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Israel has its faults, but apartheid isn't one of them

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, March 2, 2010; A15

Toward the end of last year, Jimmy Carter apologized for some of his very harsh statements about Israel. In an "open letter to the Jewish community" -- and with a vagueness that ill becomes him -- he airily mentioned criticisms that "stigmatize Israel" but omitted his own contribution: the implication that Israel is, like the racist South Africa of old, an "apartheid" state.

Carter used the term in his book "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid." It could be argued that he meant the label to apply only to the West Bank, but even so the use of the term was incorrect and deliberatively provocative. Carter was waving the bloody shirt of racism, and he knew it.

What can be said about others who apply the term to Israel in general? No apology has come from them -- and the way things are going, none will be forthcoming. The use of the word has become commonplace -- Google "Israel and apartheid" and you will see that the two are linked in cyberspace, as love and marriage are in at least one song. The meaning is clear: Israel is a state where political and civil rights are withheld on the basis of race and race alone. This is not the case.

The Israel of today and the South Africa of yesterday have almost nothing in common. In South Africa, the minority white population harshly ruled the majority black population. Nonwhites were denied civil rights, and in 1958, they were even deprived of citizenship. In contrast, Israeli Arabs, about one-fifth of the country, have the same civil and political rights as do Israeli Jews. Arabs sit in the Knesset and serve in the military, although most are exempt from the draft. Whatever this is -- and it looks suspiciously like a liberal democracy -- it cannot be apartheid.

The West Bank, more or less under Israeli military rule, is a different matter. But it is not part of Israel proper, and under every conceivable peace plan -- including those proposed by Israeli governments -- almost all of it will revert to the Palestinian Authority and become the heartland of a Palestinian state.

Yet Israel's critics continue to hurl the apartheid epithet at the state when they have to know, or they ought to know, that it is a calumny. Interestingly, they do not use it for Saudi Arabia, which maintains as perfect a system of gender apartheid as can be imagined -- women can't even drive, never mind vote -- or elsewhere in the Arab world, where Palestinians sometimes have fewer rights than they do in Israel.

A recent op-ed on Israel in the Financial Times employs the word apartheid several times. Some of the time it seems to be applied to the West Bank, but other times it is applied to Israel proper. Either way, this shoe doesn't fit. (Security concerns are not rooted in racism.) The author of the piece is Henry Siegman, a harsh critic of Israeli policies and a former executive director of the American Jewish Congress, so anti-Semitism is not the issue here -- just sound judgment. Sometimes impatience can lead to imprudence.

But anti-Semitism is not so easily dismissed with others. This is "Israeli Apartheid Week" on campuses across the world, and it is clear that what furiously animates many of the protesters are not legitimate grievances but imaginary ones. Israel is not above criticism and the Palestinians have their case, but when that case is constructed out of lies about the Jewish state, it not only represents a wholly unoriginal cover of some old anti-Semitic ditties but also denigrates the Palestinian cause. It does not need lies.

As for Israel, its critics do it no good when they couch their criticism in insults. Years of this sort of stuff have made Israel tone-deaf to legitimate criticism and exasperated with any attempt to find fault. That's why Israel refused to cooperate with the South African jurist Richard Goldstone when, on behalf of the United Nations, he looked into alleged war crimes. The United Nations had once equated Zionism with racism. After that, it was hard to care what the United Nations thought.

To Carter's credit, he must have understood that a hunk of his audience had stopped listening. He was right to apologize, wrong not to have been more specific and a bit late in appreciating the damage he's done. Israel has its faults, (don't get me started), but it is not motivated by racism. That's more than can be said for many of its critics.

cohenr@washpost.com

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