Eroding Israel’s Legitimacy in the International Arena

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Israel is facing a dramatic assault on the very legitimacy of its existence as a Jewish and democratic state. The groups promoting this delegitimacy aim to isolate Israel and ultimately turn it into a pariah state. This issue of ReViews tracks this strategy and its components.
In recent years, Israel has faced a dramatic assault on the very legitimacy of its existence as a Jewish and democratic state. While the ideological framework for this delegitimacy was solidified after the first Durban Conference in 2001, the trend has been given a boost by the perceived lack of progress in the political process, coupled with Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.1

The groups making the fundamental delegitimacy of Israel among their main rallying cries represent a marginal phenomenon in Western politics. Although some of their activities are portrayed as protesting against Israeli policies, in fact they are frequently manipulated in order to blur the difference between valid criticism of Israeli policies and attempts to undermine Israel’s right to exist. Thus, they are able to disproportionately impact Israel’s international legitimacy.

The aim of these groups is to internationally isolate Israel and ultimately turn it into a pariah state through demonizing the country;2 promoting a policy of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS); and waging a legal struggle against the state and its citizens.

This issue of ReViews tracks this strategy and its components.

The Strategy: Turning Israel into a Pariah

  • Addressing an International Conference on Palestine in London, Betty Hunter of Palestine Solidarity Campaign, UK said that, “Our task is to isolate Israel and to make it a pariah state.” (International Conference on Palestine-London 12/5/04).

  • Speaking at Hampshire College, Ali Abuminah explained that, “The loss of legitimacy in the practices of the [South African] apartheid regime is what changed, and when a system loses its legitimacy, all the weapons in the world cannot protect it… we’re beginning to see a similar loss of legitimacy for Zionism.” (Conference in Hampshire College 11/21/09).
  • During Operation Cast Lead, the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network advised that “unless this ideology [of Zionism] is delegitimized and defeated, the violence in the Middle East will continue to escalate.” (Call to Action on Gaza 01/09/09).


Demonizing Israel creates an ideological justification for taking concrete steps aimed at negating the state’s legitimacy. Demonization is rooted in the narrative of Israel as an illegitimate colonial entity born in sin that practices Nazism, apartheid and racism. This narrative plays out in several key arenas, such as public protests and demonstrations, the media, and campus activities.

  • Protestors in Brazil, Madrid and Buenos Aires held signs equating Israeli leaders and actions with Nazism and genocide (YNET 11/12/09, ADL 01/09).

  • A series of events, titled “Gaza: Our Guernica,” organized by the Palestinian societies at five University of London campuses, is due to take place throughout January and February. The reference to Guernica evokes a fascist attack that targeted Basque civilians (Jerusalem Post 01/21/10).
  • First launched in 2005, Israel Apartheid Week is an annual event organized by anti-Zionist groups, which aims to create a link between Israel and the former apartheid regime in South Africa in order to lead a boycott against it. In 2009, Apartheid Week grew to include 27 cities, including England, the U.S., South Africa, the West Bank, Mexico, Scotland, and Norway3 (Jerusalem Post 1/29/09).
  • A series of articles aimed to establish Israel as an apartheid state engaging in racist and discriminatory behavior (Guardian feature on Israel and Apartheid 2/6/07 part 1 and part 2 ).
  • The University of Pittsburgh held a conference entitled ‘Divest from Israeli Apartheid’ (Pittsburgh Palestine Solidarity Committee 10/23/09).
  • One of Sweden’s largest dailies published a double-page focusing on claims that Israeli soldiers seized young men from the West Bank and Gaza and later returned the bodies with missing organs (Aftonbladet 08/26/09).
  • Nobel peace laureate Mairead Maguire accused Israel of “ethnic cleansing” policies in east Jerusalem (Agence France-Presse 04/21/09).

Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS)

Attempts to demonize Israel provide the ideological and rhetorical platform for pursuing a policy of BDS in the fields of academia, economy, culture, sport, and security.

Despite the BDS movement including several academics, trade unions, and church groups, it has enjoyed limited practical success so far. However, efforts have been highly successful in generating publicity and in mobilizing anti-Israel activism, effectively uniting anti-Zionists with critics of specific Israeli policies.4

The risk posed is that such campaigns will create an equivalency between Israel and apartheid-era South Africa that penetrates the mainstream of public and political consciousness. Given Israel’s dependence on vigorous trade, as well as scientific, academic, and technological engagement with other countries, this movement towards isolating the country may pose a strategic threat.

