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Need to cancel critical thinking? Scream apartheid!

The libel is a microcosm of the larger strategy: Throw the kitchen sink at Israel.

In 2001, the United Nations sponsored the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa. The conference, but mostly the nongovernmental parallel events, turned into a circus of medieval anti-Semitism, with copies of the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion and other base antisemitic propaganda distributed and Jewish delegates being shouted down and ruled out of order. Images of Israelis as blood-sucking vampires and other classic antisemitic imagery were dusted off from decades past.

It was there, in South Africa, that the idea was first floated that Israel is an “apartheid” state. This handy historical appropriation is an abridged version of the entire Palestinian narrative of throwing the kitchen sink at Israel.

The Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, said of this time:

“What is painful is not that the Palestinians and the Arabs voiced their hatred, but the fact that so few delegates had the courage to combat them (or walk out, as the U.S. delegation did). It is as if in a strange and frightening moment of collective catharsis, everyone removed their masks and revealed their true faces.”[1]

Given the strategy of the Palestinian “resistance,” which rejects all rules of engagement and betrays the Geneva Conventions by employing human shields, using medical and civilian infrastructures as military installations and almost exclusively targets civilian victims, the only way for the Palestinian narrative to gain the moral high ground is to depict an Israel as the absolute incarnation of evil itself. Repetitious mantras that support a simplistic fable of Palestinian victimhood are the only resort. A false but convenient and effective tool is needed to deflect people from the facts and redirect them to an emotional, rather than an intellectual, approach. What could be a better shorthand for a rotten society than that single word: Apartheid?

Mere months after the apartheid libel was unveiled at the Durban antisemitism festival, Canada’s largest trade union organization adopted the apartheid metaphor as official policy.

“…It is difficult to compare any other situation to the unique nature of this conflict,” began a resolution adopted by the Canadian Labour Congress, in 2002, which went on to do precisely that: “But we can, to some extent, compare the Middle East situation to apartheid South Africa. The Palestinians have about the same rights, freedom and power as Africans living in Bantustans and segregated townships once had … ”

The resolution almost acknowledges the intellectual vacuity in which it wallows, yet forges ahead anyway. Fairness and proximity to the truth are not the rules of this game and the value of the apartheid libel is obvious. Once we’ve accepted that Israel is an apartheid state, we pretty much accept that anything the Palestinians do to hasten its end is justifiable and that anything Israel does to defend itself is illegitimate.

While “moderate, progressive” Israel-bashers insist that they are criticizing Israel and not calling for its destruction, the apartheid libel is a handy tool for telescoping precisely the opposite message. One cannot, on the one hand, declare that Israel is an apartheid state and, on the other hand, plausibly contend that it has a right to exist. So the apartheid libel is a duplicitous and convenient dog whistle for the anti-Israel movement.

The apartheid libel allows Canadian union leaders to travel to the Middle East on missions of labour solidarity, yet allow themselves to be co-opted by a nationalist movement that is antithetical to the most cherished values of collective bargaining, human equality and the rights of working men and, especially, women. Only through the perverted lens of the apartheid libel could we imagine the Palestinian movement as the progressive movement’s ally in the region, while Israel, a state that was literally founded on and still best exemplifies an ideal of workers’ rights, is dismissed as progressive people’s Global Enemy Number One.

But if the apartheid libel does not offend progressives because of the distortion of truth it perpetrates against Israel, it should offend our decency because of the debasement it perpetrates on the South African experience.

Israel bears no resemblance to apartheid-era South Africa, it has been said a million times, but perhaps even more importantly: the Palestinian Authority and Hamas bear even less resemblance to the ANC.

Nelson Mandela sought – and created – a racially just and democratic society where all people are legally equal. The Palestinian movement has no such agenda. Not only is there no indication that a “free” Palestine would be the least bit free for any of its citizens, least of all women and minorities, but the Palestinian leaders haven’t even given lip-service to the idea. Never have Palestinian leaders – either the “extremist” Hamas or the “moderate” Fatah – suggested that their goal is democracy, freedom, equality or anything else that would reflect the stated values of their overseas allies – those gays and lesbians, feminists, trade unionists, social justice activists and the entire progressive movement that has sided with the Palestinians.

