Putting delegitimizers out of business

The challenge for those who want a fuller debate outside of Israel, like that inside it, is to put the question of its legitimacy as a Jewish state out of bounds.

Avery senior Israeli official told me that my speech to the Herzliya Conference on Tuesday was “brave.” Usually when someone says this, you assume they mean “foolish” or “ill-advised.” The subject was “criticism and prejudice and the attack on Israel’s legitimacy.”
I assume what he thought was brave was my claim that you put yourselves outside the norms of sensible behavior, and play the enemy’s game, if you do not accept that some criticism of Israel is legitimate. I argued that although there are delegitimizers out there, not all critics are delegitimizers. If you do not accept that, you risk a self-fulfilling prophecy, and “soft” critics will harden into people of prejudice.
It is simple human nature. As Robert Cialdini states in Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, reciprocity is one the most compelling human instincts. If you give someone something, he feels honor-bound to give something in return. If I want someone to take me seriously, I have to first give something by taking her seriously. That something, in this instance, is to give ground in the argument.
Everyone accepts there is no perfect country. So why not acknowledge when Israel has made a mistake? By accepting that, you are giving your audience something. In return, they give you respect.
For us to influence anybody, the hardest part is getting him to listen. There is fierce competition for people’s time, and the public is increasingly sceptical about what it sees in the media. If we want trust, we need to earn it by acknowledging that some criticism is legitimate.
Within Israel, people across the political spectrum can criticize each other and national policy without being accused of treachery or delegitimization. This is because when the debate is within the camp, no one feels as though the basic right of the Jewish state to exist is being challenged. But there is a fear that outside the country – because acceptance of a Jewish state seems increasingly open to question – that criticism plays into the hands of the delegitimizers.
The fear is all the greater when the criticism comes from within the world Jewish community or from Israel’s supporters.
THE TRUTH is that criticism, particularly from “within the camp” may well be abused by the delegitimizers. But the cost of trying to close debate will ultimately be greater. If we are not willing to engage seriously with legitimate criticism, we lose credibility when arguing against illegitimate criticism. This goes for the general debate, and for the discourse within the Jewish community.
Closing down discussion within the Jewish community carries the added risk of alienating vital parts of Israel’s support base. When you have the likes of Malcolm Hoenlein accepting that we are losing the support of young American Jews due to the feeling that Israel is not compatible with their values, we have to accept it is no longer “a bleeding-heart left issue.” If we do not have the confidence to allow a full and open debate, how can young people have confidence in our basic philosophy? The challenge for those who want a fuller debate outside of Israel, like that inside, is to put the question of its legitimacy as a Jewish state out of bounds. As a non-Jew, I became a Zionist because I was convinced of the universal right to national self-determination. If you accept that, you accept that Jews have this right, just as Palestinians do.If this principle is accepted, we should not fear open debate about particular policies.
Accepting that some criticism is legitimate does not mean we shy away from a robust defense of Israel’s actions. This is what I and BICOM do every day. We make the case in public, even at the hardest times, such as during Operation Cast Lead, during the Gaza flotilla incident, and in the wake of the recent publication of the “Palestine Papers.”
Indeed, I believe we have to defend Israel even more visibly. We also need to reengage with the grass roots of British Jewry. We cannot win the public debate without the backing of a mobilized, active community at a local level. Marking BICOM’s 10th anniversary this year, we are planning the largest ever pro-Israel conference in London. We are launching a campaign to win back and hold the center ground alongside many other communal organizations. We are launching the progressive case for Israel and driving the campaign for the Left to support it as a Jewish state. We are not running from the fight.
But we will be doing the delegitimizers’ dirty work for them if we pretend some questions about Israel’s behavior are not legitimate. All politicians know the danger of ignoring the issues that people are talking about in their living rooms.
Acknowledging reasonable criticism gives us the ability to deal with unreasonable criticism far more effectively.
We should be prepared to accept legitimate debate. The cost we should extract is to make illegitimate the denial of the Jewish people’s right to national self-determination. By making this unacceptable, we can put the minority of real delegitimizers out of business.
The writer is chief executive of the Britain Israel Communications and Research Center (BICOM).