I sat down today to write what will be my final piece for The Michigan Daily. Much of my content these last two years has been heavy. I was excited to use my last column to write something hopeful — about how maybe our generation still has a chance to restore civility and decorum in our politics and society; how maybe we could be the generation that finally builds a diverse, prosperous, United States.
All of that will unfortunately have to wait, because on April 7, The Michigan Daily published an Op-Ed equating the Russian genocide in Ukraine to Israel’s actions in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. My gut reaction was three-fold: as a Jew, I was disgusted; as a student of history and politics, I was insulted; as a staff member of The Daily… I don’t even know where to begin. I have to be honest: I sat down to write an ad hominem attack against the author of that Op-Ed, but that wasn’t going to help anyone. Yelling “apartheid!” and “antisemite!” back and forth at one another accomplishes nothing.
After addressing some of my concerns with the author of the Op-Ed, Jared Eno, it is clear that his intent is not to vilify the Israeli or Jewish people — far from it: “I feel a particular responsibility to speak out about the oppression of Palestinians because my grandfather was a Zionist who participated in the founding of Israel,” he said in an email. The insult and disgust I felt at first read has largely gone away, and I am left with this striking realization: we can call Israel out for its indiscretions — we can question any number of its actions in the Palestinian territories — but we can also debate the solutions to that problem without spewing vitriol in each other’s faces. Nobody at The Michigan Daily is going to solve a decades-old geopolitical nightmare, but we can definitely find more constructive ways to talk about it.
Eno argued that the Palestinian struggle for self-determination is analogous to the Ukrainians’ fight to stave off a hostile foreign invasion. Therefore, he says, it is counterintuitive to support Ukrainians, but not Palestinians — grouping them in the article under the umbrella of “all oppressed peoples.” Unfortunately, this is the same charge leveled in recent years by avowed anti-Zionist U.S. Reps. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., and Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., who used the term “apartheid” to describe Israeli actions in the Palestinian territories.
To get up on a soapbox and proclaim Israel to be a moral authority on Western democracy would be silly, but the word “apartheid” is loaded, and carries a unique weight when used to denigrate Israel. Israel has committed gratuitous acts of violence across the Palestinian territories for decades; this much is undeniable – they’ve done it in the last week. But one would be wise to remember where the word “apartheid” comes from, who we most commonly see using these terms and why its use in the context of Israel can (often accidentally) end up being used as a prop for antisemites to delegitimize the Jewish state.
The South African apartheid regime came to power in “elections” during the 1950’s and early 1960’s, supported exclusively by whites and with the stated goal of creating a white ethno-state built on the backs of an African subject class. This isn’t conjecture — it was the fundamental philosophy of Hendrik Verwoerd, the former South African State President and primary architect of apartheid. To claim that Palestinians, in fact, face discrimination in society would be like saying the sky is, in fact, up. But frankly, it’s a real slap in the face to Black South Africans to be compared to Palestinians, who, in spite of undeniable public discrimination, have their own autonomous governments in much of the West Bank and all of Gaza — the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, respectively. Mere membership in Mandela’s ANC party was a crime in South Africa until 1990.
While “apartheid” does have a formal legal meaning outside the context of South Africa, that use of the term hardly holds the place in our vernacular as does its South Africa-specific homonym. That broader definition, though, gives cover to those who accuse Israel of apartheid. While some people, such as Eno, are clear that they do not mean to apply the South African context to the word, it is still there. No amount of cognitive dissonance can stop a person from associating apartheid with the one country ever to openly implement it. Associating Israel with apartheid is associating it with the murderous South African regime, intentionally or otherwise, simply because of the connotation the word takes on in Western society.
It shouldn’t come as a shock to hear that a country which was founded in large part as a safe haven for a people who survived a genocide would take particular offense to being branded an apartheid state. Israel does not grant full equal rights to Palestinians. That’s not a secret. But this is a people which has survived multiple attempts at ethnic cleansing in the past century. Suggesting that they’re perpetrating a similar offense to apartheid South Africa will not make Israel move on the Palestinian issue, and branding it as an apartheid state is not the same as — or necessary for — demanding reform. Words matter, and those words are both ineffective and patently untrue.
