Combating delegitimization efforts

Israeli flag

By Gerry Greiman and Susan Carlson

Israel is not taking its enemies’ efforts to delegitimize it lying down. As part of the Israeli strategy to combat delegitimization, the Foreign Ministry recently sponsored a legal conference in Jerusalem, attended by 150 lawyers from 31 countries.

We were privileged to be among the conference participants. We write to share with the community some of what was discussed at the conference, regarding approaches employed by Israel’s opponents to try to undermine its legitimacy and strategies that may be effective in fighting such efforts.

Israel as both a Jewish and democratic State

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A common theme in the delegitimization efforts is that Israel cannot be both a Jewish and a democratic state – that the two qualities cannot coexist. One facet of the argument is that being a Jewish state must mean Israel is a theocracy – that it is run according to Jewish law, not democratic principles.

Israel, however, is a Jewish state in the sense of the Jews as a people, not a religion. In that context, the term Jewish is an ethnic or cultural – not a religious -description. It includes many who are not observant.

Israel is not a theocracy. (Ironically, the criticism that a Jewish state necessarily must be an anti-democratic theocracy often comes from countries which indeed are anti-democratic theocracies.)

Another facet of the argument is that Israel as a Jewish state necessarily will accord preferential status to certain of its citizens. Every country in the world has majorities and minorities, and most struggle with how best to balance the respective rights of each. The critical question is how well a country does in protecting the rights of its minority residents.

On that score, Israel does very well – better than most countries – in its treatment not only of minorities, but of women as well. In Israel, an Arab member of a minority political party can stand up in the Knesset and call for the indictment of Israeli leaders in the International Court of Criminal Justice. Few other countries accord their minorities such latitude. Perhaps the acid test is that there are many Arab residents of Israel living in areas which might become part of a Palestinian state, were one established, who shudder at the prospect of being forced to become residents of Palestine rather than Israel.

The criticism of Israel regarding how its minorities are treated reflects a great deal of hypocrisy. Many of the countries who are most vocal in their criticism seek to apply norms to Israel which they are unwilling to apply to themselves.

Distorting International Norms

Another favorite tactic is to force Israel to engage in asymmetric warfare, in which Israel is expected to comply with international legal norms while its opponents are not. Thus, Israel’s enemies regularly flaunt international laws prohibiting the use of civilians for military purposes – for example, by placing rocket launchers amidst residential neighborhoods, schools and hospitals – and then seek to brand Israelis as war criminals whenever civilian casualties occur from ensuing military action.

We were struck by conference presentations detailing the extent to which Israel regularly involves lawyers in its military affairs to try to insure that its military actions comply with international law. Lawyers routinely are involved not only at the planning stage of military actions, but also in after-action investigations and proceedings. Also, the Israeli military often issues pre-attack warnings to civilians present in areas where military operations are to be carried out, at times dropping leaflets, and sometimes going to the length of telephoning people shortly before an action is to commence, if phone numbers are available.

Notable also is the extent to which Israeli courts get involved in reviewing the propriety of military conduct, even while conflicts are ongoing. In contrast to the United States – where just breathing the words “national security” often will prompt courts to back away from reviewing anything relating to the military – the military in Israel enjoys no such free pass from the Israeli judiciary. During Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, Israeli courts heard cases in real time challenging various aspects of the operation.

A question was asked of an Israel Defense Ministry official suggesting that whatever Israel does it will be criticized by much of the rest of the world and accused of war crimes, so why bother with all the efforts at legal compliance? The answer was, doing the right thing is important to the self view of who Israelis are.

Another tactic of those seeking to undermine Israel is to distort the Palestinian refugee issue. International law recognizes as refugees only persons who themselves left their home country, not their descendants and not, in the words of Gilbert & Sullivan, “their sisters and their cousins and their aunts.” Sixty-two years have elapsed since 1948 and the number of persons who can claim to be refugees with any degree of legitimacy is limited and, within a generation, will be zero. Israel’s opponents, however, would have the world believe there are millions of refugees.

Moreover, they want to tell only half of the refugee story. In 1948, there were one million Jews living in Arab countries, including substantial concentrations in Iraq, Iran and elsewhere. Today, there are 5,000. If there is to be a discussion about compensation for persons compelled to leave their homelands, it should include Jews forced from their homes as well.

Importance of Public Relations

Explaining all of the above to a broad audience is an important aspect of countering the tactics of Israel’s enemies, but it is not enough. We tend to believe that all we need do is explain our point of view, and the world will understand. It doesn’t work that way. What is critical is not what we say, but what people hear.

So, in addition to explaining, more concerted public relations efforts are needed to help make sure that the right messages are sent and received. For example, an aerial photo was shown at the conference vividly illustrating Hamas’ placement of numerous rocket launching sites and ammunition dumps within a residential neighborhood in Gaza. It was the kind of picture that is worth a thousand words, and likely would have powerful impact were it widely disseminated in the media, as it should be.

Further, the Israeli government could stand to be more sensitive to public relations considerations as well. How did the Gaza operation come to be named “Operation Cast Lead?” Why wasn’t it named something along the lines of “Operation Stop the Shelling of Civilians?”

Also helpful would be a branding campaign focusing on Israel beyond the conflict. Other countries carefully shape their images along the lines they desire. France’s brand might be viewed as Romance, Brazil’s as Fun. But Israel largely has let its enemies define its brand. The conflict represents two percent of Israel’s overall activity, but virtually 100 percent of its image in the eyes of the world.

Much more needs to be said about the creative energy that is the hallmark of Israel today. Israel has the third largest national group of companies traded on the NASDAQ, trailing only the United States and China. Israel had 500 venture capital-funded startups last year. By contrast, the United States had 2,500 – only five times as many as Israel, despite its population being 50 times that of Israel. Europe had a total of 700.

Among the inventions that have come from Israel are cell phones, the chip used in cordless phones, other advanced computer chips, instant messaging, voice over internet protocol, the pill-cam and drip irrigation. INTEL considers Israel to be its most important research and development location outside the United States and employs 6,000 people there. All of these stories need to be told.

Importance of community relations

An important component of an effective strategy to combat delegitimization is a strong and sustained community relations effort, in which the Jewish community reaches out to form and maintain ties with other influential individuals, groups and organizations within the larger community. Once the foundational relationships are laid, they can be marshaled to convey the true story of Israel to a broad audience.

Forging such relationships is an important part of getting the message out and having it heard and understood in the manner intended. The story is much more likely to be listened to, and heard accurately, if it is communicated to friends rather than strangers. So, the more friends in the larger community the Jewish community can make, the greater the opportunity to convey, and have heard, the truth about Israel.

Of course, it will not prove effective for very long, if at all, to reach out to others outside the Jewish community in the context of only wanting to bend their ear about Israel. To be effective, community relations must be a two-way street. The Jewish community must show genuine interest in the cares and concerns of those with whom it seeks to forge relationships. It is in the context of truly mutual relationships, in which friends talk and listen to one another about their respective or common concerns, that the true story of Israel can be best told and heard.

Friends don’t let friends be delegitimized.