An army of advocates, defenders, PR people, marketers, spin-meisters and image-polishers

January 3, 2006

In News

By Jay Bookman

Jay Bookman is the deputy editorial page editor. His column appears Mondays and Thursdays.

Jimmy Carter may be right or he may be wrong; in fact, like the rest of us, he’s almost certainly some of both.

But Carter is not by any stretch of the imagination anti-Semitic. In fact, merely by making that ridiculous accusation, people such as Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, have proved Carter right about some of the central observations in his controversial new book “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.”

In that book, and in the debate it has inspired, Carter has noted the very narrow range of acceptable opinion in this country regarding Israel and Palestine, and believes that silenced debate has hurt U.S. both the United States and Israel.

“When I go to Jerusalem or to Tel Aviv or Nazareth or anywhere in Israel, the discussions and debates are intense and constant about Israeli policies in the West Bank and whether they are advisable or not,” Carter has said. ” … but in this country, zero.”

He’s absolutely right: The debate about Israeli policies is far more heated and frank within Israel than here in the United States. As one telling example, consider this paragraph by Israeli columnist Larry Derfner, writing recently in the Jerusalem Post:

“Nobody and nothing in the world has an army of advocates, defenders, PR people, marketers, spin-meisters and image-polishers like Israel has. This army isn’t made up just of the government but of Jews and Judeophiles all over the world, especially in the U.S. It includes the entire alphabet soup of American Jewish organizations, right-wing ‘media watchdogs’ like CAMERA and Honest Reporting, hundreds of Jewish newspapers and Web sites, Alan Dershowitz, Binyamin Netanyahu, the Republican Party, the Christian Right, FOX News and an assortment of other forces.”

In Israel, apparently, nobody thought twice about such a statement. But those same words written here in the United States would be prima facie evidence of anti-Semitism.

Even the comparison of the situation in the Palestinian territories to South African apartheid isn’t unsayable within Israel. To the contrary, it has been an undercurrent of debate there for years.

“I’m terribly sorry, while there are important differences between the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the former apartheid regime of South Africa, after 39 years of occupation the similarities have come to outweigh the differences,” Derfner wrote recently in another column in The Jerusalem Post.

Top Israeli political figures have made the comparison as well.

“The things a Palestinian has to endure, simply coming to work in the morning, is a long and continuous nightmare that includes humiliation bordering on despair,” said Ami Ayalon, the former head of Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence agency. “Is the option of Jewish democracy with apartheid acceptable? I think not.”

And Yossi Alpher, a former senior adviser in the Israeli government, once warned that with their unwavering support for Israel’s approach to Palestine, neoconservatives in the Bush administration have encouraged Israel to create “an apartheid reality that is the very antithesis of the democratization that they preach for the region.”

Foxman professes to be most outraged by Carter’s assertion that pro-Israeli groups have helped squelch open debate about the Middle East, accusing Carter of peddling “this shameless, shameful canard that the Jews control the debate in this country, especially when it comes to the media.”

There is indeed a shameless, shameful canard to that effect, and it is classic anti-Semitism, attributing to Jews some secret conspiratorial control of world affairs. But that is not the argument that Carter is making. Carter’s point — and Foxman proves it — is that it has become impossible to express sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians in this country without fear of being shouted down as anti-Semitic.

There is no question that anti-Semitism is alive and virulent. It is undeniable fact that Israel is unfairly targeted in the United Nations and other forums, in part because of anti-Semitism and in part because Israel is hated as a creation of the West imposed on the Arab world, a living and enduring symbol of Arab weakness.

However, Israelis also bridle when they believe their country is being held to a higher standard than other nations, and they insist that it be treated like any other normal country.

Normal countries, however, are subject to normal criticism among the community of nations. In Israel’s case, there will always be a danger that such criticism will slide into anti-Semitism, but people of good faith can surely distinguish one from the other.