Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly said that Israel reserves some roads for Jews. The country closes some roads to virtually all Palestinians, but they are open to all Israeli citizens and to other nationals, regardless of religious background. This version has been updated.


An Israeli solider checks the IDs of Palestinians at a checkpoint in the West Bank city of Hebron. (Abed Al Hashlamoun/European Pressphoto Agency)
Opinion writer

On what seems a regular basis, the United Nations takes a poke at Israel — for its settlements policy, its treatment of Palestinians and, once, in the 1975 resolution equating Zionism with racism, merely for existing. Altogether, the United Nations and its agencies have condemned Israel so many times that, on one of those proportional maps, tiny Israel would loom over Saudi Arabia, with its beheadings and ban on women driving. This, in itself, calls for a resolution.

Recently, a report prepared for a U.N. agency returned to the racism theme and called Israel an “apartheid regime.” It was an insulting choice of words, since apartheid harkens back to white-supremacist rule in South Africa. That government was so obsessed with race that it created its own categories — white; black; colored, for mixed-race persons; and one for people of Indian/Asian extraction.

The word “apartheid” clearly does not apply to Israel. Its founding document, the Israeli Declaration of Independence of 1948, is admirably liberal. It ensures “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” And true to its word, Israel grants its Arab minority the vote, seats its representatives in the Knesset and, years ago, had a female prime minister, the formidable Golda Meir. The United States, as the November debacle proved, is not yet there.

I am intellectually and emotionally pro-Israel. It is the only miracle about which I am not the least bit cynical — the creation of a nation and a culture where a century or so ago none existed. Even the language is new. In the riveting Netflix series “Fauda,” Israelis make adulterous love in a language once used mostly for prayer. Theodor Herzl, the creator of secular Zionism, could not have envisioned such a thing. (Anyway, he preferred German.)

But the word “apartheid” looms like thunderheads on the horizon. Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank means the continued oppression of its Palestinian residents. If Israel annexes additional sections of the West Bank, then additional Palestinians will be oppressed. The occupation has not only gnawed at Israel’s image worldwide, it has weakened Israel’s democracy itself. A new law bars entry into Israel of anyone who supports the international boycotts of Israel.

Some of those movements — BDS is the shorthand for boycott, divestment and sanctions — would apply to anything produced anywhere in Israel. But some prominent American Jews support a limited version of BDS. They would boycott only products made in the West Bank settlements unrecognized by international law. One such advocate is Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a staunch Zionist, liberal and feminist (she was a founder of Ms. magazine). She supports a settlement boycott.

“If that makes me an enemy of the state, so be it,” she wrote in a recent op-ed for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

She also rues the direction Israel is going. Israel has legalized the creation of additional West Bank settlements, built roads that are not open to virtually all Palestinians and, while recoiling from the word “apartheid,” adopted some of its techniques. For many Palestinians, freedom of movement is impossible.

Once upon a time, Zionism was embraced by the left. The British Labour Party nearly a dozen times called for the creation of Israel and, in the United States, Democrats outdid Republicans in support of Israel. Now, though, the Labour Party is hostile to Israel and the Demo-cratic Party here is drifting that way. Support for Israel has become a right-wing affectation — along with small government, lower taxes and opposition to abortion. Meir, that old Milwaukee socialist, would be appalled.

I leave it to Jared Kushner to come up with a swift solution to the century-old Jewish-Arab struggle. Lives are at stake and positions have hardened. Israel pulled out of Gaza and was thanked with rocket attacks. The Palestinian leadership is split, feckless and often inept. For its part, Israel has drifted to the right, content to let the clock tick.

The United Nations’ obsession with Israel obscures the far more dangerous erosion of support for the Jewish state in places where it once was fervently embraced. It permits too many Israel supporters to dismiss legitimate criticism as anti-Semitic babbling or to focus on the astounding failings of the Palestinians and not on the rightward drift of Israel in response. A law that stifles dissidence, that bars lovers of Israel from Israel itself, is not only repugnant on the face of it, but also additional evidence that occupation of the West Bank is corroding Israeli democracy. Israel may win the West Bank and lose its soul.

Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.