BY JOEL POLLAK
This Friday, March 16, Justice For Palestine will be hosting a discussion on whether a comparison can be drawn between Israel and apartheid South Africa. Like many JFP events, this one is being held on Friday evening, perhaps to ensure a minimum of dissent from Jewish participants. This time, I have another reason for missing the discussion: I will be in the real South Africa, not the imaginary one.
Is Israel an apartheid state? The answer is clearly “no.” Apartheid, as it was preached and practiced in South Africa, was a system of separation and discrimination based on skin color. By law, there is no racial discrimination in Israel. Nor is there legal discrimination against Arabs. There are inequalities, but there is also progress. Every Israeli, Jew, and Arab, has full, equal political rights.
What about the Palestinians in the occupied territories? The difficulties they face are the result of an ongoing conflict, not an apartheid ideology. The security barrier, the checkpoints, and all the ugliness of life in the West Bank and Gaza today are there because of the ongoing attacks that Palestinian groups have launched against Israeli civilians. The settlements are a problem, but terror is a far greater problem.
The false Israel-apartheid analogy has a shameful history. Former President Jimmy Carter did not invent it. The first world leader to compare Israel to apartheid South Africa was Idi Amin, the murderous dictator of Uganda. The Soviet Union and the Arab bloc then proposed the infamous U.N. resolution equating Zionism with racism in 1975. The debate then was almost the same as the debate we are having today.
Arab states claimed that the “Israeli lobby” controlled the U.S. Congress. They paraded anti-Zionist Jews and presented critical clippings from the Israeli press as proof of their claims. They attacked Israel in every forum they could, crippling UN institutions that were supposed to be focusing their attention on other, worthy causes, such as women’s rights and the fight against apartheid in South Africa.
The truth, then as now, is that Israel is the freest country in the Middle East. The real “apartheid states” are its neighbors, which do practice discrimination and deny basic civil and political freedom to their citizens. As the Muslim feminist Irshad Manji recently wrote:
“Would an apartheid state have several Arab political parties, as Israel does? … Would an apartheid state award its top literary prize to an Arab?
“…Would an apartheid state be home to universities where Arabs and Jews mingle at will, or apartment blocks where they live side by side? … Would human rights organizations operate openly in an apartheid state? They do in Israel. … Would an apartheid state ensure conditions for the freest Arabic press in the Middle East …?” The answer is no. The question then becomes: why ask in the first place?
Benjamin Pogrund, former deputy editor of the Rand Daily Mail, who was jailed by the apartheid regime and now lives in Israel, provides an answer:
“‘Apartheid’ . . . comes easily to hand: it is a lazy label for the complexities of the Middle East conflict. It is also used because, if it can be made to stick, then Israel can be made to appear to be as vile as was apartheid South Africa and seeking its destruction can be presented to the world as an equally moral cause.”
The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan was the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. at the time of the “Zionism equals racism” fiasco. He observed that the goal was not to prove that Zionism actually was racism, but to destroy Israel’s very legitimacy. The same is true today. Those who compare Israel to apartheid South Africa are arguing an intellectual point, but trying to isolate Israel and undermine her right to exist.
How does that help the Palestinian cause? It doesn’t. It just distracts attention away from the real problem, which is that Palestinian leaders have not prepared their people for peace and independence. The irony is that it is the Palestinians who live in a state that is treated like apartheid South Africa and boycotted by the world because their leaders care more about destroying Israel than building Palestine.
The Palestinian cause is still what Orwell called a “negative nationalism”-opposed to another nation, but not in favor of itself. Before Israel became a state, Jews living there and around the world prepared for sovereignty by creating political and social institutions, contributing money to buy land, even living on collective farms. Are there charities collecting donations to plant trees in Palestine? If there were, I’d buy a few.
Back in the mid-1970s, Moynihan wrote, the Soviets hoped to use the “Zionism is racism” resolution to block any effort at achieving peace between Israel and Egypt. Today, the comparison between Israel and apartheid is used by those who want to block a two-state solution. By indulging the false Israel-apartheid analogy, JFP is siding with the enemies of peace, and standing against real justice for Palestine.
Joel Pollak is a 1L.