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How to Stop Israel’s “Delegitimization” Among American Progressives

By Peter Beinart

I got an email last weekend from a gentleman asking my advice on how to counter Israel’s “delegitimization” in the United States. This column constitutes my response.

To counter Israel’s “delegitimization,” you must first understand what “legitimizes” Israel in the first place. For three different groups of Americans, there are three different answers.

Group number one consists of non-Orthodox American Jews, especially those middle-aged and older. For them, what legitimizes Israel is its status as a place of Jewish refuge. In the early twentieth century, many American Jews rejected Zionism. But American Jewish anti-Zionism died in the 1940s because the Nazis proved that Europe’s Jews were not safe and the rest of the world proved that it would not provide them sanctuary. Thus, most American Jews concluded, the world needed a country dedicated to Jewish refuge. Three quarters of a century later, that argument remains largely uncontested among older American Jews. They may question Israel’s policies and dislike its leaders. But since they believe the world still needs one country that will take in Jews who have no place else to go, they don’t question Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state.

Group number two consists of conservative American Christians and many American Orthodox Jews. For them, what legitimizes Israel is the Bible. The land between River and the Sea belongs to the Jews. It says so in Genesis. And no politician, be he the President of the United States or the Prime Minister of Israel, has the right to undo the covenant forged between the Jewish people and God.

Among groups one and two, Israel’s “delegitimization” is not a problem. Group number two could theoretically question Israel’s legitimacy if an Israeli government relinquished Biblically-mandated land. In 2006, for instance, evangelical leader Pat Robertson suggested that Ariel Sharon’s stroke was a punishment from God for his decision to evacuate settlers from Gaza. But given that no further Israeli territorial withdrawals appear likely, this kind of right-wing, religiously-ordained “delegitimization” is unlikely to cause Israel problems anytime soon.

The real challenge, therefore, is among group number three: the secular whites, African Americans and Latinos who dominate the American left. For them, what legitimizes Israel is neither the Holocaust nor the Bible. It’s democracy. Since Israel’s creation, Palestinian activists have argued that a state constructed to safeguard and represent one ethno-religious group (Jews) is inherently racist. But what has kept that argument from gaining traction, even among American progressives, is Israel’s reputation as a democracy. That’s why groups like AIPAC constantly cite the “common values” of “democracy, the rule of law, freedom of religion and speech and human rights” that are “shared between the United States and Israel.” Because AIPAC knows that it is democracy and human rights that validates Israel among those Americans for whom Israel’s Jewishness alone is not legitimacy enough.

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