During the public comment segment (which lasted four hours!) at last week’s San Francisco Board of Supervisors meeting, there were impassioned statements both for and against a resolution condemning Israel.
However, most disturbing were the use of “apartheid” and allusions to “Nazism” in reference to the State of Israel and its actions. Included amongst the vitriolic remarks were the following:
“Israel is ethnically cleansing an indigenous people.”
Israel “is an apartheid state” with policies similar to “Jim Crow.”
“America gives billions of dollars to Israel only so that they can kill and suffocate the Palestinian people.”
“You cannot rule a people by caging, bombing and starving them into submission.”
“Gazans are living in the world’s largest concentration camp.”
Pro-Palestinians have, ironically, taken a page out of Joseph Goebbels’ playbook: If one says something frequently enough and with sufficient conviction it will be believed. This strategy has been helped along by a sympathetic and often gullible media that portrays Israel as the “oppressive occupier.” Indeed, the Palestinians are handily winning the propaganda battle.
Palestinian propagandists have seized on the term “apartheid” and its association with an evil regime and inhumane policies.
For example, the security barrier separating the West Bank and Israel (which, by the way, has dramatically and sharply cut the incidents of suicide bombings) is referred to as the “apartheid wall.” And Israel’s granting of automatic citizenship to Jews only is seen as blatant discrimination, again offered as evidence of the state’s “apartheid” policy. Israel’s Arab population is (erroneously) portrayed as second-class citizens, akin to people of color in apartheid South Africa.
Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd, prime minister of South Africa from 1958 until his assassination in 1966, is often called the “Architect of Apartheid” and is credited with having coined the term as it is used today. Apartheid literally means “separateness” and it characterized his government’s policy.
During its more than four decades in power, the white regime enacted a series of laws that separated whites and the majority population (blacks, mixed race and Asians). For example, people of color who lived in neighborhoods close to white areas were relocated to distant areas, while the right to vote in parliamentary elections was denied to all but whites. People of color were relegated to a life of discrimination and deprivation.
Growing up in South Africa in the 1950s and 1960s, I attended whites-only elementary schools and high
schools, as well as a whites-only university. Years later, the early 1980s, I was the principal of a Jewish day school in South Africa when I could finally see signs of the apartheid system crumbling (the government allowed us to admit Asian and mixed-race students, although only after we filled out a battery of government forms).
Nowadays, the use of “apartheid” in referring to Israel is grossly inaccurate, misleading and fallacious.
The Israeli Arab population, as citizens of the country, enjoys the full range of civil rights. Israeli law guarantees the social and political equality of all citizens without distinction of race, creed and sex — sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence. Arab citizens vote in national elections, attend Israeli schools and universities and represent Israel on national athletic teams.
Unlike the bulk of the poverty-stricken population of South Africa during the apartheid years, Israeli Arabs enjoy a higher standard of living than Arabs in neighboring countries. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen addressed the subject March 2 in an op-ed piece headlined “Israel has its faults but apartheid is not one of them.”
That covers the West Bank and Gaza, as well. Israel withdrew fully from Gaza in 2005, and while Israel has established security zones and implemented some road restrictions in the West Bank, it’s only because of a rash of suicide bombings earlier in the decade. As security improves and Palestinian police take more control of Arab towns and villages, barriers and checkpoints will become fewer, eventually disappearing. Already Arab towns and villages are run by mayors and town councils elected by Palestinians. Certainly these dynamics do not qualify as apartheid.
Using “Nazi” terminology in reference to Israel is just as off-base. One need not be a student of history to be aware of the atrocities and inhumanity of the German Nazi regime. Their murder of 6 million Jews — either in the extermination camps or by SS paramilitary death squads (which shot thousands of Jews at a time and dumped their bodies in open graves) or by starvation and disease — is well chronicled. More than 65 years later, the mind still boggles at the massacres and madness.
Yet at the S.F. Board of Supervisors meeting and at pro-Palestinian demonstrations in U.S. cities and overseas, the use of “Nazi” in reference to Israel, and claims of Israel using “Nazi tactics,” is clearly evident.
In a Chicago protest, the Magen David in the Israeli flag was replaced with a swastika. In San Diego, a poster read “Stop the Israel Third Reich.” And in San Francisco, Gaza was compared to a concentration camp. At the time of the Gaza conflict in December 2008, on the floor of the House of Commons in England, Jewish M.P. Gerald Kaufman compared Israel’s actions to the brutal tactics used by the German Nazis.
The use of the term “Nazi” in describing Israel is obscene, odious and contemptible. It needs to be refuted as vigorously as possible, each and every time.
The pro-Israel community needs to respond with accurate factual information to the scurrilous use of the terms “apartheid” and “Nazi “in describing the State of Israel or its actions. Inaccuracies and distortions need to be challenged consistently and with unfailing resolve.
Mervyn Danker is the director of the American Jewish Committee’s regional office in San Francisco.