Israel Apartheid Week: A prescription for relief

A small dosage of the truth might prevent others from lending their support to a campaign perpetrating values antithetical to their own.

reading boycott 521 (photo credit: Bloomberg)
reading boycott 521
(photo credit: Bloomberg)
Feeling confused and disoriented? Suffering from a heightened sense of anxiety? No wonder. It’s March, and the seasonal outbreak of Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW), now extended to a full month by popular demand, is manifesting itself in college towns everywhere. Eventually it will subside of its own accord, but in the meantime, to alleviate symptoms, keep reading.
Indications: Bewilderment caused by misrepresentation of Israel as a racist regime.
Therapeutic activity: These words will have no effect on the extremists behind this annual hate-fest, but may act as a powerful antidote to their insidious campaign of misinformation that infects thousands of others far more moderate in their politics and genuinely wellmeaning in their intentions.
Dosage: An ounce of truth may prevent the unsuspecting from lending their support to a movement whose values are antithetical to their own.
Warnings: I am sympathetic to the plight of the innocent Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza who have for far too long been deprived of statehood. I don’t exonerate our own government of some culpability in their plight. I do hold their leadership far more accountable than ours for the prolongation of the conflict. I emphatically deny that there is any comparison between Israeli policy and South African apartheid. I charge both Hamas and Fatah with repressing their own people in ways far more severe than anything of which Israel might be fairly accused.
Avoid poisoning: Suspension of civil liberties, subjugation of women, intolerance of homosexuality, religious fundamentalism and perpetuation of ignorance continue to be the official rule – not the exception – in Hamasdominated Gaza, and characterize the climate in the West Bank, even under the more moderate Palestinian Authority. Furthermore, the long-standing rejection of the legitimate aspirations of the Jewish people and the perpetuation of hatred of Jews have created a society unprepared to live alongside us in peace.
A case in point is the story reported in this paper just last week that “Palestinians vow to prevent Holocaust education in UNRWA-run schools,” which they claimed would be a “provocative act” and a “challenge to the feelings of the Palestinians.” The intention to teach the topic to sensitize Arab children to the issue of human rights was further rebuffed by the Hamas government “because it would pave the way for normalization with Israel” and by a Fatah official who insisted the Holocaust was a “big lie.”
MEANWHILE, THE Hamas rejection of democratic principles was again evidenced when early in March it forcibly dispersed Palestinian demonstrators in Gaza City whose gathering was inspired by the popular uprisings sweeping the Arab world.
Diagnosis: While these actions undermine the credibility of those reproaching Israel for practices of apartheid, the accusations themselves are entirely without basis. According to the International Convention on Apartheid ratified by the UN, the practice involves “establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group... over any other racial group... and systematically oppressing them” by “denial to... the right to life and liberty; imposition... of living conditions calculated to cause its... physical destruction; measures calculated to prevent... participation in the political, social, economic and cultural life of the country... by denying... basic human rights and freedoms...; measures... designed to divide the population along racial lines; exploitation of the labor of members of a racial group... in particular by submitting them to forced labor.”
The situation here is so absolutely remote from this that it is hard to imagine how confronting IAW supporters with reality could have any effect other than embarrassing them into silence.
First of all, there is our Declaration of Independence, unequivocally calling for “the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants,” and explicitly ensuring “complete equality... irrespective of religion, race or sex.”
These are not mere words. Through six conflict- ridden decades, we have held tenaciously to the sacred pursuit of “freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel” to which the state was committed at its founding, never resorting either to the repression or expulsion of our Arab population. At every level, the facts belie any possible characterization of Israel as practicing state-sanctioned racism: • Arab citizens enjoy full and equal voting rights (women as well as men, something still denied them in other Middle Eastern countries).
• Arabs currently hold 14 of the 120 seats in the Knesset.
• Arabs have routinely served at the highest echelon of the civil, legislative and judicial authorities, filling such positions as minister, deputy speaker of the Knesset, ambassador and Supreme Court justice.
• Laws of compulsory education apply equally to Arabs and Jews and universities are open equally to all citizens.
• Arabs can be found in every sector of the economy, working alongside their Jewish colleagues as doctors, professors, filmmakers, hitech executives and lawyers, with their membership in labor unions taken for granted.
• There are no legal restrictions as to where Arabs may live, and neither religion nor ethnicity may be applied as a basis for denying purchase of land.
As to the Arabs in Gaza and the West Bank, some 97 percent live under the autonomous administrations of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas that they elected. Indeed, they don’t have the privilege of voting in Israeli elections, nor the automatic right to live and work in Israel proper, for they are not Israeli citizens, a status that might be conferred upon them only if the territories they live in were to be annexed. As the declared intention of successive governments has been to negotiate the establishment of a Palestinian state, this is obviously out of the question.
MEANWHILE, MEETING the needs of the Palestinian people in such fields as health, education and welfare, as well as guaranteeing them their civil liberties, has become the responsibility of their own governments.
While Israel, to maintain the security of its own residents, has imposed restrictions on movement in those areas it still controls and, in doing so, has at times erred on the side of caution, a vigilant Supreme Court and a variety of NGOs have upheld the human rights of the Palestinians in a manner that can only be the envy of all those now rising up against repressive regimes across the Arab world.
Against this background, it is evident that the analogy of apartheid is both hideous and ridiculous. Still, it is not my intention to whitewash Israel. We are a society guilty of harboring bigotry, demonstrating insensitivity and acting callously. It is not an act of disloyalty to say so. President Shimon Peres himself recently acknowledged the manifestation of racism when speaking to a group of highschool students. But the difference with apartheid is that in the same breath he declared it to be “completely unacceptable that in Israel there are those who attempt to discriminate against others.”
Prognosis: We must strive to create the conditions that will allow for the establishment of a Palestinian state, calling unceasingly upon our government to seek peace earnestly. The unrest that is reshaping the Middle East, like the social networks fueling it, knows no borders.
We must do all we can to eliminate any cause for demonstrations against us, from without and within, affirming the vow made in our Declaration of Independence: “We extend our hand to all neighboring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighborliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people settled in its own land. The State of Israel is prepared to do its share in a common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East.”
Side effects: We can only hope that those who are sincere about securing the rights of the Palestinian people might be prepared to do the same. IAW is as good a time as any to challenge them to invest their energies in working with us toward that end rather than clamoring for boycott, divestment and sanctions. In the meantime, keep dreaming.
How to contribute to the success of the treatment: If all this makes sense to you, pass it on to someone for whom things might not be so self-evident. Perhaps we might contain the rampant virus of IAW by going viral ourselves.
The writer is vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a member of the Jewish Agency Executive. The opinions expressed in this column are his own.