Amnesty, Whoopi: Responding to false claims about Israel, Jews wrongly

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: There are different ways to refute claims about Israel and Jews. Why do we keep choosing the wrong ones?

 SECRETARY-GENERAL OF Amnesty International Agnes Callamard issues its report on Israel during a press conference in east Jerusalem, on Tuesday. (photo credit: FLASH90)
SECRETARY-GENERAL OF Amnesty International Agnes Callamard issues its report on Israel during a press conference in east Jerusalem, on Tuesday.
(photo credit: FLASH90)

Here’s an odd coincidence.

In the same week that the left-wing human rights organization Amnesty International declared with great fanfare that Israel is an apartheid state that treats “Palestinians [including Israeli-Arabs] as an inferior racial group who are defined by their non-Jewish, Arab status,” US actress Whoopi Goldberg said that the Holocaust – which was all about the Nazis wanting to exterminate the Jews because they viewed them as an inferior race – was not about race but, rather, about man’s inhumanity to man between “two white groups of people.”

In other words, while Amnesty accused Israelis of seeing Palestinians and Israeli-Arabs as an inferior race, Goldberg said that the Nazis’ liquidation of the Jews had nothing to do with the Nazis seeing the Jews as an inferior race.

While Goldberg apologized for what she admitted were regrettable comments and was suspended for two weeks, Amnesty International held a press conference in Jerusalem to trumpet its “findings” and garnered headlines around the globe.

And both cases triggered an atomic response from Jews. But was that truly the best response?

 WHOOPI GOLDBERG (credit: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for The Met Museum/Vogue/TNS)
WHOOPI GOLDBERG (credit: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for The Met Museum/Vogue/TNS)

FIRST TO Amnesty.

Following a B’Tselem report in January 2021 accusing Israel of apartheid, and a Human Rights Watch report doing the same thing a few months later, it was only a matter of time before Amnesty International would chime in with an echo-chamber study of its own.

This report, however, is more egregious than the other two because it accuses Israel of ethnic cleansing from its very inception and charges that Israel has essentially been an apartheid state from day one. In Amnesty’s telling, there is nothing really that Israel can do to help itself. Its sin is in the way it came into being and what it is. Amnesty International has demonized Israel’s very essence, has made it evil by definition.

This is very bad stuff. But how much does it matter, and how should Israel and its supporters react?

As far as whether these types of reports matter, it would be nice to say that they don’t, and that they can be ignored because no one pays attention to them anyway. That, however, would be burying one’s head in the sand.

Amnesty International is not yet seen as a radical organization, though this report may lead some to look at it in a different light. It has a degree of stature with some Western governments, but that should not be overstated. For instance, US Ambassador Tom Nides dismissed the report in a Twitter post, saying, “Come on, this is absurd.”

These reports matter, however, because the accumulative effect of one after the other is to take opinions on the fringes and channel them into the mainstream. Once upon a time, if you said that Israel – set up by a United Nations decision – was founded on racism and apartheid, you would have been firmly outside the pale of polite conversation. No more.

These reports lend an imprimatur of authority and respectability to these claims. It’s one thing when US congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar make these statements; they are recognized as having an agenda. But when journalists now confront Israeli officials with questions about apartheid, and say that it has been documented by Amnesty International, then people listening who are not well versed in the ins and outs of the Mideast conflict, or who are not aware of the agenda of the various NGOs working in the region, may think there is something to all this.

Not only does the report, unfortunately, reflect growing opinion among some progressives, it gives those opinions legitimacy.

Amnesty International is an organization with a degree of respect, so from now on whenever anyone wants to accuse Israel of ethnic cleansing and apartheid, they will point for authority to the Amnesty International report.

THIS MEANS Israel cannot just sit back and let that false, pernicious narrative remain unchallenged.

