Borderline Views: The politics of delegitimization

Many of our supporters are beginning to question whether this country is indeed a democracy.

When I was growing up in an Orthodox environment in North London, our teachers and rabbis constantly warned against the dangers of those who would threaten our basic values and lead us into the paths of evil and self-destruction. There were different types of enemies. The outside Christian world was one of them, and we were warned not to make friends with our non-Jewish neighbors. If, however, on a vacation we could not resist the urge to peek inside a church to see their “idol worship,” it could be excused as childish curiosity.
A much greater enemy, however, was the enemy within. On no account should we even conceive of becoming friendly with those who professed alternative forms of Jewish worship – the Conservative and the Reform movements. Not even curiosity could forgive our desire to see what a Reform synagogue looked like, with sure divine punishment to follow should we succumb to our desires. These people, so we were told, are the epitome of evil – those who pretend to be one of “us” but in reality would lead us into self-destruction.
I was reminded of this system of total delegitimization of a perceived enemy during the past week, following the disgraceful attempt of a right-wing student organization, Im Tirtzu, to cast vicious aspersions on the activities of the New Israel Fund and its affiliated NGOs. But this time, they did not stop at hurling accusations against an organization which does so much important and positive work in promoting civil society, human rights and Arab-Jewish dialogue in Israel. This time they made it very personal in their attempt to crudely target the current president of NIF, Prof. Naomi Chazan, one of the country’s foremost political scientists, former head of the Truman Institute at the Hebrew University, former deputy speaker of the Knesset and, until this week, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post. The way in which Im Tirtzu depicted Chazan, with a horn coming out of her head, reminded many of us of the worst forms of anti-Semitism.
IN THE past I have been attacked for daring to suggest, on the pages of this newspaper, that the politics of delegitimization practiced in recent years by such organizations such as Campus Watch, IsraCampus and, most recently, NGO Monitor have been a contemporary brand of McCarthyism. But if it was unclear until now, this past week’s events have highlighted the fact that there is a concerted campaign on the part of these well-funded organizations to silence and delegitimize anyone who holds pro-peace, pro-human rights positions, views which uphold the very best of democratic and Jewish traditions and for which the State of Israel is rightly proud.
Much more alarming are the links beginning to become apparent between this politics of delegitimization and the formal offices of government. NGO Monitor succeeded in co-opting Government Services Minister Michael Eitan who, until a few months ago, was known as a champion, rather than his current status as trampler, of democracy. Israeli media coverage of the assault by Im Tirtzu was translated by the Government Press Office and distributed, and the issue was also taken up by MK Otniel Schneller, who is best known for his past leadership and support of the settler movement.
At the beginning of this academic year, some university student magazines allowed Im Tirtzu to publish (paid) advertisements requesting that students report to them any critical comment which might be voiced by their lecturers in courses dealing with Israeli politics and society. This is a copy of the vicious, anti-democratic campaign instituted some years ago by Campus Watch in North America, which turns students into spies in the name of a specific political ideology. If this is not McCarthyism, then I don’t know what is.
I do not belong to any of these NGOs, nor do I teach my students about Israeli politics so, unlike the heads of many of these right-wing organizations, I have no personal interest in making this counterclaim.
The extremist right-wing organizations rightly demand transparency, and yet fail to display their own. NGO Monitor refuses to disclose the specifics of its funding. It refuses to research any of the numerous right-wing NGOs, many of which support illegal projects beyond the Green Line and which are funded in North America, and it refuses to divulge who is funding its use of a major law firm known for its single-minded opposition to the BBC to take a case to the European Court of Justice regarding left-wing NGOs.
Who indeed is funding this latest campaign of Im Tirtzu to trample freedom of speech and activity within our dying democracy? What is the paper trail which links all these campaigns to their supporters in the Knesset, the government and the Foreign Ministry? Perhaps we should not be surprised, given the extremist nature of the country’s Foreign Ministry today, having succeeded in the space of a year in worsening our relations with Europe, with Turkey and creating the exact opposite of what a Foreign Ministry is meant to do – diplomacy.
This is clearly the reason why our ambassadors in such important places as Washington and London have taken increasingly right-wing stances in many of their recent public utterances and have constantly refused to meet with the many pro-Israel but left-wing, progressive and pro-peace lobbies which are fast becoming a dominant part of Diaspora Jewry and are challenging the hegemony of the community establishments.
As alternative, pro-Israel, pro-peace, pro-human rights movements gradually take center stage, the only way to combat them is through this use of the politics of delegitimization, and to portray their pro-Israel positions as anti-Jewish, anti-Israel, Jewish self-haters and the divulgers of information to the anti-Semites.
OF GREATEST concern is the fact that these attempts at delegitimization are causing great damage to Israel’s image. Many of our supporters are now beginning to question whether Israel is indeed a democracy. Hundreds, if not thousands, of senior academics, who do not support boycotts and for whom the idea of delegitimizing Israel is as far removed from their thoughts as can be imagined, are writing letters of protest to university presidents, to government ministers and to leading international papers. Public figures and journalists are protesting the concerted right-wing campaign to silence all critics. In adopting self-appointed positions of superpatriotism, the right-wing groups are causing far greater damage to Israel than any of the real enemies out there, be they of the radical Right or the radical Left.
It is time to stand up and be counted. The Left cannot afford the continued luxury of silence. University presidents must come out in public against all those false supporters who use the power of their pocketbook to threaten Israeli academics because of their perceived political views. Government ministers must come out strongly against all attempts to falsely portray progressive supporters of Israel and human rights as anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic. By remaining silent, they will not be able to distance themselves from the next letter bomb (such as the one which exploded at the house of Prof. Ze’ev Sternhell of the Hebrew University) when it occurs.
The concerted attempts to delegitimize and silence more than half ofthe country’s citizens and its progressive supporters throughout theworld must be exposed for what they really are. We must demand thatthese organizations become transparent, that they too reveal theirsources of funding and, if they exist, their links to government andeven to ministers. Failure to do so will, at the end of the day, damageIsrael’s rapidly fading democracy beyond all repair.
The writer is professor of political geography at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics.