I spent last Tuesday night in Tel Aviv at an Intelligence Squared debate on the topic: “If Israel continues on its current course, it cannot remain a democratic Jewish state.” We argued yes; our opponents—who included former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations Dan Gillerman—argued no.
The responsibility for Israel’s continued control of the West Bank, Gillerman insisted, rests largely with the Palestinians. Israel, he declared, has already produced five “De Klerks”—Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert—leaders willing to cede land and midwife a Palestinian state. But the Palestinians have not yet produced “a Mandela,” a leader truly dedicated to nonviolence and the two state solution.
Put aside the fact that by Gillerman’s standards, Nelson Mandela—a man who for decades advocated armed struggle in pursuit of a one state solution—wasn’t a “Mandela” either. Or that Sharon’s chief of staff, Dov Weisglass, famously argued that his boss’s decision to dismantle settlements in the Gaza Strip was designed to “prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.” What gobsmacked me was the analogy itself. To suggest that Israel needs “De Klerks” and the Palestinians need “Mandelas” is to compare Israel to apartheid South Africa. If an elected official or Jewish leader served up that analogy in the United States, they’d likely find themselves looking for work. When Jimmy Carter used the term in his 2006 book,Peace or Apartheid—despite insisting that he was referring only to the West Bank and not Israel proper—the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman called him“bigoted.” For using the far-less incendiary phrase “Jewish lobby,” Chuck Hagel almost lost his bid to run the Pentagon earlier this year.
But here was a former Israeli ambassador to the U.N. using the analogy casually. And Gillerman is not alone. In 2010, Ehud Barak predicted that “If…millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state.” In 2007, Ehud Olmert warned that “when the two state solution collapses” Israel will “face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights.”
Let me absolutely clear: I do not think Israel is an apartheid state. Inside its original boundaries, Israel offers Palestinians citizenship and the right to vote. There are Palestinian citizens in the Knesset and on Israel’s Supreme Court. None of this was true in apartheid South Africa. As I’ve written, and argued countless times, calling Israel an apartheid state debases the term because if Israel deserves to be tarred with this unique epithet, various other Middle Eastern countries deserve it more.
Yet prominent, centrist Israelis keep invoking the analogy. And they go further. In The Gatekeepers, former Shin Bet head Avraham Shalom calls Israel in the West Bank “a brutal occupation force, similar to the Germans in World War II.” (Shalom explained that he was referring to Nazi treatment of the French, Belgians and Dutch, not the Jews.)
I’ve noticed something similar speaking to American Jewish groups. After arguing that Israel should support a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, I’m sometimes asked, indignantly, whether we should give back the United States to Native Americans. What the questioners seem not to grasp is that by using the analogy they’re comparing Zionists to colonialist ethnic cleansers, and thus affirming one of the core claims of the anti-Zionist left.
Something interesting is going on. On the one hand, American politicians and pundits realize that if they analogize Israeli behavior to apartheid or any other iconic historic injustice, Foxman and company will call them anti-Israel, if not anti-Semitic. As a result, mainstream commentators (as opposed to academic lefties) generally avoid the terms. But under the surface, there’s also a gut-level recognition—even among centrists and hawks—that Palestinians in the West Bank lack basic liberties like citizenship, the right to vote, the right to due process and the right to free movement. And because human beings tend to think by analogy, references to apartheid, the Native Americans and even the Nazis sometimes slip out, especially when people are speaking off the cuff, and especially among people who don’t fear Abe Foxman.
The day after my Tel Aviv debate I went to the Palestinian village of Susiya. Susiya is a motley collection of tents, people and animals in the southern West Bank that is facing demolition because its residents lack the necessary building permits, which isn’t surprising given that Israel rarely grants Palestinians building permits in Area C, the sixty percent of the West Bank under direct Israeli control. (According to a 2008 report by the Israeli human rights group, Bimkom, between 2000 and 2007 Israel approved roughly five percent of Palestinian building applications in Area C.) Susiya’s residents aren’t the only ones in the West Bank who build without government approval. Across the West Bank, Jews have established roughly 100 “unauthorized” outposts, wildcat settlements illegal even under Israeli law. Yet they’re barely ever bulldozed. To the contrary, the Israeli government provides them with water, electricity and military protection.
From Susiya, I went to Shuhada Street, once a bustling commercial thoroughfare in Hebron, now closed to Palestinians, including the Palestinians who live on it, some of whom have had their front doors welded shut and must exit by climbing out the roof and across the houses of neighbors. On Jewish holidays, the restrictions on Palestinian movement are even more severe. Here is one Palestinian boy’s effort to get home from school on the first day of Passover, the Jewish festival of freedom.
I don’t like analogizing Israel to apartheid South Africa, let alone Nazi Germany. South Africa and Nazi Germany were murderous, racist regimes on every spot of land they controlled. Israel is a flawed but vibrant democracy being corrupted by a brutal, undemocratic occupation on land it conquered in 1967. There’s a big difference.
But as last Tuesday’s debate in Tel Aviv made clear, the American Jewish establishment’s effort to police the public debate in order to prevent such analogies is a waste of energy. Calling Israel an apartheid state is like calling Dick Cheney a “fascist.” It’s not factually correct, but it’s not the real problem, either. Injustice doesn’t stop being injustice because people describe it in imprecise, unfair ways.
So, in that vein, let me make a plea to the American Jewish leaders so outraged by apartheid analogies. Go to Susiya and Shuhada Street, or to a hundred other places in the West Bank that tell their own stories of state-sponsored suffering. Avoid analogies; avoid hyperbole; be scrupulously fair to the Israel that you and I love. Just talk to the people and keep your eyes open, and find your own language to describe what you hear and see. It will be awful enough.
This article first appeared in The Daily Beast and appears by permission of the author.