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Here’s what to say about Israel and apartheid

The report from Amnesty Internationalthis week accusing Israel of “committing the crime of apartheid” against Palestinians within and outside Israel’s 1967 borders set off a storm of controversy. It also sent me to reread my new go-to response to Israel and the A-word, Danny Sokatch’s 2021 book, “Can We Talk About Israel? A Guide for the Curious, Confused and Conflicted.”

I’ve known Sokatch, who heads the San Francisco-based New Israel Fund and is a respected leader among liberal Zionists, for years. One of the things I most admire about him is his ability to communicate calmly with those who virulently disagree with him on the right and left.

And few words spark stronger emotions than Israel and apartheid.

On one side, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement has lauded the Amnesty report, which goes further in its condemnation than an April report from Human Rights Watch accusing Israel of apartheid in the West Bank, and similar ones before that from the Israel human-rights groups B’tselem and Yesh Din. Amnesty accompanies its declaration with a call for the sort of international pressure campaign against Israel that was used against apartheid South Africa in the 1980s.


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On the other side, Israel and its supporters have rejected Amnesty’s findings outright, with the country’s foreign ministry declaring the report “pure antisemitism” that “legitimizes attacks against Jews.”

“The charge of apartheid goes to the heart of Israel’s character,” my colleague Arno Rosenfeld pointed out in his article analyzing the new report. “For many of the country’s supporters, it’s an attack that attempts to undermine Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.”

But how should the rest of us think about it? For that, I turned to Sokatch’s book. He devotes a chapter to the question of whether Israel is an apartheid state, and I’ve found his response the most helpful, nuanced and least hysterical.

Sokatch begins with a thought experiment. Imagine he can give a group of boycott advocates an in-person tour of Israel inside those pre-1967 borders, seeing the State of Israel from north to south in all its complexity and diversity. Yes, they would find discrimination and injustice, but they would also see a vibrant civil society and Arab participation at the highest levels of government — a fractious, imperfect democracy.

“At the end of the day,” Sokatch writes, “if those BDS sympathizers were truly intellectually honest, they would have to admit that what they saw in Israel in no way resembled apartheid South Africa.”

And what if he gave a similar tour to staunchly pro-Israel group in the occupied West Bank? They would see two sets of laws, inequitable distribution of resources and security measures that severely curtail Palestinian freedom and economic opportunity.

“At the end of the day,” Sokatch concludes, “if those right-wing supporters were truly intellectually honest, they would have to admit that what they saw in the Israeli-occupied West Bank did resemble some of the more pernicious aspects of apartheid-era South Africa.”

Maybe Sokatch is naive to assume that partisans on either side in this fraught conflict are open-minded enough to let facts change their opinions. But when the A-word comes up in discussions over Israel, or in the headlines, it’s helpful to remember Sokatch’s thought experiment, and move beyond the fight over labels to address the real problems on the ground.

When Sokatch asked Talia Sasson, a legal adviser to former prime minister Ariel Sharon, what she thought of comparing Israel to apartheid South Africa, she summed it up perfectly: “It’s bad enough what it is,” Sasson told Sokatch, “without using complicated and imperfect analogies.”

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