On Friday night, in response to the U.N. Human Rights Council’s vote to send the Goldstone report to the Security Council, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu convened an emergency meeting. In it, he reportedly said this remarkable thing: “We are now setting out to delegitimize those who try to delegitimize us. We will not tolerate it and we will respond on a case by case basis.”
Despite the adverb “now,” implying that something new is here being announced, this statement strikes me as a profound formulation of the relationship between Israel’s existential problem and the methods it has long employed. In fact, when I read Netanyahu’s words, I experienced one of those “aha” moments, in which I suddenly got the other guy’s point of view. I understood at last why, for instance, Jim Sinkinson, John Gertz, and Dan Spitzer—delegitimizers all—think and act as they do.
First let’s look at the active half of the statement: we will delegitimize. How does this work? Here’s a simple example. When Norman Finkelstein showed that Alan Dershowitz’s “The Case for Israel” was not only rank with misstatements but also plagiarized, Dershowitz was unable to refute him because what Finkelstein had written was true. We know this for a fact because if it had been untrue, Dershowitz, who had labored mightily to prevent publication of Finkelstein’s book, would have sued. He did not. Instead, he campaigned, ultimately successfully, to deny Finkelstein tenure, thereby not only ending his career but effectively delegitimizing him. Now, Finkelstein can be—and frequently is—dismissed as a “failed academic.”
Sometimes delegitimization requires many steps. For example, the venerable San Francisco Jewish Film Festival is currently the target of a delegitimization campaign which puts its funding at risk. Why? Because this past summer it invited Rachel Corrie’s mother, Cindy, to speak at the showing of Simone Bitton’s film “Rachel.” Cindy Corrie must be delegitimized. Why? Because Rachel must be delegitimized. Why? Because if she is not, the policy of bulldozing people’s homes in Gaza, which she died opposing, could itself be delegitimized. Reread Netanyahu’s statement.
John Gertz burst upon the delegitimization scene in 2005 with the revelation that he’d packed the Berkeley Peace and Justice Commission. The old commission had to be delegitimized. Why? Because they’d recommended that the City Council urge Congresswoman Lee to co-sponsor a bill supporting the Corries in their attempt…. But why go on? This is a long chain. See paragraph above for where it leads.
When under attack, why delegitimize? Why not argue, debate, engage, dispute, challenge, refute—all the many ways in which people meet hostile language substantively? In a nutshell, it is because Israel cannot. The facts are the facts, as in the Finkelstein/Dershowitz case. Israel is not denying, for example, that in Operation Cast Lead over 1,400 residents of Gaza, mostly civilian, including many women and children, were killed. Israel’s quarrel with the Goldstone report, as Netanyahu said, is not that it makes wrong or inaccurate representations, but that by raising the issue of war crimes it delegitimizes the killings.
It is striking, by the way, that a Google search on the word “delegitimize,” a neologism dating from 1968, produces largely references to the state of Israel, making clear that Israel and “delegitimization” are intimately linked.
This is the crux. Many countries claiming to be peace-loving democracies are made uncomfortable by the Goldstone report because of its implication that even they can be charged with war crimes. If Israel can, why not the United States, for example? Haven’t we killed untold numbers of civilians in our wars of the past eight years alone? Nevertheless, any fears that certain U.S. officials past or present might harbor about war crimes tribunals cannot possibly raise the issue that the nation itself might be delegitimized. Modern states with horrific criminal records, like Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan, may be punished, even occupied or severed for a time, but the right of the nation to exist is never put in question. Delegitimization is uniquely Israel’s fear.
The effort to shut up Israel’s critics can produce amazingly long chains of serial delegitimizations. On the other side of Netanyahu’s equation, Israel’s existential delegitimization is at the far end of a nearly infinite number of serially linked chains, the near ends of which may be so trifling as to be missed by most. A young American’s death. A play or movie about that death. A meeting in a prominent British architect’s office. A letter to the editor. The name of an organization, “If Americans Knew,” which the University of Michigan radio station refused last week to mention on air.
Why must the delegitimizers scan and scan and scan for all these ephemeral nothings? Why must they set to work at once, delegitimizing “on a case by case basis”? Because if Rachel Corrie is not delegitimized, the policy of bulldozing people’s homes in Gaza, which she died opposing, could itself be delegitimized. If that could be delegitimized, the ongoing bulldozing of people’s homes in the West Bank, including Jerusalem, could also be delegitimized. If that could be delegitimized, the bulldozing of more than 400 Palestinian villages between 1947 and 1949 in what is now the state of Israel could also be delegitimized.
With respect to the Goldstone report, if Palestinians cannot be killed with impunity, if they are not, as Janna Sundeyeva wrote, “people who definitely do not understand human language,” then in the human language they speak, their claims must be heard. And if their claims must be heard, if they are granted a human voice and the right to speak for themselves, then the state which was created by driving them from their cities, villages, and farms and denying them forever the right to go home faces a permanent crisis of delegitimization. Someone whispers the faintest reproach—and, far away, the Zionist project has been put on the line.
Joanna Graham is a Berkeley resident.