The de-legitimization campaign against Israel is the latest in a chain of attacks against the State of Israel since its inception, with the aim of weakening it until it is destroyed through an historic process. It was preceded by a series of campaigns that all failed – military campaigns, the Arab boycott, political/diplomatic campaigns (such as Zionism = racism), and campaigns of terror. In the eyes of the perpetrators of de-legitimization, this new form of campaign is aimed at Israel’s “soft underbelly” – it being a unique entity whose essence is not self-explanatory and cannot be easily understood since it defines itself along both religious and national lines and in the interface between them, and is in a historical conflict with another national movement over the same piece of territory – but holds a superior position on the ground.
This is largely a campaign in the realm of perceptions, presented as a “moral” one. As a result of the ideological negation of Israel’s legitimacy, those who stand behind it deny the legitimacy of any Israeli sovereign act aimed at defending and strengthening Israel, including the realization of the right of self-defense, the development of foreign and economic relations, the special relationship with the Diaspora (including the Law of Return), and the defense of Israel’s reputation. In this global campaign, the entire world is perceived as a battle-front, every citizen a potential soldier.
It is not by coincidence that this wave of war of perceptions broke out and resonated at the beginning of the 2000s, especially in Western Europe. This is a period in which a number of developments reached fruition and coalesced – receding awareness of the Holocaust, diminished connection to the Bible, the development of modern patterns of anti-Semitism directed against the State of Israel, the adoption of the “post …” discourse mentioned above, the spread of globalization and cosmopolitanism, decreased tolerance for expressions of ethno-religious nationalism, the human rights discourse superseding the classic national security discourse, the relative empowerment of non-state actors (the sovereign individual, non-governmental organizations, and civil society elements generally) and the increase in the demographic and political weight of Muslims in Europe. This was also the beginning of the age of social media, the internet networking revolution that developed tools to disseminate and amplify messages widely without ethical or legal filters. Additionally, this coincided with a low point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the failure of the Camp David process, the crushing of the hope for peace built up in the 1990s, and the eruption of the Second Intifada. As mentioned, for some of these factors there have been reversals or changes in recent years (for example, the resurgence of nationalism and populism), however their effects at this time are not yet clear.
A number of actors hostile to Israel came together behind the de-legitimization campaign, led by Muslim elements (including evidence of funding by political Islam), Palestinians, and far-left circles in the West. Although this is a decentralized phenomenon that includes many different entities, one can identify an increasing tendency toward virtual networks, franchises, and local collaborations.4 This is definitely true in relation to the leading BDS and de-legitimization organizations, such as Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), or the BDS National Committee (BNC). For example, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), which is the leading organization of the de-legitimization campaign on campuses and which grew up as a grass roots organization, increasingly appears to be tied to these networks and external organizations (such as American Muslims for Palestine) which provide funding and professional advice. All in all, we recognize in the West no more than a few dozen main groups dedicated to de-legitimization (and behind them a long trail of “tails”), enabling a focused counter-campaign, as will be presented below.
Taking a broad view, this campaign usually disguises its true intentions in a sophisticated manner, while offering an essentialist criticism of Israel as responsible for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its consequences. It places the conflict in a broader context of the denial of human and minority rights and the oppression of the weak and dispossessed. Its hubs can be found in the West (mainly in Western Europe and parts of the United States), among civil society actors (NGOs, campuses, labor unions, the business sector, churches, the media), social networks, and among the youth. This campaign Includes:
- Laying down an intellectual platform for shaping the narrative in a way that implicitly negates the legitimacy of Israel and its actions.
- Based on this platform, social networking tools are used to disseminate the message among broad civil society audiences, including widespread use of social media with an emphasis on the younger generation, frequent use of visual/emotional effects, and use of democratic and administrative means to penetrate civil society institutions and drive their decisions against Israel.
- The translation of the message into practical anti-Israel tools, while creating constant and unrelenting pressure, including legal attacks on Israel and Israelis (Lawfare), an economic attack on trade with Israel and investment in it (BDS), and an effort to organize academic, cultural, athletic and media boycotts, all accompanied by conspicuous and aggressive campaigns.
- Devising a “legitimate” campaign that appears to be progressive, liberal, non-violent, and focused on human rights and the protection of a discriminated and oppressed minority against what is presented as colonialism, racism, violence, and the systematic violation of international law. This includes legal “framing”5 and joining forces with liberal groups and leading international human rights organizations (such as Amnesty International and HRW), the integration of Jews and Israelis into the campaign in order to give it a “kosher” stamp and to counter accusations of anti-Semitism, and the frequent use of the UN as a political-legal-moral “umbrella.”
