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Does "Delegitimization" mean "treason" in Israel?

By Roi Maor and Dahlia Scheindlin

As part of our interest in making order out of the “delegitimization” debate, we have decided to analyze some of the vocal or prominent thinking on the issue. Following Roi’s post, we hope this will become a series in which we address the charges that critics of Israel are actually seeking to delegitimize the existence of the state. We try to understand when the charges are legitimate; or if (as we fear happens often) they are used as political cover for deflecting critique of Israel.

We begin with the much acclaimed report written by the Reut Institute in March 2010.

The report begins with a number of definitions. Those pertaining to delegitimization are as follows:

Fundamental Legitimacy: “Legitimacy of a sovereign entity’s right of being. Israel’s fundamental legitimacy was recognized by United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 (11/29/1947) and by the ensuing recognition by leading nations.”

Up to here, we basically agree. Israel is a sovereign entity and it is widely recognized, as stated. “Fundamental legitimacy” does not rest on the character of the state, its political system or the nature of its regime. State legitimacy is not predicated on Zionism or any other kind of ism. States that are not democracies can be legitimate (although we don’t wish this on anyone) – they are just recognized sovereign entities.

Here is their definition of delegitimization of Israel:

Israel’s Fundamental Delegitimization/Anti-Zionism: Negation of Israel’s right to exist or of the right of the Jewish people to self-determination based on philosophical or political arguments (for a list of the arguments, see chapter 4).

Denying the Jewish people the right of self-determination is wrong but it is also extremely rare.

The list of arguments (which is in Chapter 3, not 4)  has eight points. But about half of them are hardly relevant. The ultra-orthodox or Bundist anti-Zionist views they cite relate to an insignificant minority. The argument favoring a one-state solution is a political disagreement, not a negation of the right to self-determination. We submit that one-state advocacy on its own is not delegitimizing as there are many different political forms to experiment with, including confederations and autonomous regions. It is politically dishonest to lump all of these together as delegitimizing the Jewish right to self-determination.

Regarding the argument that Palestinians and Israelis have become geographically inseparable due to settlement growth, the authors themselves admit that the claim in itself is not de-legitimizing (although it may be used as such).  Finally, the argument that Israel has lost moral legitimacy is not inherently related to the legitimacy of self-determination.

The list of attitudes that we can agree serve to de-legitimize the Jewish people’s claim to self determination is thus pared down to four such arguments: 1. Judaism is a religion, not a nation; 2. Anti- (or post) nation-state arguments; 3. Jews have no legitimate connection to this land; 4. Israel is payback for the Holocaust and best resolved within Europe, not the Middle East (think Helen Thomas).

But most of the groups who are routinely accused of de-legitimization, such as Israel’s human rights and pro-democracy civil society groups – and most recently, anyone to the left of Ehud Barak – say no such things.

Even some very serious critics of Israel who address its “right to exist,” actually refer to its right to exist as a Jewish state. In other words, they protest the state imposing its Jewish character on non-Jewish citizens (or on Jewish citizens who don’t want Judaism imposed on them by the state). That may be painful for Jews to hear, but it is again ultimately about the character of the state, not the right of Jewish people to self-determination.

Why are we so concerned about what constitutes ‘de-legitimization’? Because lately, “delegitimization” is starting to sound very much like a sterilized euphemism for “treason.” It’s a serious, dangerous charge, which has ended in bloodshed already once in Israel’s history.

The onus is on those who cry “delegitimization” at every turn to prove that the groups or people they accuse are really guilty of one of those four points. If they can be found, we will still insist that those people have every right to speak, but we don’t feel the need to include their arguments in serious debate.

Check in soon for our next installment.

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    1. BlightUntoNations

      ………………………………………………………..Hi Dahlia,
      “The list of attitudes that we can agree serve to de-legitimize the Jewish people’s claim to self determination is thus pared down to four such arguments: 1. Judaism is a religion, not a nation; 2. Anti- (or post) nation-state arguments; 3. Jews have no legitimate connection to this land; 4. Israel is payback for the Holocaust and best resolved within Europe, not the Middle East (think Helen Thomas).” Argument #1 is pretty much unimpeachable. Jewishness IS a religious affiliation, and should not be the basis of national citizenship. Argument #2 probably holds validity, but in this case, Israel shouldn’t be singled out. Argument #3 is vague. We all have a “connection” to Africa. That doesn’t give us the right to displace the people living there to reclaim our early hominid ancestry. The idea of Jews returning to some supposed ancestral homeland (the archaeological validity of which is dubious, to put it mildly) has always been a preposterous idea no adult can take seriously. Argument #4 may not be a good case for expelling the Jews from Israel but nevertheless raises a valid and often ignored point, which is that Europe DOES bear responsibility for creating this calamity and Palestinians are, at least to some extent, Hitler’s victims as well. You don’t raise the most obvious and most powerful argument for the delegitimization of Israel, namely that it has murdered tens of thousands of civilians, is in blatant violation of a long list of international laws, is menacing the region with nuclear weapons and creating an intolerable threat which the world has a responsibility to address, for the safety and security of the rest of us in this world.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Zvi