You don’t have to take my word for it when I say that Ukrainians would not take kindly to a rejection of Israeli democracy. You can take the word of the leader of the free world, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (who, for the record, is a Jew, and a descendant of Holocaust survivors). Zelenskyy told an assembled press corps that Ukraine strove to be a “‘big Israel’ with its own face,” with soldiers in “cinemas, supermarkets…” To the Western ear, that might sound kind of terrifying. Americans in particular are used to a society in which the military essentially does not play a role in daily domestic life.
But what Zelenskyy is proposing isn’t a state of permanent martial law — he’s not going to preside over a post-war Ukrainian junta. He’s aligning himself with the Israeli vision of democracy, wherein the state security apparatus must be integrated into society in order to safeguard it. When Zelensky talks about a “big Israel,” he’s not just talking about soldiers in the streets. Israelis have a bond with the Israeli Defense Forces few other countries share with their armed forces. Part of that comes from its compulsory service policy, but it’s also because the IDF have had to repel hostile combat forces from the Israeli homeland since the day Israel declared its independence.
Israelis feel so intertwined with the IDF because they have watched it defend them from neighbors who have denied Israel’s right to exist from the instant it left the British Empire. If that sentiment rings a bell, it’s because it’s exactly what Ukrainians have borne witness to for the last two months. After this war, Ukrainians will feel that same connection to their military as Israelis. They will not fear the military in society as an oppressive force — they will welcome them as heroes and defenders of their freedom and safety, just as most Israelis do with the IDF.
Zelenskyy’s “big Israel” vision is one of the only direct link these two conflicts share. Israel has very little to do with Russia’s war in Ukraine (which Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has publicly and repeatedly condemned). There was no reason for Eno to bring Israel into this conversation. In doing so, he distracts from the far more pressing issues at hand — the necessity of arming Ukraine to the teeth, and helping them fend off an unprovoked war of aggression. Coincidentally, that’s exactly what the Russian government is trying to do by claiming that Israel is using the invasion of Ukraine to distract the world from the Arab-Israeli conflict.
It’s Whataboutism 101 — “Yeah, Putin is a nightmare, but what about the Israelis?” What about the Israelis, who have endured three major Arab terror attacks in the last month? What about Israelis, who have to fight an enemy known to use civilians as human shields, only to be lambasted as butchers for defending their innocent civilians from Hamas — the internationally recognized terrorist organization and religious fanatic paramilitary that, de facto, has occupied a major portion of its territory — for half of its 70+ year existence?
Israel has repeatedly raided the al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem in recent days, and news coverage has predominantly looked like this, noting in the headline the injury count for Palestinians and largely not even discussing the recent spate of random murders of Israeli civilians by Palestinian militants. It features prominently that those raids came during Ramadan, but largely neglects that the most recent outbreak of violence — which has killed Israeli civilians — is also occurring during Passover.
Part of Eno’s Op-Ed centers on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. It’s vital to dispense with his notion that BDS is not “inherently antisemitic.” BDS activists claim they are working “to end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law,” by encouraging businesses and consumers alike to avoid financial interaction with Israeli-based entities as much as possible. So, Eno is technically right that, inherently and explicitly, the BDS movement does not present itself as antisemitic.
But that doesn’t mean it can’t be — or isn’t — co-opted by people (like Omar and Tlaib) who simply loathe Israel. The Anti-Defamation League, one of the leading NGO’s combating antisemitism, somewhat brushes off the word “inherently” as a technicality: “Many of the founding goals of the BDS movement, including denying the Jewish people the universal right of self-determination – along with many of the strategies employed in BDS campaigns are antisemitic. Many individuals involved in BDS campaigns are driven by opposition to Israel’s very existence as a Jewish state.” If you’re still not convinced, though, maybe you can be swayed by the government of Germany, which directly labeled BDS as antisemitic.
