On delegitimization – A ‘Jerusalem Post’ roundtable

‘We have to take back the narrative and reframe it and get out of the docket of the accused’ – Irwin Cotler.

Israeli flags 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Israeli flags 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Over the past several years, the almost-unpronounceable word ‘delegitimization’ has become part and parcel of any discussion on Israel.
Countless lectures have been given about it, position papers have been written about it and many an op-ed writer, including in this paper, has attempted to outline the expressions and manifestations of the delegitimization of the State of Israel.
One of the many panels at last week’s Third Annual Presidential Conference was the “Delegitimization: Who is at fault? Us or them?” discussion moderated by Brig. Gen (Res.) Michael Herzog, senior fellow at The Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) and former head of the IDF Strategic Planning Division.
The panelists included:
-Irwin Cotler, emeritus professor of law and chair of Inter Amicus, McGill University, a member of Parliament, Canada and former minister of justice and attorney general
-Miri Eisen, former international media advisor to the prime minister
-Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations
-Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League
-Robert Wistrich, Neuberger Professor of Modern History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the author of A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad.
The Jerusalem Post caught up with them before their panel discussion on Thursday for a more intimate dialogue on the Jewish state, its image and the campaign to call into question its legitimacy, on which there were some interesting disagreements.
Ben-David: Is there a working definition for delegitimization?

Rejection of Israel. Period. It’s just a fancy name for the non-acceptance of Israel.

The right of Israel to exist. It’s not about policies, it’s not 1967, it’s 1947. It’s denying Israel the right that all other countries have.
Wistrich: Delegitimization is really something more far-reaching. It goes beyond the existence of Israel. They are saying that Israel is illegitimate but also that it’s existence is immoral. That it shouldn’t be here. And behind that is something else: It challenged the raison d'être of the Jewish people being able to define itself, especially in national and state terms.
Eisen: I emphasize the issue on nation terms, that is the approach of Judaism and the Jewish people as a nation beyond religion and culture.
Ben-David: Israel’s right to exist?
Cotler: It’s not only a matter of denying Israel’s right to exist but also undermining its legitimacy and that shows that delegitimization is not only an objective, it’s a strategy. And there are series of ways and means of undermining Israel.
Hoenlein: It’s an attack on the collective Jew, as Bernard Lewis put it.
Wistrich: I think it’s even more than undermining. It is political and ideological warfare, designed to sap completely the basis of Israel’s existence. It’s been rather successful until now but, fortunately, not completely so.
Ben-David: So you are saying that this is linked to anti-Semitism. Would you consider it a new form of it?
Wistrich: It’s a little more difficult that it might appear a first. You could make the argument that all forms of anti-Semitism we have known, from antiquity until the present, have involved forms of delegitimization as one aspect of the way anti-Semitism works. It’s delegitimizing because the core of Jewish identity was defined both by Jews and non-Jews in religious terms, delegitimizing Judaism, presenting it as demonic, that was an extreme form of delegitimization.
While that still exists, many other things have been added on and today Israel, as has been said, the collective Jew is at the core of delegitimization. Is that anti-Semitic? To negate the rights of Jews to define themselves in the way that they choose is at the very least to be opening the door to anti-Semitism and actually seems to lead there. In order to make the case for delegitimization, you have to make extreme statements. To nazify Israel is a form of anti- Semitism. Claiming Israel is an apartheid state, is that anti-Semitic? It’s not an open and shut case. To nazify Israel is because that is demonizing Israel beyond any possible rational argument.
Eisen: People don’t know how to differentiate. The symbols to them are the same, the state of Israel and the flag are the star of David. They can say they’re anti-Israel when in fact they are being anti-Semitic.
Foxman: To me, this is classic modern anti-Semitism. It’s denying to the Jewish people that which is ok for every body else which is national liberation, national independence and sovereignty, expression and so on. What other country in the world is challenged as to its decision to have its own capital.
So everything that’s ok for everybody else is not ok when it comes to the Jews and the Jewish state. That’s anti-Semitism. And we are not talking about criticism or a policy, it doesn’t really matter what Israel does or doesn’t do, what it engages in or doesn’t engage in, it’s the very fact that it is.
