Into the fray: Delegitimization, anti-Semitism & BDS: Sharansky’s misdirected lament

In his recent Jerusalem Post article the Jewish Agency Chairman, was spot on in his diagnosis; but totally off target with his prescription for dealing with anti-Israel defamation on US campuses.

Natan Sharansky (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Natan Sharansky
I shoot the Hippopotamus with bullets made of platinum; Because if I use leaden ones his hide is sure to flatten ‘em. – The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts, Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953)
This week, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, Natan Sharansky, published an anguished opinion piece in The Jerusalem Post (May 19) titled “Campuses are flooded with Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.”
In it he bemoaned the fact that “, nearly every American campus is as awash in double standards, efforts to delegitimize the Jewish state and rhetoric demonizing Israel as the newspapers of Europe or the committees of the United Nations.”
See the latest opinion pieces on our page
Right diagnosis; wrong prescription
Although Sharansky was entirely correct in diagnosing the gravity of the situation, he was badly off course in prescribing the required response to this rapidly spreading malaise – both as to the necessary scale and scope of the remedy, and as to who should be responsible for administering it.
The growing delegitimization/ demonization of Israel as the sovereign nation-state of the Jewish people is certainly one of the most severe strategic dangers confronting the country today. In many respects it may be the most severe of all – for it has a pervasive and debilitating effect on the ability to contend with the myriad of other existential challenges Israel currently faces.
It constricts its freedom of action in the military sphere, and the severity of the coercive measures (both preemptive and punitive) it can take against it enemies. It diminishes its ability to rally international support to deal with threats such as the Iranian nuclear program.
Indeed, in the eyes of increasing numbers across the globe, an increasingly delegitimized Israel becomes an increasingly legitimate target for attack by its enemies.
Sharansky was therefore quite right to raise the issue of this burgeoning peril, and to focus attention on one of the most potent and pernicious centers of propagation – the American academe.
‘The atmosphere more difficult by the day...’
However, his depiction of the problem, his presentation of past measures and his proposal for future ones are wildly inappropriate and hopelessly inadequate.
Thus Sharansky specifies his organization’s response: “... the Jewish Agency’s Israel Fellows program, designed to connect Jewish college students with Israel, is the most quickly growing of all of the agency’s initiatives. From its humble origins just five years ago, with representatives, or emissaries, on a dozen campuses, it now reaches more than 80 colleges and universities” – barely 1.1 percent of the more than 7,000 institutes of higher learning in the US.
He continues: “These dedicated men and women, who operate as part of each college’s local Hillel team, work to bring Israel-related events to their campuses, to encourage students to visit Israel, and to strengthen the pro-Israel voice in campus debates. They are charged not only with convincing students to join Israel-experience programs, but also with accompanying them while there, developing relationships and encouraging them to speak up for Israel when they return to school.”
But all this effort – by Sharansky’s own implicit admission – has been largely ineffectual. For in spite of what he dubs as ”the most quickly growing of all of the agency’s initiative,” matters have only gotten worse.
For despite this well-intentioned endeavor “to help change the atmosphere on campus,” in Sharansky’s own words: “That atmosphere is becoming more difficult by the day.
Campuses are flooded with Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) resolutions, which this year increased in both reach and intensity, appearing at a greater number of institutions and with a relentlessness that we had not seen before.”
‘Shooting hippos?’: ‘Leaden bullets’ don’t work
Clearly then, current efforts are not working.
Sadly, Sharansky’s characterization of what should be done, and who should do it, appears, to reflect a woeful lack of understanding and a gross underestimation of the problem.
He seems to believe that the problem is one that can be effectively dealt with – or at least perceptibly diminished – by individual enterprises carried out by privately funded organizations.
He cites such an initiative by an American NGO, Advancing Human Rights, headed by the energetic David Keyes, which protested Iran’s hanging of political dissidents by handing out free ice cream to passersby on a New York sidewalk and heckling Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and which reportedly attracted considerable media attention.
Sharansky thus urges: “Why not organize more such events to remind college students of which countries are in fact the world’s worst violators of human rights? Why not counter the theatrics of Apartheid Week, with its simulated walls and checkpoints, with equally visceral demonstrations of true atrocities such as Saudi Arabia’s flogging of liberal blogger Raif Badawi, or the massacre of thousands of Palestinians by Islamic State in the Yarmuk refugee camp?” Significantly(?), he refrains from recommending exposing and underscoring human rights abuses in the Palestinian-administered territories – which is something I will come back to shortly.
While I have great respect for Keyes and his Advancing Human Rights organization, highlighting human rights abuses in Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia, in itself a measure of commendable moral merit, will do little to diminish the criticism of Israel – and the accompanying attempts to undermine its legitimacy – for purportedly depriving the Palestinian- Arabs their alleged “rights” to statehood.
Peashooters against charging rhinoceroses?
The two explicit flaws (what to do and who should do it) and the one implicit flaw (the scale and scope of what is to be done) in Sharansky’s proposal reflect much of what plagues the ongoing debacle of Israel’s (mis)conduct of its public diplomacy.
For the dimensions of the task at hand are far beyond those that can be left to private endeavor, and the directions which it must pursue are very different from the oblique, tangential ones set out by Sharansky.
The resources available to most pro-Israel NGOs are insignificant relative to the strategic objectives that need to be obtained – and relative to those at the disposal of Israel’s detractors. For example, perusal of the 990 forms, detailing the financial activity of US tax-exempt entities, will reveal that the previously mentioned Advancing Human Rights had reported revenues in 2013 of just over $1 million, while one of the most active pro-Israel organizations, StandWithUs, had 2013 revenues of about $8m.