This week, the government – via the Foreign Ministry – presented a challenge. In some ways it was effective, and in other ways less so. It was effective in that the ministry, which obtained a copy of the document before its release, did not sit on it but, rather, responded to it before Amnesty was able to publicly produce it.

There is a distinct method to how these reports, which come out all the time, are rolled out. The organization releases the full report, or parts of it in a press statement, with an “embargo” stamp on it, meaning that the material is not to be publicized until a certain time – generally not until the organization holds a press conference where the findings are released.

The “embargo” and the press conference create an atmosphere of great drama, as if something of earth-shattering import is about to be revealed, when all that is being released is a report from an organization with an agenda. But never mind, the technique has shown to be effective.

This time the ministry preempted, with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid posting a video in English on Facebook blasting the organization and the report. Preempting is good because it puts the organization on its hind legs. Rather than having a press conference where the organization is completely in control, once Israel has responded sharply, the condemning organization’s representatives will be asked how they respond to Israeli claims that the report is a biased hatchet job.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that in most instances when a media consumer hears an NGO blasting a government, and the government responds by denying the claims and charging bad bias, the listener will believe the NGO. The government, they conclude, is obviously going to issue denials

Lapid hit the right key when he said in his video that he hates “to use the argument that if Israel was not a Jewish state, no one at Amnesty would dare make such a claim against it, but in this case, there is simply no other explanation.” Lapid implied antisemitism, without saying the a-word.

His ministry, however, followed a different approach, accusing the group of antisemitism and saying that this report gives a green light to attacks not only against Israel, but against Jews around the world.

As former Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor was always wont to say, “If it is worth stating, it is worth overstating. We don’t do nuance.”

Nor understatement.

To preempt is good, to shout “antisemitism” in the manner the ministry did is less so. Why? Because shouts of antisemitism have been used so often that, even when true, when people hear the claim, they often turn a deaf ear. In this case it would have been enough “just” to say that Amnesty International is demonizing and delegitimizing Israel through the false retelling of history and a contortion of facts. That would be damning enough.

In dealing with this report, Israel is caught in a catch-22. On the one hand, it doesn’t want to give the report any more publicity or importance than it deserves. On the other hand, it also doesn’t want to leave its claims unchallenged.

But there are different ways of challenging it. Israel won’t refute the claim of being an apartheid state by saying, “I am not an apartheid state.” It will refute it through actions – show, don’t tell.

Show the diversity of the country. Show the Arab involvement in the society; show the Arab doctors in the hospital wards; show the Arab judges in black robes.

The irony of the report now is that it comes at a time when Israel has its most diverse government ever, with Arab ministers and coalition kingmakers.

In the same vein, don’t shout that the report is antisemitic; rather, underline that Amnesty is denying the right of self-determination to only one people in the world: the Jews. Reasonable people will then be able to draw their own conclusions.

WHICH BRINGS us to Whoopi Goldberg. What Goldberg said was just plain stupid. Obviously, the Holocaust was about race, and saying that it was about “two groups of whites” reveals deep ignorance.

But is Goldberg an antisemite, is she full of malice toward the Jews? She has not shown that in the past – she’s hardly a Mel Gibson or a Roger Waters. What she is, apparently, is dreadfully clueless about the Holocaust and Nazism (something rather concerning considering her influence as a television talk show host dealing with contemporary issues).

Amnesty International presented a false story to demonize the Jewish state; Goldberg made a false statement because she didn’t know any better.

Should she have been suspended for two weeks, as she was? That is more a reflection of what is going on in America – where cancel culture has run amok and peoples’ careers are destroyed because of a bad tweet or unfortunate comment – than anything else.

If careers and reputations can be ruined by an unthinking comment offending the sensibilities of Asians, blacks, gays, transgenders, Hispanics or Native Americans, then the same should be true of people who offend the sensibilities of Jews. Hey, Jews have feelings, too.

Or, maybe everybody just needs to grow some thicker skin – not every stupid comment needs to unleash the cavalry.