A minor earthquake shook Israel last week. No one was killed, no houses were destroyed. A few feelings were hurt, but not mortally.
What happened exactly? A clinical decision had been made to prevent physical contact between Palestinians and settlers on the bus lines that operate in the West Bank. Bodies shall not touch, smells shall not mingle. What did the defense minister call it? A pilot plan.
And all of a sudden this experiment, which essentially just reflects reality, causes a great uproar. Before you know it, Rosa Parks famous bus ride during the civil rights struggle in the United States is being cited, as is the segregated transportation instituted by the Nazis in Germany.
The demise of Jewish values is being bemoaned, comparisons to South Africas apartheid regime have become inevitable, and most of all – the prime minister is taken aback by a poke in the eye from the black president of the United States.
But this was an artificial earthquake that was over even before the seismographs could record its intensity: The pilot was shelved, and the naked mannequin that offended the sensibilities of passersby was removed from the Israeli display window. The worlds only Jewish democracy continued to sprawl on the seashore – and, unlike their black brethren, the Palestinian masses didnt go out to demonstrate and demand equal rights. American Jews breathed a sigh of relief, and their president praised the Jewish values he was taught.
So what was all the fuss about? After all, brutal discrimination is the daily lot not just of the thousands of Palestinian laborers, but of the nearly five million Palestinians who have been living under occupation for 48 years already. Roadblocks regularly separate settlers from Palestinians, the occupation laws are enforced differently with regard to the two population groups; for decades, policies related to building permits, land appropriation and house demolitions have been sketching crude lines of segregation.
Where has the response of American Jewry, liberal and otherwise, been to this built-in discrimination? Where has the president been while the Palestinians have been seeking to establish an independent state that will ensure their rights? Why was it the proposed bus segregation of all things that kicked up such a storm?
Its not a matter of hypocrisy. Its worse than that. The local and international response shows that Israel is already perceived as a binational state that is obliged to conduct itself in line with universal criteria. A binational state cannot tolerate segregated buses. The law must be equal for all. Employment opportunities must be equally open to all citizens, and no one must be discriminated against on the basis of race, gender or smell.
And thus, public buses are not just a means of transportation. They symbolize a sense of equality. The sense, though not necessarily the reality. As for example, ultra-Orthodox men can trample on their wives rights, but they cant force them to the back of the bus or make them get off.
An Israeli Arabs request to live where he pleases may be rejected, or he may be turned down for a job because of his ethnicity, but you cant make him get off the bus. You can occupy Arabs and exploit their status as an occupied people to abuse their rights, and even find support for doing so in international law, but you cant do anything to stain the democratic aura of the occupying state and prevent them from riding the bus of equality.
But occupation is not apartheid. It has recognized rules of its own, and equal rights is not one of them. And, in fact, those who are loudly decrying the plight of the Palestinian bus riders are contributing to the blurring of this important distinction. Whoever raises the flag of apartheid is basically saying that if the occupation were nicer and fairer – if Palestinians could ride buses with settlers – it would disappear, or at least not be felt.
Nobody should feel virtuous because the pilot scheme was tossed in the trash. Its the real thing, and should be used permanently.