- In hijacking the liberal narrative, there has been an emphasis in recent years on intersectionality, which seeks to place the struggle against Israel into the broader context of struggle against all forms of oppression and discrimination. This campaign, which is particularly prevalent on North American campuses, manufactures an artificial image of “solidarity” between various struggles of minority and disenfranchised groups against the strong, privileged, and discriminatory majority, such as blacks (see the efforts to connect to Black Lives Matter), women, LGBT’s and more. As such, it “frames” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a simplistic, “black and white” narrative of the aggressor (Israel) versus the victim (the Palestinians), as opposed to a narrative of a complex conflict between two national movements.
- Another gradually developing form of “liberal” campaign is the attempt to use the emerging trend of Socially Responsible Investing (SRI), namely incorporating considerations of social good into investment strategies of economic entities, in order to advance an anti-Israel agenda.
- In the spirit of all of the above is the creation of an accepted and frequently used lexicon with a legitimate appearance in order to tarnish Israel’s image and raise a question mark over its legitimacy, using such labels as apartheid state, racism, ethnic cleansing, colonialism, crimes against humanity, discrimination and aggression.
- Along with the continuity and persistence in disseminating the message – exploiting any development or eruption in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to intensify the campaign, focusing on aspects of Israel’s behavior that are likely to echo negatively. This includes labelling the settlements issue (which is widely criticized around the world) as a type of colonialism that characterizes Israel in general, and organizing mass protests around security crises (see the ugly wave of anti-Israel events in Europe around Operation Protective Edge in Gaza in the summer of 2014).
- A deliberate effort to deprive Israel of the ability to freely and legitimately present its case and defend its reputation, as if it is categorically illegitimate and therefore anything that relates to it is similarly illegitimate. This includes deliberate, sometimes violent, interference with lecturers and speakers on campuses and other forums (“Anti-Normalization”).
- Conducting a dynamic campaign that constantly adapts its methods of operation according to lessons learned.
The effects of the de-legitimization campaign. After more than a decade, one can clearly state that the international de-legitimization campaign against the State of Israel has failed to achieve the strategic effect its initiators had hoped and strived for.
First, it has not registered a macroeconomic effect. On the contrary, during this period, Israel has experienced stable economic growth, an increase in exports, a tripling of foreign investments and increased trade with Europe, the main theater of BDS activity.6
Second, it has not harmed the scope of Israel’s foreign relations, which have expanded and developed considerably in recent years.
Third, it has failed to place any Israeli citizen in the legal dock for activities in the service of the Israeli government or the IDF (such as allegations of “war crimes” against Palestinians).
Fourth, it has achieved only limited success in cultural and academic boycotts, and has failed in its attempt to curb tourism to Israel (2017 appears to have set a new all-time record in this regard).
Fifth, it has achieved only limited success in bringing about anti-Israel divestment decisions on campuses and other public institutions (no U.S. university has actually divested from Israel, despite some student-bodies’ calls or decisions to do so) and in generating academic boycotts (in the decade following the establishment of the BDS movement, there has been a nearly 50 percent increase in academic cooperation between Israeli and North American universities).
Finally, its impact on civil society has been translated into a very limited influence on governmental and diplomatic decisions – far from what it aspired to achieve.
There are several reasons for this lack of success. From the outset, an economic attack on a country, such as BDS, is limited in its ability to generate a macroeconomic effect if it fails to mobilize a significant international coalition of governments. In Israel’s case, in addition to this crucial fact, the potential for successful boycotts was further limited since most of Israel’s exports to Europe – Israel’s largest trading partner – are production components embedded in products, which are exported by companies with an international profile. Moreover, Israel has developed other foreign markets, especially in Asia, and has at its disposal protective mechanisms against economic boycotts by virtue of its membership in international economic institutions.7
It also seems that a significant factor in the de-legitimization campaign’s lack of success is the organizational efforts in Israel and the Diaspora designed to deal with it over the last decade. This includes the government’s increased focus and mobilization on the issue and the growing intervention of many organizations in the counter-effort, a developing presence on the ground, as well as both preemptive and counter-attacks. Of special note is the Israeli government’s preparedness and response capabilities with respect to lawfare attacks against the state and its citizens.
In addition, in a number of cases the de-legitimizers themselves have contributed to their own failure by adopting an extremist line that exposed their true intentions and deterred certain parties from joining them and partially swayed public opinion against supporting their initiatives.
