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May 21, 2013

The flaws of ahistorical activism

The progressive policies of Israel’s government are in line with the broader views of activists that dismiss it as an apartheid state.

I present you with two countries.

One country allows gays to serve openly in its armed forces, ensures adoption rights for same-sex couples, hosts massive gay pride parades, permits gender reassignment surgery, and officially bans discrimination against gays in the workplace. This country guarantees women access to essential reproductive health services. Its Declaration of Independence proclaims the country’s support for “complete equality of social and political rights to all of its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex.” This founding document goes on to endorse “freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture.” Demographic minorities enjoy access to this country’s vital democratic institutions.

The other—not quite a country yet, but a political entity that aspires to nationhood—ostracizes homosexuals to such an extent that young gays flee in droves, according to a 2003 BBC report. Gays have no legally protected rights, and the influence of religious fundamentalists is such that not even the most unapologetic gay activist would dream of staging a gay pride parade. Parts of this potential country won’t even let women ride motorcycles, so forget something as revolutionary as reproductive rights. According to the International Planned Parenthood Federation, this would-be country so restricts women’s control over their own bodies that unsafe, back-alley abortions constitute a pervasive problem. Reproductive freedom isn’t the only liberty sorely lacking. Only about a quarter of citizens believe that they can safely criticize their political authorities.

Moreover, one of this aspiring country’s two main political parties emphatically refuses to recognize the other country’s right to exist.

I speak, respectively, of Israel and the Palestinian territories.

It was Israel, not the xenophobic and irredentist Palestine, whom campus activists denounced at a May 14 event supporting the so-called Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Organizers of the event chose the sickening title “From South Africa to Israel: The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement.”

The linkage of Israel, the Middle East’s sole liberal democracy, and apartheid South Africa has a long and sordid history. Former President Jimmy Carter popularized the analogy in his glib and ahistorical diatribe, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, published in 2006. Carter accuses the Israelis of apartheid on the basis of such actions as their construction of a security fence intended to protect the country against Palestinian terrorists. The “wall,” Carter asserts, is a concrete symbol of the very kind of social division practiced by the white supremacist government that ruled South Africa until 1991. As Carter and his ilk in the BDS movement would have it, Palestinians are victims of Israeli security measures—not the leadership failures of their own political class, currently divided between the corrupt Fatah and the Islamist fundamentalists of Hamas.

Is it the popular depiction of Palestinians as victims that leads so many earnest young campus activists to celebrate the Palestinian “resistance”? Perhaps, but the reflexivity with which too many on the left uncritically embrace the Palestinian cause also stems from a worldview that lacks historical knowledge. No people has come under such constant and brutal assault as the Jewish people, six million of whom were systematically exterminated a mere seven decades ago. Zionism predated the Holocaust, but the mass slaughter of Jews underscored the need for a secure Jewish homeland, free from the anti-Semitism and casual bigotry of much of Europe. That Israel’s Declaration of Independence extends fundamental civil rights to all citizens, regardless of heritage—even as it affirms Israel’s identity as a homeland for the Jewish people—makes its existence all the more remarkable.

While today’s activists scream, “Israel out of the occupied territories!” they forget that Israel acquired said territories after the Six-Day War in 1967—a conflict sparked by the joint aggression of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. Days before the outbreak of the war, that great demagogue, President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, declared, “Our basic objective will be the destruction of Israel. The Arab people want to fight.”

And fight they did. But the war was a disaster for the Arab aggressors. To buttress its defenses, Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria, the Gaza Strip from Egypt, and the West Bank from Jordan. For Israel and its people, collectively seared by the recent memory of the Holocaust, these newly seized territories signaled not imperial expansion, but a firm sense of safety for the nascent Jewish state.

History ought to anchor our understanding of the world, yet the demonization of Israel underscores how little we learn from it. Perhaps I’m displaying excessive optimism, but maybe a cursory familiarity with history would humble the strident BDS activists who endlessly excoriate Israel.

Many BDSers, no doubt, are the same people assailing the domestic “war on women,” pushing for greater LGBTQ equality, and defending core civil liberties. They’re also parroting the same arguments as the Hamas “resisters,” who recently forced the U.N. to cancel the Gaza Marathon after protesting the presence of women in the race—and that’s genuinely troubling.

Luke Brinker is a graduate student in the MAPSS program. 

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