The Reut Institute, an influential Israeli think-tank, recently issued a document entitled “The Delegitimization Challenge: Creating a Political Firewall” where it identified an ominous “Delegitimization Network” and targeted the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as worthy of serious attention, even "sabotage," by Israel lobby groups. Only a few days ago, an article in the Forward, a US Jewish daily, noted that supporters of this emerging advocacy effort point to the BDS campaign as a primary marker distinguishing “delegitimizers” from genuine critics. Indeed, “delegitimization” has become the latest buzzword and rallying point of the Israel lobby worldwide.
The genuine concern on the part of the Israel lobby comes on the heels of the ever-expanding international BDS movement following the July 2005 Palestinian civil society call for BDS; a movement that has seen an exponential increase in support from international trade unions, social movements, faith communities, academics, artists, among others, in the wake of Israel‘s lethal assault on Gaza in the winter of 2008-2009, when over 1400 Palestinian men, women and children were murdered, with wide-scale destruction of the civilian infrastructure.
The charge that BDS delegitimizes Israel is equivalent to saying that the civil rights movement in the US was delegitimizing the USA or that the anti-apartheid movement was delegitimizing white existence in South Africa. In fact, by extension, one could argue that the anti-war movement in the US today is not simply about opposing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but about delegitimizing the "American way of life" and the very existence of the US, after Bush and the Neocons identified the "war on terror" as an existential battle.
The main argument to counter this increasingly vocal attack on the BDS movement is simple. Like other struggles, particularly the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and the civil rights movement in the USA, the Palestinian BDS movement struggles to deligitimize Israel‘s racist and colonial oppression and the structures and institutions that uphold and perpetuate this oppression. The Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people manifests itself in three forms: occupation, colonization, and apartheid. It is important to note that the BDS call focuses on all three inalienable rights of the Palestinians, which are an end to the occupation including dismantling the Apartheid wall, equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees. BDS is premised on the fundamental recognition that the structures of Israel‘s oppression must be dismantled and justice for the Palestinians realized, in harmony with international law and universal human rights.
Palestinian author and commentator Ali Abunimah has expressed the first option pursued by the Israel lobby succinctly: “Reut does not recommend to the Israeli cabinet — which recently held a special session to hear a presentation of the think tank‘s findings — that Israel should actually change its behavior toward Palestinians and Lebanese. It misses the point that apartheid South Africa also once faced a global ‘delegitimization network‘ but that this has now completely disappeared. South Africa, however, still exists. Once the cause motivating the movement disappeared — the rank injustice of formal apartheid — people packed up their signs and their BDS campaigns and went home.”
The re-packaging of the well-worn anti-Semitism charge directed at critics of Israel under the new “delegitimization” brand is a sign of the bankruptcy of the Israel lobby and its affiliates; as historian Tony Judt wrote to the Forward, “the ‘de-legitimization’ issue is a fraud….[it] is just another way to invoke antisemitism as a silencer, but sounds better because [it’s] less exploitative of emotional pain.” The fact that the BDS movement is anchored in a distinctly humanist platform that rejects all forms of racism, including anti-semitism, makes this charge even more preposterous. Moreover, the global BDS movement has witnessed a healthy wave of endorsements by prominent Jewish groups and intellectuals in Western countries, as well as in Israel, particularly since the Israeli massacre in Gaza.
Supporters of the rights of Palestinians, especially those advocating BDS, are not on the defensive. Indeed, the aim of the BDS movement is to delegitimize the system of Israeli colonial and racist oppression, to make it non-negotiable, morally repugnant, and untenable in the 21st century. We believe that a sustained campaign of pressure on Israel, thus isolating it in the international community, is the best way to realize Palestinians’ UN-sanctioned rights. The struggle may be a long one, and the well-funded and still influential Israeli lobby groups may come up with more creative buzzwords, but in the end there is nothing legitimate for them to defend; the time of defending occupation, colonialism and apartheid is past.