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Zionism and Campaigns of Delegitimization: a Very Rich History Indeed

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Demonstrating once again the sniveling and shameless fealty to the wealthy that she and her husband have elevated to a high art over the last 30 years, Hillary Clinton wrote a letter to Israeli-American billionaire Haim Saban last July 6th in which she said that:

I know you agree that we need to make countering BDS a priority. I am seeking your advice on how we can work together across party lines and with a diverse array of voices to reverse this trend with information and advocacy, and fight back against further attempts to isolate and delegitimize Israel.

One of the key reasons for the extraordinary success of the Zionist lobby in America over the last six decades or so has been its ability to generate and repeat sound bites whose discursive purpose is not to enrich the breadth and texture of a debate on the Middle East, but rather to impoverish and attenuate it.

Long before GOP operative Frank Luntz began trawling focus groups for emotionally-charged terms capable of crippling the public’s rational faculties during political campaigns, the people at AIPAC and the many pundits in the mainstream media who faithfully carry their water (e.g. ex-AIPAC employee Wolf Blitzer) were already experts at this game.

Perhaps the most well-known of the tropes employed by Israel’s more fervent advocates is to challenge someone who is criticizing its policies if they support that state’s “right to exist”.

The beauty of the query, at least from the point of view of those that deploy it, is its seeming innocuousness. We all, especially Americans, have an instinctively positive relationship to the idea of “rights”.

And who would want to go on record as being against the idea of some one’s or some country’s “existence”?

So, when our interlocutor says, “Don’t you support Israel’s right to exist,?” most of us freeze and then retreat.

And that is exactly the effect desired by those posing the question.

But of course criticizing someone’s or some thing’s comportment is not the same as seeking their death and destruction. To portray these two activities as being one in the same is nothing short of absurd.

It is similarly absurd to speak—here again I am referring to the above-mentioned question/rejoinder—of a “right” existing in isolation from other values and concerns.

Every social or political “right” is necessarily constructed upon a matrix of tradeoffs. My “right to live” and my “right to pursue happiness” are necessarily and without exception mediated by a need to be cognizant of, and responsive to, the rights and needs of others around me.

So the real question when it comes to Israel (and every other national polity for that matter) is under what specific legal and moral conditions— both in relation to its geographical neighbors and all those subject to its forms of organized power—can and should be permitted and/or encouraged perpetuate its present modes of existence?

And this, of course, is the very this conversation that the ridiculously unspecific and often smugly issued challenge regarding Israel’s “right to exist” is specifically designed to head off.

Those issuing it understand all too well that, should such a detailed discussion ensue, Israel, with its ongoing record of ethnic-cleansing and deeply institutionalized racism, would not fare very well among most fair-minded people.

We are now witnessing the widespread and seemingly concerted re-deployment of yet another trope: one that holds that the central goal of the BDS movement is to cruelly effect the “delegitimization” of the state of Israel.

According to the Collins on-line dictionary, to delegitimize means “to make invalid, illegal, or unacceptable”.

On one level, then, the use of the term by Israel’s defenders is fairly accurate. Those in favor of BDS do indeed seek to invalidate and eventually render illegal and unacceptable the racist and expansionist practices of the Israeli government.

On another level, however, they are clearly exaggerating when, as they often do, they simplistically equate drive to dismantle odious racist practices with the destruction of the state itself (What does it say about a society when the abolishment of blood-based schemes of citizenship and legalized ethnic supremacy are widely viewed its members as tantamount to annihilation?), something that all BDS statements of purpose explicitly disavow.

For anyone who has followed the Israel lobby’s actions over the years, such exaggerations and cynically purposeful conflations are, of course old—very old—hat.

What is much more interesting to me is the righteous indignation that almost inevitably accompanies Zionists’ mention of the carefully circumscribed “delegitimizing” efforts of the BDS movement.

After all, it is not as if delegitmization as a tactic is new to Zionism.