Wistrich: I would extend this. It’s ontological guilt. That the very being of Israel is, as it were, a crime. That, to me, is the most devastating aspect of the current wave of delegitimization. That so many discussions of Israel are now tainted by an assumption of guilt that is a given. That has a long history of anti-Semitism.
Hoenlein: There is also an attempt to deny Jewish connection to this land.
You can have official bodies where they focus on sites like the Western Wall, the Cave of the Patriarchs and say these were not Jewish sites and having scholars justifying this and writing position papers on this and the deputy director of UNESCO issuing a statement characterizing Rachel's Tomb as a mosque. They deny us a past and they deny us a future. And they understand it better than many Jews do and better than many Israelis even who don’t get the significance of this attempt. It’s delegitimizing Jews collectively but also as a Jewish state because if we weren’t here, if we have no roots here, what rights do we have to be here in the future?
Cotler: In some sense, delegitimization is not new, it’s been with us since 1948 when Israel was regarded as an original sin. What is new is the strategic aspect, and that is the laundering of delegitimization under the cover of law for example. I agree with Robert on the political and ideological warfare on Israel.
There’s also lawfare. The explosion of the legal revolution and the human rights revolution has a pernicious effect on the legitimacy of Israel.
Wistrich: This is taking place under an umbrella of human rights which is something new, relatively speaking. This is the wrapping in which it comes and this attracts many liberal people.
Hoenlein: And the core of this goes back to Durban I, where they said ‘just as we used BDS against South Africa, we’ll use BDS against Israel.’ It may not be a coordinated effort but there certainly is a plan and that blueprint was laid down at Durban I and we are not coming up to Durban III.
Ben-David: I’d like to pick up on what you just said about not being completely organized. How aware are people outside the Israeli press, the Jewish press, the Israeli dialogue circles about delegitimization?
Foxman: This is a very important question. Who made it as significant as it is? My feeling is we have. We have made it a lot more serious, a lot more significant, we have even given them a weapon which they didn’t really have.
This is classic rejection, they tried it by war, they tried it by economics, this is a new manifestation. We gave it this global, strategic air. I don’t think it’s there. And I think while we have international conferences on how to fight delegitimization, we are giving to them something they didn’t have. I’m concerned that we have given it a status and an importance. I don’t think there’s global strategy.
Wistrich: Let me ask you this: I have recently been following up on the political Left and going back in time to see whether the things we’re discussing now, where they began and how coordinated or uncoordinated it was and I think initially, it was in an experimental phase. The time when I remember, the 1970s, it was more marginal. Today, we are way beyond that. On the Left, I see it as very organized and successfully infiltrating, for lack of a better word, many mainstream organizations. That may not be universally true and it’s also fair to say that not everybody engaged in these campaigns are all on the same page but the Islamists and the Leftists have found some modus vivendi.
The Arab states sometimes have a different agenda, Iran has a certain agenda and so on. There are many groups there but it is becoming much more organized than it used to be. You read the stuff about Israeli universities, it seems they have a strategy, they have goals, they’ve laid it out and they have a method.
Foxman: You talk about the Left infiltrating mainstream but they’ve done that from time immemorial. There is a change here that has not so much to do with us, it’s a technology thing. The internet has provided them with a platform, and now you can communicate in nanoseconds globally. What we saw during Operation Cast Lead, we’ve always seen. Every Mideast conflict spawns anti-Semitic activities globally; that’s a fact. It was not as “successful” as it was after Gaza. Why? Because the internet was used to recruit, to send a message so that you had the imagery, the call for demonstrations, the targets and so on and so its’ the technology which makes it so global.
Hoenlein: The communications revolution is a factor, but there is something happening and I think you got to face it realistically. When you see in Hollywood, when you see the movements among unions, when you see their efforts in Australia, Scotland, Ireland, this is being done on a global level, they use all sorts of guises for doing it, but that doesn’t diminish the significance of what they are doing. I don’t like the term delegitimization.
Ben-David: Why is that?
Eisen: It’s like talking about occupation. If you use that term, that is what the discussion will be about. If I say occupation, we say is there or isn’t there [an occupation]? Use a different word and you change the whole subject.
Hoenlein: Settlements vs communities.
