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Elliot Leven

No room for shades of grey in Middle East debate?

By Elliot Leven

What I find most frustrating about the Middle East debate is how quickly the discussion degenerates into mere rhetoric. As the two sides lock horns, all nuance and subtlety disappears. The attitude that prevails on both sides can be summarized as “if you’re not with me, you’re against me.”

Case in point: the ruckus over “Israel Apartheid Week”. Organizers of this event have deliberately chosen to use simplistic hyperbole in their propaganda war against Israel. Of course, any objective observer understands that, with all its imperfections, Israel is very different from South Africa during the apartheid era.

In its internal arrangements, Israel is a vigorous democracy in a way that South Africa never was. Israeli Arabs vote and sit in the Knesset.  In South Africa, non-whites were not allowed to vote or hold office. 

Democracy is not just about elections; it is about culture.  Israeli culture is about as democratic as it gets. The media is diverse and freewheeling.  Israeli journalists often criticize Israeli leaders far more savagely that any foreign journalist would dare.

Israel has a truly independent judiciary. Israel is a pretty good place to be openly gay or lesbian.  Though there is no same-sex marriage yet, and though many challenges still remain, Israel is probably among the top twenty nations when it comes to tolerance of sexual minorities.

By way of contrast, it is pretty easy to criticize Israel’s opponents.  In fact, it is like shooting fish in a barrel.  The Arab World (and Iran, which is Muslim but not Arab) is the worst part of the world in which to be gay or lesbian.  There is no democracy at all.  Iran goes through the motions of holding elections, which are sometimes not rigged, but Iran is still largely a theocracy.  There is no free press.  Women face horrendous sexism. There is no culture of diversity or open-mindedness.

Israel is also different from South Africa in that South Africa never had to worry about been invaded or shelled by powerful neighbours.  Israel has been attacked more than once, has been the target of Iraqi missiles (during the first Gulf War), and today has to cope with Hamas and Hezbollah.

As for the Palestinian people, they have suffered from singularly poor leadership.  Their leaders have foolishly squandered many opportunities over the decades.  They failed to accept the United Nations’ 1947 partition resolution, which would have created a Palestinian state with generous borders.  They failed to reconcile themselves to Israel’s existence between 1948 and 1967. Even today, Hamas leaders cannot bring themselves to say that Israel has a right to exist.

In seeking to defend Israel, it is tempting merely to summarize Israel’s virtues, to point to the many faults of Israel’s enemies, and to leave it at that.  In leaving it at that, unfortunately, Israel’s defenders are not being completely honest.

Firstly, although Israeli Arabs can vote, their municipalities and school systems are underfunded compared to their Jewish counterparts.  That does not mean Israel is like South Africa, but it is a shortcoming.

More importantly, Israel’s settlement policies have been pig-headed and short-sighted.  The settlements in Gaza cost a fortune to build, defend and eventually dismantle, but at least they are gone now. The larger and more numerous West Bank settlements still remain. 

Now it’s true that Israel only came to occupy the West Bank because King Hussein didn’t have the sense to stay out of the 1967 Six Day War.  Israel’s opponents almost always omit that fact.

But once it controlled the West Bank, Israel was under no obligation to build settlements in it.  The fact that it did so will likely go down in history as Israel’s greatest blunder.

The settlements were once heavily subsidized by Israeli tax-payers.  They have always been expensive to maintain and defend.  But squandered money is the least if it.

The one area in which Israel does partly resemble apartheid South Africa is in its administration of the West Bank.  Israel’s “temporary” occupation of the area has now lasted 43 years. 

Today, two distinct peoples live in the West Bank, and the legal rights and status of those two peoples depends on their race (or religion, depending on whether being Jewish is a race or a religion, or both).  The Jews who live in the West Bank are Israeli citizens and receive favorable treatment in every aspect of daily life, from water rights to infrastructure to economic subsidies.  The non-Jews who live in the West Bank have no citizenship, and receive inferior treatment in many ways.  The Jewish settlements are 100% Jewish.  In the unlikely event that a West Bank Arab were to request permission to live in a Jewish West Bank settlement, permission would be denied. 

Though Israel is not South Africa, the status quo in the West Bank does look at least a little bit like apartheid.  This partial resemblance would never have arisen if Israel had not built the settlements.  The apartheid analogy could be ended decisively if Israel would dismantle the settlements.

In defending Israel from its many enemies (who often spread the rhetoric pretty thick), Israel’s defenders tend to simplify.  If the enemies say Israel is 100% evil; we respond that it is 100% virtuous.  They say it is exactly like South Africa; we reply that it is not like South Africa in any way.  Maybe those are good debating tactics, but they are not completely honest.

At least let us be honest with ourselves.  Let us applaud Israel’s many virtues, but let us also be frank about its shortcomings.  Not just during Israel Apartheid Week, but 52 weeks a year. 

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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