[This is a redacted version of a speech given on Saturday, February 5, 2022, at Temple Emanuel in Newton, MA by AJC New England Regional Director Robert Leikind]

Thank you, Rabbi Gardenswartz, for inviting me to share thoughts about Amnesty International’s report alleging that Israel practices apartheid. There are many reasons why this Report is disturbing. To start with, it comes right on the heels of our learning about a hostage-taking at a synagogue in Texas; a multistate effort to persuade people that Jews are the hidden hand behind the pandemic; a new AJC survey documenting that antisemitism is spiraling across France; the claim of a prominent actor that the murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust does not qualify as racism; and more. 

The Report is fresh off the presses. So far, I have had a chance to read its Executive summary, review briefing documents, and study a wide range of analysis. This has led me to three observations.

1st Observation: Charges are Very Serious and Will Fuel Anti-Israel Activism and Push it More Mainstream

The Amnesty Report makes a range of allegations that in their entirety seek to demonstrate that Israel practices apartheid, through which it dominates, controls, and oppresses Palestinians.  To underscore the severity of the allegations, throughout the Report, Amnesty describes Israeli practices with words like “cruel, brutal, excessive and ruthless.”  The Report makes many allegations to substantiate the charge of apartheid. By way of example, let me point out two.

It contends that, from its birth, Israel was dedicated to maintaining a demographic majority and adopted policies to ensure that was the case. It claims that the war of independence was not a desperate struggle for survival but was a part of a comprehensive land grab that resulted in the forceable expulsion of Arabs in 1948.  It maintains that Israel perpetuated this program of demographic domination by preventing the return of refugees and then expanded the policy by expropriating land from Arab inhabitants.

The Report also contends that Israel cannot be both Jewish and democratic. To advance this claim, it marshals evidence to show that Israeli Arabs and those living on the other side of the Green Line are denied the basic rights available to Jewish citizens of Israel.

We need to start by acknowledging that while some of the accusations are detached from any reasonable assessment of history and do not fairly reflect the reality of life in Israel, there are also allegations based on a reasonable understanding of issues. Israel is a country, and like all countries, it has tensions and imperfections that warrant discussion, debate, and criticism.  It is fair for Amnesty to call attention to failings in Israeli society, including concerns about human rights, as it might do with any country in the world.  But that is not what happened here.

Amnesty, it appears, abandoned standards of fairness and reason to engage in a full throttled attack on par with the notorious Zionism is Racism campaign by the Soviet Union of the mid 1970’s.  There is no doubt that this Report will be seized upon to expand campaigns against Israel like BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions].  And this brings me to my second observation.

2nd Observation: The Amnesty Report is an Unfettered Attack on the Moral Foundation of the World’s only Jewish State

The Wall Street Journal got it right when it said that “the report treats Israel’s founding as the original sin from which all other offenses flow.” According to the Report, Israel was born an apartheid state.  To prove the point, it appears the authors of the Report scoured 74 years of Israeli history and plucked out the most grievous claims it could and then compressed them into a narrative that reframes Israel’s reality. But to do this, it seems that they sanitized their claims by removing from them their historical, political, and legal context, information that might complicate the Amnesty report’s conclusions.

You won’t learn from Amnesty’s troubled Report that:

  • The war of independence was at many moments a desperate struggle for survival and that detailed research has confirmed that there was no plan to expel Palestinians.
  • You won’t learn that after the ’48 War, Arab leaders called for maintaining the refugee populations as a part of a larger effort to reverse their defeat and annihilate Israel.
  • You won’t learn that Israel is a democracy, imperfect like every other, but with strong institutions that protect the rights of its citizens so that in this so-called apartheid state:
    • An Israeli Arab SC Justice sentenced a former PM to prison.
    • An Arab party is the lynch pin of the current coalition government; and
    • Anti-Zionists Israeli Arabs have been members of Knesset.
  • You also won’t learn that many Palestinians disagree with the Report’s conclusions about Israeli democracy. For example, in a recent poll, 68% of Palestinians expressed admiration for Israeli democracy. And, according to a 2020 poll of Arab Israelis, they overwhelmingly prefer to refer to themselves as Israeli as opposed to Palestinian.
  • You will learn about the restrictions on movements of West Bank Palestinians, but you won’t learn that these, including the barrier wall, were the direct result of terror campaigns that started in the 90’s that led to thousands of Israel causalities.
  • You also won’t learn that the circumstances governing Arab citizens living in Israel and others living in the West Bank and Gaza are very different.  With Israeli Arabs enjoying the rights and privileges of a democratic state; unlike those in the Occupied Territories, who remain under occupation because multiple opportunities to create a Palestinian state at peace with Israel have been spurned.
  • You won’t learn that Hamas is committed to Israel’s destruction and that it places a higher value on this than the establishment of a Palestinian state.
  • You won’t learn that every conflict between Hamas and Israel was precipitated by thousands of missiles that placed millions of Israelis in shelters for weeks on end.
  • You won’t learn that on multiple occasions Israel made huge concessions to pave the way for a peace agreement and that their Palestinian interlocuters rejected any resolution that would leave a Jewish state intact.

