Is ‘Delegitimizing’ Israel Anti-Semitic?

Israel and its backers are on the political offensive against critics who are putting non-violent pressure on the Likud government of Benjamin Netanyahu to address the legitimate needs of Palestinians and to recognize human rights for all people who live in Israel/Palestine. Israeli defenders equate this “delegitimizing” of Israel with anti-Semitism, but Lawrence Davidson disagrees.

By Lawrence Davidson

June 30, 2011

On June 23, MJ Rosenberg published an article in the Huffington Post entitled “Netanyahu Is the One ‘Delegitimizing’ Israel,” referring to the term that, according to Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, has become a “buzzword in the world of pro-Israel activism.”

Rosenberg tries to turn the concept back on the Zionists by claiming it is their own actions that are actually eroding Israel’s legitimacy. He is correct but there is more to be said on this topic. First, some additional background:

In 2010, the Zionists decided they would try to split what they considered their opposition by defining different categories of criticism of Israel. Those who are critical of just particulars, this or that Israel policy or tactic, were put in the category of acceptable critics.

I would point out that this was a big concession on their part for, if you think back ten years or so, any public criticism of Israel was assumed to be inspired by “anti-Semitism.” In any case, that charge has now been narrowed down to those assigned to a second category the “delegitimizers.”

These are the ones who, allegedly, are critical in a way that calls into question the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state. According to the Zionists, this delegitimizing approach is, so to speak, beyond the pale, or as the American Zionist leader William Daroff put it, a “cancerous growth.”
The Zionists have gone to a lot of trouble to make this process of categorization appear well thought out and researched. In March 2010, the Tel Aviv-based Reut Institute issued a 92-page report which defines delegitimizing criticism as that which “exhibits blatant double standards, singles out Israel, denies its right to exist as the embodiment of the self-determination of the Jewish people, or demonizes the state.” 
In his Huffington Post article, Rosenberg says this effort on the part of the Zionists is a gambit “to change the subject from the existence of the occupation to the existence of Israel. … That is why Prime Minister Netanyahu routinely invokes Israel’s ‘right of self-defense’ every time he tries to explain away some Israeli attack on Palestinians. …

“If the whole Israeli-Palestinian discussion is about Israel’s right to defend itself, Israel wins the argument. But if it is about the occupation which is, in fact, what the conflict has been about since 1993 when the PLO recognized Israel it loses.”

He concludes, “Israel [is] not being isolated because it is a Jewish state and hence illegitimate, but because of how it treat[s] the Palestinians.”
Rosenberg certainly has a point. However, one can draw a more general and troublesome message from the Zionist notion of delegitimizers. This more basic insight goes like this:
–The distinction drawn by the Zionists between acceptable and unacceptable criticism works only if one assumes that the policies and tactics of the Israeli state leading to, on the one hand, expansion into the Occupied Territories, and on the other, the segregation of its non-Jewish minorities, are not structural.

Or, to put it another way, that Israel’s imperial and discriminatory policies are not a function of the ethno/religious definition of the state. But what happens if Israel’s tactics and policies are not just opportunistic, but indeed structural? What if the behavior of the government flows from the very nature of a country designed first and foremost for a specific group?

If that is the case, you cannot separate out criticism of this or that policy from criticism of the very character of the Israeli polity. Policies and state ideology are all of one piece.
Please note that I am not singling out Israel in this regard (though, as we will see, I do single it out in other ways). Actually, it would not matter if Israel (or any other country) was Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, White, Black or created by and for little green men from Mars. If any state:
a) is designed to first and foremost serve one specific group while
b) having in its midst minorities which it systematically segregates by
c) either structuring its laws in a discriminatory way, and/or purposely educating its citizenry to act in a discriminatory fashion
d) then from the standpoint of civilized, modern democratic principles, one can justly question not only its tactics and policies, but the legitimacy of the social/political structure that generates them.
This is so whether the country is expansionist or not. In other words, if Israel had never moved beyond its 1967 borders and never set up its wretched colonial regime in the Occupied Territories, there would still be a problem because of the way it treats Israeli Arabs.

Here is where I would take the Rosenberg argument one step further. It is not just the occupation, it is Zionism as a guiding socio-political ideology that is illegitimate.
–Given the ideological insistence that Israel must be a “Jewish” state, how does one argue against Zionist Israel without opening oneself to the charge of anti-Semitism?

The best way to do so is by generalizing out Rosenberg’s argument by taking the general position that all governments that use their laws to discriminate against minority groups delegitimize themselves.

In the case of Zionist Israel (which, we should keep in mind, does not represent all Jews) just ceasing to behave in an imperialist fashion may be necessary, but it is not a sufficient corrective. Israel must cease to structure its laws and social behavior in a discriminatory fashion and for that it has to get rid of its present Zionist governing ideology.

If Israel wants to be both Jewish and a legitimate, civilized, modern democratic state, it has to find a non-discriminatory way to do it. As long as it stays a Zionist state, it will constantly be hoisting itself with its own petard.
–Beyond Israel’s borders, it is the Zionist political and media efforts to convince world opinion that they must be considered both legitimate and be allowed to operate in a discriminatory fashion that are particularly corrupting.

To explain this let us address the Zionist charge that deligitimizers “single out Israel” by using “blatant double standards.”

This assertion has become so common that when one ventures into a public forum to discuss Israeli behavior, one is almost assured the following question: Why are you singling out Israel? How about all those other countries doing horrible things to people? How about the Russians slaughtering Chechens? How about the Chinese committing cultural genocide against Tibet? What about Darfur?

If you think about it, the question is an unfortunate one from the point of view of those asking because, implicitly (but accurately), it puts Israel into the same category as all these other bad guys and that certainly is not what the questioner intends. In any case, there is a ready answer to the question and it goes like this:
The fact that Zionist influence spreads far beyond Israel’s area of dominion and has long influenced many of the policy-making institutions of Western governments, and particularly that of the United States, makes it imperative that Israel’s oppressive behavior be singled out as a high priority case from among the many other oppressive regimes that may be candidates for pointed criticism and even boycott.

In other words, unlike the Chinese, the Russians and other such governments, the Israelis and their supporters directly influence, in a corrupting fashion, the policymakers of Western democracies and this often makes these governments accomplices in Israel’s abusive policies.

This being so, singling out Israel is not hypocrisy, but rather necessity. William Daroff, the Zionist leader mentioned above who appears on the look-out for “cancerous growths,” might find this pathology in the on-going corruptive nature of his own organization’s influence.
From the standpoint of intellectual debate, it is not difficult to defeat Zionist arguments. I have been doing it for years both in writing and in public forums. I humbly admit that (where they have not turned into bedlam) I have never lost one of these encounters.

However, international affairs and the fate of nations are not normally settled by intellectual debates. Nor, unfortunately, are they often settled by international law. Historically, they are settled by political intrigue and backroom lobbying (at which level Zionist influence works) and/or brute force.
Is there a way around this historical roadblock? I think so.

There is a growing, world-wide movement of civil society seeking the isolation of Israel at all levels. This is the same strategy that brought change to apartheid South Africa. And, toward the growth of this movement, intellectual debate is very useful and important.

It is no accident that the Zionists point to those who advocate boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel as the number-one enemies within their category of delegitimizers. I think they know, or at least sense, that the BDS movement is the very best long-term strategy for those who wish to force Israel to rid itself of what makes it truly illegitimate its Zionist ideology.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Offical Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.