Last week, Ha’aretz’s publisher Amos Schocken joined the chorus prematurely mourning “the elimination of Israeli democracy” – although articles like his in his hyper-critical newspaper prove Israel’s democratic vitality daily. Exaggerating further, he accused Israel of practicing “apartheid.” This libel is inaccurate and inflammatory. Tragically, it appeared just before an important anniversary that should not be overlooked – the United Nations’ repeal of its odious Zionism is Racism resolution twenty years ago on December 16, 1991.
A clever polemicist, Schocken appeared more subtle than the average Israel-basher by acknowledging a “difference” between South African apartheid “and what is happening in the territories.” Nevertheless, he found “points of resemblance.” He defined apartheid as “the undemocratic system of discriminating between the rights of the whites and the blacks, which once existed in South Africa.” But he discussed “discrimination” in the West Bank without offering any evidence regarding the offense which made apartheid apartheid, defining people systematically, legally, by skin color.
In a world which abhors racial distinctions but organizes itself around many distinctions between different national groups, justifying the apartheid accusation requires proving a racial dimension. Schocken could have charged “discrimination” – which is devastating enough to a democracy. Using the demonizing word “apartheid” linked him to the Big Lie delegitimizing the Jewish state by calling Zionism racism and comparing Israel to South Africa’s apartheid regime.
The apartheid charge gussies up the Zionism-racism lie with sincere concern about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, but both blood libels share common origins, carrying the putrid stench of Soviet totalitarianism’s rotting corpse. In the 1960s and 1970s, Soviet and Arab propagandists concocted the Zionism-racism charge to ostracize the Jewish state by identifying it with racist South Africa and Rhodesia. This “Big Red Lie,” as Daniel Patrick Moynihan called it, also echoed Nazi views of Jews as a “race.” Trying to racialize Zionism, to South Africanize Israel, to demonize the Jewish people and the Jewish state, the UN’s General Assembly passed Resolution 3379 on November 10, 1975, calling Zionism racism.
Moynihan, serving as America’s UN Ambassador, saw the resolution as an attack on democracy and decency. And he recognized the genocidal implications of accusing Israel of the one international crime punishable by national death. Comparing Zionism to Nazism and white supremacism wished the same fate on Israel that befell Nazi Germany and – eventually – apartheid South Africa. Israel’s UN Ambassador, Chaim Herzog, denounced the Hitlerite anti-Semitism shaping the resolution, targeting the collective Jew rather than individual Jews.
Both Herzog and Moynihan believed “words matter” and ideas count. When Herzog became Israel’s president in 1983, he and now-Senator Moynihan began campaigning to repeal the resolution. Everyone said that no General Assembly resolution was ever repealed – although Spain joined the UN in 1950 despite an earlier resolution prohibiting its membership.
Herzog and Moynihan persisted. In 1985, Israel’s UN Ambassador Benjamin Netanyahu hosted a conference demanding repeal. Netanyahu explained the resolution’s potency, noting “there is no worse epithet in today’s lexicon than ‘racist,’” the word is “the modern version of ‘Christ killers,’ ‘traitors,’ ‘usurers,’ and ‘international conspirators.’”
Moynihan, a Democrat, cooperated with the Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan, then George H.W. Bush, who ultimately secured the repeal. The Jewish community mobilized, uniting grassroots protests with effective organizational advocacy. And history happened. The Soviet Union collapsed.
The liberated Eastern European countries endorsed repeal. Following a courageous intervention by Elie Wiesel, who pointedly asked the Ukrainian president Leonid Kravchuk how come no one in Kiev opened up a door to save even one child as thousands marched to their deaths toward the forests of Babi Yar in 1941, Kravchuk rejected this “resolution born out of bitter ideological confrontation.” The Czech President Vaclav Havel needed no coaching, saying: “I didn’t approve of it then; I don’t approve of it now.”
Unfortunately, despite the repeal, despite the Soviet Union’s collapse, the Big Red Lie refuses to die. “Zionism is Racism” and the Apartheid accusation have become central memes in modern politics. A meme, “something imitated,” is an idea popularized in a culture through repetition. Israel’s enemies have used these two Killer Memes to make their assault on Israel’s existence constant and cumulative. The Zionism-Racism claim integrates one criticism with the next; the apartheid allegation treats every Israeli misstep as a crime against humanity.
No one involved in Middle East matters, least of all Ha’aretz’s erudite publisher, can claim to be ignorant of the significance of validating the Apartheid-Racism memes. Intentionally or not, in the internet age, Ha’aretz is an important link in the chain of delegitimization that often starts with its incendiary coverage and ends with the Boycott Israel-Kill the Jews crowd feeling vindicated. That realization should never stop Schocken or others from truth-telling. But it should caution them against sloppy rabble-rousing.
Schocken should get a taste of those democratic prerogatives he defends so eloquently. The Jewish Agency, the Federations, the Israeli government, the universities, should stop taking out those ridiculous, expensive front page ads in the English Ha’aretz welcoming this group or that board to Israel -- and explain why the gravy train stopped. Charity dollars should not be wasted in such vanity enterprises anyway -- especially if they subsidize spreading these modern blood libels.
Prime Minister Netanyahu, the Jewish organizational world, and the Jewish people should celebrate December 16. We should toast the American-Israeli friendship, America’s bipartisan cooperation on this issue, Zionist activism, and the welcome defeat of Soviet totalitarianism that produced the victory. Our students should learn that sometimes Israel’s advocates, Zionism’s champions, democracy’s defenders, can win. And all Israelis, from across the political spectrum, should learn they have a treasury of words and historical comparisons to use during vigorous democratic debate. However, using the Zionism-Racism and Apartheid memes assaults the truth and encourages Israel’s deadliest enemies.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow. The author of “Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenge of Today,” his next book is “Moynihan’s Moment: Zionism is Racism, the Rise of Reagan and the Fall of the UN.”