Last week I was honored to address a group of Muslim and Jewish student government leaders at U.C. Berkeley. Many are at the forefront of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel on the Berkeley campus.
I relayed my story as a Jewish refugee and president of JIMENA, Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa. I was born in Libya. In 1967 our assets were confiscated and we were brutally expelled. Like me, 850,000 Jews from the Middle East and North Africa suffered a similar fate. Today, we make up 52 percent of Israel’s population.
Speaking on campus during Israel Peace and Diversity Week, which took place at the same time as Israel Apartheid Week, I challenged the BDS movement and those calling Israel an “apartheid state” to look to their own countries of origin in the region.
Israel is not a perfect country, but the charges that it is an apartheid state are malicious and false.
Israeli Arabs, who are a minority, have full voting rights and are granted permanent residence and citizenship regardless of religion or sexual orientation. Eleven Israeli Arabs sit in Israel’s Knesset, and three are deputy speakers. Israeli Arab parliamentarians exercise their right to criticize Israel with impunity. Israeli Arabs routinely bring their grievances before Israel’s Supreme Court. Could you ever imagine a Jew winning a parliamentary seat in a free and fair election today in Egypt or Libya? Israel, an apartheid state? Absurd!
In visits to Israeli universities, I have heard several presentations by Jordanian, Israeli Arab and Bedouin students who were studying on full scholarships. Israeli academic institutions have large numbers of students who are Druze, Muslim, Christian Arab and Bedouin. I challenge anyone to show me a university in any Arab country where a single local Jew would be accepted, let alone study on a scholarship.
Arab Israeli women have more rights and opportunities than Palestinian women living in Palestinian territories. Just last week, the U.N. canceled an annual marathon in Gaza because Hamas did not want men and women to run in a race together. Gender apartheid?
In fact, with the exception of Jordan, Palestinians face discrimination in every Arab country where they live.
After 65 years, Palestinians in Lebanon cannot become citizens, attend public schools or use national health and social services. Palestinians are banned from certain white-collar jobs, can find only menial work and cannot own property. Apartheid?
Due to these discriminatory laws and practices, Palestinian refugees suffer from terrible environmental conditions, lack of civil society, poor education and extreme poverty. According to UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency), 56 percent of the Palestinians in Lebanon are unemployed, representing the lowest national income group in Lebanon.
Elsewhere, in Mauritania, Saudi Arabia and many Muslim and Arab countries, some form of slavery is still practiced. Thousands of men, women and children in Sudan are kidnapped by minority Arab militias and sold into slavery. Can you find these practices in Israel?
Apartheid, which demonstrably does not exist in Israel, is clearly not the issue. It is a ruse. Israel Apartheid Week is driven by the same revisionists who reject Israel’s existence and believe that Jews should always live as “dhimmi” — subjugated second-class citizens.
Instead of calling for boycott, divestment and sanctions, as well as blaming Israel for everything, BDS advocates need to take a long, hard and honest look at human trafficking, religious intolerance, ethnic inequality, sexual violence, gender discrimination, slavery, racism, political oppression and labor inequality — which take place in every country in the Middle East and North Africa, except in Israel!
On this very rare occasion at U.C. Berkeley, Jewish student leaders sat with Muslim and anti-Israel student leaders in the same room, listening intently to the JIMENA presentation. Our refugee story made an impression, as evidenced by the warm hugs and thank-yous given by students from both sides once the talk ended.
Afterward, making their way together across campus, these young leaders with two very different worldviews mingled and talked without rancor, possibly for the first time. Perhaps a new bridge to peaceful coexistence on campus is in the making.
Gina Bublil Waldman was born in Libya and came to the U.S. as a refugee. She is co-founder and president of JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa). She lectures widely on her experience and the subject of Jewish refugees.