Two weeks ago the editor of the largest newspaper in South Africa, The Sunday Times, wrote an article saying that Israel applies apartheid to Palestinian Arabs. In this scandalous accusation, he joins Jimmy Carter and others who have defamed the Jewish state.
The apartheid label is very dangerous. If it sticks, Israel's ability to defend itself diplomatically and militarily will be severely weakened. International pressure on South Africa's apartheid government eventually played a major role in ending its power. The apartheid label is calculated to break the resolve of the Israeli people, who are called upon to make terrible sacrifices for our Jewish state. Who wants to die for apartheid?
As Jews, we must fight this kind of mass defamation of our people. Israel's security and Jewish lives all over the world depends on it, as well as our historic God-given mission of being "a light unto the nations." To say that Israel is an apartheid state is as wildly outrageous as the blood libels of Europe.
To answer the editor of South Africa's Sunday Times, I wrote an article which he kindly published in last week's newspaper. Here follow its arguments:
To accuse Israel of apartheid is to diminish the victims of the real apartheid -- the men, women and children of South Africa, who suffered for centuries under arrogant, heartless colonialism, and then for decades under the brutal policies of racial superiority, oppression and separation inflicted by the National Party. If everything is apartheid, then nothing is apartheid.
In the State of Israel all citizens -- Jew and Arab alike -- are equal before the law. Israel has none of the apartheid legislative machinery devised to discriminate against and to separate people. It has no Population Registration Act, no Group Areas Act, no Mixed Marriages and Immorality Act, no Separate Representation of Voters Act, no Separate Amenities Act, no pass laws or any other of the myriad apartheid laws.
Israel is a vibrant liberal democracy which accords full political, civil and other human rights to all its people.
On the contrary: Israel is a vibrant liberal democracy which accords full political, civil and other human rights to all its people, including its one million-plus Arab citizens, many of whom hold positions of authority throughout the Jewish state -- including that of cabinet minister, Knesset member and judge at every level of the judiciary, the Supreme Court included.
All citizens vote on the same voters' roll in regular, multiparty elections, and there are Arab parties and Arab members of other parties in the Knesset. Due to Israel's proportional representation system, Arab voters, although a minority, have often been partners in various coalition governments and influenced major long-term decisions affecting the country.
Arabs and Jews live and work together, share all public facilities, including, importantly, hospitals and schools, and also malls, buses, cinemas and parks. Israel protects religious freedom and has been very sensitive and respectful in its management of the holy sites of all religions, granting easy access to everyone.
Arab Israelis, like all their compatriots, can express themselves and act freely as members of a transparent and open, democratic society, where criticism of the government in an aggressively free press is the norm.
In fact, Israeli Arabs enjoy more freedom and rights than do any other Arabs in the Middle East, where autocratic governments suppress democracy and freedoms, such as freedom of expression and of association, including outlawing labor unions. Israel is the only truly free democracy in the Middle East.
If there is apartheid in the Middle East, then it is the apartheid in Arab states against Jews, Christians and women, who are all denied the most basic human rights and treated as second-class citizens.
Most Arab governments do not even allow Jews to visit, let alone live. In fact, more than 800,000 Jews have been expelled from Arab countries over the last five decades, where they lived peacefully for centuries, albeit with inferior status.
In 1967, as a result of a defensive war thrust upon it, Israel captured the territories known today as the West Bank and Gaza. Since then the status of these territories and their occupants has been unclear. It is incorrect legally, factually and even morally to speak of an occupation, which implies there was once a Palestinian entity in these territories, and that this is now occupied by Israeli forces.
Before 1967 the West Bank was controlled by Jordan, and Gaza by Egypt. We should not speak of the "occupied territories," but more accurately of "disputed territories."
There has never been a Palestinian state in all of history. By contrast, the State of Israel is the third Jewish state on the same land, the first dating back 3,280 years to when Joshua led the Jewish people into the land of Israel. Furthermore, Israel has strong claims to the West Bank, which is part of the biblical Israel that the Jews have always lived in. One of the holiest sites of Judaism is there - Hebron, where the founding fathers and mothers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca and Leah, are buried.
Apart from the city of Jerusalem, the ancient capital of the Jewish people from the times of King David, the West Bank and Gaza were never annexed, pending the resolution of their status. For decades Israel tried to negotiate with various parties to permanently resolve the future of the disputed territories, but is still in search of a genuine peace partner to represent the Palestinian Arabs.
Yasser Arafat demonstrated his inability to relinquish his dream of destroying Israel when he rejected prime minister Ehud Barak's incredibly generous offer at the Camp David talks in 2000 - a rejection which even Prince Bandar, the official representative of Saudi Arabia at the talks, described as a crime.
And now Hamas, which states in its founding constitution its aim of destroying Israel completely, is the democratically elected majority party of the Palestinian people.
As an example of what they are talking about, the apartheid accusers point to Israel's security fence and checkpoints, which limit the movement of people from the disputed territories into the internationally recognized borders of the State of Israel. In this they are also wrong.
After the collapse of the Camp David talks, Arafat and other Palestinian groups dispatched suicide bomber after suicide bomber into Israel, targeting Jewish civilians. In the past eight years, terrorist attacks have led to more than 1,300 civilians being murdered and 10,000 wounded by the human guided missiles of the Islamic suicide bombers.
Given Israel's relatively small population, proportionately, such carnage in South Africa would mean more than 10,000 murdered and more than 80,000 injured. What would we South Africans do if so many of our fellow citizens were blown up by suicide bombers? Appreciate for the moment what this would mean in the context of the US, where the murder of about 3,000 people at the World Trade Center bombings led to the invasion of two countries. Proportionately, had the US sustained similar causalities to those suffered in Israel, almost 80,000 Americans would have been killed and about 600,000 injured.
The fence has been remarkably successful and has reduced successful suicide bombings by up to 90 percent.
The trauma inflicted on the Israeli people from the relentless barrage unleashed by the Palestinian leadership, enjoying widespread support from its people, is indescribable. Israel erected a security fence to shield it from the attacks launched from the disputed territories across its internationally recognized borders. Every sovereign country is legally and morally entitled to erect a fence to defend its people from attacks launched from the outside.
The fence has been remarkably successful and has reduced successful suicide bombings by up to 90 percent. Israel relies on the most fundamental moral and legal principle - the right to self-defense. Never before in recorded history has any nation endured such civilian casualties and responded with such restraint.
The security fence is a defensive instrument, and the most humanitarian one possible in a situation where the alternative is heavy military action which would result in the death of thousands.
None of this has anything to do with apartheid, and everything to do with an ongoing war over the disputed territories, and over the very existence of the Jewish state. After nearly 2,000 years of exile, persecutions and genocides, the Jewish people are surely entitled to a tiny strip of country to call their own.
If there is an analogy to the South African situation, it is that Israel is like the African National Congress, which was forced into the armed struggle because it had no partner for peace. As soon as the National Party came around to wanting genuinely negotiations, the situation was resolved. Our South African experience has taught us that you cannot make peace unless both parties to the conflict wish to resolve it.
When the Arab world is ready to make peace, Israel will be there. Let us all pray to God that this happens soon so that the misery and suffering of all can be brought to an immediate end.
The writer is chief rabbi of South Africa.