OPINION | Israel and the ‘apartheid’ label


The sixth annual observance of anti-Israel activism, “Israeli Apartheid Week,” is in full swing in cities across the United States and around the world. The events, which actually take place over two weeks, are intended to further the movement pressuring governments and other institutions to boycott, divest and sanction (BDS) Israel. In Minnesota, a schedule of IAW events took place in Duluth this week. Many IAW events are taking place on university campuses, which have become surrogate battlefields in the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The charge that Israel is an “apartheid state” – a reference to the thorough racial segregation that characterized white-ruled South African society – triggers an emotional response among most Israelis and Jews in the Diaspora. Former President Jimmy Carter waded into this particular cul-de-sac of controversy with his 2006 book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.

Carter specified that he used the term “apartheid” in reference to “Palestine, the occupied territories, and not about Israel.” He viewed Israeli-enforced segregation and “terrible oppression” of Palestinians in the West Bank as a situation that can be “accurately described” as apartheid. Of course, many Israelis and Jews vilified Carter; others concluded that the president who helped broker the 1978 peace agreement between Israel and Egypt had painted a fair picture of the repression of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank (or Judea and Samaria, in the biblical parlance favored by the Jewish settlers and their supporters).

The emotionally fraught debates about Israel-Palestine hardly benefit by throwing “apartheid” into the mix. Without resort to that term, there is plenty of rhetorical cant to be found in both anti-Israel polemics and spirited defenses of Israeli government policies.

In the first chapter of Israel vs. Utopia (Akashic Books), Israeli-American author and editor Joel Schalit tries to untangle his views about Israel and admits that so many people “have gotten Israel wrong that the demand to get it right is almost unbearable.” In his rare nuanced approach to the subject of Israel, Schalit comes to “realize that the only way to get it right is to stop trying to ‘get it’ at all. Reality always has a way of eluding our grasp. In the case of Israel, though, the problem is absurdly magnified by the fact that the reality of Israel is, in large measure, a projection of fantasies, both by those who want to love the place and those who are consumed with hatred for it.”

Schalit, who has lived in the United States, Israel and Europe, mixes personal stories – including an ongoing honest dialogue with his elderly father living in Israel – with historical digressions and examinations of the myriad strands of arguments about the Israeli-Arab conflict. He asserts that just as “most blindly patriotic Americans know deep down” that this nation was founded through the dispossession of the American Indians, “every Israeli knows that his or her country could never have come into being without making room for its citizens at the expense of the area’s longtime residents. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. The question is what to do with this knowledge.”

And apropos of this week’s Israeli Apartheid Week events, Schalit notes that many critics of Israel, notably those in the “Diaspora Left,” think that Israel’s “misdeeds can still be undone,” as the U.S. Civil Rights movement brought Jim Crow to an end in the South, and as the apartheid regime in South Africa was dismantled. Schalit writes that only a “lunatic fringe” believes that the U.S. can be returned to its preconquest tribal members; however, “a great many people advocate that Israel be reduced in size, if not outright erased, to make up for the suffering of the Palestinians it has displaced.”

In fact, there is no going back to the 19th century Zionist dream of “a land without a people for a people without a land.” Likewise, the Palestinians cannot recover their dream of life before 1948, prior to the events they call the Nakba, the “catastrophe” that was the birth of the modern State of Israel.

“There is no going back, because no matter how much some of us might want to, we are propelled into a future filled with the rubble left behind by our dreaming,” writes Schalit. “When we try to make such dreams reality, we refuse the existence of people whose presence renders those dreams impossible. True hope lies in worldviews that don’t reduce human beings to the status of underbrush that must be cleared away before starting afresh.”

In other words, it’s necessary to deal with the real mess that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and avoid dealing in abstractions. And Israel remains an amorphous concept for about 80 percent of American Jews who have never visited the country.

Likewise, we should resist reducing the Palestinians to one-dimensional villains, or part of a fear-inducing tide called “Islamo-fascism.” Israelis and Palestinians are trying to live their lives, do what they can to provide a better future for their children, in a volatile part of the world. We need to open our hearts and think critically about solutions in the Middle East.

The status quo is untenable, especially in regard to grievances arising from 43 years of Israeli occupation of the West Bank; and war is proving to be an increasingly ineffective way to resolve political conflicts.