Palestine: Lose the Labels, Ask the Real Questions

BY JOEL POLLAK

Is the Palestinian Authority a Nazi regime? After all, its ruling party calls for a “struggle against the Jews.” Its President is a Holocaust denier, and early Palestinian leaders collaborated with Hitler. Public television calls for the murder of Jews, and public funds are devoted to the task. Anyone selling land to Jews faces a death sentence, and mobs are incited to destroy Jewish religious sites.

Would the Palestine-Nazi analogy be a legitimate subject for debate? Imagine if the Alliance for Israel had organized an event on this “important aspect of the ongoing conflict in Israel and Palestine.” The outcry would have been deafening. Critics would have accused the organizers of inciting hatred, undermining the legitimate claims of the Palestinians and obscuring Israeli abuses in the occupied territories.

And they would have been right. An event highlighting the Palestine-Nazi analogy could serve no other purpose than to demonize an already isolated and impoverished people. It would add nothing to our understanding of the conflict, nor make any positive contribution to the peace process. Why, then, should we welcome a debate that compares Israel to apartheid South Africa? What good is it to anyone?

The analogy, in any case, is false. Apartheid in South Africa was an authoritarian regime based on racial classification and segregation, designed to entrench white power and exploit black labor. Israel, by contrast, is a democratic country in which Arabs and Jews enjoy equal rights. Abuses in the occupied territories are due to the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians, a fight in which blame falls on both sides.

Because apartheid South Africa and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are different situations, they require different solutions. The apartheid regime had to be isolated and internationally condemned before it began negotiating with the African National Congress (ANC). However, Israeli and Palestinian leaders have negotiated successfully before. The challenge is to create the conditions for talks to resume.

Contrived debates on the Israel-apartheid analogy do not help. Such debates are not aimed at truth, but at defaming Israel, since a true consideration of the analogy would reflect poorly on the Palestinians. Even when the ANC turned to armed struggle, for example, it did so as a last resort, and tried to avoid civilian targets. Violence against civilians, however, was the first resort of Palestinian leaders.

At the JFP’s event, Professor Farid Esack reportedly challenged his audience “to name one veteran of the organized liberation struggle” who visited the occupied territories and did not agree with the apartheid analogy. He need have looked no further than South Africa’s ambassador to Israel, Major General Fumanekile Gqiba, who was a commander in Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC.

Gqiba told the Sowetan newspaper in 2005: “The accusations are unfounded, the term ‘apartheid’ is uniquely South African and devalues the struggle of the black population against one of the worst forms of oppression known to man.” Esack also overlooked Israel’s repeated condemnations of apartheid, and sanctions-busting by Arab and Muslim states, whose trade in arms and oil helped keep apartheid afloat.

In South Africa, I once interviewed Yossi Beilin, the architect of the Oslo peace accords and a harsh critic of Israeli policies in the occupied territories, and asked him what he thought of the Israel-apartheid comparison. “It’s really crazy,” he told me. “Only ignorant people, or people with malice, can say something like that. The ignorance is either about what apartheid was all about, or about Israel.”

Those who have used the Israel-apartheid analogy fall into roughly three categories. First, there are those who use the analogy solely as a weapon against Israel, such as South African intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils. The co-chairs of JFP cite Kasrils with approval; perhaps they are unaware that he is busy propping up Robert Mugabe’s tyranny in Zimbabwe, a far greater human rights atrocity.

Second, there are those who believe that using the apartheid analogy will motivate the international community to intervene on the Palestinian side. These include Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former President Jimmy Carter, and UN Special Rapporteur John Dugard, all referenced by JFP. What these often well-meaning critics overlook is the role Palestinian terror has played in preventing negotiations.

Dugard, for example, introduced his recent report on human rights in the occupied territories by declaring: “I shall not consider the violation of human rights caused by Palestinian suicide bombers. Nor shall I consider the violation of human rights caused by the political conflict between Fatah and Hamas.” Such willful blindness gives Palestinian extremists license to continue their attacks.

Finally, there are Israelis who use the analogy in a metaphorical sense, not to demonize their country but to create outrage and encourage change. Few of these would actually equate Israeli policies with apartheid. Beilin, for example, recently defended President Carter’s use of the analogy as “first and foremost metaphorical,” but noted that he found the comparison itself to be “simply unacceptable.”

I once visited the West Bank with B’Tselem, the Israeli rights group that is cited by JFP for its use of the analogy. B’Tselem operates freely in Israel; in apartheid South Africa, it would have been banned. And, according to what B’Tselem told me, that is exactly how human rights activists are treated by the Palestinian Authority when they try to investigate Palestinian prisons or torture by Palestinian police.

The Israel-apartheid analogy, in sum, is not an intellectual comparison. At best, it is a rhetorical flourish. At worst, it is a propaganda ploy used by Israel’s enemies to undermine its right to exist. It is the reincarnation of the UN’s “Zionism is racism” resolution in 1975, which was designed by the Soviets and the Arab bloc to destroy Israel’s legitimacy and stop the peace process.

I cannot agree with Professor Henry Steiner that an Israel-apartheid debate is “worthwhile” or a “real contribution to the school.” Nor can I agree with the co-chairs of JFP that it is a “noble democratic endeavor” to pit three people who support the analogy against one who only partially opposes it. Furthermore, describing critics of the event as “uncritical supporters of Israel” is unfounded.

To scrutinize the JFP’s event is not to silence debate, but to challenge the group to live up to its ideals. Yes, “Justice For Palestine” requires honest reflection. That means discarding false labels and asking real questions about the challenges facing Palestinians today. What is preventing peace? How can peace be achieved? What sort of Palestinian society do we want to build? All else is a distraction.

Joel Pollak is a student at HLS.

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