Like many American Jews, I’m deeply concerned about the Israeli governing coalition’s efforts to eviscerate the independence of the judiciary, legalize remote outposts in the West Bank, and criminalize immodest dress by women at the Western Wall. Yet, despite the government’s troubling hard-right turn, I believe we must never cease to defend Israel against distortions and lies that seek to portray the Jewish state as a pariah.
The most insidious and toxic of these lies is the claim that Israel – a democracy even with all its flaws – is an apartheid state. As a lifelong Zionist, I have a strong emotional reaction to the apartheid libel. It infuriates me. The malicious – or at least misguided – comparison of Israel to the systemic racism and oppression suffered by black South Africans under apartheid serves as the primary weapon in the delegitimization and demonization of Israel.
In the words of former Canadian justice minister Irwin Cotler, “To indict Israel as an apartheid state is prologue and justification for the dismantling of the Jewish state [and] for the criminalization of its supporters.”
“To indict Israel as an apartheid state is prologue and justification for the dismantling of the Jewish state [and] for the criminalization of its supporters.”Irwin Cotler
Israeli apartheid: A false accusation becoming more widespread
The accusation of Israeli apartheid is so widespread that it’s increasingly difficult to fight. And tell a lie often enough, and even otherwise intelligent elected officials may not only believe it – they may also actively promote it. In early February, Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau announced that her city was suspending its twin city relationship with Tel Aviv, citing claims that Israel is guilty of “the crime of apartheid” and the need to “defend Palestinian human rights.”
The decision was originally to have been made on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, but Colau, presumably out of sensitivity to Spain’s Federation of Jewish Communities, postponed it. I mean, if you’re going to offend Spain’s Jews by pushing the apartheid libel, at least don’t do it on a day that’s highly emotional for them, right?
Around the same time, New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a frequent critic of Israel, accused it of apartheid (not for the first time) during a primetime interview with CNN news anchor John Berman. AOC noted that she’s backed in this claim by various human rights groups, and, well, who could argue with that? Unless, that is, she was referring to Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International.
In 2021, HRW published a 217-page anti-Israel hatchet job, whose primary author, Omar Shakir, is a longtime supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. So one-sided and divorced from reality was this report accusing Israel of apartheid that the words “Palestinian terrorism” failed to appear even once in the entire document.
Like the HRW report, Amnesty’s 2022 report bashing Israel as an apartheid state was riddled with misrepresentations and falsehoods. Most outrageous of all was Amnesty’s assertion that apartheid originated not with specific Israeli policies but with Israel’s establishment in 1948. And therein lies Amnesty’s view of the Jewish state’s most egregious sin – its very existence.
What makes repudiating the apartheid lie especially challenging is when Jews are the ones who are promulgating it. In February, for example, the anti-Zionist Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP) mobilized support for a bill that would have required the Oregon state treasurer to incorporate a “human rights” screening when making investment decisions. In their testimony, JVP revealed their true objective – compel Oregon to divest from companies doing business with or in the “apartheid state of Israel.” For them, the bill (which fortunately went nowhere) was merely a subterfuge, just another cog in an unrelenting assault on Israel’s legitimacy.
It’s entirely reasonable to feel disillusioned by the current Israeli government, whose behavior is making it harder to defend Israel. At the same time, it’s essential to understand that the delegitimizers don’t need a pretext to vilify the Jewish state. They’ve been spreading the apartheid lie for years and were undeterred even when Israel’s previous governing coalition included the Arab Ra’am party. (Do Ocasio-Cortez and Colau ever stop to consider the incongruity between their claim of apartheid and the existence of Israeli Arab political parties, let alone one that had sufficient leverage to bring down the last government?)
It’s imperative for the pro-Israel community to voice its concerns whenever the actions of an Israeli government threaten to cause a schism between American Jews and Israel. It’s equally important that we actively oppose the delegitimization of Israel, regardless of our consternation over current Israeli government policies.
At its core, the apartheid lie depicts Jews who have returned to their ancestral homeland as “settler colonialists” and “foreign interlopers,” comparing them to South African whites during apartheid. It proclaims that Zionism, an integral part of Jewish religious and cultural identity, is “racism.” It’s obscene, and it must not go unchallenged. ■
The writer is director of Community Relations and Public Affairs at the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland.