Demonization, delegitimization, or just simple critique?

Criticizing the criticizers isn’t always democratic; organizations like J Street should be allowed to have their say, but only as long as the discourse is legitimate.

j street website 311 (photo credit:
j street website 311
(photo credit:
In recent days my mail box has been filled with warning messages in anticipation of the upcoming J Street conference. Some of the missives point to J Street as an organization comprised of collaborators and traitors, adding yet another link to the historical chain of anti-Semites. I was surprised to see many familiar names appear on one of the “traitor” lists I received. These were names of people affiliated with Zionist movements and organizations whose affinity for anti-Zionists is akin to mine. One of the names belonged to an American friend of mine who made aliya for her love of Israel. Like other friends listed, she takes issue with many of Israel’s policies. We don’t see eye to eye on many things, but for all intents and purposes this woman is a Zionist.
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For a long time the free world has witnessed a process of demonization against the Jewish state and the Zionist cause. Efforts to expose this industry of lies and incitement are often met with rebuttals to the effect of “every criticism against Israel is immediately labeled anti-Semitic.” There are times when such a rebuttal is justified. But the Zionist camp should make it clear that it takes no issue with criticism in and of itself. It takes issue with demonization.
It is not always possible to distinguish between legitimate criticism and demonization. It can be likened to the differences between erotica and pornography. One can of course formulate guidelines, the most important of which was said by the U.S. Supreme Justice, Potter Stewart, in relation to pornography: "I shall not attempt to define it […] but I know it when I see it.” The same rule of thumb applies to demonization; it may be difficult to define but we recognize it once we encounter it.
One can accuse J Street of many things: Its activists justify every Palestinian refusal to compromise and are invariably stricken with the “Israel is always to blame” syndrome (a modern day equivalent of “blame the Jew.”) But it should not be forgotten that J Street is an organization that supports the existence of Israel as a Jewish State. They are opposed to the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. Many pro-Israel sympathizers support J Street including those sympathizers who oppose settlements (although it should be noted that there are many Zionists in Israel who share that opposition.)  
In order to establish differences between illegitimate and legitimate discourse, the rational Zionist camp must take care not to automatically denounce every organization that criticizes Israel. Failure to do so will only further propel detractors’ critique of Israel’s democracy, and defending the Jewish state will made impossible.
It isn’t always simple. There are organizations whose stance is ambivalent to say the least. For example, the complicated position of New Israel Fund (NIF) on the BDS. Officially the Fund opposes any boycott of Israel. But in actuality the Fund does support organizations involved in boycotts. The Fund also supports organizations that suffer from the “Durban” syndrome of turning Israel into a pariah state. Yet most of the heads of the NIF declare themselves to be Zionists and supporters of Israel as a national home for the Jewish people.
And there are even more complex situations: A political science lecturer and observant Jew who makes claims that "Israel was born in sin", clearly suffers from the aforementioned "Israel to blame for all" syndrome; yet the same person is also a staunch supporter of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state. The question then becomes how does one categorize the lecturer? Does he fall under the category of legitimate criticism or under the demonization category?
So Justice Stewart’s maxim of “we’ll know it when we see it” doesn’t always hold up for recognizing demonization. We can however characterize it by breaking it down into the following components: supporting the BDS, denying the right of the Jewish nation-state, turning Israel into an apartheid state and lastly, supporting a Palestinian right of return.
Based on these terms J Street cannot be defined as an organization that demonizes Israel - despite the behavior of some of its activists. In light of this, the refusal of Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the US, to participate in the organization's founding conference was a mistake.
This doesn’t mean that J Street is acquitted on all counts. Take, for example, J Street’s support of the “Seven Jewish Children” play which portrays Israelis as being bloodthirsty and merciless. “It isn’t about the content,” they argued. “It’s about freedom of expression.” Needless to say, the organization would have never supported a play with bloodthirsty Palestinian characters - not for freedom of expression or any other basis.
Regarding Iran’s nuclear proliferation, J Street made their position clear: it opposes sanctions as well as setting an end-date for talks. It further opposes any military action against Iran. This is a position that places J Street to the left of most Western European countries. It ends up somewhere between Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan. One of the founders of the organization is Daniel Levy, a former aide to Ehud Barak. In recent years Levy disseminated hostile notions that are closer to the Norman Finklestein school of thought than that of the Labor party.
Yet all of the issues raised regarding J Street remain in the realm of legitimate criticism. Many of its members have lawful and practical attitudes toward Israel, even if they are at times critical, such that it cannot be dismissed as an illegitimate organization. 
But J Street, as with all other “pro-Israel” organizations, should be aware that criticisms aimed at Israel should always be constructive and not fall into the trap of delegitimization or demonization.
The writer is a regular columnist at Maariv.