The African National Congress, for whatever tactics it may have employed, was, at its heart, a movement for democracy, racial equality and freedom. The Palestinian movement explicitly aims for a Jew-free country and there has never been anything in its past or present to indicate that a "free" Palestine would respect equality for women, LGBTQ people or religious and ethnic minorities.

Worse, this entire panoply of uncritical Palestine fans have not made any demands whatsoever on the Palestinians to insist that they give even so much as the cheapest tokenistic verbal nod to these ideals.

The apartheid libel makes this unnecessary. By convincing naïve people that Israel is perpetrating “apartheid,” the Palestinian movement has done a magnificent job of deflecting attention away from its failures to provide a decent life for their people today and the lack of any commitment to providing a decent life for Palestinians in the future. Instead, all we care about is defeating “apartheid.” What happens to Palestinians after that is of no concern.

Because Arabs oppressing Arabs, as is demonstrated everywhere one looks across the Middle East and North Africa, does not trouble our progressive consciences in the least. Jews oppressing Arabs, no matter how small the numbers in the grand scheme of international oppression: that's our top foreign policy concern. Arabs oppressing and killing Arabs, well, that’s an internal matter. Not our affair.

The cognitive dissonance we should experience given this truth is absent, pacified by the apartheid libel, which leap-frogs Palestinian victimhood over all the other injustices on the planet.

Also, it needs to be noted that, unlike the Palestinian leadership, the ANC was not, for most of its history, confronting an opponent across a negotiating table. The ANC never walked away from peaceful negotiations to return to armed struggle, as the Palestinian leadership did.

It diminishes the history and achievements of the ANC to imply through the apartheid libel that its natural descendant is the racist, misogynist, gay-bashing, despotic Palestinian movement.

Anything can be compared to anything, of course, so comparing Israel to the South African apartheid regime is not beyond the realm of human discourse. But intelligent observers would know that Israel is the only country in the Middle East that has legislation like Canada’s and South Africa’s to protect racial, religious and sexual minorities, while absolutely every other state in the region is far closer to apartheid, on this strange spectrum of proximity, than Israel is.

Still, the cultural appropriation of the apartheid libel is what should make it toxic to progressive people. How demeaning is it to usurp the horrible historical experiences of Africans under apartheid and then sloppily apply it to a deeply incongruous situation, even down to the assertion that Palestinians live in “Bantustans”?

It should raise the question: Is the predicament of Palestinians not persuasive enough in its own right? Why diminish the historical experiences of another people to make the case? And why is the opposite never true? Why does no one look at the situation of, say, Rohingya and declare, “This is just like Palestine!”

Could it be because the world knows that the situation of Palestinians is not anywhere close to being equivalent to that of Rohingya or Nigerians or Yemenis?

Is it because, without the Palestinian movement’s hysterical hyperbole, the world would recognize that Palestinians are so far down the totem pole of suffering that we might begin to ask why they benefit from a near-monopoly of attention from global human rights activists, NGOs, media and the United Nations?

Jews oppressing Palestinians, well, that’s something we can sink our self-righteous indignation into. It may affect an infinitesimally small number of Arabs, compared to the panoramic oppression across the Arab world. It may even be based on entirely legitimate security concerns after seven decades of attempts to individually or collectively eliminate the Jews from the Middle East. It may be a conflict so far down the list of global flashpoints that it doesn’t deserve, by any measure, a tiny fraction of the energy we devote to it.

But call it “apartheid” and watch every bit of reason and critical thinking evaporate as we take to the streets, campuses and UN General Assembly to put a stop to this intolerable injustice.

[1] Schweitzer, F. and M. Perry: Anti-Semitism: Myth and Hate from Antiquity to the Present. P. 11


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