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Jerusalem Notebook: Israel, Fake News and the ‘Apartheid State’

When I first set foot in Jerusalem in August 2006 – arriving in the country in the midst of the second Lebanon War – one of the earliest discoveries I made was that truth is sometimes hard to identify in the not-always-holy Holy Land.

I also found out that truth isn’t high on the list of priorities for international media sources. And many of them – prestigious though they might be – are more than happy to eclipse truth with what is now popularly known as “fake news.”

There are innumerable examples, and far too many to mention. But one classic instance – recently recycled – is that Israel is frequently accused of being an “apartheid state.” [1]

This falsehood is carefully tucked between the glossy covers of former President Jimmy Carter’s notorious book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, which officially introduced me to the libel that Israel supposedly treats today’s Arabs the way South Africa treated people of color between 1948 and 1991.

This accusation can be soundly debunked by those who actually lived in South Africa during those dark decades. But more about that in a moment.

Thanks to the willful blindness of various journalists, diplomats and anti-Israel activists, the apartheid accusation against Israel has never really disappeared. And in recent days, the subject has been revisited, this time at the United Nations.

The ancient warning “Beware the Ides of March” was appropriate in Israel on March 15, when the United Nations published a report [2] accusing the Jewish State of imposing an “apartheid regime” of racial discrimination on the Palestinian people. U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia Executive Secretary Rima Khalaf posted the report and explained that it was the “first of its type” from a U.N. body, and it “clearly and frankly concludes that Israel is a racist state that has established an apartheid system that persecutes the Palestinian people.”

The report was titled “Israeli Practices Towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid [3],” and said that “available evidence establishes beyond a reasonable doubt that Israel is guilty of policies and practices that constitute the crime of apartheid as legally defined in instruments of international law.”

ESCWA comprises 18 Arab states in Western Asia and aims to support economic and social development in member states, according to its website. According to Khalaf, the report was prepared at the request of the member states.

Unfortunately for herself and her cause, Khalaf published the report on the U.N. website without consulting with the United Nations secretariat.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres was not pleased.

“The report as it stands does not reflect the views of the secretary-general,” said U.N. Spokesman Stéphane Dujarric.

Meanwhile, the newly inaugurated Donald Trump Administration – which has repeatedly reaffirmed that America is Israel’s faithful ally – responded to the report with indignation.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, declared in an official statement, “The United Nations secretariat was right to distance itself from this report, but it must go further and withdraw the report altogether.”

Israeli U.N. Ambassador Danny Danon was outraged:

The attempt to smear and falsely label the only true democracy in the Middle East by creating a false analogy is despicable and constitutes a blatant lie.

The report itself was authored by the infamous Richard Falk, a former U.N. human rights investigator for the Palestinian territories, and Virginia Tilley, professor of political science at Southern Illinois University.

Before leaving his post in 2014 as U.N. “Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories,” Falk – a Princeton professor emeritus with radically anti-Israel views – declared that Israeli policies bore unacceptable characteristics of colonialism, apartheid and ethnic cleansing.

One of my most insightful journalist friends, Ruthie Blum, provided some essential background on Falk in an Israel Hayom column [4], pointing out that he is hardly a trustworthy voice regarding Middle East issues. Falk’s foolish glorification of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of today’s treacherous Islamic Republic of Iran, should have been enough to disgrace any of his future pontifications. Blum explained,

On February 16, 1979, Falk published an op-ed in The New York Times called “Trusting Khomeini.” In it, he ‎waxed poetic about the Muslim cleric, who would turn Iran into the nuclear weapons-hungry ‎theocracy that it is today. “The depiction of [Khomeini] as fanatical, reactionary, and the bearer of crude ‎prejudices seems certainly and happily false,” Falk wrote.‎

He then went on to praise Shiite Islam: “What is distinctive, perhaps, about this religious orientation is ‎its concern with resisting oppression and promoting social justice,” he said, concluding, “Having ‎created a new model of popular revolution based, for the most part, on nonviolent tactics, Iran may ‎provide us with a desperately needed model of humane governance for a third-world country.”‎

Falk should have been discredited academically and politically ‎decades ago. Alas, people of his ilk, who purport to care about the issue of human rights while siding ‎with and apologizing for its greatest abusers, are not only immune to consequences, but are rewarded ‎with illustrious titles and lucrative positions. ‎

Haley concluded that Falk is “a man who has repeatedly made biased and deeply offensive comments about Israel and espoused ridiculous conspiracy theories.”

