A Jewish New Year Resolution: Scaling Back Our Use of the “D” Word

By Leigh Nusbaum

This is not a salvo—this is a challenge.

This past year, both Jewish and secular, has been an incredible conundrum for Jews in Israel and the Diaspora. From the Arab Spring, to the breakdown of relations with Turkey, to the global recession, to the Palestinian bid for statehood—we find ourselves fumbling for some sense of stability. While some of us grope in the proverbial dark, others of us find a crutch to lean on. When it comes to Israel, I’d argue that the crutch is the “D-word”—delegitimization.

To “delegitimize” has traditionally meant to diminish the authority of, but recently this word, as well as the new buzzword “delegitimization,” have come into vogue when discussing Israel. In this new context, the word has taken on a new meaning—to hurt the legitimacy of an authority, usually a government, either in the eyes of its supporters or others. Overuse of the “D-words” is not a healthy habit to pursue.

The overuse of these terms reminds me of one of Aesop’s Fables, “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” I am not referring to the boy’s lies to the townspeople, but to when he truly saw the wolf, and no one in the village came to his aid. If we label every small act or criticism that doesn’t fall in line with current Israeli policy as “delegitimizing the State of Israel,” such as criticizing settlements in the West Bank,” we run the risk of that call falling on deaf ears in the future, when delegitimization may become a very real danger.

What bothers me most is the immediate leap to label any criticism from the Jewish and Zionist Left as another example of “delegitimizing Israel.” I don’t say this because I am active in J Street as opposed to AIPAC, nor because I could start the argument that criticism is merely tough love. I say it because snuffing out any debate by invoking “delegitimization” goes against our tradition. For centuries, rabbis have debated how to interpret the Talmud and the Torah. Our tradition prides itself on great thinkers such as the Rambam, the Baal Shem Tov, The Rav, Heschel and Baeck. All of them spent their lives thinking and debating their peers. If they were put in a room together, I doubt any subject would be taboo, unlike the way many view the debate on Israel. As the saying goes, “two Jews, three opinions.” Why should we go against one of the very foundations of our tradition?

Moreover, flippantly declaring a comment as “delegitimizing” is not only an ineffective rebuttal—it is lazy. It means that the arguer did not take the time to adequately arm herself with the necessary evidence to parry her opponent’s point. Even so, laziness is not the only danger. The overuse of the word “delegitimize” hurts the overall pro-Israel argument because it potentially narrows the support base for a Jewish state. It can drive away potential supporters, both non-Jewish and Jewish, because their ideas don’t fall in line with a certain viewpoint. Fewer and fewer of these potential supporters have the victories of 1967 and 1973 or Camp David in their minds; more and more remember Lebanon, Olso, the Intifadas and Gaza. How can we expect their support if we brush away their questions? Additionally, the overuse of the word may cause it to lose meaning. Will we be able to discern what does delegitimize Israel and what doesn’t in ten years? Will the world believe us when we argue the point?

A great example of the danger of overuse is the word “Nazi,” though it still connotes hate within the Jewish community. It can now mean anything from an anti-Semite who believes in Aryan supremacy to a disagreeable person, such as the infamous “Soup Nazi” in Seinfeld who screams “No soup for you!” when annoyed by customers. With the overuse of the word Nazi in American life, does it necessarily connote the image of Hitler or murderous SS? I’m not so sure anymore.

That said, we should not stop using the word completely. There are very real attempts to diminish Israel’s legitimacy. Denying the Holocaust, launching missiles from Lebanon and Gaza suicide bombings and the murder of a young settler family are real attempts at delegitimization. These attacks destabilize both Israel’s ability to protect her country and citizens and hurts the region as a whole, particularly since Israel’s reaction, no matter how measured, has been met with condemnation. Similarly, not condemning the arson of a mosque in Galilee or Rabbi Yitzhak Shapiro, who writes in his new book, “It is permissible to kill the Righteous among Nations even if they are not responsible for the threatening situation,” is dangerously delegitimizing to Israel, because it further inflames longstanding biases against Jews. Prime Minister Netanyahu agreed, saying, “the incident contradicts the values of the State of Israel—such as freedom of religion and freedom of worship.” Despite these major issues of clear “delegitimization,” engaging in healthy discussion about the future of Israel, including debate over the legality of settlements or mending relations with Turkey, does not merit that label.

So my wish for you in this near year of 5772, other than being inscribed in the Book of Life for the next year, is to minimize your use of the “D-words.” Instead, do your research, learn about and discuss differing opinions. If you like Alan Dershowitz, read Jeremy Ben Ami, too. If you like Peter Beinart, read Dennis Ross, as well. This year, engage in a different “D-word”—debate.

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