Rabbi Gersen: Israel is not an “apartheid state”

Submitted by Rabbi Gerson of Greenwich Reform Synagogue

Today, Amnesty International will be releasing a 211-page report referring to Israel as an “apartheid state.” Simply put, this is libel. The report is deeply biased and egregious; it also, at minimum, makes a sloppy and intellectually dishonest analogy its central argument.

Apartheid was a system of racial separation that systematically exploited and oppressed Black and colored South Africans. To suggest that Jews are a race is to traffic in another, centuries old libel – one used by Hitler and antisemites throughout history to justify the wholesale murder and expulsion of Jews. The truth is, Israel’s racial make-up is astonishingly diverse. At most, 40% of Israel’s Jews are Ashkenazi – Jews of European descent. The majority are Mizrachi – Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent (that is, indistinguishable from their Palestinian neighbors), with the remaining Jewish Israelis coming from Ethiopia and the former USSR. Another subgroup of Israelis are the product of mixed marriages between Ashkenazi and Mizrachi Jews. Each these populations made their way to Israel as a result of pogroms, genocide, expulsion, disenfranchisement and crushing antisemitism; there are no exceptions.

The Amnesty report also blithely and disingenuously denies Israeli history. It doesn’t acknowledge that Israel was founded as a refuge for the world’s Jews after the Holocaust – when Hitler murdered the 6,000,000 Jews of Europe – and, even then, many of the tiny remnant who survived (approximately 300,000) were forced into DP camps because no country would take them. It denies too, that Israel was officially established by a vote of the United Nations, who realized what statelessness had meant for the Jews of Europe.

The report barely acknowledges the Oslo accords, the peace process, or any of the repeated attempts by Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and others to create a lasting peace, or two state solution, with the Palestinians. It does not acknowledge the rights of Arab Israelis enshrined in law, or that there are Palestinian and Arab-Israeli Knesset members. And it doesn’t recognize the myriad of ways that Israel has written into law protections for Palestinians, from street signs in Arabic, Hebrew and English to hospitals that serve and heal the sickest patients – regardless of which side of the Green Line they live on – seeing them all as human beings, made in the image of God.

Perhaps most egregiously, the Amnesty report acts as though Israel is a country in a secure neighborhood with unlimited power. There is no acknowledgement that the Hamas charter calls for the destruction of Israel and the death of all Jews (to say nothing of the missiles regularly lobbed into Israel from Hamas controlled Gaza) and that Hezbollah has outposts on Israel’s Northern border. To say nothing of the very real threats that Jews still face, in the US and in Europe, making Israel a necessary refuge.

To call Israelis and Jews colonizers and exploiters while willingly denying Jewish history, and Israeli history and demographics, is a libel of the worst kind. It is a libel that traffics in the worst distortions of identity politics while trafficking in a black and white narrative of the region in which Israelis are exploitative colonizers while Palestinians are their helpless victims. In doing so, it makes Palestinians little more than symbols while removing their agency and accomplishments. Worst of all, it simply ignores the facts on the ground. If Amnesty International did not wield such influence, it would be easy to dismiss it out of hand. Unfortunately, because Amnesty has positioned itself as a “savior” to downtrodden groups, it will surely be taken seriously by many. It is my hope that the Biden administration, and our interfaith friends and allies will roundly condemn the report, and see it for what it is: anti-Semitic libel of the worst kind.

B’vracha, Rabbi Gerson