Why Do Americans Get Attacked for Saying What Israelis Say About Israel?

Why Do Americans Get Attacked for Saying What Israelis Say About Israel?

Why Do Americans Get Attacked for Saying What Israelis Say About Israel?

Congress explicitly rejects words like “racist” and “apartheid” that prominent Israelis have used to describe their country and its policies.


Twenty years ago, in June of 2003, B’Tselem, Israel’s largest human rights organization, complained that Israel was “enshrining racism in law.” Objecting to temporary legislation that rescinded the right of Israeli citizens who had married residents of the Occupied Territories to establish their home in Israel, the group said, “This bill is racist.”

Two years later, when the Israeli Knesset enacted a law restricting the family unification of Israeli citizens and residents (including residents of East Jerusalem) and Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories, B’Tselem declared that the restriction was “racist and violates the principle of equality.”

Founded by Israeli parliamentarians, civil liberties lawyers, and academics, B’Tselem would eventually determine, in 2021, that

Israel is not a democracy that has a temporary occupation attached to it: it is one regime between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, and we must look at the full picture and see it for what it is: apartheid. This sobering look at reality need not lead to despair, but quite the opposite. It is a call for change. After all, people created this regime, and people can change it.

That was not an isolated statement of concern. International human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have described Israeli policies that systemically discriminate against Palestinians as “apartheid.” And so do many prominent Israeli political and cultural figures. Former Israeli cabinet members Yossi Sarid, a 32-year-member of the Knesset and longtime columnist for the newspaper Haaretz, and Shulamit Aloni, a 26-year-member of the Knesset who was a recipient of the prestigious Israel Prize, had both concluded before B’Tselem’s 2021 report was published that Israel was practicing a form of apartheid. A year after the report was released, internationally acclaimed Israeli novelist AB Yehoshua wrote, “The cancer today is apartheid in the West Bank.” The same year, former Israeli Attorney General Michael Ben-Yair stated: “It is with great sadness that I must also conclude that my country has sunk to such political and moral depths that it is now an apartheid regime. It is time for the international community to recognize this reality as well.”

These are, to be sure, controversial opinions—within Israel and beyond its borders. But they are opinions that are frequently voiced by prominent Israelis—including conductor Daniel Barenboim, who wrote in 2018 that

we have a law that confirms the Arab population as second-class citizens. It follows that this is a very clear form of apartheid. I don’t think the Jewish people lived for 20 centuries, mostly through persecution and enduring endless cruelties, in order to become the oppressors, inflicting cruelty on others.

So how is that, when American political figures use words such as “racist” and “apartheid” to describe Israeli policies, they face not just a withering rhetorical assault from media pundits and politicians—including charges of anti-Semitism—but immediate congressional action rejecting the language?

Last weekend, Congressional Progressive Caucus chair Pramila Jayapal caused a stir when she said at the Netroots Nation conference in Chicago that “it is clear that Israel is a racist state, that the Palestinian people deserve self-determination and autonomy.” Condemnations were fast and furious—from House Republicans and many Democrats. Jayapal quickly clarified her position: “I do not believe the idea of Israel as a nation is racist. I do, however, believe that Netanyahu’s extreme right-wing government has engaged in discriminatory and outright racist policies and that there are extreme racists driving that policy within the leadership of the current government.”

That did not blunt the outcry from congressional Republicans and the vast majority of their Democratic colleagues, who on Tuesday voted 412-9 for a hastily crafted resolution that asserted Israel “is not a racist or apartheid state” and declared that the United States “will always be a staunch partner and supporter of Israel.”

Progressive Caucus members Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (New York), Rashida Tlaib (Michigan), Jamaal Bowman (New York) Summer Lee (Pennsylvania) Ilhan Omar (Minnesota), Cori Bush (Missouri), André Carson (Indiana), Delia Ramirez (Illinois), and Ayanna Pressley (Massachusetts) opposed the resolution, while Minnesota Democrat Betty McCollum voted “present.”

Jayapal voted for the measure, as did several other outspoken critics of Israeli policies, including Representative Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) who sought to reframe the debate by describing the measure as “aspirational: it embodies what Israel wants to be and what we hope it is.”

“But,” he added, “if we want to make this vision a reality, then as friends of Israel, we must point out the significant barriers to those aspirations—as any good friend would.” Pocan concluded, “Israel is a friend of the United States. Criticism of the Israeli government and their actions is not antisemitism—it’s real and honest friendship.”

Among those who voted “no” on the resolution, Tlaib spoke most bluntly, declaring, “I am the only Palestinian American serving in Congress and I have family members all throughout the West Bank—what many people call the illegally occupied territories But we’re here again reaffirming Congress’s support for apartheid, policing the words of women of color who dare to speak up about truths, about oppression. It’s just not what we should be doing here in Congress.”

Most of Tlaib’s colleagues disagreed with her. Some of them quite ardently, and undoubtedly sincerely. Yet the reference to the policing of language stung in a chamber that was racing with uncommon urgency to proscribe words that have been used by Israeli human rights groups, political figures, and cultural icons.

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