(photo credit: AP [file])
Haaretz's veteran Arab affairs editor and editorial board member Danny Rubinstein caused a stir when he called Israel an "apartheid state" at a UN conference last week. Also last week, Yediot Aharonot's main front-page headline blared, "Racist Country," based on its own investigative report comparing attempts by Israelis of Ashkenazi, Sephardi, haredi, Russian, Ethiopian and Arab background to apply for jobs and to place their children in kindergartens. It is bad enough when anti-Semites or those who reject Israel's right to exist spout such libelous nonsense. It hard to fathom why Israelis who would bristle at being labeled anti-Zionist do the same.
A distinction must be made between prejudice and discrimination, which exist in Israel as in any country, and declaring that Israel is racist as a whole or by definition. It would be foolish to deny that Israeli Arabs do not suffer from discrimination or that Ethiopian Jews are not victims of prejudice. The fact that Yediot found that its faux Ashkenazi job seeker had better luck, despite his declared lack of experience, than the Russian, Moroccan, Ethiopian or Arab Israelis who sought a bartending position, though disturbing, is not terribly surprising.
Presumably, those labeling such prejudicial behavior "racist" are trying to shock people into doing something about a real problem. Yet such semantic inflation does more harm than good: it blurs the vital distinctions between prejudice and real racism, and it provides fodder for real racism against Israel and the Jewish people.
Racism is when an entire group of people is considered inferior or superior by birth or physical characteristics. The Jewish people, which includes people of different skin color, ethnicity and cultural origins, is not a race. It is not possible to convert into a race. This has not stopped anti-Semites from pretending that Jews are a race, which is why it was appropriate for the UN General Assembly, in 1998, to include anti-Semitism among other hatreds to be investigated by a special monitor against racism.
Similarly, the term apartheid means formal political discrimination within a country on a racial basis. This obviously does not apply in Israel's case, first because Israeli Arabs are not a separate "race" to begin with, and second because they have full political and voting rights, and are represented in the Knesset accordingly. Yesterday's laudable decision by Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit to grant citizenship to hundreds of refugees from Darfur again puts the lie to the racism charge, including the charge that the Law of Return means that only Jews can become citizens. All democracies determine citizenship criteria and preferences; so does Israel.
Nor can the apartheid argument be made regarding Palestinians in disputed territories under partial Israeli control. With the partial exception of Jerusalem, Israel has not sought to annex any part of these areas. Not only that, but Israel has dramatically demonstrated its desire not to rule over the Palestinians by unilaterally withdrawing from Gaza, at great cost to our societal fabric and substantiated risk to our security. Within Israel, and even within the territory west of the Jordan River, there is a Jewish majority. There is no issue here, as was the case under apartheid in South Africa, of a minority imposing its will on the majority, whether on a racial basis or not.
On the contrary, the origin and essence of the Arab-Israeli conflict is the struggle of a few million Jews to exercise their rights to national self-determination - as affirmed by the League of Nations and the United Nations and as opposed by 20-plus nations of the Arab world. It is not Israel that stands in the way of the creation of yet another Arab state, Palestine, but the refusal of some Arabs to give up their dream of destroying the only Jewish state, Israel.
In this context, it is morally abhorrent for Israelis to collaborate in the delegitimization of Israel by employing the false and evocative charges of apartheid and racism. If prominent Israelis say these things, how can we combat attempts to revive the UN's odious (and repealed) "Zionism is racism" charge through the 2001 Durban conference and the follow-on meeting currently in the works?
The idea that such charges are being wielded to encourage Israel to be more flexible, or to highlight real discrimination, does not excuse them. It is possible to fight for legitimate political positions and positive change without resorting to libels; indeed, when critics reject baseless attacks, this tends to add to the credibility and weight of their constructive criticisms. There is much in our country that needs improvement, but anyone honestly seeking such advances, whether Israeli or not, must of necessity support the basic existence of the society he or she wishes to change.