Written for Globe and Mail, March 2009.
Israel Apartheid Week Should not be Banned
It is both Canadian and Jewish to let unpopular opinions be openly debated, particularly on university campuses. It is crucial to ensure the right of the participants in the Israeli Apartheid Week, due to take place this week, to exercise free speech. It is critical for the survival of our freedoms to resist the efforts of the “Israel-first” Zionists to block this event, whether they still work for the Canadian Jewish Congress, as Bernie Farber, or have passed on to the Parliament of Canada, as Irwin Cotler.
As the American Jewish author Norman Finkelstein has convincingly shown, every time the State of Israel commits violence against civilians, its PR agents around the world begin to cry anti-Semitism. In fact, these vicarious patriots of Israel endanger Jews by their gratuitous invocations of anti-Semitism. Supporting the right to hold the Israel Apartheid Week, Canada’s Independent Jewish Voices affirms, “It is NOT anti-Semitic to responsibly raise concerns about oppressive policies of Israel, even though Israel advocates attempt to characterize criticism of Israel as “the new anti-Semitism”. In fact, there are quite a few Jews among the organizers of the Israel Apartheid Week.
BORN IN SIN, NURSED IN SIN, AND NEVER WEANED FROM IT
Two events have complicated the work of the organizers of the Israel Apartheid Week. They were not aware of Israel’s plans to attack Gaza last December, nor could they foresee the meteoric rise of an overtly racist party in the recent Israeli elections. The purpose of the Israel Apartheid Week is to expose the founding principles of the Zionist state Israel as akin to South African apartheid. Indeed, Desmond Tutu, a civil rights veteran from South Africa deems the Israeli case to be even worse. Israeli mainstream media have come to use the word apartheid, and the daily Haaretz has repeatedly called Israel “a racist state” in its editorials.
Many morally questionable applications of Israel’s founding principle of separate development – a state for the Jews – are well documented, including instances of expulsion, intimidation and murder of civilians that accompanied the establishment and the expansion of the state of Israel. Israeli historians, including the unapologetic advocate of ethnic cleansing Benny Morris, have documented this premeditated military campaign against civilian population (Plan Dalet). Some Palestinians were killed, some ran away, others were marched away. These facts are, indeed, hard to reconcile with the image of Israel as “the only democracy in the Middle East”. But they make sense in the context of Israel’s recent attack on Gaza, whose population consists mainly of descendants of the original victims of Israel’s seminal ethnic cleansing.
The second event that makes the Israel Apartheid Week so timely – and understandably uncomfortable for Israel’s apologists in this country – is the growing popularity of racism in Israel manifested in the recent election. While Israeli media openly warn of a fascist trend in the country, the alternative to the current segregated state – a one-state solution – becomes particularly attractive.
This alternative, i.e. a common democratic state for all those living between the Jordan and the Mediterranean is not new. The majority of the country’s inhabitants – Christians, Jews, Muslims – wanted to live in such a state when the United Nations voted to partition Palestine in November 1947. In the following months the Zionists, then a minority, albeit a militant and well-connected one, expelled a majority of the indigenous Palestinians, whose descendants still languish in refugee camps.
The idea of a state, which grants equal rights regardless of ethnicity and religion, may be congruent with the new spirit in Washington that affirms the values of desegregation and equality. Indeed, some people, believing that all men are created a qual, suggest bringing forth a new Israeli-Palestinian nation, conceived in liberty and accepted by all.
It is to forestall this frightening prospect that even the President of Israel, who, like our Governor General, must remain above politics, took up the pen and wrote a passionate defence of Israel’s “right to exist as a sovereign Jewish state in the land of my forefathers”. It appeared in the Washington Post on the day of the Israeli election. President Peres claims, “It is not possible for the Jewish people to accept an arrangement that signifies the end of the existence of a Jewish state”. Yet, the majority of the world’s 14 million Jews, including over a million Israeli citizens, prefer to live in liberal democracies rather than in the perennially threatened “ethnocracy”. Many prominent Jews, among them the New York University historian Tony Judt and the former Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem Meron Benvenisti, have called for a regime change in Israel. They want the state of Israel to compensate Palestinians for the injustice, stop the bloodshed, and guarantee everyone in the Holy Land equal rights.
One may sympathize with Israel’s apologists in this country who find it hard to present the state of Israel in an attractive light. By campaigning to ban the Israel Apartheid Week on Canadian campuses, they only confirm what many have long suspected: that Israel is indeed an apartheid state.
The author is professor of history at the University of Montreal; his recent book is A Threat from Within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism (Fernwood) was nominated for the Governor General Award.