Eisen:The words you use are very important. I want to add in on the disagreement.
I don’t think its globally organized but I think it comes out of global changes and it’s not just social media and communications. I talk about the post post post post world; post-WWII and Cold War, post-colonial, postnationalist and post-Holocaust and in Europe, they are post all four. When you are in a community in northern Europe, you meet now that social media group of the 25-30 year olds and they are born in Brussels and live in Vienna and study in Scandinavia and marry British and it’s not that they don’t have national background, but it’s not part of their world. And to them, the Holocaust might as well have been in the Middle Ages. Delegitimization bites into their world. I am also very disturbed by the use of the delegitimization – that is their term. We are talking in their terms. Their terms are the human rights and post-national terms and the Israeli terms are national and military. We are still in the Holocaust world, we still go to Poland so that we are in a situation wherein our own discussion, they way we talk about ourselves, makes it worse.
Wistrich: I agree, it’s a very awkward term and perhaps if we can get rid of it, this might be the time. But actually, we’re really often talking about defamation and demonization. If we start moving to what we can do about it, the fact is that Israel has fought this war, and the Jewish world, more widely, with one hand tied behind its back because we are not prepared to do what, in this kind of warfare, we normally do, which is seize on the many weak points on the other side and bounce them all back. Take apartheid, when Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] says there will be no Jews in a future Palestinian state, that should be exposed as pure unadulterated racism but Israel and mainstream Jewish organizations choose, for maybe good reasons, not to highlight the “apartheid” features of some regimes.
Eisen: I think these things are highlighted extensively.
Foxman: You are also right that there is a hesitancy here, because if you highlight this, you continue to undermine the illusion, the hope that we will have two states, that we have a partner. Israel is schizophrenic on this whole subject.
Cotler: Delegitimization is a generic term. It is inclusive of, but not limited to, the defamation of, demonization of Israel. It reached its tipping point and was formalized as a policy in Durban I. It’s a framing of a strategy and those there even used that term. I wrote my first article on this and called it “The campaign to delegitimize Israel” in 1973.
Hoenlein: Did anybody read it?
Foxman: It failed. Let’s not forget that.
Cotler: I don’t think it failed. I think we failed to recognize it. Let me just give an example. We talk a lot about the Zionism is Racism resolution. That in effect was a manifestation of delegitimization. I think it’s morphed into a apartheid and even worse. At that time, in 1973, you has a series of decisions, UN specialized agencies, which purported to and indeed had the effect of delegitimizing Israel. The ILO, the International Labor Organization, accusing Israel of suppressing trade unions. The WHO – Foxman: But it was reversed. The Zionism is racism charge was reversed Cotler: It was not reversed. Every one of those decisions in the WHO, UNESCO, none of them have been reversed.
Foxman: What are the practical implications?
Cotler: I’ll give you one study. I was a member of a number of these delegations.
Who comes to it? You’ve got academics, diplomats, parliamentarians, trade unionists, journalists, students. You not only have a critical mass of delegitimization, you have a critical mass of exposure to that delegitimization and that is a continuation of the dynamic.<
Foxman: In the 30 years of this campaign, what have they achieved in delegitimizing Israel?
Wistrich: It depends where you look.
Cotler: The world is larger than America.
Wistrich: Even in the US, look at some of the campuses, the day to day issues, which involve humiliation, and intimidation of Jewish students and professors. And the acceptance of it.
Hoenlein: If you are saying this has a revolutionary impact, it hasn’t. This is an erosionary process. This is part of the legacy of Zionism is racism. I don’t think you can argue that it’s had no impact. What is said about Israel today would not have been said 25 years ago.
Foxman: That is not true! I’m sorry. Malcolm, I’m old enough to have been on the college campuses in the 60s and then, it was hell to be pro-Israel, on the same 30, 40 or 50 campuses where it is today. It was the anti-Vietnam movement and it was hell standing up for Israel then. There was one difference.
Most of the kids then knew what being Jewish was about, what Israel was about, they knew 1948 and it was tough. So it’s not new, but we were a different generation of Jews and Jewish professors than we are today.
Wistrich: There are two ways where I think it has changed for the worst and you hint at one of them. First of all, take the case of Zionism. The word has become totally anathema. I would say looking back even 30 years, we weren’t there.
