Center Field: Treat the apartheid slur – the “A-word” – like the “N-word”

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 8-25-09

Since Neve Gordon published his controversial Los Angeles Times op-ed “Boycott Israel” on August 20, critics have called for officials at Ben Gurion University, his academic home, to punish him or to risk losing donations.

Cutting donations to a university because of an outspoken professor or suspending that professor for his views is as shortsighted and self-destructive as an Israeli citizen endorsing a boycott of his own country. Maybe I am perverse, but I relish these moments to demonstrate that Israel has freedom of speech and Israeli campuses have academic freedom – unlike their neighbors.

At the same time, it is important to denounce Gordon and others for perpetuating the apartheid smear against Israel. Everyone who cares about peace in the Middle East and truth in the world must stop making the false comparisons between the difficult national conflict pitting Israelis against Palestinians and the ugly racist regime that discriminated against South Africans of color for decades.

In his article, Gordon proclaims: “The most accurate way to describe Israel today is as an apartheid state.” This may be the trendiest, most politically correct, and most demeaning way to describe Israel today, but for a professor of politics to claim that it is “the most accurate way” is absurd. The unconscionable, inaccurate apartheid label insults anyone who supports the modern Jewish state of Israel as well as everyone who suffered under South Africa’s evil apartheid system.

Apartheid was a racist legal system the Afrikaner Nationalists dominating South Africa’s government imposed after World War II. The Afrikaners’ discriminatory policies began with their racist revulsion for blacks, reflected in early laws in 1949 and 1950 prohibiting marriages and sexual relations between whites and non-whites. Apartheid quickly developed into a brutal system that attempted to dehumanize South Africa’s majority nonwhite population.

Beyond the historical definition, international law emphasizes that apartheid involves intentional, mandated racism. In 1973 the United Nations General Assembly defined apartheid as “the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them.”

The fact that Israel’s Declaration of Independence – and founding document – promises to “uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex,” proves that Israel rejects racism and by definition cannot be accused of apartheid.

Injecting “racism” into the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a sloppy attempt to slander Israel with the accusation du jour. It is a statement as trendy and unhistorical as equating Zionism with European colonialism, another folly given Jews’ historic ties to the land of Israel. Since the Nazi attempt to annihilate Jews as a “race,” the Jewish world has recoiled against defining Jews as a “race.”

Zionism talks about Judaism, the Jewish people, the Jewish state. The Arab-Israeli conflict is a nationalist clash with religious overtones. The rainbow of colors among Israelis and Palestinians, with black Ethiopian Jews, and white Christian Palestinians, proves that both national communities are diverse.

In a world organized by nation states, singling out Jewish nationalism, meaning Zionism, as racist is so ridiculous even the United Nations ultimately rescinded its infamous 1975 resolution. The application of the apartheid label is an attempt to ostracize Israel by misrepresenting some of the difficult decisions Israel has felt forced to make in fighting Palestinian terror. Israel’s opponents are trying to transfer onto Israel the civilized world’s justifiable contempt for South African oppression.

This charge is particularly ironic coming from so many Arab states, which perpetuate discriminatory citizenship policies against Christians, women, gays and even other Arabs from different regions. But the charge is particularly insidious because it is the centerpiece of the current attempt to demonize Zionism and eradicate Israel. Anyone who claims to be unaware that apartheid is a loaded term forfeits all credibility on the subject of the Middle East and Africa.

Unfortunately, Neve Gordon is not the only Israeli to use the “A-word.” It has entered the conversational midstream. Even when someone from the center says “I oppose a particular policy because I fear it would then make Israel an ‘apartheid state,'” the ugly linkage between Israel and the “A-word” is reinforced.

I do not believe in government sanctions, but I do believe in shunning. People who use the “A-word” in casual conversation or in formal discourse should be named and shamed for insulting Israel, South Africa, and their audience with historically inaccurate demagoguery that slanders the Jewish people.

In the United States, people no longer use the “N-word,” the derogatory term for blacks that once was ubiquitous in American discourse. Americans acknowledge the slur’s emotional power and the lingering scars from its widespread use. We should start avoiding the “A-word” and confronting those who use it – before it is too late.

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