Indeed, a strong case could be made that it has been perhaps the single most ubiquitous and effective tool of the movement in the US and elsewhere over much of the last century.

And, generally speaking, its use in Zionist circles has not been marked with any of the thoughtful circumscription employed by the BDS movement in its campaign to modify Israeli behavior toward the captive Palestinians under its control.

Rather, it has usually conformed to the behavior implicit in a second, much more harsh, definition of the term found on Wikipedia which speaks of delegitimization as the process of classifying “groups into extreme social categories which are ultimately excluded from society” and an activity that provides “the moral and the discursive basis to harm the delegitimized group, even in the most inhumane ways”.

What am I talking about?

For example, how, back in the first decade of the 20th century, the influential British Zionist Israel Zangwill famously wrote “Palestine is a country without a people; the Jews are a people without a country”.

Could there be any more direct and forceful delegitmization of a people than to have them ontologically disappeared by another group covetous of their land?

When, after the fledgling Israeli government engaged (despite all you might have read or been told about spontaneously fleeing Arabs) in a well-orchestrated plan to terrorize Palestinians into leaving their houses and lands in the new state in 1948, a number of the same refugees came back and sought to reclaim their properties, the Ben-Gurion government quickly labeled these people as “infiltrators”.

Could there be any more eloquent case of delegitimization than describing people returning to their lawfully titled homes after being driven out of them at the point of gun and/or the demonstrable threat of summary assassination   as “infiltrators”?

When, after capturing the so-called West Bank thanks to a war in 1967 that—again, despite all you might have read or been told—Israel clearly initiated, some of the occupied Palestinians, seeing absolutely no attempts on the part of the Israeli government to begin the process of territorial devolution, or to abide by international conventions governing the behavior occupying armies, began to pursue their UN-sanctioned right to engage in armed resistance to that occupation, they were quickly and universally tarred by Israel as “terrorists”, a term designed to morally delegitimize them and their struggle in the eyes of the world.

When a non-Jew criticizes Israeli political and military behavior in exactly the same manner and tone that he or she might use to criticize analogous Russian, Spanish, French or American comportments, many Zionists have little or no compunction about quickly labeling such a person an Anti-Semite, which is to say a person possessed by a malign moral sickness, rooted in a wholly irrational hatred, for which there is therefore no cure.

The goal in quickly slapping this toxic label on a person is to effectively remove him or her from the field of “respectable” debate, that is, to delegitimize them and the set of often quite valid and universally-grounded critiques they might trying to bring to the public square.

Similarly, when a Jew decides (judging from the cases I have known, almost always after a period of gruelingly careful consideration), to reject the political ideology of Zionism, many of those still working within the fold of this school of thought will show little hesitancy in delegitimizing this person, and with it, his or her freely-arrived-at moral choice, by labeling them with the implicitly pathological label of “self-hating Jew”.

Even former US Presidents are not immune from organized Zionist campaigns of delegitimization.

In 2006, former President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Jimmy Carter published a book in which he described the obvious: that in the Occupied Territories of Palestine, Israel runs a confiscatory colonial enterprise wherein Jews and non-Jews enjoy vastly disparate privileges and legal protections.

What did Carter get for this simple and irrefutable statement fact?

An organized Zionist campaign of delegitimization that culminated in his being, at least to my knowledge, the first living ex-president to be forcibly barred from speaking to the assembled delegates of his own party’s presidential nominating convention.

In October of 1988 the comic actor and writer John Cleese donated $140,000 to the University of Sussex in England to finance a study on psychological projection and denial, describing those phenomena to be “frightfully important” to understanding many life conflicts, especially those that play out in realm of politics.

Looking irony-free use of delegitimization in certain Zionist reactions to BDS, it seems safe to say that the famous jester’s intuitions about the importance of these phenomena in public life were spot on.

Thomas S. Harrington is a professor of Iberian Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and the author of the recently released  Livin’ la Vida Barroca: American Culture in a Time of Imperial Orthodoxies.

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