Im Tirtzu: delegitimising the 'delegitimisers'

A campaign to suppress all criticism now extends to smearing Israeli human rights activists as hostile to Jewish statehood

Friday, 23 April, 2010 - 15:24
London, UK

The word “delegitimisation” has become the most significant weapon in the rhetorical arsenal of those defending Israel against external and internal enemies. In Israel, rightwing policymakers, thinkers and Zionist groups are deploying the word to describe the underlying motives of the country’s critics. Outside Israel, pro-Israel groups and Jewish defence organisations use it to attack those who protest when Israeli officials speak in public, promote boycott campaigns and accuse Israel of apartheid policies.

The Israeli Reut Institute promotes the term assiduously. It produced a highly influential report, Building a Political Firewall Against Israel’s Delegitimisation, that defines delegitimisation as criticism that “exhibits blatant double standards, singles out Israel, denies its right to exist as the embodiment of the self-determination right of the Jewish people, or demonises the state”.

The term is doubly useful. It’s negative when exposed as the motive of Israel’s critics. But it’s positive when used as a means of undermining Israel’s human rights organisations. The delegitimisation of rights groups began soon after the Netanyahu government came to power. It took an insidious turn in January when Im Tirtzu: the Second Zionist Revolution, a student-based organisation that aims to “strengthen the values of Zionism in Israel”, attacked the New Israel Fund for supporting the Israeli human rights groups, which, Im Tirtzu claimed, provided more than 90% of the data for the war crimes accusations against Israel in the Goldstone Report. A second phase of Im Tirtzu’s attack began on the day Israel remembered its fallen soldiers. In a report issued on 19 April, the group directly accused rights organisations of betraying the country and engineering the indictment of Israel’s leaders when they travel abroad.

Im Tirtzu is clearly a radical rightwing movement whose latest effort comprised a national billboard campaign, a specially commissioned highly emotional pop song, which conveys the betrayal message and the accusation that rights groups are prepared to knife Israel’s soldiers in the back while they protect the country, and the distribution to synagogues of 15,000 copies of a version of the memorial prayer for dead soldiers including a passage inciting against human rights groups. Such extensive activity requires substantial funding. The Christian evangelical John Hagee Ministries and the New York Central Fund, both of which fund settler groups, are among Im Tirtzu’s funders.

The claim that critics of Israel are delegitimising the state’s existence is not new. The argument was made in the 1980s when the USSR orchestrated an anti-Zionist campaign largely through the UN. But the response then was to see the problem in terms of Israel’s poor public relations. It was felt that more sophisticated presentation of “good news” stories, the government’s “genuine desire for peace” and an overall positive image of Israel would turn the tide of international opinion in Israel’s favour.

Israel hasn’t entirely abandoned this strategy, but since it has failed to stem the growing pressure on Israel to submit to international accountability, end the occupation and respond positively to the Obama administration’s tougher line, a more apocalyptic assessment of the country’s plight now dominates thinking. This is clear from the Reut Institute’s latest “delegitimacy” update. It speaks of:

a systematic and systemic assault on Israel’s political and economic model, which aims to bring about its implosion. These dynamics have evolved into a strategic concern of potentially existential implications that require transitioning from ‘local and situational re-action’ to ‘global and systemic pro-action.’”

Two things seemed to have reinforced the conclusion that criticism represents an existential threat. First, a realisation that playing the antisemitism card has also failed to moderate criticism. Second, a perception that US policy now endangers, rather than guarantees, Israel’s existence.

In this frame of mind, it’s perfectly logical to redefine what was once seen as tolerable, but albeit bitterly contested, dissent – the reports and critiques of Israel’s human rights organisations – as a form of intolerable and existentially threatening delegitimisation. And as Yair Wallach argues, since the Israeli government is offering no realistic, negotiated path to the two-state solution it professes to support, it’s forced to do more to defend the status quo:

The occupation appears as a de facto permanent feature of the Israeli system of government rather than as a set of temporary policies and security measures.”

Despite the call for “global and systemic pro-action” (which sounds like meaningless jargon), it’s hard to believe that the delegitimisation argument will lead to anything but more violence and further repression of dissent. The failure of this apocalyptic thinking to even consider the idea that Israel is delegitimising itself is perverse. Not because it’s the argument made by the human rights groups, but because some of Israel’s own leaders have made it. Defence minister and Labour leader Ehud Barak said recently: “If millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state.” In November 2007, former prime minister Ehud Olmert said Israel risked being compared to apartheid-era South Africa if it failed to agree to an independent state for the Palestinians.

The continued denial of the Palestinians’ human and political rights is the most effective way of delegitimising Israel.

Cross-posted with The Guardian, Comment is Free

Antony Lerman is the Chair of JNews - Alternative Jewish Perspectives on Israel and Palestine, and the former director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research

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