      @Blightuntonations, and what are we to do with the numerous other nations who choose to characterize themselves as an “Islamic Republic of …”? I think that one can safely say that Jews have been on the receiving end of the stick for quite a long time, and yet they have managed to self-identify as some sort of homogeneous group. Why does anyone “deserve” a state? Jews have been dreaming of returning to “their” homeland for millenia, regardless of how one came to be Jewish. The modern national movement of Zionism is an offshoot of modern European Nationalism. It predates the holocaust by a good half century. Yes events in Europe did lead to the final realization of the “dream”, but then again, all modern “nation states” have their origins in European nationalism and the ashes of Europe conflicts.

      As for population displacements, how many people were displaced in the founding of Pakistan (and India) or Turkey or plenty of other places? What about the 30 million odd Kurds who are dispersed between Turkey, Iran and Iraq? There have been plenty of injustices throughout history. Why is the world only demanding that one of them be “corrected”? And why would committing another injustice (negating Israel’s right to exist) be the “correct” thing to do?

      The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is essentially a fight over land. Here. In the Middle-East. Perhaps if Israel was not being constantly attacked and menaced by neighbors who do not recognize the state’s right to exist, then Israel would not be such a menace.

      Do not misunderstand me – I am outraged and disgusted by many actions of the Israeli government and military. The obsession with security and settlements has done great damage to Israeli society. But this in no way undermines Israel’s right to exist, nor even Israel’s right to defend it’s citizens.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Mark Klein

      Judaism is a religion – not a nation.

      One can be an American, Canadian, Italian, or Israeli Jew.

      One cannot be a Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, or Catholic Jew.

      Reply to Comment
    4. BlightUntoNations


      not much time so I’ll be mercifully brief and just touch on some of the issues you raise. You allude to Jewish displacement from Arab lands and seem to imply this wrong ought to be righted before Israel is called to account for its abominable treatment of the Palestinians. This is a familiar trope. I would only say that the evidence of Jewish expulsion from Arab lands is pretty sketchy. Tahel–who writes here often, tells of his family’s un-coerced decision to leave Arab lands and emigrate to Israel, where she says they’ve been treated rather poorly. 2nd, there seems to be no interest, much less a movement among Jews to return to Arab lands from which they were allegedly displaced. If there were (and if they had the massive documentary evidence of having lived there and been forcibly evicted, as the Palestinians certainly do) I would support Jewish efforts for return or adequate compensation for the wrongs inflicted on them. As this is not the case, invoking other displacements to justify Israel’s current policy seems a distortion of reality. As to other displacements you speak of, I would say wherever we can extend rights to people mercilessly abused, without seriously impacting those who came later, morality demands we fight for such implementation. This is what the movement on behalf of Palestinians has been all about–a state of their own on land the world long ago unanimously identified as theirs. No more, no less. As to legitimacy, I keep to the same line: Israel is not legitimate and will never be legitimate until its behavior falls under norms of acceptable conduct and international law, it ceases to brutalize and threaten its neighbors and joins the world community, abandoning its current status as a rogue state.

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    5. Norman C.

      Delegitimization doesn’t sound just very much like treason, under the current situation in the Middle East is delegitimization treason. BTW how many Arab or Palestinian “human rights and pro-democracy civil society groups”, fighting for the rights of Jews in Israel, do you know? And what is
      wrong with Israeli groups to disclose their foreign financiers?

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    6. zvi

      I am not justifying the displacement of Palestinians nor denying that a huge Nakba was imposed upon them. And for that I am sorry. I can only acknowledge their just grievances and offer my own personal apology….

      Most Israelis were born in Israel and many have never lived in any other country. Why would they want to “go back” anywhere? Why should they?

