14th of January 2012 / Serving Oregon & Southwest Washington since 1959

Apartheid label underscores moral blindness of Israel foes


article created on: 2011-09-15T00:00:00

During a July outing at the Shfaim water park near Netanya, I was struck by the large number of Arab families, both Christian and Muslim, enjoying the pools and slides alongside the many Jewish families. The same scene was repeated on different days at Maimadion, a water park in Tel Aviv, at the natural pools in the Sakhne near Bet Shean, and at the Ma’agan Resort on the southern shore of the Kinneret: Arabs and Jews, relaxing, picnicking, playing—coexisting.

No, life isn’t perfect for Israel’s Arab population of over 1.5 million. According to a recent study by the Israel Bar Association, for example, Israeli Arabs, like African-Americans vis-à-vis whites in the United States, are given jail sentences more often than Jews convicted of the same crimes and serve longer sentences than Jews. It’s a serious problem that Israel’s self-correcting democracy should address without delay.

On the other hand, the instances of Jewish-Arab coexistence described above shouldn’t be dismissed as simply superficial. After all, where in the Middle East other than in Israel could such scenes be possible, let alone common?

At about the same time I was admiring up close Israel’s open, multicultural society, a reputable watchdog group some 4,000 miles away had just put forward an entirely divergent perspective by declaring Israel to be an apartheid state.

On July 5, the South African Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), in response to a complaint lodged by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies about an ad calling for a boycott of Israel, brashly asserted, “The expression of the view that Israel is an apartheid state…is based on a sound factual matrix.”

To anyone who has visited Israel or studied it in depth, claims depicting the Jewish state as an apartheid state are likely to be seen as patently absurd. The problem, however, is that when such accusations emanate from South Africa, where the term “apartheid” carries considerable emotional and historical weight, they may seem credible in the eyes of the world.

The ASA’s ruling is a microcosm of the upside-down moral universe in which the delegitimization of Israel thrives, i.e., where facts are drowned out by false propaganda, fairness gives way to double standards, and logic is trumped by a deep-rooted moral blindness.

Consider the following:

Over the last five years, thousands of black Sudanese refugees have risked their lives to reach the so-called apartheid state of Israel, where they’ve been given shelter, medical care and, in some cases, jobs. Not only were these refugees persecuted in Egypt, but Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Israel’s putative peace partner, continues to express his unwavering support for Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese leader who was indicted by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide. There has been virtually no outcry against Egypt or the PA.

Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian co-founder of the Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, travels from campus to campus in the United States denouncing Israel as an apartheid state. Barghouti recently earned a master’s degree in philosophy (ethics) from Tel Aviv University, the very institution he believes should be boycotted. Ironically, when students demanded his expulsion in 2009, Tel Aviv University Rector Zvi Galil responded that “the university cannot and will not expel [Barghouti] on the basis of his political views or his actions.” Or, for that matter, his nationality.

From time to time, there have been those in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe who have called for a boycott of the Israel Medical Association or have urged medical professionals from around the world to boycott medical conferences held in the so-called apartheid state. Perhaps these misinformed souls think there are separate medical facilities for Jews and Arabs in Israel. In fact, visit any major Israeli hospital and you’ll find many Arab patients—not only Israeli citizens but also Arabs from the Palestinian-controlled territories—receiving the highest-quality care (on the same ward as Jewish patients!). Last year alone, 180,000 Arabs from the West Bank and Gaza were treated at Israeli medical centers, including a four-month-old infant from Gaza whose treatment for a life-threatening genetic disorder was the subject of the award-winning Israeli documentary, “Precious Life.”

Not surprisingly, Israeli hasbara isn’t always effective in countering false depictions of Israel as a pariah state deserving of boycotts and divestment. Moreover, two-thirds of American Jews have never visited Israel; thus, knowledge about Israel remains fairly shallow within our own community let alone the general public.

If we are to prevail over the delegitimizers, the organized Jewish community must continue to make meaningful trips to Israel a high funding priority, enabling more people to observe firsthand Israel’s vibrant—albeit far from flawless—democracy as well as its complex challenges, especially with regard to its Arab minority.

To be sure, efforts should target Jewish young adults, i.e., those who never went on Taglit-Birthright. But it’s also imperative that we expose non-Jewish civic, religious, business and academic leaders to the reality of Israeli society—and debunk the odious myth of Israeli apartheid.

Robert Horenstein is the director of community relations and allocations for the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland. This article first appeared in the Jerusalem Post.

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