The BDS movement is largely spearheaded by non-governmental organizations. In a revealing example, the World Social Forum – an umbrella group for hundreds of social, anti-globalization, and rights groups worldwide – announced it would be launching a campaign calling on all of its affiliates to excommunicate Israel (YNET 3/30/09). Similar initiatives have also been taken up in academic, cultural and scientific, security, sporting, and economic arenas.


  • One of Norway’s largest academic institutions, the University of Bergen intends to impose an official academic boycott against Israel over what it claims is its apartheid-like conduct (YNET 01/24/10).

  • The board of the University of Trondheim in Norway held a vote on adopting an academic boycott of Israel. Three days prior, the institution hosted a lecture on Israel’s alleged use of anti-Semitism as a political tool (Haaretz 10/20/09).
  • A group of American university professors recently launched the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (Weekly Standard 3/20/09).
  • University workers in the Canadian Union of Public Employees passed a motion calling for an academic boycott of Israel, and union members from at least one Toronto university planned to pressure their school to cut any financial ties with the country (The Star 02/22/09).
  • A letter by 400 UK academics urging boycott, divestment, sanctions against Israel was published in the Guardian (Guardian 01/26/09).
  • Since 2003, there have been a multitude of attempts to impose an academic boycott on Israel in the UK. A prominent example is the successful passage – later overturned – of a motion by Britain’s largest lecturers’ union (Natfhe) supporting a boycott of Israeli lecturers and academic institutions not publicly disassociating from Israel’s “apartheid policies” (Guardian 05/30/06; UCU Website 5/30/06).

Culture and Science:

  • The Toronto International Film Festival was the object of controversy for selecting Tel Aviv as its thematic subject, with high-profile artists signing a statement in support of a filmmaker who withdrew his entry (Guardian 09/07/09).

  • An exhibition celebrating Tel Aviv’s White City due to take place in Brussels was postponed after local organizers faced demands to boycott Israeli culture (YNET 2/9/09).
  • The 2009 Edinburgh International film festival returned a £300 gift from the Israeli embassy following protests (Guardian 09/07/09).
  • More than 400 academics called on Britain’s prestigious Science Museum to cancel workshops promoting Israeli scientific achievements to schoolchildren (The Independent 03/03/09).


  • A Norwegian government pension fund sold its shares in Elbit Systems due to its role in building Israel’s security fence ( 09/03/09).

  • Belgium’s government banned the export to Israel of weapons that “strengthen it militarily” (Haaretz 02/01/09).
  • British labor unions voted to support a ban on importing goods produced in ‘illegal settlements’ and ending arms trading with Israel (Associated Press 09/17/09).


  • The Irish Municipal, Public and Civil Trade Union passed two resolutions endorsing a boycott of Israeli goods and services and supporting divestment from corporations engaged in, or profiting from, the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza (Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign 05/29/08).

  • The Congress of South African Trade Unions joined the boycott of Israel, calling Israel ‘an apartheid nation’ (YNET 08/06/06).
  • At its annual meeting, the British National Union of Journalists called for “a boycott of Israeli goods similar to those boycotts in the struggles against apartheid South Africa led by trade unions, and [for] the [Trade Union Congress] to demand sanctions be imposed on Israel by the British government ” (The Guardian 04/13/07).
  • Canadian Union of Postal Workers called for a Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions campaign against Israel (Canadian Union of Postal Workers 04/09/09).

International ‘Lawfare’

In parallel to demonization and promotion of the BDS Strategy, groups and individuals have increasingly sought to combat Israel in the legal arena. These efforts comprise attempts to: utilize laws of universal jurisdiction in European countries in order to charge Israeli generals and politicians with war crimes; levy proceedings against Israel in the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice; and file charges against corporations conducting business with Israel.

While certain initiators of these lawsuits claim to exclusively act according to a humanitarian agenda, Hamas involvement in some of these cases may indicate that the intention of prosecuting Israeli military and political leaders is not always pure.5

  • A British court issued an arrest warrant for Tzipi Livni for war crimes that Livni allegedly conducted as Israel’s foreign minister during Operation Cast Lead (Guardian 12/14/09).

