Israel and apartheid? Now that you mention it…

Israel and apartheid? Now that you mention it…

From a public relations perspective, defending Israel from criticism can sometimes be counterproductive.

Take, for example, a recent op-ed in The New York Times by Justice Richard Goldstone, titled “Israel and the Apartheid Slander.” As Goldstone writes, describing Israel as a proponent of apartheid “is an unfair and inaccurate slander against Israel, calculated to retard rather than advance peace negotiations.”

The article has been received with widespread praise. Goldstone is notorious for leading the UN Human Rights Council “fact-finding mission” after the 2009 Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, leading to the “Goldstone Report,” which accused Israel of committing war crimes. Since that time, Goldstone has publicly backed away from his most serious claims against Israel and now has come to Israel’s defense in his latest editorial.

There is no doubt that Goldstone has the credentials to debunk the “apartheid claim” against Israel, as a South African native who headed the influential Goldstone Commission investigations into political violence in South Africa between 1991 and 1994.

To discredit the accusation of “apartheid,” Goldstone differentiates between Israeli Arabs and Palestinians. Israeli Arabs are descendents of Arabs who lived within the borders of Israel when it was created in 1948. They have full Israeli citizenship. Alternatively, Palestinians live in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, which Israel captured in 1967. They do not have Israeli citizenship.

As Goldstone describes it, “Israeli Arabs vote, have political parties and representatives in the Knesset, and occupy positions of acclaim, including on its Supreme Court. Arab patients lie alongside Jewish patients in Israeli hospitals, receiving identical treatment.”

On the other hand, Palestinians do not have the right to vote in Israel and do not have the same rights and opportunities that Israelis have. This has nothing to do with the fact that they are Arabs or Muslims. We know this because Israeli Arabs and Muslims do have the right to vote, serve in the Knesset, and enjoy the opportunities given to all Israeli citizens.

The reason Palestinians do not have these rights is because they are not Israeli citizens, just as Americans can’t vote in Canadian elections or receive the rights that Canadians enjoy.

A bigger question is whether Goldstone’s high-profile defense of Israel really serves Israel’s cause. On one level, of course it does. To have an associated critic of Israel publicly denounce one of the main criticisms of Israel is an important asset for all those interested in promoting accurate understandings of Israel’s true nature.

Goldstone’s op-ed was a welcome corrective to a persistent slander. And yet, for so many who only have a cursory understanding or interest in Israel and the political situation in the Middle East, a defense like his can actually increase readers’ association between “Israel” and “apartheid.” They walk away thinking, “Is Israel an apartheid state? This author makes some good points why it is not, but surely someone else has a different opinion, otherwise why would he be defending against this?”

Defending Israel against a blatant lie can actually strengthen the lie itself.

If Goldstone truly wanted to defend Israel from its detractors, perhaps it would be a much more effective strategy to point out the positive aspects of Israel that we want to communicate to those who are undecided about their support for Israel. Instead, they might want to write about Israel’s continued willingness to make peace with her neighbors; describe the lack of a true peace partner amongst the Palestinian leadership; show the shared values between Israel and the West, including their democratic nature and their upholding of human rights and minority rights; and their constant pursuit of ingenuity and development in so many fields.

Focusing on the messages we want to communicate, as opposed to defending against Israel’s critics, is a much more effective method of making Israel’s case in the realm of public opinion.

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