Opinion | Three (Not So) Little Words

In discussions about Israel, the time for euphemisms has passed.
By | Sep 12, 2023
Fall 2023, Israel, Opinion

If you’re in a room full of mainstream Jews who hew to the uncritical AIPAC line about Israel, you undoubtedly know that “apartheid,” “racist” and “fascist” are three words you can’t say about the Jewish state without risking denunciation, cancellation or total excommunication from the tribe.

To describe Israel as an “apartheid” state is a top taboo. As defined by the Legal Information Institute at Cornell University, it is “an Afrikaans word…literally translated to ‘separating, setting apart’…[apartheid is] a policy that is founded on the idea of separating people based on racial or ethnic criteria.” Originally applied to the South African white minority government’s segregation of, and discrimination against, its nonwhite majority, the label has migrated to the linguistic battleground pertaining to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

It became radioactive when Jimmy Carter titled a book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid in 2006. American Jews and others devoted to protecting Israel’s reputation were outraged. Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, they insisted, and those who contradicted that assertion were (and still are) vilified or silenced.

Nonetheless, journalists and rights-oriented NGOs kept doing their jobs, gathering evidence, taking photographs, interviewing Israeli Arabs and Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. In 2021 and 2022, reports by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Israeli watchdog group B’tselem quantified, in grim detail, actions by Israel that attest to the “separating” or “setting apart” of Palestinians based on their national, racial or ethnic identity.

To wit: Residents in the Israeli occupied areas of the West Bank live under two separate justice systems (Israeli law for Jewish settlers, military law for Palestinians). Israel has built modern highways for settlers, bypass roads for Palestinians.

Jews in the territories enjoy strong security protections; Palestinians routinely experience neglect, disrespect, harassment or violence from Israeli police and IDF soldiers. The inferior quality of basic public services—sanitation, water, internet access—likewise “separate” or “set apart” Palestinians from their Jewish neighbors.

I saw separation writ large and loathsome in 2011 when I spent a day in Hebron, where 800 Jewish settlers lived among 170,000 Palestinians. In one area, only Israelis could enter the city by car; Palestinians had to go on foot. The streets and sidewalks were strictly segregated; Palestinians weren’t allowed on streets restricted to Jews. Palestinian mothers carrying babies were forced to climb over rooftops to get to their homes. Twelve years ago, when the forbidden word rarely appeared in Jewish publications, I wrote in The Forward about facts on the ground in Hebron: “Being there you can’t help thinking of the ‘A-word.’”

Two years ago, Gideon Levy, a 70-year-old sabra and political columnist, spelled it out: “Get to know it: apartheid. An apartheid state. We live in one, we are part of it, we are partners to it. It’s our country.”

Too many defame the messenger when they should be pressing Israel’s leaders to uphold pluralistic norms.

“Racist” is another word that used to make Jews like me cringe when used about Israel. In 1975, when the UN passed its “Zionism is racism” resolution, I and other Jewish feminists organized a massive petition campaign condemning what was then considered a slanderous accusation. How dare they call Israel racist, we argued, when Arabs serve in the Knesset, work side by side with Jews as doctors, lawyers and professors, even get equal treatment when it comes to organ transplants! No wonder it struck me as a bad omen when a right-wing Israeli journalist announced in July that he would donate his kidney only to a Jew.

These days, sobered by current events, I see beyond Israel’s unique beauty and impressive achievements to the racist laws enacted or proposed with impunity by its legislators. What else but racist can you call the 2018 Nation-State Law that enshrined Israeli Jews’ supremacy over its Arab citizens? The Admissions Committees Law, which was expanded to allow small municipalities to reject applications from home buyers who are deemed “unsuitable,” i.e. not Jewish? The proposed bill that would mandate separate maternity wards for Jewish and Arab mothers? Or the one that would impose harsher punishments on sex offenders who act with “nationalist motivation”? To quote one Orthodox feminist critic of the bill’s wording: “Does an ultra-Orthodox man who rapes a 12-year-old cause less hurt or damage than an Arab-Palestinian who rapes a 12-year-old?”

