swaths of Israel's critics into supporting more extreme positions. Their success in promoting the paradigm of the one-state solution while Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over a two-state solution remain deadlocked constitutes a strategic threat that may even become existential in the near future.

To fight this trend, as well as to weaken the delegitimizers, it is essential for supporters of an equitable solution for both sides to drive a wedge between critics of Israeli policy on the one hand, and delegitimizers of its existence on the other.

Despite the difficulties of defining exactly where one ends and the other begins, it's not enough to paraphrase the well-worn trope that "one man's critic is another's delegitimizer."

Indeed, several individuals and organizations - such as Irwin Cotler, Natan Sharansky and the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Anti-Semitism headed by British MP Denis MacShane - have created working guidelines that are helpful in driving such a wedge. While differing in content and style, it is worth taking the common denominators apparent in Cotler's, Sharansky's and MacShane's work to create components which, if present in"criticism," may well reflect delegitimization.

The first and perhaps most obvious component is the use of traditional anti-Semitic phraseology - such as bloodthirstiness, child-killing and control of media - when discussing Israel's actions. A second is the use of language that demonizes Israel, such as Nazi or apartheid. As Cotler has written, "These are two of the great evils of the 20th century... If Israel is guilty of crimes against humanity, then it does not have a right to exist."

Another component is denying the Jewish people's right to self-determination, whether through supporting a full right of return for millions of Palestinian refugees, actively promoting the one-state solution or arguing that Zionism is by definition a racist endeavor. A final component revolves around applying double standards - singling the country out for disproportionate criticism over and above what is reasonably expected from any other country in the family of nations.

ONE NEED not agree with all the components to imagine how a discourse adopting such a framework might look. It might include disagreement over the IDF's tactics in Gaza without comparing it to Warsaw circa 1941, or might judge Israeli actions with comparable NATO or American operations in densely populated civilian areas. It could discuss Israel's strong support in the US without referring to Jewish bankers or conspiracy theories. It might include arguments over the route of the security barrier, Israel's policy towards its Arab citizens or how to balance its Jewish and democratic aspects without bandying around words like racism or apartheid.

Those more sympathetic to Israel also have their part to play. Britain's response to the death of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh might be considered unfair or hypocritical, but that does not make it anti-Semitic. Criticism over settlement policy might be harsh, but it does not equal anti-Zionism (in fact, it reflects a legitimate mainstream position in Zionist political thought).

Driving a wedge based on such a framework is not simply some politically-correct semantic game by those hoping to take the extremist sting out of political chatter. As Israel's international status erodes and the movement delegitimizing its existence and promoting a binational state expands its ideological tent ever wider, it is essential that those supporting fair and open criticism of both sides reclaim the discourse to make a peaceful, just resolution to the conflict more, rather than less, likely.

Click here for the original article in the Jerusalem Post.