      The Palestinians have been kept stateless by forces beyond their control, and they have every right to demand their own state. And I accept that right. But that state should not be in place of Israel, nor should it necessarily be free of Jews. Any Jews who live there will of course need to become Palestinian citizens and act accordingly.

      In the longer term, I think that Israel and Palestine (and possibly other states in the region) will need to form some sort of federation – a United States of the Middle East if you will. But clearly this can only happen when their is mutual acceptance and a willingness to embrace the dignity and differences of one another.

      For now, the Palestinians have been damned to live as the “Jews of the Middle-East”: an educated, talented and hard-working people, who lacking their own “home”, are completely dependent on the whims of others….

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    7. @NormanC-
      (1) “BTW how many Arab or Palestinian “human rights and pro-democracy civil society groups”, fighting for the rights of Jews in Israel, do you know?”
      as many black groups in the south that were fighting for whites’ rights. look up the number if you’re curious.
      and copyright that sentence cause in all of this day’s stupidity, that just took the cake.

      (2) “what is wrong with Israeli groups to disclose their foreign financiers?”
      what was wrong with Charlie Chaplin naming names? lets see if u can figure that one out without googling the definition of a witch hunt.

      Let me know if you need any other questions answered.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Majid Jamali Fashi

      whats wrong with delegitimizing the zionist entity? There will be no peace until the zionists return to their true homelands in Europe. Helen Thomas was absolutely correct

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    9. richard Allen

      Majid, I realise that you’re just trying to be provocative and get attention, and I shoudn’t indulge you, but someone needs to tell you the same thing someone needs to tell Helen Thomas: about 40% of the Jews here are ARABS. They may not call themselves that, because the distinction between Jew and Arab has become so heavily politicised, but they are, and their true homelands due not lie in Europe.

      Reply to Comment
    10. zvi

      Richard, an “Arab” is just someone who speaks Arabic. There are quite a few Israelis who do, but they are not necessarily those whose roots go back to Arab lands.

      Once again, most Israelis were born in Israel. Many have roots here going back multiple generations. It is ridiculous to claim that they “belong” to any other place.

      The Jewish dream of returning to Zion was one of the things which was shared by this disparate community from all corners of the world. Now the Palestinians are united by a similar dream.

      Reply to Comment
    11. richard Allen

      I define Arab broadly as someone from North Africa or the Middle-East, excluding Iran and Turkey; everything else is just religious difference. Also, your definition of Arab would then define a large number of Mizrachim as Arabs. Presumably, even within the same family, some would be Arab, some wouldn’t be.

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    12. hi Majid,
      expressing anger at the current situation is a start, but criticizing it in the exact same way it criticizes you, is probably not the most effective way to get your point across or bring any form of constructive change.
      you obviously care enough to come here, read and comment- don’t let the Israeli way of disregarding the human rights of anyone that isn’t jewish, blind you and cause you to behave in the exact same way from the other side.
      we are all better than that.
      recognize that mutual understanding and openness has achieved much more for humanity than blind hate.
      on a side note- I, for example, am not someone whose family has any choice. Iraq and Syria don’t seem to be welcoming back their Jews at the moment.

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    13. richard Allen

      Tahel, while I respect your ability to engage politely and constructively with someone who is expressing nothing intelligent, merely garden-variety anti-semitism with Israeli atrocities as the useful pretext, I feel you are being far too generous in thinking that there is anything but a tenuous connection between Israel and his rabid hatred. While Israel does everything in its power to promote the belief that anti-semitism and criticism of Israel are the same thing, WE need to remember that they are not, and Majid is not an informed critic of Israel, he is just a naive Jew-hater.

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    14. I understand your point Richard, but in my experience, I’ve met many Palestinians that can’t see the world any differently because of the situation they are in.
      I’ve made many more friends by understanding (not legitimizing, but understanding) the causes for the reactions people give and trying to add colors to the picture that has shaped their reality.
      I don’t see those comments as antisemitic as much as i see them as comments of desperation.
      I understand this desperation and think that I can at least attempt to channel it into a constructive path…
      Reaching out can sometimes be futile, but its always worth a try 🙂

      Reply to Comment
    15. richard Allen

      Check out some of his other comments–they are interesting in that they are actually devoid of ANY criticism of Israeli policy, just criticism of Jews. I don’t even think he’s Palestinian. He’s probably one of those types who talk a lot about the plight of the Palestinians, but secretly hates them and thinks they’re the trash of the Arab world.

