Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Israel, Apartheid and Antisemitism

A few weeks ago, I posted an article on Facebook about how Roger Waters, musician and former member of Pink Floyd, had once again been accusing Israel of being an Apartheid regime and so forth. I can't find the exact posting (why, oh why, do you make finding these things so hard, Facebook?), But if you search for it, it won't be hard to find something of the sort. Waters is a long time opponent/attacker of Israel, and he's lobbed around the Apartheid slander before. The article and my comments about it referred to Waters as an anti-semite. One of my most thoughtful friends wrote me privately, asking about that.

He had done some searching of his own to find out what Waters really believed and stood for. And he found that Waters claims that he isn't the least bit anti-Semitic, but that he vigorously opposes Israel's various racist policies. Isn't it possible, Waters claims and my friend asks, to be a critic of Israel, even a harsh critic, while not being anti-Semitic? It's a reasonable question, and I responded to him briefly in private messages, but promised a bit fuller of a response. Well, better late than never…

It's important to start with some understanding of the overall situation, because that frames the larger discussion. Although Israel, like probably every single country in the world, most certainly including the United States, has issues with discrimination, calling it an Apartheid state is simply ridiculous. Michael Oren, Israel's former ambassador to the United States, wrote a fantastic op-ed about this recently. He reminds us that Apartheid was a systematic legal framework intended at keeping a white minority in a place of political, social and economic dominance over the black majority. It was a pervasive system of segregation.

Compare that to the State of Israel. Arab/Muslim citizens of Israel have full rights. They can vote and form their own parties (and they often do). I believe it is still the case that there has never been a Knesset (Israeli Parliament) without representatives from those parties. There have been (and, I'm pretty sure, currently are) Arab judges on the Israeli Supreme Court. And, of course, Arab citizens are allowed to petition the court in the same way that any citizen would be, and they use that right to great effect (which is a very good thing, by the way). The Israeli Basic Laws (their rough equivalent of a Constitution) guarantee religious freedom and that freedom has been well protected (if not perfectly so) by the Israeli government. Here's one example: when Jordan controlled the Old City of Jerusalem, Jews were forbidden from entering it. But, when the Israelis recaptured it in '67, one of the first acts of the government was to declare that the Muslim holy sites, including and especially those on top of the Temple Mount, would remain accessible to Muslims. When, in the late 80s and early 90s, there started to be large amounts of conflict on the Temple Mount between Muslims and Jews, the Israeli government took the extraordinary step of banning Jews from going up there, and so preserved the ability of the Muslims to pray peacefully on the Mount.

I could go on, but I think the point is fairly clear. Calling Israel an Apartheid regime is nothing less than ludicrous. Of course there are counterexamples — of course there have been instances were Israel has acted in ways which do not reflect equality and religious freedom. Many times, Muslims have used the Supreme Court to find redress against such policies, and they've often been successful. I'm not claiming that Israel is a perfect icon of openness and acceptance; I am claiming that Israel is a vibrant democracy in which its Arab and Muslim citizens quite literally have more rights and freedoms than they would have in possibly any single other country in the Middle East.

I'll also admit that the situation gets muddier in the Occupied Territories, which have been so occupied since that '67 war. Reasonable people can debate whether Israel has acted largely fairly in those territories, or in which instances it has or hasn't done so. But, I maintain that Israel finds itself in a completely untenable situation — it occupied territory as the result of a war which it didn't start. And, although it's settlement policy admittedly hasn't made the situation better, there has never been a clear path for Israel to get out of those territories — there's never been an honest partner for peace, or a safe, sane way for Israel to withdraw. Israel hasn't been a perfectly moral occupier, but I'm fairly sure that such a thing isn't even possible. Israel has been far, far more moral than most countries would have been in this situation. Criticisms of Israel and its policies are legitimate, but labeling them as Apartheid is not — it's an attempt to delegitimize and demonize the country by analogizing it to one of the worst, most immoral regimes in our lifetimes.

And that brings us to the question of anti-Semitism. As I've said, of course it's possible to criticize Israel and/or its policies without being anti-Semitic. I've certainly been critical of some of those policies, as has just about every Zionist I know (when and how we are willing to air those opinions is another matter). But, when I say that we have to think about the larger context, what I mean is that we have to be aware that Waters' comment was not an isolated one. Israel is, seemingly on a daily basis, accused of Apartheid. Accused of genocide. Accused of human rights abuses. And so on. Israel, far and away the most moral, rights-based country in the Middle East, is portrayed in the public sphere as the pariah of that region. The United Nations General Assembly has made a hobby of condemning Israel at an extraordinary rate — at some point in its history, Israel has been the target of more official condemnations than the rest of the world, combined. Either Israel is actually worse than China, North Korea, Sudan, and all the rest of the vicious, human rights abusers in the world, combined, or Israel is being treated unfairly.

And so, if it's obvious that Israel is being treated unfairly, then we have to ask why it is being treated that way, and why so consistently? Why are press reports so often slanted against Israel (I can't tell you the number of times I've seen a headline such as, "Israel attacks refugee camp," only to have to read to paragraph 13 in the article to learn that the attack was in response to multiple rockets being launched from the camp)? I'm really not the type of person who finds anti-Semitism in every dark corner and under every rock, but I'm pretty sure that anti-Semitism has something to do with the ongoing horrifically unfair treatment of Israel in the wider world.

It's always tricky to jump from the big picture to a specific instance. Like I said, I firmly believe, and can easily defend the view that anti-Semitism plays into Israel's unfair treatment, writ large. And, it seems clear to me that Roger Waters' comments about Israel fit into that larger pattern. But, I do have to admit that I have absolutely no way to know whether Roger Waters is truly anti-Semitic, in his heart. Is it possible that he has simply been misinformed about many of the actual facts of the situation? Is it possible that he does know the facts, but has a radically different interpretation of them than I do, for reasons which have nothing to do with his overall view of Jews? Of course, it's possible. It would be ludicrous of me to claim otherwise. I've never met the man, and most assuredly never will. I do not know him at all. So, on one level, it's fair to criticize me for calling him anti-Semitic; how can I possibly know such a thing?

But, fair or not, I'll maintain my strong suspicion. When someone repeatedly uses the same arguments in language that the more obvious anti-Semites use, it certainly makes me suspicious. When someone attacks Israel in ways which are so clearly disproportionate to any misdeeds it may have done, using heinous language (such as calling them Nazis), it makes me suspicious. When someone continues to single out Israel over other countries which deserve the criticism so, so much more, it makes me suspicious.

No, I don't really know whether Roger Waters is anti-Semitic. But, I know that his views are. I know that his words are. And, that's probably the more important thing to know.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

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