  • Two law firmsrepresenting a group of Palestinians applied for an international arrest warrant against Ehud Barak, claiming that he committed war crimes and breaches of the Geneva Convention during Operation Cast Lead (Jerusalem Post 09/29/09).
  • French pro-Palestinian organizations filed a law suit with the International Criminal Court against the Israeli president, foreign minister and defense minister (JCPA March April 2009).
  • A class action lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against former IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon (NGO Monitor 09/08). The following year, New Zealand’s Auckland District Court issued an arrest warrant for Yaalon on charges of war crimes (Jerusalem Post 11/30/06).
  • A class action lawsuit was filed in a New York U.S. District Court against former Director of Israel’s General Security Service Avi Dichter for “war crimes and other gross human rights violations” concerning his alleged involvement in a 2002 military strike in Gaza (NGO Monitor 09/08).
  • Major General Doron Almog avoided arrest in the UK by remaining on an El Al airplane and flying back to Israel, after a UK court issued a warrant for his arrest on charges of breaching international laws during Israel’s control of Gaza (BBC 09/12/05).
  • A law suit alleging war crimes was filed in a Spanish Court and with Switzerland’s Military Attorney General against former Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, former IDF Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz, former Israel Security Agency Director Avi Dichter, and Doron Almog (American Jewish Committee 10/04; CNN 1/29/09).
  • Belgium’s highest court was set to try Ariel Sharon for his role as defense minister in the 1982 massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut (New York Times 02/13/2003).
  • International Criminal Court Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo considered whether to investigate Lt. Col. David Benjamin, a reserve officer in the Israeli military involved in authorizing Israeli military actions during Operation Cast Lead on the grounds of Benjamin’s status as a dual citizen of Israel and South Africa, which has signed the ICC’s charter (Newsweek 09/21/09). The ICC also considered whether the Palestinian Authority was “enough like a state” for it to initiate a case alleging that Israeli troops committed war crimes in Gaza (Guardian 3/2/09).
  • The UN fact-finding mission on the Gaza conflict headed by Richard Goldstone “found strong evidence to establish” that Israel committed serious war crimes and breaches of humanitarian law that may amount to crimes against humanity (UN 09/15/09).
  • In July 2008, law suits were filed suit in Quebec against three Canadian corporations accused of “aiding, abetting, assisting and conspiring with Israel, the Occupying Power in the West Bank, in carrying out an illegal act” through their involvement in construction projects in the town of Kiryat Sefer (Modi’in Ilit) (NGO Monitor 06/11/09).
  • A 2005 law suit filed against Caterpillar, Inc. in a U.S. District Court charged the corporation with “providing specially designed bulldozers to the IDF that it knew would be used to demolish homes and endanger civilians” (NGO Monitor 09/08).
  • A law suit was filed against the British Government in Birmingham charging that the sale of military equipment to Israel breached guidelines on arms exports and contributed to the oppression of Palestinians in the occupied territories (The London Times 05/30/07).

1 See Ari Shavit, Haaretz 10/15/09; Ethan Bronner, New York Times 10/19/09.

2 Jewish agency Chairman and human rights activist Natan Sharansky describes demonization as occurring when “Israel’s actions are blown out of all sensible proportion” and when “comparisons are made between Israelis and Nazis.” (Natan Sharansky. 3D Test of Anti-Semitism: Demonization, Double Standards, Delegitimization. Jewish Political Studies Review 16:3-4 Fall 2004).

Canadian Member of Parliament and international human rights lawyer Irwin Cotler meanwhile sees demonization as “the portrayal of Israel as the metaphor for a human rights violator,” giving calls for “the dismantling of the apartheid state of Israel… the appearance of international sanction.” These demonizing labels are “tantamount to transforming ideological anti-Semitism into a duty – the obligation to remove this Nazi state, Israel.” (Irwin Cotler, Identifying the New Anti-Semitism Jewish People Policy Planning Institute. Nov. 2002.)

3 For more see Reut Concept Israel Apartheid Week.

4 See Gal Beckerman The Forward 9/16/09

5 See Reut post: Legal Aid: Role in Livni Arrest Warrant and Beyond

Eroding Israel’s Legitimacy in the International Arena

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Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) is not-for-profit [501 (C) (3)], grass-roots community of scholars who have united to promote honest, fact-based, and civil discourse, especially in regard to Middle East issues. We believe that ethnic, national, and religious hatreds, including anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism, have no place in our institutions, disciplines, and communities. We employ academic means to address these issues.

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