Responses to Jimmy Carter’s bestselling book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid have varied between indifference and knee-jerk accusations of anti-semitism. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Carter said: “For the last 30 years, I have witnessed and experienced the severe restraints on any free and balanced discussion of the facts … It would be almost politically suicidal for members of Congress to espouse a balanced position between Israel and Palestine, to suggest that Israel comply with international law or to speak in defence of justice or human rights for Palestinians.”
Responses to Carter’s book are quite revealing. On the one hand, they show the extent to which Israel has become an untouchable political taboo, beyond criticism or condemnation. On the other, they illustrate the way in which charges of anti-semitism are exploited to silence all critical views of Israeli policies. Carter is neither the far-right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen, nor the revolutionary Hugo Chávez, nor indeed is he Iran’s radical president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He is neither a politician of the right nor of the left, but a centre liberal, under whose presidency the Camp David Accords, the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, were signed. To accuse him of anti-Israel bias, as many Democrats fearful of the powerful pro-Israel lobby have been doing, or of anti-semitism is so outrageous as to be laughable.
The truth is that the problem does not lie with what Carter has written, but with the political and media discourse dominant in the US, which equates all criticism of Israel with anti-semitism, with all the consequences that entails for the accused. In Carter’s words, criticism of Israel is political suicide. In their detailed study of the power of the Israel lobby, Mearsheimer and Walt note: “Anyone who criticises Israel’s actions or argues that pro-Israel groups have significant influence over US Middle Eastern policy stands a good chance of being labelled an anti-semite … in other words, criticise Israeli policy and you are by definition an anti-semite.”
Sadly, Carter’s talk of Israeli apartheid is not grounded in fantasies nor in conspiracy theories, but in the facts on the ground. Reading the critics, one would have thought that Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land, the transformation of its people into refugees, the roadblocks and the apartheid wall, which annexes 50% of the West Bank, tearing Palestinian towns and villages apart and destroying the lives of thousands of Palestinians, were all figments of Carter’s imagination. In the 18 communities hemmed into an enclave in the Tulkarem district, for instance, the illegal separation wall and military closures have made it impossible for residents to travel, bringing the unemployment rate up from 18% in 2000 to an estimated 78% in the spring of 2003.
In Qalqiliya, where the wall hermitically seals the city with one Israeli military controlled checkpoint, nearly 10% of the 42,000 residents have been forced to leave their homes. Carter was certainly not exaggerating when he said that Israeli policy in the Palestinian territories represented instances of apartheid worse even that those that once held sway in South Africa.
His observations are shared by many of those who have experienced the horrors of apartheid rule first-hand and who have fought for years to bring it to an end. Desmond Tutu, who the Israelis have this week denied entry to the Palestinian territories to investigate last month’s Beit Hanoun massacre, says:
“I’ve been very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land; it reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa. I have seen the humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like us when young white police officers prevented us from moving about.”
Moral and political responsibility requires us to call things by their names, regardless of the cost this may carry. Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is comparable to, if not worse than, what South Africa’s black people had suffered at the hands of the white ruling minority. We must draw a clear line of distinction between criticism of Israel, its oppressive and discriminatory policies against Palestinians, and anti-semitism. Hatred and incitement to hatred of any race, or creed is morally deplorable and must be confronted openly and firmly.
But in the world of politics, nothing, no one, no group and no state is above criticism or condemnation. No one is above the law. If I criticise Saudi Arabia or Iran I am not an Islamophobe. If I denounce China’s actions I am not an enemy of communism or Confucianism. If I condemn India’s policies I am not a Hindu hater. By the same token, criticising Israel does not make the critic an anti-semite. Criticism has nothing to do with love or hatred for your subject, and every thing with calling what you see before you by its name whatever the risks may be. This means telling the truth as it is. The opposite is complicity with the aggressor and betrayal of the victim.
First Published in The Guardian, Thursday 14 December 2006