The organized American Jewish community and our non-Jewish allies, with broad representation from across political and religious lines, are poised to launch a major initiative to counter the campaign to delegitimize Israel.
The sky is not falling. President Obama and the U.S. Congress remain firmly committed to Israel’s fundamental security and opinion polls consistently reflect broad American public support for the Jewish state. But there are clouds gathering on the horizon that must not be ignored.
The delegitimization campaign – and make no mistake, it is a global campaign – has its roots in the international NGO gathering that took place alongside the 2001 U.N. conference on racism in Durban, South Africa. With the second intifada (more aptly described as “Arafat’s terror war”) raging, these anti-Israel NGOs decided to open up a second front to paint Israel as a pariah/apartheid state deserving of political and economic isolation.
Through the years, the principal weapons used by these groups have been the boycott of Israeli products, people, and events; divestment from Israeli companies and institutions, including Israel Bonds, as well as from certain foreign companies doing business in Israel; and sanctions. This explains why the campaign to delegitimize Israel often is referred to, inadequately and misleadingly, simply as the BDS movement (Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions).
There is no central address orchestrating all of the delegitimization activity. Rather, we see a loose network of NGOs across the globe, sometimes coalescing around particular spheres, such as the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.
Mainline Protestant churches, universities, municipalities, and corporations have processed divestment initiatives, which in virtually every case have failed to gain traction. The divestment language in a 2004 resolution adopted by the Presbyterian Church USA has since been rescinded, but the issue continues to capture the imagination of Israel’s detractors in that church and others.
Israeli cultural events have been subject to boycott attempts, such as the performances of the Israeli ballet now touring the United States and the Toronto Film Festival last fall, which was dedicated to Tel Aviv’s 100th anniversary.
Campuses have been particular targets, with Israel Apartheid Week taking place the first two weeks in March. The delegitimizers prey on those who lack basic knowledge about the complex nature of Middle East politics – people who can easily fall victim to their simplistic and often inaccurate narratives.
In parallel to the NGOs, governments, especially operating through deeply biased U.N. bodies such as the Geneva-based Human Rights Council, continue to promulgate material that fairly can be described as delegitimizing long after revocation of the 1975 resolution equating Zionism with racism.
The Goldstone report, which grossly distorts the reality of Israel’s efforts to combat an amoral adversary in Gaza that uses civilians as human shields, is the latest in a long line of hostile actions emanating from the council.
Accusations of war crimes and crimes against humanity eagerly get picked up by the delegitimization organizations and coalitions as valuable weapons in their arsenals.
Indeed, public international law has increasingly been utilized as a rationale for imposing political and economic sanctions against Israel.
Re’ut, an Israel-based think tank, recently completed an analysis of the issue and concluded that “while Israel’s delegitimizers come from relatively marginal forces in Europe, their effectiveness stems from their ability to engage and mobilize others. This is accomplished by branding Israel as a pariah and ‘apartheid’ state, identifying ‘outstanding issues’ – such as the ‘Gaza blockade,’ ‘settlements,’ ‘the separation wall,’ ‘occupation,’ ‘disproportionate use of force,’ or ‘human rights violations’ – and rallying their coalition around it; making pro-Palestinian activity trendy; promoting boycotts, divestments, and sanctions; and, most importantly, blurring the line separating them from those that criticize Israeli policy yet do not delegitimize it.”
Re’ut points out that “the delegitimizers work ‘from the periphery to the center’ and ‘bottom-up,’ thriving in social networks and on the Internet. Hence, while in formal policy spheres Israel’s diplomatic position remains relatively strong and solid, its standing among the general public and intellectual elites is being eroded.”
It is true that Israel’s “diplomatic position” for the time being remains strong, both with the U.S. government and the American people. However, as the resolution on countering the delegitimization campaign adopted at our recent annual Jewish Council for Public Affairs conference maintains, “unless effectively countered, over time it may have the corrosive effect of changing the culture of political discussion and making it harder for people of goodwill to publicly support Israel. If support for Israel begins to be seen as de facto racism, this could provide fertile ground for the growth of anti-Semitism.”
The delegitimization campaign, unfortunately, has made significant inroads in other parts of the world. Friends of Israel in this country cannot afford to be complacent. The community relations field – with motivated activists in our own community joined by non-Jewish allies who come to this cause based on relationships forged around a range of joint efforts in the social justice and human rights arenas – is well positioned to develop a strategic and comprehensive response to this challenge.
We must act now to prevent the clouds from becoming a full-fledged storm.