De-legitimization is the act of denying the legitimacy of the State of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. This is a deliberate, targeted, and increasingly sophisticated attack on the State of Israel and its connection with the Jewish people. It stems from the realm of ideas and perceptions, is based on and draws from the political space of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and continually develops practical means to wreak damage on Israel.
The Origins of the Modern Phenomenon
Denying the right of the Jewish collective to self-determination and undermining the legitimacy of the State of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, is not a new phenomenon. The Jewish people and the State of Israel have, throughout history, experienced quite a few boycotts of various kinds. However, it seems that this phenomenon has assumed a new and troubling complexion since the early 2000s. A watershed event occurred in September 2001 at the World Conference against Racism (WCAR) in Durban, South Africa (Durban 1), which, under UN auspices, convened some 1500 NGOs and decreed the “complete and total isolation of Israel as an Apartheid state.” Demands issued at Durban 1 included: “the imposition of mandatory and comprehensive sanctions and embargoes; the full cessation of all links (diplomatic, economic, social, aid, military cooperation and training) between all states and Israel.” This event laid the foundation for a widespread international de-legitimization campaign. In 2005, the international Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) was launched. 170 pro-Palestinian organizations came under its auspices initiating and advocating anti-Israel boycotts. That same year saw the first annual “Israel Apartheid Week” in cities and on campuses around the world.
Main Characteristics of the Phenomenon
In its modern form, de-legitimization is an international campaign propagated in numerous circles in the West. It is advanced by elements of civil society (including under the UN umbrella), and is spread on the internet and especially in social media. It has trickled into mainstream public discourse and is expressed widely in a number of fields. Muslims, Palestinians and far-left activists in the West comprise its primary engine, and although it is decentralized, there is a significant amount of virtual networking and local cooperation.
De-legitimization has turned into a global battle of perceptions against the State of Israel and against a key element of Diaspora Jewish identity. Moreover, it has developed a set of tools to harm Israel in the economic and legal spheres among others. Its end goal is to turn Israel into a “pariah” state isolated from the world, much like apartheid South Africa. It seeks to deny Israel the legitimate right to defend itself and its unique character and reputation. The intended cumulative endgame is to weaken Israel until it ultimately collapses in a historic process.
Researching the Phenomenon
Over the past seven years, the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) has conducted a deep policy-oriented research project on the de-legitimization of the State of Israel and the connection between world Jewry and the Jewish state. The project originated out of a feeling of necessity in Israel and the Diaspora to understand the phenomenon and to confront it, once it had developed into a perceived strategic threat. It was acknowledged as such by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu back then.
In order to fully grasp the phenomenon and offer the tools to confront it, JPPI established a series of working groups that thoroughly examined every significant aspect of de-legitimization (including the intellectual, political, security, legal, and economic dimensions, as well as how it plays out in the media, the internet, and on campuses). Significant attention has been paid to its European theater – the beating heart of the phenomenon. The project also looked closely at its Jewish dimension (i.e., its influence on Diaspora communities, their responses in actively taking sides to support or oppose the de-legitimization phenomenon). In addition, the deep historical, religious, and cultural roots of de-legitimization have been thoroughly examined and assessed. Although this document draws from the research in all these areas, it does not dive deeply into each dimension. Rather, it takes a bird’s eye view of the phenomenon in order to present a comprehensive, coherent and up to date picture, and suggests guidelines for an overall counter-strategy.
The Changing Environment
Much has changed since JPPI launched the project. Back then, the de-legitimization campaign had already gained momentum, while the awareness of this campaign and the preparedness to confront it, in Israel and the Diaspora, was low. Since then, a high level of awareness has developed and Israel and major Jewish organizations worldwide have taken important steps that have yielded positive results. At the same time, this led to a proliferation of groups seeking to counter de-legitimization, sometimes leading to uncoordinated duplicative efforts and a degree of friction among them. Meanwhile, those promoting de-legitimization have not stood idly by and are constantly adapting to changing circumstances in increasingly sophisticated ways, which are discussed below.
The strategic environment, regional and international, has also changed significantly in recent years. Internationally, the cornerstones at the base of the world order since the end of the Cold War and the Soviet Union’s dissolution have eroded: diminishing U.S. dominance, the re-assertiveness of Russia as a key actor in the international area generally and in the Middle East in particular, the rise of China’s economic power, and the weakening of Europe to the point where its future and collective identity are in question. This emerging international reality has brought with it a rise in nationalism and populism at the expense of cosmopolitanism.
The Middle East has also undergone dramatic upheavals that have shattered the old order and opened a space for the rise of extremist Islamist elements. This, together with the diminishing U.S. role and impact in the region and Israel’s growing military and economic power, has contributed to an unprecedented improvement in relations between Israel and some of its Arab neighbors (especially, but not exclusively, in security matters). All of the above changes, despite bearing significant challenges to Israel, also afford it important advantages in confronting the de-legitimization campaign, including the development of a complex network of connections and alliances – in the Middle East, the Far East (China and India), Africa, and elsewhere – that ameliorate attempts to isolate and weaken Israel.
A Strategic Threat?
A debate is underway as to the extent to which the de-legitimization campaign poses a real strategic threat to the State of Israel. On the one hand, it has yet to achieve any tangible strategic effect, be it economic, legal, diplomatic or otherwise. On the other hand, its range of activity has expanded over the years, and has succeeded in poisoning the atmosphere around Israel in certain Western circles (Western Europe and parts of the United States) and beyond, negatively influencing Israel’s image by painting it as an invidious colonialist entity that violates human rights and flouts international law. It targets sensitive points in the connective tissue between Israel and the Jewish people. Its lack of strategic success to date should not be taken as permanent.
Our general conclusion is that de-legitimization should be regarded as a long-term strategic threat to be countered appropriately with a structured strategic framework. In the following pages, we present an analysis of the phenomenon and guidelines for developing an efficacious counter strategy, as well as the practical tools for implementing it.