March 10, 2011

This week, an astonishing event has been taking place in universities around the world. The aim of this event, "Israeli Apartheid Week" (IAW), is, according to its organizers, to "educate people about the nature of Israel as an apartheid system."

Apartheid, of course, was the oppressive legal system once in use in South Africa. Under it, black South Africans were subject to laws that controlled practically every aspect of their public behavior and completely segregated them from the ruling white minority. It was a brutal system that thankfully was dismantled in the early 1990s after years of intense internal and international pressure.

The question remains: How could the word "apartheid," which describes an evil system of institutionalized segregation, discrimination, and domination based on race, possibly be applied to Israel? IAW organizers wrongly use it to make the claim that the treatment of Arabs in Israeli society and the treatment of black South Africans under apartheid is similar.

The absurdity of the comparison is obvious. In apartheid-era South Africa, black citizens were totally disenfranchised and relegated to the status of second-class citizens. In Israel, on the other hand, both Jewish and Arab citizens have equal protection under the law, enjoy freedom of religion and speech, and have full voting rights. Arab-Israeli members are present in Israel's 120-member parliament, the Knesset.

In 2005, Benjamin Pogrund, a South African Jew now living in Israel who saw firsthand the horrible oppression and misery caused by apartheid in his native country, highlighted the vast difference between his home country under apartheid and Israel: "Two years ago I had major surgery in a Jerusalem hospital," he wrote. "The surgeon was Jewish, the anesthetist was Arab, the doctors and nurses who looked after me were Jews and Arabs. Jews and Arabs share meals in restaurants and travel on the same trains, buses and taxis, and visit each other's homes. Could any of this possibly have happened under apartheid? Of course not."

Sadly, the truth, and real-life examples like Pogrund's, means nothing to IAW organizers and their ilk. Anyone who promotes the idea of Israel an "apartheid state" is either ignorant or motivated by bias against the Jewish state so intense that facts and truth no longer have any meaning to them.

There is, of course, real oppression in the world — oppression that seems to have escaped the notice of the Israel Apartheid Week organizers. In Libya, the ruthless dictator Muammar Gaddafi clings to power, directing forces loyal to him to brutally attack anti-government protesters. Iran's government has done the same to demonstrators who take to the streets against that country's harsh Islamist regime. In Saudi Arabia, there is no such thing as freedom of religion, freedom of speech, or freedom of assembly, and women are second-class citizens under the law.

And yet, Israel Apartheid Week protesters focus their indignation on one country — tiny, democratic Israel. In doing so, they reveal their true motives — not to seek justice for Palestians or to promote peace, but to defame the Jewish state. This, my friends, is the true injustice.

With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein