Modern Israel is a far cry from old South Africa
In the past year, a stream of thinkers across the West - from Australian writer Antony Loewenstein to US academics John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt - has punctured the usual parameters of debate about Israel. I, for one, welcome any effort to prevent ideas from calcifying into ideologies. As a Muslim refusenik, that's what I do by defying the conventional prejudices of my fellow Muslims. Why would I resent refuseniks of a different kind?
It's precisely because I embrace intellectual pluralism that I respectfully challenge Jimmy Carter's recent critique of Israel as an apartheid state. To be sure, I've long admired the former US president. In my book The Trouble with Islam Today I cite him as an example of how religion can be invoked to tap the best of humanity. In no small measure, it was Carter's appreciation of spiritual values that brought together Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, compelling these former foes to clasp hands over a peace deal.
Which is why Carter's new book disappoints so many of us who champion co-existence. Entitled Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, the book argues that Israel's conduct towards Palestinians mimics South Africa's long-time demonisation of blacks. Of course, certain Israeli politicians have spewed venom at Palestinians, as have some Arab leaders towards Jews, but Israel is far more complex - and diverse - than slogans about the occupation would suggest. In a state practising apartheid, would Arab Muslim legislators wield veto power over anything? At only 20per cent of the population, would Arabs even be eligible for election if they squirmed under the thumb of apartheid? Would an apartheid state extend voting rights to women and thepoor in local elections, which Israel didfor the first time in the history of Palestinian Arabs?
Would the vast majority of Arab Israeli citizens turn out to vote in national elections, as they've usually done? Would an apartheid state have several Arab political parties, as Israel does? In recent Israeli elections, two Arab parties found themselves disqualified for expressly supporting terrorism against the Jewish state. However, Israel's Supreme Court, exercising its independence, overturned both disqualifications. Under any system of apartheid, would the judiciary be free of political interference?
Would an apartheid state award its top literary prize to an Arab? Israel honoured Emile Habibi in 1986, before the intifada might have made such a choice politically shrewd. Would an apartheid state encourage Hebrew-speaking schoolchildren to learn Arabic? Would road signs throughout the land appear in both languages? Even my country, the proudly bilingual Canada, doesn't meet that standard.
Would an apartheid state be home to universities where Arabs and Jews mingle at will, or apartment blocks where they live side by side? Would an apartheid state bestow benefits and legal protections on Palestinians who live outside of Israel but work inside its borders? Would human rights organisations operate openly in an apartheid state? They do in Israel.
For that matter, military officials go public with their criticisms of government policies. In October 2003, the Israel Defence Forces' chief of staff told the press that road closures in the West Bank and Gaza were feeding Palestinian anger. Two weeks later, four former heads of the Shin Bet security service blasted the occupation and called on Ariel Sharon to withdraw troops unilaterally, which later happened in Gaza. Would an apartheid state stomach so much dissent from those mandated to protect the state?
Above all, would media debate the most basic building blocks of the nation? Would a Hebrew newspaper in an apartheid state run an article by an Arab Israeli about why the Zionist adventure has been a total failure? Would it run that article on Israel's independence day? Would an apartheid state ensure conditions for the freest Arabic press in the Middle East, a press so free that it can demonstrably abuse its liberties and keep on rolling? To this day, the East Jerusalem daily Al-Quds hasn't retracted an anti-Israel letter supposedly penned by Nelson Mandela but proven to have been written by an Arab living in The Netherlands.
Even the eminence grise of Palestinian nationalism, the late Edward Said, stated flat out that "Israel is not South Africa". How could it be when an Israeli publisher translated Said's seminal work, Orientalism, into Hebrew? I'll cap this point with a question that Said himself asked of Arabs: "Why don't we fight harder for freedom of opinions in our own societies, a freedom, no one needs to be told, that scarcely exists?"
I disagree: some people still need to be told that Arab "freedoms" don't compare to those of Israel. The people who need reminding are those who now push the South Africa analogy a step further by equating Israel with Nazi Germany. To them, Zionists are committing hate crimes under the totalitarian nightmare that they dub "Zio-Nazism" (like neo-Nazism).
When it comes to granting citizenship, Israel discriminates in the same way as an affirmative action policy, giving the edge to a specific minority that has faced genocidal injustice. Does this amount to Nazism? Spare me. As a Muslim, I could become a citizen of Israel without having to convert. After all, Israel was one of the few countries anywhere to grant shelter, then citizenship, to the Vietnamese boatpeople who sought political asylum in the late 1970s. I don't have to wonder how Syria compares on that score.
Now for the ultimate proof of Israel's flimsy credentials as a bunker of Hitlerian hate: It's the only country in the Middle East to which Arab Christians are voluntarily migrating. And they are also thriving there, notching much higher university attendance rates than the Arab Muslim citizens of Israel, and enjoying better overall health than Jews.
The Holy Land is gut-wrenching and complicated. As much as I applaud Israel's efforts to foster pluralism, I condemn its illegal Jewish settlements and less visible crimes such as the diversion of water away from Palestinian towns. These contradictions of the Israeli state should be exposed, discussed, even pilloried. And they are: openly as well as often. So there's little point in deciding whose camp is the paragon of vice or virtue. The better question might be: who's willing to hear what they don't want to hear? That's the test of whether a country is more than black or white.
This article was originally published here.