In a recent New York Times opinion piece Hirsh Goodman wrote:
After decades of arguing that Israel is not an apartheid state and that it’s a calumny and a lie to say so, I sense that we may be well down the road to being seen as one.
Goodman, an Israeli journalist who like me, grew up in South Africa under apartheid, went on to argue that:
[I]n this day and age, brands are more powerful than truth and, inexplicably, blindly, Israel is letting itself be branded an apartheid state — and even encouraging it. (“Losing the Propaganda War,” New York Times, Feb. 2, 2014)
Goodman’s choice of words is telling since, in fact, Israel and the leaders of the American Jewish community are currently investing millions of dollars and countless hours in the “Branding of Israel.”
But of course, Goodman misses the point: the issue is not about “branding,” nor about “inexplicable” actions by Israel. Quite the opposite, the painful truth lies at the core of Zionism itself: a systemic privileging of Jews over non-Jews and an ongoing structural injustice that Israel inflicts on the Palestinian people.
It is this painful truth of very explicable–albeit unjust–policies of Israel, so similar to those of apartheid South Africa that has led so many to view Israel as an apartheid state.
The confiscation of vast tracts of Palestinian land, discriminatory zoning practices that restrict Palestinian housing while towns with thousands of homes are built for Jews, the creation of huge exclusive Jewish settlements on the West Bank, intense restrictions on freedom of movement, imprisonment without trial, the arrest of children in the middle of the night–these are only some of the discriminatory policies reminiscent of the injustices that Goodman and I witnessed as young people growing up in South Africa.
Because of our deep bonds to the culture and people of Israel, it is so hard for liberal Israelis, such as Goodman, and American Jews such as myself, to acknowledge this painful reality.
It has taken me years to acknowledge this truth and years to overcome the fear of saying it out loud–a fear that still inhibits me. Decades of activism as a progressive Zionist gave me the opportunity to see realities that most Israelis such as Goodman never see, except as soldiers.
My life changed forever the day I walked down Shuhada Street in Hebron, a street that is restricted to Jews, where the Palestinian residents are forbidden to even walk on the road on which they live. I wept that day, knowing that I could no longer be silent when people warned me not to mention apartheid when talking about Israel.
I have passed through checkpoints on the West Bank and have seen Palestinians, herded like animals, waiting for hours for their identity cards to be checked. I have stood on the ruins of demolished Palestinian homes where one can see vast new Jewish neighborhoods that are within a short distance. I am grateful to my Israeli human rights activist friends who allowed me to see these realities with my own eyes. And I am grateful to the Palestinians who welcomed me into their homes and villages to share their lives with me.
As a person who grew up in South Africa it is impossible to see such realities and not to feel the similarity with apartheid in your very bones. South African anti-apartheid leaders who have visited the West Bank immediately see the parallel. It is impossible not to.
This is not to say that the situation in Israel and apartheid South Africa are identical. There are important differences. Jews have a profound long time connection with the land of Israel. Israel saved the lives of many Jews at a time when our people were among the most desperate people on earth. In many ways Israel represents a miracle of rebirth for Jews.
Yet our attachment to Israel and what it represents can never justify the dispossession of 700,000 Palestinians in 1948 and the creation of Jewish villages, kibbutzim and towns on the ruins of destroyed Palestinian villages. Nor can it justify the continuation of this policy of dispossession on the West Bank that has made even a two-state solution a near impossibility.
Israel is not losing a “propaganda war”–rather, the Jewish people and Israel are in danger of losing our very soul. The most precious elements of our heritage and historical experience have been threatened. This is a spiritual emergency for Jews in Israel and around the world–an emergency that cannot be solved by mere “branding” or by accusing those involved in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement of anti-Semitism.
Many Israelis and American Jews support some form of BDS as a strategy to end Israeli oppression. Some advocate boycotting settlement products, others support wider boycotts, divestment initiatives and government sanctions. All those involved in BDS view it as a nonviolent strategy to end the systemic injustice and discrimination that Israel inflicts on Palestinians.
I am part of a growing group of American rabbis, members of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council who support BDS. While we have differences between us on what initiatives we may support, we all participate in some form of BDS because we believe that Israel and everything we hold dear about our Jewish legacy is threatened by the policies of Israel.
We also see our support for BDS as an expression of the Jewish commitment to stand in solidarity with the oppressed. The overwhelming majority of Palestinian civil society organizations have called for worldwide BDS campaigns, much as the African National Congress called for BDS against South Africa,
As a South African, I experienced the effects of the boycott against South Africa. I was disappointed when international rugby games in Cape Town or favorite concerts were cancelled because of the boycott. Yet, as a South African opposed to apartheid I welcomed the activism of those outside the country engaged in this struggle for justice.
Like South Africa, Israel has outlawed support for the boycott in any form. Thankfully, there are some courageous Israelis–however small in number–who are prepared to defy the law.
Now that Israel has the most right-wing government in its history it is unlikely to take even minimal steps towards peace, Hirsh Goodman fears the boycott and the comparisons to South Africa. By portraying those who support the boycott as anti-Semitic, he is no different from the Israeli government and American Jewish institutions that wish to intimidate and silence those who stand in solidarity with the Palestinian demand for equal rights and human dignity.
At the end of his article Goodman wrote, “As anyone who has bought a ‘Gucci’ bag in a Bangkok market can tell you, it’s all in the label.”
Unfortunately, this issue is not about anything as trivial as a “Gucci” bag, or a brand name. It is about ending systemic discrimination and oppression and about the struggle for dignity and human rights for all.
Rabbi Brian Walt is a congregational rabbi and was the founding executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. He is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Mishkan Shalom in Philadelphia and a member of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council. He has led several delegations to Israel and Palestine. Most recently he co-led a delegation of American Civil and Human Rights leaders on a trip to the West Bank to meet with leaders of the Palestinian nonviolent resistance movement and their Israeli allies.