During the past few months, four American academic organizations, the most recent of which was the Modern Languages Association, have passed measures to boycott, disengage from or condemn the State of Israel. These are not accidental occurrences or a passing phenomenon but that latest chapter in the struggle against some of Israel’s most serious strategic threats: delegitimization and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
During my tenure in the public service, and my previous career in academia, I have learned first-hand of the threat of delegitimization. Delegitimization is often disguised as criticism of specific government policies, especially in Judea and Samaria. However, it quickly spreads from a limited political critique to boycotts of the entire state and even attempts to undermine the identity of Israel as the Jewish nation-state. We must recognize that delegitimization is not a string of isolated campaigns, but possibly, at its core, a re-emergence of our oldest threat: anti-Semitism.
Anti-Semitism cloaked as delegitimization is a threat not just to the State of Israel but to Jewish communities throughout the world. It is our common struggle.
The leaders of the Diaspora are often on the front lines of these struggles.
Throughout its history, the State of Israel has always called upon Diaspora Jewry in its time of need. World Jewry was a critical part of the campaign to lobby international leaders to recognize the young state, running guns for the Haganah, absorbing millions of new immigrants and developing the Negev. Diaspora Jewry stood by us through the Arab boycott of the 1970s, the hyper-inflation of the 1980s and countless other engagements and conflicts.
Today we are asking again for the partnership of global Jewry in facing this new strategic threat.
In some senses, the battle of delegitimization shows how far we have come as a state. The vision of Zionism was to create a “normal state.” On an internal level we have succeeded. Like any other state, we focus our energies on building infrastructure, improving the welfare system and battling tax fraud. We have tycoons, entrepreneurs and criminals, like any other place. However, on the international level, we are still considered different. This has some positive aspects, for example, we receive a huge amount of international media attention. In fact, average television viewers often mistakenly think Israel is a vast empire with endless resources and a population of millions.
However, there are also many more negative aspects. We are judged, shunned and excluded in the community of nations.
Such treatment might be expected in Arab countries but we also experience such responses in the West, especially in Europe.
In short, in the international arena, Israel is still the “Jew.”
I recently witnessed such a phenomenon when negotiating Israel’s entry into Horizon 2020, the EU program for scientific research and cooperation, as deputy minister of foreign affairs. We were repeatedly told that the agreement could only apply to Israeli entities located within the 1967 lines, as international law prevents the European Union from taking any action that might by interpreted as support for Israeli sovereignty in Judah, Samaria, the Golan Heights or Jerusalem.
During the weeks of negotiation, I learned that the EU was simultaneously signing a trade agreement with Morocco which would allow EU countries access to the fisheries in Western Sahara. Western Sahara, for those who are unaware, was invaded by Morocco in 1975. No country has yet recognized the invasion as a legitimate claim of territory and the UN Security Council has repeatedly called on Morocco to withdraw.
Yet, the EU felt comfortable signing a trade agreement with Morocco, and including the West Sahara fisheries.
I asked EU officials: how is an agreement with Israel a violation of international law but a similar agreement with Morocco legitimate? I was told that the reality in Israeli is different and that it is not possible to compare the two cases.
Similarly, I learned that the EU maintains an office in Turkish Cyprus, another illegal occupation according to European norms, which finances local projects associated with the Turkish administration, despite the opposition of the Cypriot government – an EU member. By comparison, this would be equivalent to the EU maintaining an office in east Jerusalem which funds official settlement activities in Judah and Samaria. The very suggestion is absurd and highlights how Israel is held to a different standard and treated as a “special” state.
Today, despite the fact that we are in the midst of peace negotiations with the Palestinian leadership, BDS campaigns have continued and increased. The good news is that these activities are primarily the work of a few fervent activists. However, we must make sure that their views do not poison the mainstream discourse and cause public opinion to turn against us.
It is only necessary to look at recent European history to see how quickly public opinion can shift. In the 1960s and 1970s, Israel was the darling of European youth and intellectuals. Girls and boys from Scandinavia came to Israel in the summers to volunteer on the kibbutzim.
Yet, in a few short decades, supporting Israel has become a difficult and divisive topic. Today public intellectuals lambast us on a daily basis and those same Scandinavian volunteers travel to Palestinian villages to take part in protests against Israel.
For this reason the response to BDS must be measured and clever.
Often, the primary goal of BDS campaigns is to turn support for Israel from a widely supported fact to a controversial issue. In this respect publicly campaigning against BDS, and thus giving it more media attention, often undermines our position.
I believe the most effective way to combat delegitimization is a preemptive strike. We must not be limited to reacting to threats but rather must work actively to make Israel a positive part of the public consciousness.
For this purpose, we have created the Face of Israel, a joint venture between the Foreign Ministry and Diaspora Jewry based on the successful model of Birthright. This new organization will be responsible for fighting Israel’s image battle internationally under the guidance of the Foreign Ministry.
We chose to this model of operation, a joint venture between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, because we deeply believe that Israel’s positive image and the threat of delegitimization, with its anti-Semitic tinge, is a global Jewish challenge.
Delegitimization and BDS are great threats and we would be foolish to underestimate how much damage they can do.
Even so, I believe that we, along with our partners in Diaspora Jewry, from academics to public relations gurus to lay leaders, have the knowledge, expertise and skills to combat delegitimization.
Such a partnership between Israel and Diaspora Jewry lies at the foundation of the State of Israel and has given us the resources to face every great challenge during our history.
The BDS movement is a powerful network, but I believe the global collaboration of the State of Israel and Jewish world can face this challenge successfully.
I, and the entire Foreign Ministry, look forward to being part of this great effort.
The writer is an MK and Israel’s deputy foreign minister.
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