Delegitimizing Israel: the dictionary

The debate about the “delegitimizing” of Israel is often shallow, and fraught with vague and circular definitions. An examination of  a series of statements that are often labeled as “delegitimizing” Israel raises serious questions about this high-profile campaign  

James Besser, in the “Jewish Week” defines delegitimizing Israel in the following way:

To me, “delegitimization” refers to efforts to promote the idea that Israel is not a legitimate member of the community of nations – that its creation was improper, or that it has somehow rendered itself beyond the pale through its actions.

This is too vague (not to mention circular). Instead, I suggest we take a list of statements often labeled as “delegitimizing” and try to assess their meaning.

Let’s begin with an easy one:

Israel should be destroyed and all Jews deported to Europe.

OK, you can say this position delegitimizes Israel, but is that the worst you can say about it? How about supporting ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity? Some people do make such statements but they are not usually accused of delegitimizing Israel.

Israel should cease to exist.

I imagine that most people making this statement mean the same as the previous one. If not, they should speak more clearly.

Israel is the most evil country in the world.

This is so blatantly untrue that it is only fair to suspect it basically amounts to the same as the previous two statements.

Israel is a colonial enterprise.

Depends on the conclusion you draw from this statement. All the states of the Americas, as well as New Zealand and Australia, are colonial enterprises. The crimes that established those countries are far more heinous than anything done to establish Israel. Yet no one would argue that the last two sentences delegitimize all those states.

Israel should not have been founded.

Everything that was said about the previous statement applies to this one as well. Perhaps it is more “in your face”, but then again, it could be considered softer, as it is a judgment on the past, rather than the present.

Israel does X [X being a bad thing].

Depends on the X. If X is clearly, demonstrably false, and said only to make Israel look bad, one can say that it is a terrible lie. If the accusation is truly heinous, it might amount to statement #3 above. However, not every baseless accusation against a state “delegitimizes” it; otherwise all of them would have long perished from this earth. And if the accusation is actually true, to call it “delegitimizing” would be absurd (although that has not stopped many people from making that claim).

Israel should be sanctioned.

I think China, Syria, and plenty of other countries, should be sanctioned. There, I’ve said it. Anybody feels the legitimacy of those states has taken a hit? Neither do I. Even if you think Israel should not be sanctioned, this does not make every statement to the contrary a “delegitimizing” act. Iran, by the way, has been the deserving target of a far more successful BDS campaign than Israel. Yet no one thinks Iran itself has become less legitimate as a result. Perhaps the regime was delegitimized, but not the state.

Israel should not be a Jewish state/ should be a “state of all its citizens” / should be a bi-national state / should be replaced by one democratic state from the Jordan to the sea / etc.

These kinds of statements, along with the two previous types, are the most popular target of the delegitimizing finger-pointers. There are many gentiles in Israel, and many more in the territories under its control, who do not accept the state’s definition as Jewish. Jews want to live in a state that is defined in a way that is acceptable to them, but so do others. Shouting about “delegitimizing” will not make these people disappear.

In fact, shouting about delegitimizing does not seem to accomplish any goal, except to make Israel seem like a hysterically insecure nation, which equates people saying bad things about it with pointing a nuclear weapon at it, or sending suicide bombers to attack it.