Trevor Norwitz

The Big Lie About “Apartheid” Israel

In Mein Kampf, he-who-shall-not-be-named posited that it is easier to sell a big lie (in German, große Lüge), a falsehood so huge no-one would believe anybody could have the impudence to distort the truth so outrageously, than a small one.  Joseph Goebbels, his propaganda czar, used the technique of repeating the big lie so often that it comes to be accepted as truth to demonize and dehumanize Europe’s Jewish population, paving the way for the Nazis’ “final solution.”

Today another “big lie” is underway, again against the Jewish people, that their nation-state is committing the heinous crime of “apartheid.”  For years, this accusation was simply dismissed or even ignored by Israel’s friends and supporters, on the basis that it was absurd to give it respectability by responding.  It can no longer be ignored.

When I first wrote many of these words in an op-ed in South Africa ten years ago, the apartheid accusation, a tactic formulated at the 2001 UN Durban “conference against racism” that devolved into an anti-Semitic hate-fest, was just starting to gain traction.  By now it has become mainstream, a standard element in anti-Israel articles, and a ubiquitous feature at anti-Israel rallies.  Many if not most campuses in the US celebrate “Israel Apartheid Week” annually.  A few years ago when Jewish Columbia students responded by placing a large blow-up Pinocchio nearby to highlight the outrageous mendacity, it was deemed “offensive” by the Columbia student government and banned.

The allegation that Israel is an apartheid state is one that reveals much more about those who make it than it does about its target.  This big lie needs to be called out for what it is, and those who spread it identified for what they are.

There is nothing about the apartheid analogy that will bear serious scrutiny, not the history, not the ideology, and certainly not the practice. Justice Richard Goldstone, appointed by Nelson Mandela to the South African Constitutional Court and a man not afraid to criticize Israel, debunked the charge in a cogent op-ed in The New York Times ten years ago entitled “Israel and the Apartheid Slander” as unfair, inaccurate and malicious. “In Israel there is no apartheid,” he explained. “Nothing there comes close to the definition of apartheid . . . In Israel, equal rights are the law, the aspiration and the ideal.”

While Israel does view itself as the democratic nation-state of the Jewish people, the sizable minority of Arab Israelis have always enjoyed equal rights, and freedoms not available even to Arabs anywhere else in the Middle East, including freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of speech and freedom to love whom they want.  Arab Israelis and their leaders – including Arab members of the Israeli parliament – vigorously invoke these freedoms to criticize their own country, sometimes in terms that would not be countenanced in other democracies.  Israeli Arabs are proud and celebrated members of national sports teams, have represented the country in cultural events like the Eurovision song contest, and have served throughout the country’s judicial system including on the Supreme Court.  Anyone who has ever been to a hospital in Israel knows how ludicrous the allegation of apartheid is.

Even in the West Bank, the comparison is, to use Justice Goldstone’s words, “superficial” and “disingenuous.” The Palestinians there are not Israeli citizens.  If their treatment there is sometimes harsh by Israeli authorities who are obsessed (not without reason) with security, far from seeking to permanently oppress them, Israel has been trying for decades to negotiate with Palestinian leaders for an independent Palestinian state.  It is the Palestinian leadership who have rejected all peace offers, refused to engage, and chosen to resort instead to warfare and “lawfare” to achieve their goal, the delegitimization and ultimate elimination of the State of Israel.

Israel is certainly not perfect, and in recent years increasing settlement activity in the West Bank and awful behavior by some right-wing settlers have made peace that much harder to attain.  But it is an outrage against reason to suggest that the mistakes it makes in dealing with its uniquely difficult circumstances merit the calumny of a comparison with one of the most odious and racist regimes in modern history.

It is not only an affront to common sense and an injustice to Israel, but it is an injustice and insult to the millions of South African victims of apartheid, appropriating their pain and downgrading their struggle.

The real question is why those who persist in telling this pernicious lie are not content to criticize Israel in normal, even scathing, terms, but feel compelled to invoke this historically and emotionally loaded charge. The answer is that they are not seeking a peaceful solution to this protracted painful dispute, but are part of a global effort to isolate and delegitimize the state of Israel, the proverbial Jew among the nations. The apartheid accusation does not merely express a disagreement with some policy or a critique of some action, but carries with it the implication that Israel, like apartheid South Africa, should be branded as a colonial oppressor, treated as a pariah and cast out from the community of nations. Calling Israel an apartheid state paints it in its essence as a racist and illegitimate entity, one so beyond redemption that any means of opposition to its policies is legitimate, including isolation and boycotts and even violent resistance.  It forgives and justifies horrific acts of terror committed against innocent Israelis, including the barbaric atrocities committed by Hamas on October 7.

The indictment of apartheid declares that no reconciliation is possible with the Jewish state.  Its premise is that the very idea of a “Jewish state” is intrinsically illegitimate. Like the shameful UN 1976 declaration that Zionism (alone among history’s national movements) is racism, the apartheid assertion draws on centuries of racist hatred of Jewish people, who alone among the world’s peoples are deemed unnatural even evil in their creation of communities of belief and practice.  It is a blood libel that feeds on antisemitism and in turn fuels antisemitism.

The apartheid claim becomes even more offensive and hypocritical when one looks at the state of religious pluralism in the Middle East. A Palestinian Authority law calls for the death penalty for selling land to a Jew.  Arab countries with large Palestinian populations, like Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, have long practiced extensive legal discrimination against Palestinians – such as denying them the right to work in many professions, citizenship, passports, education, and freedom of movement.  In Saudi Arabia, non-Muslims are forbidden from so much as stepping foot in Mecca or Medina. Yet those who accuse Israel of apartheid seem never to complain about these and other manifestations of official discrimination.  Israel, as always, is held to an entirely different standard.

Israel is by no means immune from criticism.  But deliberately using language that delegitimizes and demonizes the Jewish homeland, like making odious Nazi comparisons or accusations of apartheid, can and should be called out for what it is: false, despicable and anti-Semitic.

About the Author
Trevor Norwitz is a practicing lawyer in New York, who also teaches at Columbia Law School.
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