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Delegitimization: Nuisance or Threat?

We need a range of tools to deal with irreconcilable opponents of Israel, one of which may be disinterest.
Dr. Tal Becker is a senior research fellow of the Kogod Research Center at Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, where he leads educational initiatives on Israel and the Jewish world. In this capacity, he is a leading member of the Institute’s iEngage research seminar which produces the premier educational program on Israel engagement in North America, working to strengthen and re-imagine the relationship between Israel and World Jewry. Dr. Becker also serves as the Legal

It is Israel Apartheid Week this week on campuses, but chances are you would not know it unless you just read this sentence. A study, just prepared by the Israeli Foreign Ministry, reveals that in the last four years Israel Apartheid Week was mentioned fewer than 400 times in non-Israeli, non-Jewish media outlets with an audience of 100,000 or more. Even more remarkable is that in 2011, some 65 percent of the coverage appeared in Israeli or Jewish media outlets. These results are reminiscent of the controversy surrounding Mel Gibson’s 2004 film, “The Passion of the Christ,” which depicted Jews as responsible for the death of Jesus. It was Jewish outrage at the film which seemed to make a decisive contribution to the fact that the movie grossed over $600 million at the box office, much of which came, no doubt, from people who wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

To be fair, the issue posed by “apartheid week” is less about its broader impact and more about the atmosphere and lasting effect of this activity for students on campus. In this narrower context, what is written about Israel in the Harvard Crimson may be of greater relevance than what is written about it in The New York Times. But the Foreign Ministry report does raise questions about the way we think about and confront anti-Israel activity both on campus and beyond it.

It has become conventional wisdom to speak of the assault on Israel’s legitimacy as a strategic threat almost on par with the Iranian nuclear program. Many Jewish organizations have rallied to confront what is often described as a global, organized, sophisticated campaign that poses an “existential challenge” to Israel. Those who question whether the delegitimizers are quite so powerful risk being labeled as naïve and blind to the grave dangers posed by the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement.

There is room to debate how pervasive and novel this campaign against Israel’s legitimacy really is. Those familiar with the outrages of the “Zionism is racism” UN resolution, or the Durban “Anti-Racism” Conference, and those who spent time on any number of university campuses in the last decades may be forgiven for thinking this is not a new phenomenon. It seems like the efforts of radicals to question Israel’s right to exist have always been part of the landscape. Their strength and numbers seem to rise and fall depending on numerous factors, not least actual events in the region. If there are statistics demonstrating a proven and dramatic rise in the success of boycott efforts on the international stage, on campus, or in the mainstream media, they are not commonly known.

Even if not new, the assault on Israel’s legitimacy should certainly be treated seriously and is worth confronting. Ideas left unchallenged can be dangerous; moderate voices need to be encouraged, and supporters of Israel, whether on campus or outside it, should not be subjected to hostility or intimidation. What’s more, there is a critical, larger issue about how younger generations can be educated about and exposed to Israel on campus and elsewhere and in this area, much initiative, investment and creativity needs to be directed.

But one of the questions raised by the Foreign Ministry study relates to the tactics most effective in confronting specific anti-Israel activity. It is possible that treating delegitimization generally as a nuisance rather than a strategic menace is often a more valuable tool in disempowering and disarming anti-Israel agitators. Few forces attract more attention and media coverage than a clash. Few voices are louder than the ones that can portray themselves as being “silenced.” No doubt, a case-by-case approach is required. When an event targeting Israel’s legitimacy attracts attention it may deserve a sophisticated response, but there will often be times when the best remedy is a yawn.

There is a broader point here. What does it say about us that we may sometimes be the people most responsible for spreading and amplifying the delegitimizer’s message? Could it be that our need to identify, ring alarm bells, and rally against the next crisis du jour is sometimes its own threat? Could it be that a more sober, more soft-spoken and less alarmist approach to the very real threats Israel faces is not only the less naive response, but also sometimes the more effective?

The legitimacy of the Jewish state should be unquestionable, but unfortunately the need to come to its defense is a real issue. The Jewish people’s right to self-determination is denied by some and dangerously undermined by others. But addressing this challenge need not follow the familiar pattern of crying “existential threat” and trying to rally the masses. We need to be smarter than that. We need a range of tools to deal with radical, irreconcilable opponents of Israel, one of which may well be disinterest.

We may also need to see that the legitimacy we should care about first is the one we believe in ourselves – the one we are responsible for instilling in our children. And the legitimacy we need to pursue outside our borders is primarily from those whose values we share and whose respect we would welcome. For this audience it may be that the morality and integrity of our policies (in the face of immense challenges), rather than the slickness of our talking points and PR campaigns, is the better protector of Israel’s legitimacy – not to mention its future.

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