The list goes on and on and the bigger it gets the more it seems that the portrait of Israel and its democracy presented by Amnesty is at odds with a more complex reality. And this brings me to my third observation.

3rd Observation: This Report by AI Is Not Happening in a Vacuum

The failure to provide the necessary context for many of the claims that are being asserted gives the appearance that Amnesty’s Report was built around a series of political conclusions rather than an honest effort to study a complex series of problems.

This impression was strengthened by an interview by Times of Israel’s Lazar Berman that took place with the Secretary General of Amnesty and its Director of MENA Research immediately after their Wednesday press conference announcing the Report.

Berman wanted to know why, of the 193 nations of the world, did Amnesty select Israel and Myanmar to accuse of apartheid.  Why not Turkey, China, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Iran, Sri Lanka, India, or many other countries, including perhaps the United States where persecution of minority populations is well documented. Many, if not most of the countries I just mentioned, face far greater challenges than the worst that has been said about Israel.  In response, the best Amnesty’s Director for the Middle East and North Africa could offer is that they are guided by where there is debate.

One needs to pause for a moment and think about this answer. After four years of effort by one of the world’s most prominent human rights organizations, this is all they could say about why they have invested years of effort to develop this damning Report?  The statement was a fig leaf that covered very little. 

There is a global obsession today with portraying Israel as the exemplar of all that is wrong with the modern nation state. Each year at the UN, there are more resolutions condemning Israel than all other nations. Academics and students on universities across the country organize to seek justice for Palestinians though many would not know where to find Israel on a map. For many, Israel has become the focal point of the modern quest for justice.  And the question that demands an answer is: why Israel from among all the nations of the world?

David Nirenberg, the new director of the Center for Advanced Studies at Princeton, has an answer. In his highly regarded book, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, he traces the inclination to associate Jews with moral corruption and view them as a danger to society to its beginnings in the debates and teachings of the early Fathers of the Christian Church. And then, he documents how this idea has travelled through the centuries and continues to not only influence attitudes about Jews but shape the moral imagination of people across the West and now much of the Muslim world. Jews are assigned blame for Capitalism and Communism.  We are the authors of our nation’s immigration problem.  We are behind the covid pandemic.  We even shoot lasers from space to start forest fires in California.

All these ideas are conspiracy theories that reflect a Western obsession with Jews and Jewishness that we often like to describe as antisemitism.  And based upon what I have seen it is hard not see this Report, at least in part, as one more conspiracy theory that places Jews at the Center of the moral imagination of people across the West.

This is what makes the Amnesty Report so dangerous. It is confirmation of what many are already inclined to believe about Jews; only this time we are being assigned one of the most despised and immoral practices known to modern man … apartheid.

I think it was Bari Weiss who said that since the end of World War II, Jews have been on a vacation from history, but that vacation, she maintained, is over. This Report appears to confirm this.  We need to think about it not as an isolated matter, but part of a larger challenge facing the Jewish community today. This is where we need to pause and reach for perspective.

There is no doubt that what is happening is alarming.  However, it is also true that we are not alone.  The good news is that we are part of a well-established diaspora community with a capacity to fight back and we have friends who will support us.

In the little more than two days since the Report was issued, AJC has engaged with diplomatic and political leaders around the world, including our Congress, to correct and clarify the distortions and misrepresentations in the Report.  We have developed briefing papers and educational materials, including a video, that introduce needed context and corrections.  We have engaged with media and challenged the veracity of the Report.  But this is not enough.

This fight goes beyond exposing the Report for what it is. The Report is a symptom of a far larger problem and we all have a role to play in addressing it.  One third of Americans don’t know what antisemitism is. And among those who do, most would say it is a bad thing but might not recognize it, except in its bluntest forms.

We need to educate ourselves about antisemitism and we need to help educate our communities too.  Fortunately, we have the perfect vehicle that will allow us to combine education and advocacy. It is called the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Working Definition of Antisemitism.  This Working Definition is a powerful tool that will help communities recognize and respond to antisemitism.

Today we are frequently guided by a maxim immortalized by the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart.  In a case concerning pornography, he balked at defining it by contending that, “You know it when you see it.” That may be sufficient for pornography, but it is clearly not a basis for recognizing antisemitism, which presents itself in so many complex ways.  This is why the Working Definition must become the foundation for effective advocacy against antisemitism.

It is time for our Jewish community to organize and take charge of our future. With all the challenges of our time, we still live in a country that affords this Jewish community opportunities to defend our interests that have been available to none other.  We should no longer be surprised by the rise of modern antisemitism.  This is our moment. It is time to take charge of our future.

Shabbat Shalom.

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