Clearly then, for all the excellent work many pro-Israel entities undertake, the resources at their disposal are dwarfed by both the magnitude of the challenge and the resources of their anti-Israel adversaries, generously funded by private and governmental sources in the US, EU and petro-rich Gulf states.
Although the lack of transparency and lack of disclosure make an exact assessment of the funds driving the delegitimization/demonization of Israel difficult to arrive at, some reports suggest it is well in excess of $100m.
Ineffectual Israeli officialdom
The magnitude of the funding available to Israel’s detractors makes governmental involvement essential if any efficacy is to be achieved, not only in contending with the ominous tide of rising delegitimization, but in curtailing and countering it.
It is toward this end that I would urge Sharansky to channel his efforts to contend with the rising specter of Judeophobic hatred. Rather than foster cute, creative gimmicks, I would urge him to throw his considerable weight, that of the Jewish Agency and of influential Diaspora Jewry, whose ear he has, to induce the government to relate to the problem of delegitimization in strategic terms and allot commensurately strategic resources to deal with it.
On several occasions since Benjamin Netanyahu’s reelection in 2009, I have warned of the consequences of inaction – or of ineffectual action – on this matter. I have asked at some of the most senior levels of government – of both elected ministers and appointed officials – how it is that foreign governments can allot up to $100m., annually, to NGOs dedicated to denigrating Israel, but the government cannot even provide a miserly few million to NGOs dedicated to defending Israel.
The response has been, almost uniformly, uncomfortable silence, uneasy fidgeting in the armchair across the table – and a mumbled complaint about bureaucratic impediments.
Ineffectual officialdom (cont.)
However, the paucity of allocated resources does not mean there is no money to be had. As I have pointed out repeatedly in this column, the allocation of about 1% of the state budget would make around a billion dollars available annually for a public diplomacy offensive on opinion around the globe. One-tenth of 1% would provide $100m. for a PD assault on campuses across the US to arrest the alarming erosion in support for Israel. Think of how many free ice cream cones that could buy.
I urged the establishment of an independent Authority of Strategic Diplomacy, under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office rather than the Foreign Ministry. I urged it be staffed by “intellectual warriors” rather than official diplomats, who, bound by the protocol and niceties of diplomatic etiquette, are unlikely to be able to undertake some of the more abrasive activities called for in the war on delegitimization.
Exasperated by official inaction, I wrote a series of columns laying out the actions I thought crucial in this war: • “If I Were Prime Minister...,” which stipulated: “The first order of business would be to devise and deploy a political ‘Iron Dome’ to protect Israel from the incoming barrages of delegitimization and demonization...”
• “My Billion-Dollar Budget: If I Were PM (Cont.),” which counseled: “Perhaps the most important lesson the pro-Zionist advocates of today should learn from the Palestinians is this: ‘If you will it, it is no fantasy.’” • “Dereliction of Duty,” where I warned: “Continued impotence and incompetence in the (mis)conduct of Israel’s public diplomacy is becoming not only a strategic threat to the country but is beginning to imperil Jewish communities abroad.”
• “Intellectual Warriors, Not Slicker Diplomats,” which diagnosed: “Israel’s greatest strategic challenge, its gravest strategic failure, its grimmest strategic danger is the (mis)conduct of its public diplomacy.”
Sadly, all this fell on deaf, or at least unresponsive, ears.
The source of delegitimization: An unassailable political algorithm
But of course, although adequate resources may be a necessary condition for victory, they are unlikely to comprise a sufficient one.
To achieve such victory, the fundamental source of delegitimization must be identified and eliminated.
Accomplishing this in today’s climate of politically correct despotism calls for considerable intellectual integrity, a willingness to challenge accepted norms and the capacity to acknowledge that the counterintuitive may well be an unavoidable imperative.
Almost exactly two years ago, in “Deciphering delegitimization,” I wrote: “Clearly, within the context of conventional wisdom... the contention that Israel’s acceptance of the legitimacy of Palestinian national claims has laid the foundations for the international assault on its own legitimacy seems, at best, counterintuitive.
However, the logic behind it is unassailable and the conclusion to be drawn from it inexorable: Once the legitimacy of a Palestinian state is conceded, the delegitimization of Israel is inevitable.”
The chain of reasoning (set out in greater detail in the aforementioned column) is clear and compelling – almost algorithmic.
The acceptance of the legitimacy of the Palestinian narrative implies the legitimacy of Palestinians claims for statehood. But the establishment of a Palestinian state violates the minimum security requirements that any responsible Israeli government must insist on maintaining.
Hence insistence on minimum Israeli security requirements obviates the establishment of a Palestinian state, which has been deemed “legitimate.” Hence Israeli security requirements, which no reasonable government can forgo, must be “illegitimate.”
The only way to legitimize Israeli security concerns is to delegitimize the Palestinian narrative and claims for Palestinian statehood. It is this, rather than human rights abuses in Iran, atrocities in Syria, and brutality in Saudi Arabia, that must be the major thrust in the war against delegitimization.
No amount of politically correct gobbledygook can change the steely logic in this chain of reasoning.
The need for ‘platinum’ bullets
The fact that this diagnosis is accurate and the derivative prescription imperative does not make the task of administering it any easier.
Rolling back the deadly consequences that have accumulated over the decades will be a Herculean task – not one for “leaden bullets” of sporadic individual initiatives with underfunded private organizations.
It is one for which “platinum bullets” – a billion dollar budget, an Authority for Strategic Diplomacy and well-funded battalions of “intellectual warriors – are essential.
I call on Mr. Sharansky to use his considerable influence to contribute in the construction such a vitally needed arsenal.
Martin Sherman ( is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies. (