Eisen: Zionism is racism, that was in 1974. That was pretty bad.
Cotler: People walked around back then with badges saying proudly ‘I am a Zionist.’ They won’t do that today.
Foxman: They don’t even know what it is, we have stopped teaching them.
Hoenlein: He’s right to say people don’t know. But it’s also right to say Zionism has become pejorative. I was there as a student leader in those years. It is not comparable today. Jewish students will not register today as Jewish. Jewish students don’t sign up for Judaic studies, Christians do. Jewish students were not intimidated then in ways they are now.
Eisen: The changes have not just been around the world. I sit in my country, and this country has changed, and this country has evolved into other places and the hijacking of the term Zionism, from my point of view as an Israeli, happened here in Israel. What is it to be Zionist in Israel? Can I be a centrist Zionist or a leftwing Zionist or is it only right-wing Zionist? I’ll ask it like this: If there was a two-state solution, would this kind of debate be different? Sadly, I don’t think so. There are certain aspects that have to do with the conflict and I want us to touch on that. This is not only anti-Semitism; adding into it is also the fact that there is conflict going on here and there are different opinions on how to resolve it. The last point I want to make is about the politics. Israel, right now has more diplomatic relations than it ever has before, with 164 countries. When do not get that kind of criticism from governments so much as we get from public opinion. The exception that rule is British academia. But everywhere else? it’s mainly the street, it’s the people which is a very big thing on the social level.
Ben-David: If there were a change in Israeli government policy, would that have an effect?
Foxman: Only if you believe it is our fault.
Wistrich: I have to say, as someone who’s lived here the last 30 years, since I can remember, particularly more in the center and left of the spectrum, I’ve been hearing ‘if only we’d change our policy, it would go away,’ and the fact is it didn’t. It didn’t go away in the time of Rabin, or Barak, or Olmert. It’s almost a hubristic Israeli illusion, to think it’s all in our hands. I could add to what Miri said about the internal Israeli dialogue and what goes on at some Israeli universities; the post Zionism, some of which is the old fashioned anti-Zionism, more attractively labeled, some of it is genuine post-Zionism, the question is, if Israel suddenly said we are a post-Zionist state, if we went with the globalizing tendencies, played down our national heritage and Holocaust consciousness and suddenly renounced all these things, would that fundamentally change anything? It might help in some areas but what would that do in terms of the Jewish identity of Israel? Which brings me back to Abe’s point about Jewish identity: What is the relationship between delegitimization, Jewish identity and the need to maintain it? It’s much more complex than it seems. In some ways it ironically helps us, not in the way that the anti- Semites say, that Zionists deliberately encourage all this to create Jewish unity, but in a way it does.
Hoenlein: Do you think it’s really happening in this case? I don’t see it. Sometimes, because of anti-Semitism, people come together and identify with the community more. I don’t think that in the delegitimization case it’s happening, but it could.
Foxman: We lost two generations, ok? Up until Taglit-Birthright, because what we did was truncate Jewish education of our children at the age of 12 and 13 when they began to think as adolescents. Then the message to the overwhelming majority of American Jewish kids was: “Your Jewish education is finished.” They then, five years later, came onto campus and all of a sudden we expected them to be Jewish and defend Israel. They didn’t know how! They didn’t understand.
It has changed. Taglit has now delivered. A hundred thousand, 150,000 kids who now understand. I came to Israel when I was 18, on a summer program with 400 kids. In the last 40 years, I find these kids who are now grandparents, leaders in Jewish communities, in synagogues and so on. But the majority were not educated, they were not exposed. Today, things have changed. I don’t think it’s a calamity, I don’t think it’s a crisis. It’s a question of perspective.
Wistrich: If you are a Jew from Holland or Belgium or even the UK, the situation is very different.
Hoenlein: The British model is different from the French model, which is different from the Scandinavian model. The British model is the closest to the US model and Canada also, which is that it starts with the elites and work down to the population rather than the population up. And it shifts the onus to us. The people who hate, will hate. These are all factors in our capacity to respond to it and over time we will know whether Birthright has changed things. We don’t know yet. I don’t know they they are going back to the campuses and are really knowledgeable from spending 10 days here to argue the case. It’s not a panacea just to send them if you don’t educate them. The problem is that we have ignored our kids for too long. Kids formulate their ideas younger and younger. Even the kids who go to good Jewish schools are not prepared to go to a campus like that.
Eisen: I get invited to the communities and I talk to them and the big change that I see from my point of view as an Israeli is the polarization; one of the direct results of this campaign on the Jewish community is the polarization over Israel. I went to Edmonton recently, a small Jewish community, and they hadn’t had a Jewish event for 5 years because they couldn’t agree on Israel.
Israel has become a divisive issue in Jewish communities rather than a uniting issue.
Cotler: Things are bother better and worse. It’s true that communities are more divided and yet you had a election in Canada recently where you had a phenomenon that never existed before. You had Jews openly and avowedly making decisions based on the Israel issue. In other words, that became the ballot box issue.
Foxman: And that’s good?
Hoenlein: Unless you are running for office.
Cotler: I’m just saying that people were not apprehensive or apologetic. I think if you take the campus and what’s happening there, I think things are worse. We never had an Israel Apartheid Week before, during all the years that I was a professor. We didn’t have a BDS phenomenon. On the other hand, you do have at this point, a response that didn’t exist before.
Foxman: We are making such a big deal out of it. Somebody should take a look at the apartheid weeks, where they were, how successful, how many, how many counter demonstrations were there. I’m glad we are sensitive to this, but come on.
Hoenlein: They do impact the atmosphere.
Wistrich: I think that for this generation, younger Jews, we may be understating and underestimating the emotional psychological damage that has taken place when you have a phenomenon on this scale whereby you have this kind of identification with the other side, the Palestinian side. It’s a large group. There are Jews who are proud to be ashamed to be Jews. Now again, if you count up the whole number it may look not so impressive, but they tend to be people who are quite prominent, even celebrities.
And the only time Jewish identity comes to the fore is to say: ‘I am ashamed to be a Jew and I want this published in The Guardian so that everybody knows.’
Foxman: And that again is the media and the internet. These people were there before, they didn’t get the exposure as they do now.
Cotler: There are a number of things that have changed. You have the globalization phenomenon, not just of media and technology but also of human rights and NGOs and so on. And the Palestinians are the posters for human rights and Israelis the anti-human rights metaphor.
That’s a whole new configurative dynamic we didn’t have before.
Foxman: We used to have the advantage, even though we were small. We were intent, devoted, smart.
Eisen: We still are. Stop it, you’ve gone too far.
Foxman: We still are. The difference now is that the numbers on the other side look bigger.
Hoenlein: You can’t deny the intensity of what is going on. I find that many more students now come into the fore. We are flooded by volunteers, people who want to do work on our lawfare project, many more than before. And we are doing a better job on campuses today. More money is being invested. But we also see a phenomenon of intimidation, it’s very strong. People are afraid. I hear students everywhere I go who are afraid to speak out and they don’t get support from Jewish faculty and administration.
Ben-David: What strategies to combat this phenomenon? I’m hearing a lot about Jewish education and strengthening Jewish identity, is that really what we need at this point?
Hoenlein: It’s not just Jewish education.
It’s equipping them with the tools to answer the charges, and the confidence. We have to do more to give them support, to back them up, and starting at earlier ages. And that’s just the Jewish students, other students also.
Wistrich: We have to reach out much more, to non-Jews and in many different contexts. If you start looking more systematically and seeking out potential allies, you will find surprising numbers of people who might be willing, if approached and for their own reasons very often, to take part. Take Indians, for example, I have been struck with that in the UK for example, who are willing to understand Israel and Jews rather well and they are often more forthright in what they are ready to say.
Eisen: It’s true all over Europe now.
[The demographics are] starting to change some of the debate about post-nationalism and culture. We have a tendency to try and impose our point of view in our terms on other cultures and I think that part of the issue of delegitimization is in words and in terms and I think that we need to do much more in presenting our case in that sense, in the words and terms of the human rights world. Rather than give the counter arguments, talk in their terms and expose the argument and I don’t think we do that at any level. We are always responding. And our initiating is usually in terms which are often very difficult for others to swallow.
