Combating Delegitimization Requires A Big Tent

by John Ruskay

Jewish tradition teaches us the Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred within the Jewish people. Recent events are proving we need to learn far more from this tragic history of infighting. Today, internal squabbling and hurtful accusations of anti-Israel behavior are providing a dangerous distraction from the far more significant threat: delegitimization.

For those of us who are passionate supporters of Israel, it’s often difficult to hear views that depart from Israeli government policy or the current conventional wisdom. Some of us are infuriated when those on the left question particular policies or decisions of the government, as some did during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. Others are angered when groups on the right consistently resist the efforts of successive Israeli governments to negotiate with the Palestinians on the basis of land for peace. But however much we may differ with those positions – and those differences should be debated vigorously – we need to recognize that the positions come from groups firmly invested in the Jewish people and the welfare of the State of Israel. They may differ on how Israel ought act to best secure its future, but they share a deep and abiding commitment to that future.

Contrast this with delegitimization, which is the denial of the Jewish people’s moral right to a democratic, Jewish state of Israel. Delegitimization takes many forms, ranging from advocating a “one-state” solution that would ensure that Jews would be a minority in their own land to demonizing Israel by calling it an apartheid state. We need to rally together against boycotts, divestments, and sanctions (BDS) when they are used in service of delegitimization, and we need to expose the often anti-Semitic roots of delegitimizers.

But we do harm to our community and ourselves when we confuse haters of Israel (and Jews), who push delegitimization, with supporters of Israel, such as Israeli artists who refuse to perform beyond the Green Line as a way of expressing their opposition to specific policies of the Israeli government.

That’s why it is especially disturbing to read articles in the Jewish media about accusations of anti-Israel behavior leveled against supporters of Israel because they provide a platform or have a connection to an organization that is deemed “beyond the pale.” If we draw a tighter and tighter circle around those whose views and actions on Israel are considered kosher, we create a real danger that many Jews will simply disengage – in effect declaring, “a pox on both your houses.” This is particularly true on college campuses, where there is an acute need to make a sharp distinction between delegitimizers and those who support Israel but disagree with some of its policies.

As just one example among several in recent weeks, the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan is being castigated for screening Israeli films that present aspects of Israel’s underbelly. Some critics are upset that there are links on the film series’ website to two non-governmental Israeli-Arab advocacy organizations, among others. This is the same JCC that hosts the only ongoing Ulpan program in New York, sponsors Birthright Israel trips for our young, undertakes annual leadership missions to Israel, created the Israel Film Center, presented a 24-hour “Israel Non-Stop” cultural marathon, and far more. And some of the films in question were funded in part by the government of Israel.

The much respected Reut Institute, led by Gidi Grinstein, recently published a report on delegitimization, which states: “Often Israel fails to differentiate between critics and delegitimizers and thus pushes the former into the arms of the latter.” Rest assured, the JCC cannot be pushed into the arms of the delegitimizers. But by pressuring and attempting to constrain people and institutions that present views different than our own, opportunities to engage and educate are stifled.

We are part of a people that has never shied from robust debate. Just as we seek to grasp the teachings of both Hillel and Shammai, learning about modern Israel means understanding positions different than our own. I have long argued that in conflating Israel advocacy and Israel education, we deny members of our community opportunities to deepen their own engagement and bonds to Israel by developing their own perspectives. We must both advocate and educate. At its best, Israel education prepares each of us to develop our own unique visions about what Israel can and should be. While encouraging our children to be advocates for Israel on the college green, we do them a tremendous disservice by failing to educate them about Israel so they can effectively participate in debates in the classroom and the dorm.

With events in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East still unfolding and Israel facing a drastically altered geopolitical landscape, we need to nurture a communal environment that recognizes that there are differences within our community about how to secure Israel’s future. Providing educational opportunities for more members of our community to deepen their own thinking and develop their own views about Israel is no small feat and must be undertaken by schools, synagogues, summer camps, Hillels on campus, and community centers.

Such efforts will result in our hearing voices that may make us decidedly uncomfortable. Some may even repel us. But we need to engage with people with whom we may disagree, for ultimately we will emerge far stronger and better equipped to challenge those who would deny Israel’s right to exist. This is not easy, to be sure, but the threat of delegitimization requires no less.

John Ruskay is executive vice president and CEO of UJA-Federation of New York.

This article originally appeared in The Jewish Week.