Last month on Israeli radio, the former head of the Mossad, Tamir Pardo, called the current government’s “horrible, racist parties” “worse than” the KKK. On Israeli TV, he accused Netanyahu of “carrying out a coup” and “turning a democratic state into a dictatorship.” If a sworn guardian of Israeli security uses such terms, the words are neither antisemitic nor
anti-Israel; they are red alerts, distress signals, a call to rescue the nation from its leaders.

“Fascist” is perhaps the most radioactive utterance in current Jewish discourse. Just writing the words Jewish and fascist in the same sentence hurts my heart. Setting aside the inevitable association with Nazis, my dictionary defines a fascist as someone who “exalts nation and often race above the individual” and stands for “a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.”

Doesn’t that describe a prime minister who refuses to say he’d accept the decision of the full Supreme Court if it rules against him? A national security minister who’s an avowed acolyte of the late rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the Jewish Defense League, classified by the FBI as a terrorist organization? A Haredi MK who wants to ban the Pride parade because, he says, the LGBTQ community is a greater threat to Israel than Islamist terrorist groups? A self-described “fascist homophobe” finance minister who said a Palestinian village should be “wiped out” by Israeli forces?

A foreign minister who sent his ambassador to Romania to meet with the head of its flagrantly antisemitic party, which still glorifies the WWII fascist under whose Nazi collaborationist regime 400,000 Romanian Jews were murdered—a party that today calls the Holocaust a “minor issue”?

What other word fits the Knesset’s religious legislators who want to impose on women (and secular Israelis) the ultra-Orthodox social rules of a small minority?

Now the government’s agenda is transparent. Yet there are still too many “pro-Israel” Americans who, when they hear a message that contradicts their image of a democratic Jewish state, defame the messenger when they should be pressing Israel’s leaders to uphold pluralistic norms.

The rush by Netanyahu and his coalition to hobble the independence of the judiciary has unleashed nearly ten months of unprecedented civil rebellion: crippling work stoppages and solidarity strikes; a brain drain of students, techies and doctors; women wearing scarlet robes out of The Handmaid’s Tale while demonstrating to stop Israel from turning into Iran; and the stunning refusal by IDF officers and fighter pilots to show up for reserve duty rather than serve a government with a deplorable agenda.

While these intrepid Israelis take extreme measures to save their country, I wonder why American Jews are still pussyfooting around with euphemisms. Racism, apartheid and fascism are existential threats to the survival of our beloved Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Living in denial is not loyalty. The first step to righting a wrong is to name it.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin is the author of 12 books, most recently Shanda: A Memoir of Shame and Secrecy. She is a past president of Americans for Peace Now. 

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3 thoughts on “Opinion | Three (Not So) Little Words

  1. Pam says:

    When you see even the Jewish Federations of North America, the preeminent fundraiser for Israel’s human services in the world for all of Israel’s 75 year history, openly criticizing what is happening under the current government’s watch, you know that Bibi and Co. has eroded American Jewish support to an extraordinary degree. It will be eroded further as time goes by without redress.
    It is heartbreaking and infuriating.

  2. Phyllis Rosen says:

    We now see in bright daylight that the three descriptions do in fact apply and they should be acknowledged publicly especially by people like us who still love and care what happens in the Jewish homeland – maybe. We still don’t have a prayer of having an important conversation with Jews who feel differently if we use those terms. Im still reluctant to go “public” with those admissions although I believe 100% they are true. It is heartbreaking to realize that for me Israel is no longer the refuge i knew I could run to in times of trouble and be accepted with open arms. That’s the past. This is not easy and is tearing many liberals like me apart.

  3. Kevin says:

    To label the 2018 Nation-State Law as racist speaks volumes about the author’s complete lack of understanding of the situation in Israel and its history.
    Unfortunately this can be said of many American Jews today.
    Israel is either going to be a Jewish state – or a state of its citizens. If Israel decides to go down a path where it loses more and more of its Jewish identity over time, it will be a disaster for Jews and Judaism, and the Middle East.
    The Jews in Israel are our brothers and sisters. We are a family. Family comes first. When you give, lend, or borrow anything, how would you not consider your family first? I can only imagine that the concept of being a part of the chosen people is probably a huge embarrassment to this author.
    As far as Israel no longer considered being a refuge….when the trains come into your neighborhood for you, I bet your thoughts will change. We are not in Kansas anymore, Toto.
    They will work things out – because that is what they (we) do.
    The extreme negativity in this article is disgusting.

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