And I want us to talk in terms that are easier for others.
Ben-David: By which you mean?
Eisen: I mean that you find that when you talk in the same cultural settings of what those people are used to, you can say things that otherwise sound very aggressive. We Israelis sound very aggressive. We use military, national, security terms because that’s our setting and we can say the same things but not in other kinds of terms.
Cotler: We have to take back the narrative and reframe it and get out of the docket of the accused. You have to delegitimize the delegitimizers.
The paradigm right now is that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the source of all troubles in the Middle East, if not the source of all evil. It’s radical Islam and Arab tyrannies that are the sources of conflict in the Mideast and beyond. This is the real apartheid. They will deny Israel’s right to exist within any borders.
Ben-David: How do we do that? Is there room to engage with people who are for BDS, who make these efforts happen? There is a planned mass fly-in for July 8 at Ben-Gurion airport and a flotilla on it’s way. What do we do?
Hoenlein: We can reverse this.
Part of the problem is that we use the wrong messages. It is true that people’s image is of Israel as militaristic and so on and what it tells us is that many of the messages we have been using, don’t work. For instance: ‘Israel makes the world a better place.’ People would say: ‘hey, that’s a great message.’ But it doesn’t work. Start-up Nation works. If you tell them about the values of Israelis, who Israelis are, that makes a difference. They have no idea, all they know is Israel as the “apartheid state.” And if you do that, you start to diminish their numbers greatly. We have to change the nature of what we say.
Foxman: So they fly in and we take them to...?
Hoenlein: A gay bar.
Eisen: And see, then you get into the real world where they are invited to the Gay Pride Parade [which took place earlier this month], leading for gay rights Barcelona and they are stopped at the airport. Because they were not believed that they were invited.
That’s us.
Cotler: And with regard to the flotilla we hear stuff like “we have a military surprise for you.” There are other ways to do this.
Foxman: But these people coming on July 8 are not your potential allies. It doesn’t matter what you show them.
Eisen: But the question is how it’s framed when they come and if the answer is an Israeli security response – because we do everything through a security prism – we’ve already lost it before it’s began. That’s our issue.
Cotler: You go to your allies and you tell them you have an obligation to enforce international law and people are aiding and abetting Hamas and are in effect, committing a criminal offense.
Foxman: Malcolm will tell you, that doesn’t sell. The world doesn’t give a sh*t.
Ben-David: I just want to ask you, Miri, more specifically here.
You are criticizing the Israeli response and we have heard that a lot.
Eisen: I have warned about these things before, both on Gaza [Operation Cast Lead] and the flotilla.
The week before the flotilla, I said: “You are putting this in a military frame, that’s wrong, this is a media event and you need to approach it that way.”
Ben-David: Israel does this time and time again. Is there any way we can change our approach to this, within the Israeli context?
Hoenlein: Yes, I do think that the government takes it very seriously.
People are looking at these things anew. I’m not saying they are ready to implement but they are looking at these issues. I think it’s possible to change.
Eisen: I love Malcolm but I disagree.
I think it’s possible to change. I don’t think that we are changing.
Ben-David: Many activists and NGOs and particularly groups like J Street have expressed the feeling that because they are not from the ‘Israel right or wrong’ camp, they are in a better position to engage with and debate anti-Zionists and those engaged in BDS activities. What do you think of this strategy? Does it have merit? Could Israel use this in any way?
Foxman: People have freedom of speech, they can talk to whoever they like.
Ben-David: Yes, but then they are criticized for giving legitimacy to the “delegitimizers” by sharing a platform with them, talking to them and so on.
Eisen: We need to be open to a variety of ideas. We all need to engage, with all the different voices.
There is merit to that. There is extremism on both sides. There are voices on the far Right that are also detrimental. We need to acknowledge that.
Foxman: J Street begins with the notion that it’s our fault. These people are not neutral, they take a side that Israel is at fault and that’s not the best advocate that you would want on your behalf.
All apologetics are doomed to failure.
Hoenlein: People who lobby for resolutions against Israel, we don’t want them to debate others. I want to know that they go and give them the right message. People who delegitimize, they care about human rights, they care about racism, apartheid. We have to tell them that the things they say are hurting us.