      Reply to Comment
    16. Moshe

      Dahlia, well written as always 🙂

      @Zvi, While I don’t agree with your politics or your need to apologize for “injustices” that have been forced upon and further perpetuated by others. And I am not excusing our actions we don’t need to apologize for that which we are not responsible. That said ‘Bravo’ at least you have the guts to stand up and say that we deserve to be here as much or perhaps more they anyone else.
      @blight your revisionist history is lousy and stinks. The land of Israel was mostly empty and deserted for the last few hundred years before the modern state but there was always a Jewish presence and majority in the much of the land. The “Palestinians” actually came in the 25 years or so before the state was established mostly due to the Zionist/kibbutz movement as there was a need for workers in agriculture and building etc. ergo Arab immigration to mandate Palestine. The Jews of Arab lands mostly left penniless and with not much more then the shirts of their backs following the founding of Israel. This was due to hostility and violence against the Jewish populations by the local population with the help and encouragement of the state. Including the systematic striping of rights and property by the (Arab) governments. By all accounts the number of Jews that fled Arab lands is at least equal to the number of Arabs that fled 700,000+ but I have seen numbers as high as 900,000+. They don’t want to go back to those places because they have nothing there for them and most have built successful lives for them selves all around the world you can see what they built for themselves often from nothing in North and South America and Israel. And Israel for all its wrongs took in their Jewish brothers and helped them rebuild. Something no Arab nation has done for their own brothers (though they do give them lots of money). Even today in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria etc. The refugees live in camps and do not have the rights of citizens even though these are seemingly the same peoples,(until after World War One there was no Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia or Iraq Etc). Don’t preach about legitimacy, acceptable conduct and International Law of which you know nothing about. Israel is very much a part of the international community and helps any country that asks, the innovations born in Israel are found in every place in the world and are in the computer on your desk and the phone in your pocket among other modern personal inventions. Israel made peace with two of its closest neighbors and wishes to make peace with others as well but how can it with a state like Lebanon which is run by Hezbollah and is sworn to the destruction of Israel. Hamas in Gaza, who while they are respecting the cease fire with Israel still have to take responsibility for attacks the emanate from the strip as the Government in charge. No we are not perfect but how would you respond to rockets on your city’s no matter the grievances? How can we make peace with Saudi Arabia where Jews are not even permitted entry. And in the west bank where selling land to a Jew is punishable by death and you can be lynched and killed for working for Jews? In most of these so called pillars of freedom, the ideals of acceptable conduct and International Law are left at the border, there is no freedom of religion or speech little or no womens rights and no gay rights never mind Democracy.

      One more point: My great great grandfather did not ‘walk’ here by accident from Lithuania nor did my wifes great grandfather leave his fortunes behind in Bukhara, on some questionable beliefs or dubious history. They came to settle and build up a place left for dead that they prayed to return to every day of their lives. They both made the long and difficult journey in the mid 1800’s years before a state or even Zionism existed.

      Your hatred of Israel of Israel is sad and even mystifying, perhaps you are an Arab Refugee and are pained by the “injustice” that you were born into? More then likely you drank the cool aid and cant be bothered with the facts, You would rather spew the hatred and baseless lies that you were fed. Rather then approach this dispute with an open mind and a hopefully unbiased view of the facts, the history and the reality that has been created and remains. We cant go back in time but we can build a better future and that requires us to leave the hate, the propaganda and the lies at the door.

      Reply to Comment
    17. BlightUntoNations

      …………………………………Moshe writes: “The land of Israel was mostly empty and deserted for the last few hundred years before the modern state but there was always a Jewish presence and majority in the much of the land.” Moshe tells me my “revisionist history stinks” then promptly regurgitates the laugh-out-loud fraud perpetrated by one Joan Peters in her comic book “From Time Immemorial!” —a thesis so preposterous even most Israelis are embarrassed by it, (though my fellow Amereicanos, never big on facts or history, swallowed it for awhile). The entire world finds Israel repellent and condemnation of the Jewish state has become a moral imperative for decent people. By the way, I’m Jewish, not Arab. So are the majority of Israel’s harshest critics today. Deal with it.

      Reply to Comment
    18. Martin Sandberger

      I dont think that anyone has refuted Blicht and Majid. In terms of Tahel, the fact that her family has no where to return to is a pretty poor excuse. Perhaps her ancestors shouldnt have fouled their nest in Iraq

      Reply to Comment