That said, one cannot ignore and should not underestimate the effect that the de-legitimization campaign has nonetheless realized. More than anything else, it has succeeded in poisoning the atmosphere surrounding Israel in certain circles in the West, such as on campuses and in social media, as evidenced by many students and youth, and in some media outlets. By and large, polls consistently portray a problematic image of Israel in the international court of public opinion. The term “Zionism” has been subverted from one that denotes a legitimate, even admirable national movement into a negatively charged alien concept in Western discourse. In the United States, where public support for Israel remains high, opinion polls show a worrying erosion of Israel support among the younger and more liberal generation, especially in the context of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Even if the full scope of this erosion is not the direct result of the de-legitimization campaign, it is safe to assume that it has contributed to it.
Despite the failure of the de-legitimization campaign, including BDS, on the macro level, it has registered some impact on the micro level by infiltrating Western liberal elites and through them trickling into the mainstream discourse. It is present, felt, and spreading across campuses in North America (despite that until now, it has only significantly infiltrated about 10 percent of them), in the field of academic cooperation between the Western world and Israel, and in the cultural and athletic arenas. It has become a nuisance to many businesses and economic entities in the West who invest in Israel, some of which (like European pension funds or companies such as Veolia or Orange) have decided to reduce or cut off contact with the Israeli market, and it has had some effect on the economically sensitive front of trade unions.
The phenomenon of applying boycotts or restrictions (such as labeling products or tightening customs tariffs) on Israeli products made beyond the “Green Line,” or on Israeli companies that are based or operate in the West Bank, is more common than boycotts of Israel proper. In recent years, this has intensified in Europe. As noted above, there is a debate about whether these boycotts and restrictions constitute de-legitimization or are merely a tool to apply political pressure on Israel’s policies in the Palestinian context (which Israel would fight anyway).
As they distinguish between “occupied territory” and “Israel proper,” they therefore implicitly recognize the very legitimacy of Israel. In any case, although Israel’s production beyond the Green Line is negligible (less than 1 percent of all Israeli exports), there is a potential “slippery slope” in that the boycotts or restrictions may gradually metastasize into Israeli entities – including banks – whose main operations are in Israel-proper but which have branches or activities in Judea and Samaria. This threat is manifested, for example, in the “black list” of such companies currently being compiled at the request of the UN Human Rights Council.
An important goal of the de-legitimization campaign is to undermine the connection of Jewish communities in the West to Israel, especially for the younger generation, which it regards as a “force multiplier” for Israel. Indeed, the phenomenon of “distancing” from Israel among Jewish youth in the United States exists and is well known. It can be seen in Pew surveys that show a lower rate of support for Israel among younger Jews than older age cohorts. The main reason for this development is not the de-legitimization campaign, but rather developments in the Jewish community itself such as intermarriage and other phenomena. However, on the political side, de-legitimization has had some influence. In general, one can say that although it has only convinced a very small and negligible part of the Jewish community to become de-legitimizers themselves, it has contributed to the adoption of critical attitudes toward Israel by a larger segment of the community. This derives from the sense of a perceived imperative to choose between its liberal values and support of Israel. An even larger segment simply disassociates itself from the issue of Israel because it regards it as having become too loaded and contentious.
The bottom line is that Israel and the Jewish people should not be indifferent to the campaign being waged against the state and its connection with the Diaspora. They must correctly identify the campaign’s focal points, including the vulnerabilities at which it has or may take aim, and prepare accordingly.
As noted above, important developments have taken place on the Israeli/Jewish side in recent years. First, the emerging awareness of the strategic challenge de-legitimization poses. Second, this awareness has been followed by a preparedness to confront the challenge. Numerous think-tanks and Jewish organizations have set out to commit resources to researching this phenomenon and providing action-oriented policy recommendations. At the initiation of the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) the Government of Israel tasked one ministry, the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, with coordinating the issue, and allocated a dedicated budget for this purpose. This ministry has indeed covered considerable and noteworthy ground in crafting a strategy and translating it into operational measures. Israeli intelligence agencies have established designated functions to monitor such trends. Jewish organizations and a number of civic initiatives in Israel and abroad have emerged to combat de-legitimization, including on campuses, in the public relations field, and on the internet. Connectivity and networking among some of these anti-de-legitimization groups has been established, advocates have been deployed in the “field” (for example, on campuses and to counter the annual “Israel apartheid week” in various cities). A growing number of anti-de-legitimization legislative initiatives have been passed at the local, state, and national levels in the United States and Europe.
Nevertheless, a comprehensive, properly budgeted long-term strategy to combat the phenomenon has not yet been completed, embedded, and implemented in Israel, and subsequently in the Diaspora. There are still deficiencies in the levels of focus, prioritization, organization, networking, coordination, and the mobilization of the necessary human and material resources.