There are a number of key factors behind the de-legitimization campaign that both motivate and fuel it.
A major component of the de-legitimization phenomenon and the main ammunition of its perpetrators is the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. This conflict provides de-legitimizers with a convenient space and sufficient pretext to attack Israel and undermine its legitimacy. This is because in the eyes of the broader international community, Israel is cast as the Goliath to the Palestinian David, the strong versus the weak, the occupier versus the occupied. The primary responsibility for the absence of a solution is attributed to Israel. The conflict enables de-legitimizers to frame the Jewish people’s right to self-determination as antithetical to the Palestinians’ right to self-determination. Israel’s image is tarnished as a colonialist-settler, racist, peace-rejectionist, oppressive and murderous entity that denies human rights and is characterized by serial violations of international law, war crimes, and crimes against humanity (see the 2009 Goldstone Report as an example).
For the Palestinian side, tarnishing Israel’s image and demonizing remain important tools in its national-political struggle. It is no coincidence that the founders of the BDS movement are Palestinians who reject the two-state solution. The Palestinian Authority (PA) itself is characterized by a duality on the matter of de-legitimization, including its attitude toward the BDS movement. On one hand, it has committed politically to a two-state solution that recognizes Israel’s right to exist, and for years has been cooperating with Israel on security and economic matters. On the other hand, from the perspective of a historical conflict over the same piece of land, the PA refuses to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, and, lacking a political solution, rejects normalization between the two entities and peoples. Although the PA does not adopt the BDS movement, many of its actions evince the latter’s logic, including systematically blackening Israel in international forums and appealing to the International Criminal Court. The Palestinian public discourse, on both the official and unofficial levels, is blatantly anti-Israel and is often characterized by anti-Semitic overtones.
There is no doubt that there is an overlap between de-legitimization and anti-Semitism at some level, and that the latter is responsible for an important part of the phenomenon. After all, we are dealing with the denial of a right of the Jewish people afforded to all other peoples. Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky has suggested that anti-Zionism becomes anti-Semitism when it includes any of the “three Ds”: De-legitimization in the sense of clearly undermining Israel’s legitimacy; Demonization; and Double Standard.2 The inherent overlap of de-legitimization and anti-Semitism has found some recognition in the international community. Thus, for example, Pope Francis (2015), the new Secretary-General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres, and French President Emanuel Macron (2017) have all said publically that those who deny Israel’s right to exist are tainted with anti-Semitism. In 2016, the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA) offered a definition of anti-Semitism, which the British government and the European Parliament later adopted, that included, inter alia, “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.” As of 2010, the U.S. Department of State adopted a definition of anti-Semitism (based on the definition of the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia), and as one of its examples noted “De-legitimization” namely, “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, and denying Israel the right to exist.”
While recognizing this overlap and the fact that de-legitimization opens a space for expressions of anti-Semitism and vice versa,3 it is important to remember that the overlap between the two is not entire. One should exercise caution and not rush to characterize all critics or opponents as anti-Semites, especially in the fight for Western public opinion. This could generate more harm than good.
In addition to the above-mentioned major drivers, one should add factors that stem from the intellectual, political, and cultural concepts that have taken hold in the West in recent decades, especially in post-WWII Western Europe, including post-modernism, post-nationalism, post-religion, post-colonialism (interwoven with a sense of European guilt) and post-Zionism. These concepts reject ethno-religious nation-states, view Israel as an artificial colonialist entity, and promote a discourse of human rights, liberalism and pacifism (as an antithesis to a security discourse in Israel that barricades itself behind practical and virtual boundaries) that presents Israel in a dark light. These concepts migrated to the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, took root mainly on campuses, and have served as the foundation for the new American left. Some of them were cynically used by the Soviet Union in its struggle against the West and during the awakening of Soviet Jewry – including the initiation of the infamous 1975 UN General Assembly Resolution 3379 that equated Zionism with racism – in a manner that left a mark for many years.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as noted, constitutes a platform, a fuel, and a main cover for the de-legitimization campaign, including the use of anti-Semitic overtones and the conceptual-intellectual de-legitimization discourse. This conflict takes up most of the space in the discourse regarding Israel, usually paints it in unflattering colors in the international arena, makes it easier for de-legitimizers to “capture” ignorant or naïve audiences, and creates the negative drift toward de-legitimization. This is especially true since most of the world adopts the Palestinian narrative, according to which the conflict is about occupied territory (and not disputed land, as Israel claims) and that the settlements are at least an obstacle to peace, if not illegal and “colonialist.” It is clear, therefore, that although a real breakthrough toward resolving the conflict will not remove de-legitimization from the agenda, as the end goal of de-legitimizers is denying Israel’s right to exist within any borders, it will nevertheless deny them important ammunition in their struggle against Israel.