Much will be said and written about the new report by Amnesty International accusing Israel of “apartheid” and “crimes against humanity.” Amnesty’s sympathisers in the human rights community and liberal press have reliably boosted the story, reporting Amnesty’s pronouncements as statements of fact and not figments of activism. These accusations are not difficult to rebut. Israeli democracy is self-evident. There are Arabs in the Israeli Parliament, Arabs in the coalition government, Arabs on the Supreme Court. But while such slurs cannot go unanswered, the spirited defences, the rebuttals, the forensic take downs play directly into Amnesty’s hands.
There is an old story, of dubious origins, concerning Lyndon Johnson. The President is said to have directed his campaign manager to accuse his opponent of intimate relations with livestock. “We can’t do that, it isn’t true,” the campaign manager insisted. “I know,” replied LBJ, “but I want to hear him deny it.” A more elegant exposition of the same theme is to be found in Jewish folklore. It is said that an antisemite likes to accuse a Jew of stealing, not because he thinks he stole something but because he enjoys watching him turn out his pockets.
Apartheid is an egregious crime, an abomination. It is a system of legal segregation under which one ethnic group subjugates another, treating citizens of the same state differently based on their ethnicity. Exclusion from schools, professions and public office, segregated toilets, restaurants, voting prohibition, are the manifestations of this crime. Speak to any South African expatriate and they will regale you with the full indignity, inhumanity of the system that once gripped that country.
Amnesty knows well such accusations have no relevance in the theatre of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It knows that the Arabs that live within Israel’s internationally recognised borders are integrated, valued Israelis with full legal and civil rights. It knows also that those Palestinians who live in the West Bank do not enjoy those same rights because they are not citizens of Israel. They aspire to their own state. Indeed, the official position of the Palestinian Authority is that such a state already exists. Why would citizens of the claimed State of Palestine have civil rights in a foreign country?
The answer to why Amnesty has nonetheless levelled these charges is to be found in the world-view that guides Amnesty’s decision-making, its appointment of key researchers and its choice of targets.
In 2009, Robert Bernstein who founded another NGO giant, Human Rights Watch captured the essence of what was happening in the human rights community that Bernstein once ably led.
“We sought to draw a sharp line between the democratic and non-democratic worlds, in an effort to create clarity in human rights,” Bernstein wrote. “Now the organization casts aside its important distinction between open and closed societies.”
Bernstein saw the focus was shifting to democratic states, soft targets like Israel, while autocratic regimes were much harder to investigate, held to a lower standard and treated sympathetically as they fit within an anti-western paradigm. Bernstein charged that the organisation he founded had “lost critical perspective on the conflict” to the point that “Israel, the repeated victim of aggression, faces the brunt of its criticism.”
Amnesty has played an outsized role in the decay of the human rights sector, representing all of the distorted morality Bernstein warned about. Amnesty’s own head of gender issues unit accused the organization of an “atmosphere of terror” in which debate is suppressed and staff are forced to accept the prevailing dogmas.
These prevailing dogmas don’t much include support for the Jewish community, seen as too privileged and too white to justify sparing scarce solidarity. In 2015, amidst a spate of devastating antisemitic attacks in Europe including the shooting of Jewish schoolchildren in Toulouse, the deadly Hypercacher kosher supermarket siege and the Brussels Jewish museum shooting, Amnesty’s British wing voted down a motion to campaign against antisemitism. The organization claimed it did not “support campaigns with a single focus”, dubious indeed given its anti-Islamophobia campaigns and obsessive pursuit of Israel.
In the wake of Amnesty’s report, the concern for the Jewish world, is that we will see further hatred and violence. After all, the apartheid slur has a dark history. Rev. Al Sharpton accused the Jewish community of apartheid in a speech credited with inciting the Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn in 1991. Three days of deadly rioting ensued. The accusation is laced with history, invoking the sorrow of black subjugation, white supremacy, daily humiliations and the rage of injustice. Sharpton knew this. Amnesty knows this too.
Amnesty has now forced the Jewish world to deny that its people are capable of committing the crime of apartheid, to deny that the very creation of a Jewish State is a racist undertaking and a cosmic injustice for which the Jewish world must repent or face boycotts and further marginalisation. The choice before the Jewish people and their allies is whether to persist with those denials, stand before their sinister accusers with pockets turned out, or to stand upright in dignity.
Alex Ryvchin is the Co-CEO of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry