The characterisation of Israel as an apartheid regime under which Palestinians live in a sort of Bantustan and minorities within the state itself are subject to systematic discrimination is not just a distortion of reality. By creating a toxic international environment, it is a threat to the peace process itself. As Secretary Kerry prepares to present his framework agreement in the coming weeks, this smear campaign can’t be ignored.
The apartheid smear was once the preserve of the political fringe. The campaign to mainstream it is gaining ground. ‘The new face of apartheid’ was how one website described Scarlett Johansson following her deal to market the soft drink machine manufacturer SodaStream while Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters has aroused controversy with his remarks on Israel being a ‘racist, apartheid regime’. On slow burn for a number of years, occasionally coming to the boil when figures such as Desmond Tutu brought it up, the Apartheid Smear is used to malign Israel as a whole or Israeli policy in the Palestinian Territories, specifically. Often it is purposefully conflated.
Apartheid is a convenient term for those who seek to delegitimise Israel because it falsely claims as its own the moral clarity of the global campaigns against institutionalised South African racism. In reality, most people who use it do not believe in a two state solution and therefore do not believe that Jews have the right to self-determination in Israel alongside the Palestinians. Instead they support the boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement in order to demonise and isolate Israel, accepting much of the Palestinian narrative while disregarding Israel’s concerns, historical rights and the many offers it has made to advance peace.
The apartheid smear is counterproductive. While most Israelis support a peace process which seeks an end to the occupation, they seek recognition and security: the apartheid smear denies both. As Ben Cohen from the American Jewish Committee notes, ‘pregnant within the accusation that the State of Israel practices apartheid is the recommendation for Israel’s termination.’
The smear ignores the national psyche in Israel, which prioritises security. It entrenches Israeli concerns about a lack of understanding in the west of her security concerns in a tough neighbourhood. As well as demanding non-recognition of Israel as the national home of the Jewish people, the smear and the BDS movement it underpins also advocates an end to cultural and economic exchanges between Israelis and Palestinians, poisoning the atmosphere of co-existence needed for mutual recognition and compromise. As Michael Ignatieff, author, and former leader of the Liberal Party of Canada says: “international law defines ‘apartheid’ as a crime against humanity. Labelling Israel as an ‘apartheid’ state is a deliberate attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the Jewish state itself. Criticism of Israel is legitimate. Attempting to describe its very existence as a crime against humanity is not.”
So how can Israelis and friends of Israel respond? The most important tool is the truth. The Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM) has produced a pamphlet on the Apartheid Smear, deconstructing it and countering it with facts, statistics and quotes. It focuses on the reality of Israel as a multi-ethnic democracy with a well-respected judiciary; a country which has Arabic as an official language, invests in economic opportunities for its minority populations and works to improve access to higher education. It discusses how the smear damages hopes for peace by stoking extremism, demoralising those who support peace and damaging the chance of compromise, mutual recognition and reconciliation. It also debunks the myth of Zionism as a ‘racist ideology’ and goes into detail about the origins of the smear in the well-funded, and often antisemitic ‘anti-Zionist’ campaigns conducted by the Communist states during the Cold War often in collaboration with Arab countries.
Perhaps most importantly it shows that there is an alternative for those who are interested in a just solution to this long running conflict. The pamphlet shows that one can be pro-peace without singling out one side for incessant criticism. Nelson Mandela challenged people to support those on both sides of the conflict who seek mutual recognition and peace. Only that stance can create an international environment conducive to two states for two peoples.