Israeli Leaders Talk About Israel and Apartheid. So Why Can't We?

If prominent Israeli leaders have made the apartheid comparison countless times, why is the word out of bounds for American Jews?

A mural at Columbia University
A mural at Columbia UniversityCredit: Instagram / @remikanazi

In 2005, pro-Palestinian activists held the first annual “Israeli Apartheid Week” in Toronto. In the coming weeks, pro-Palestinian students at colleges across the U.S., Canada and worldwide will hold similar events. They will also likely use the apartheid comparison to push divestment resolutions and in forming coalitions with progressive student groups.

This year, like every year, any group or individual that uses this analogy will be deemed to “demonize” and "delegitimize" Israel and will be barred from working with Hillel and the organized Jewish community. As Hillel International CEO Eric Fingerhut wrote in a recent op-ed, “Banners equating Israel with Apartheid South Africa appear with increasing frequency on campuses. This is not a political statement. It is an incitement”

But American Jewish leaders who decry these comparisons never mention a key contextual point: prominent Israelis have made the apartheid comparison countless times.

It’s not hard to find in the Israeli media.

The Haaretz editorial board has compared current Israeli policy in the West Bank to apartheidat least thirteen times since 2006. Even more frequently, Haaretz publishes op-eds saying the same — Haaretz publisher Amos Schocken recently wrote an article called “Only International Pressure Will End Israeli Apartheid,” and columnist Bradley Burston wrote a similar (and widely shared) piece last summer. Reporters such as Amira Hass, Gideon Levy, and many others have written still harsher critiques.

In Yedioth Ahronoth, one can read former cabinet minister Yossi Paritzky’s op-ed, “Our Apartheid State” or an article by an advisor to Joint List MK Basel Ghattas called “Apartheid is 66 Years Old.”

Even the pro-Netanyahu Israel HaYom ran an op-ed by Amnon Rubinstein, former government minister and current dean of IDC-Herzliya. While objecting to the term “apartheid” being applied to Israel proper, he writes, “[W]ould the word apartheid properly describe Judea and Samaria?Yes and no.”

Comparing Israeli policy to apartheid is also common among leaders of the Israeli Left.

Reflecting on the death of Nelson Mandela, Secretary General of Peace Now Yariv Oppenheimer wrote, “Even if there is not full symmetry with apartheid, you cannot help comparing it to the situation in the occupied territories.” In 2008, former cabinet minister Yossi Sarid wrote, “What acts like apartheid, is run like apartheid and harasses like apartheid, is not a duck - it is apartheid.” And former Education Minister and Israel Prize laureate Shulamit Aloni said that Israel “practices a distinct and even violent form of apartheid against the native Palestinian population in the West Bank.”

Likewise, in May Haaretz interviewed a group of eight former Labor politicians, asking, “Do you think we live in an apartheid regime?” Five gave a direct, affirmative answer. Avraham Burg said that each person could apply his own historical analogy, with apartheid being one possibility. Yossi Beilin said it might be possible to call the situation apartheid when the Palestinians become a majority from the river to the sea, and noted that this would happen very soon. Only one of the eight (Amir Peretz) answered no without qualification.

There are even Israeli politicians on the Right who accuse one another of supporting apartheid.

In November 2013, former Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor of Likud said, “I heard [a Likud member] saying he is for human rights, but not civil rights [for the Palestinians]...What’s the difference? No voting. It’s like South Africa.”

And last January, Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman said, “[Naftali Bennett and his Jewish Home party] need to decide whether they talk about a binational state between the Jordan [River] and the [Mediterranean] sea, or an apartheid state without granting the right to vote to all the citizens.”

Finally, an even longer list of Israeli politicians believe that Israel will become an apartheid state if the status quo continues: Shin Bet directors Yuval Diskin and Ami Ayalon; former Prime Ministers Ehud Barak, Ehud Olmert, and Yitzhak Rabin; opposition leaders Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni; and Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah, to name a few.

Even Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely (Likud), known for her support for annexing the West Bank and desire to see an Israeli flag over the Temple Mount, said in 2013, “Continuation of the status quo – there are some members of the Right who think it's possible. I personally think it's not possible. Over time, the State of Israel will truly become an apartheid state. I do not want that.”

While we should not judge an idea’s legitimacy solely on the basis of its prevalence among Israeli leaders, the fact that Hillel and other Jewish organizations classify an idea frequently entertained by Israelis as out of bounds shows the absurdity of their restrictions on discussion.

In reality, these policies are not driven by actual knowledge of Israeli political discourse but rather by a reactionary stance toward criticism of Israel and donor pressure. They do not just keep Jewish students from learning Palestinian perspectives (a tragedy in itself) — they also keep them ignorant of the diversity of Israeli opinion.

And as for students who are aware of the existence of these highly critical Israeli views — why would they see Jewish professionals who enforce these policies as having any intellectual or moral authority? When the leader of the largest campus Jewish organization says apartheid comparisons are “incitement,” is he ignorant of how many prominent Israelis he’s condemning?

If Jewish organizations don’t want to lose respect from young Jews, they should allow open discussion — even on difficult, emotionally fraught subjects such as this one. And reading the Israeli news wouldn’t hurt, either.

Caroline Morganti is a senior at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the head of the Open Hillel Steering Committee. Follow her on Twitter: @cmorganti

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