While it is clear in speaking to him that Eno’s support of BDS is genuinely rooted in his personal morality and not in opposition to the existence of a Jewish state, he is simply not the expert on antisemitism and anti-Zionism that the leaders of the ADL are. While his beliefs may be sincere and altruistic, he ignores the unfortunate reality that not everyone who agrees with him shares the purity of his intent. Eno cites the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, which includes the statement, “Boycott, divestment and sanctions are commonplace, non-violent forms of political protest against states. In the Israeli case they are not, in and of themselves, antisemitic.” That’s a valid argument. But where I take umbrage with BDS isn’t in its explicit aims, but with how it can be twisted.
Boycott is a perfectly legitimate form of protest against a state. However, the current Western geopolitical climate revolves around collective anti-Russian sentiment, and you’ve probably seen reports about boycotts of Russian imports. While the point of these moves is to punish the oligarchs who fill Vladimir Putin’s war chest, scenes of ATM lines and supply shortages in Russia for the last two months demonstrate that boycotts and sanctions hit civilians harder than anyone else. If BDS wants to hit the Israeli government where it hurts, it should focus on exposing and holding accountable the rampant corruption in the Likud Party, which has dominated Israeli politics for much of the country’s recent history. That way, they won’t — giving them the benefit of the doubt — accidentally leave millions of Israeli civilians in financial ruin.
This all leaves us with a difficult question: why are attempts to marginalize the Jewish people not granted the same scrutiny as similar attacks on other ethnic groups? We ostensibly live in a society built on mutual tolerance and respect, whether you’re a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Russian, Ukrainian, Israeli, Palestinian or anything else, but antisemitic discrimination is rarely treated with the same outrage as other publicized incidents of prejudice. According to U-M Prof. Deborah Dash Moore, “This requires a pretty long answer.” When asked if “antisemitism receives the same media/societal attention and concern as other forms of racial or ethnic discrimination (anti-Black, Asian, Latino, or Muslim) in the United States,” Moore replied flatly, “No it does not.”
In an email, Moore provides a number of explanations: “In part it has to do with Jewish efforts not to be racialized as ‘other’ in the U.S., especially after the adoption of a multicultural model that drew attention to African Americans, Asian Americans, Latino/Hispanic Americans, Native Americans) that became law (e.g. in the census).” The long and the short of it is this: white American Jews look and act just enough like white American Christians that when we are oppressed, persecuted or defamed, there is plausible deniability available for the malicious actor to pretend that it isn’t really about Judaism. It is that plausible deniability that allows many BDS supporters to hide behind the veil of boycott as legitimate dissent, that allows for the perpetuation of the myth of “dual loyalties” that American Jews have toward the U.S. and Israel and that allows for whataboutism that uses Israel as a distraction from more pressing global crises.
I sat down to write a hit piece. I won’t deny it; even though we won’t get anywhere with the same charged rhetoric and insult-hurling that has ground the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a stalemate for years, I walked into this with the intention of doing just that. But out of that bitterness and resentment came an opportunity to discuss why it’s harmful to use words like “apartheid” when describing a country that rose from the ashes of genocide. It’s an opportunity to talk about how BDS perpetrates dangerous antisemitic tropes even if it is not the intent of many of its supporters who firmly support Israel’s right to exist, but not some actions it takes to maintain that right. It’s an opportunity to demand better of a Michigan congresswoman who’s on the front lines of the fight against Israel, but remains conspicuously silent when an “al-Aqsa Martyr” guns down five innocent civilians in B’nei Brak, or why her campaign paid out $170,000 to a company whose leader openly accused Israel of ethnic cleansing. What started out in my mind as a heated, personal dispute has been resolved as a plea to lower the temperature of our dialogue and try to reach a consensus about an issue that has plagued the world for nearly 3,000 years. Not bad for my last piece after all.
Jack Roshco is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.