Perhaps because of Trump’s sanguine views about Israel, the false accusation was not rejected by only the U.S. The questionable report was also removed from the U.N. website. This rather surprising outcome took place thanks to the intervention of the U.N. secretary-general himself.

But that wasn’t the only result. Khalaf, who initially posted the ESCWA report, and who once served as an under-secretary-general to Guterres at the U.N., announced her resignation [5] at a “hastily arranged press conference” after Guterres demanded that the report be removed.

Khalaf explained,

The secretary-general asked me yesterday morning to withdraw [the report]. I asked him to rethink his decision. He insisted, so I submitted my resignation from the U.N.

We expected, of course, that Israel and its allies would put huge pressure on the secretary-general of the U.N. so that he would disavow the report, and that they would ask him to withdraw it.

Dujarric clarified that “the secretary-general cannot accept that an under-secretary-general or any other senior U.N. official that reports to him would authorize the publication under the U.N. name – under the U.N. logo – without consulting the competent departments and even himself.”

So ended – and with a far better conclusion than might have been expected – the latest dishonest attempt to depict the Jewish State as a racist, discriminatory nation in which Arabs and/or Muslims are treated like second-class citizens: an apartheid state.

But of course the question remains whether this effort to disgrace the Jewish State will be the final challenge of its kind. We can only hope so.

However, just in case the libel reemerges, perhaps it is worth revisiting a couple of lessons I learned about the apartheid accusations when I was seeking answers of my own about it. Following is an (adapted) passage from my book Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner.

 

 

I was about to have brunch with a friend at Jerusalem’s Mamilla Mall; we were waiting to be seated on a terrace where tables overlooking the Old City were in great demand. All at once, the spot we had our eye on was snapped up by two chic young Arab women. Their heads were covered in designer scarves and their well-fitted jeans and accessories were upscale. They were seated at table next to an “ultra-Orthodox” Jewish family in their own distinctive attire. And next to them was a table full of middle-aged American tourists in cargo shorts, souvenir t-shirts, and a clutter of cameras, GPS gadgets and fanny-packs.

I glanced around and saw that no one was paying attention to the Muslim women or to the many Arab shoppers passing by on their way to the shops. Nor did anyone stare at the ultra-Orthodox Jews – men in black hats or black yarmulkes, women in long skirts, wearing wigs or with scarves covering their hair.

In Jerusalem, like nowhere else, you can figure out what people believe in by the way they dress. But no one around us seemed to notice or care what anyone else was wearing – or believing. For obvious reasons, Jimmy Carter’s pejorative phrase for Israel, the “Apartheid State,” flashed into my mind.

It so happened that on that same night I was scheduled to have dinner with my South African friends Malcolm and Cheryl Hedding, their daughter Charmaine and her son Ethan. It had been a few years since my Jerusalem Post interview with Malcolm [6] – about apartheid – had been published. I reminded him of it, and then described the scene at Mamilla. “So could that have happened in South Africa during the apartheid years?” I asked him.

“No way,” he laughed. “Everything was separate. The blacks had separate toilets. Separate drinking fountains. Separate benches. In some places there was a curfew so they had to get out of sight and leave the town to the whites after sundown. It was like the American Deep South used to be.”

“So could blacks eat in the same restaurant as whites?”

“Never! When we traveled with a black man who was part of our church, one of us had to go inside the restaurant and order take-out food so we could all eat together in the car. Otherwise he would have to eat alone.”

On the way home, I suddenly remembered another vignette from Mamilla. I had rushed into the Mac cosmetic store to make a quick purchase before leaving. I was in a hurry and there was only one clerk—a pretty Jerusalem girl wearing rather dramatic makeup. She was assisting two fashion-forward Arab women in silk headscarves, stylish trousers and well-tailored jackets. The three were having an animated discussion—in English—about eye shadow and eyeliner colors. The only disagreement between them had to do with hues: Teal or olive green? Luminescent or matte? There was no way I was going to be waited on anytime soon. The clerk was trying out a new spring palette on one of them, testing the colors on her hands as she applied them. The three of them were chattering non-stop.

As I left, I encountered a group of African pilgrims whose identical yellow caps told me they were from Nigeria. They burst into a Gospel song as they made their way to the Jaffa gate. People smiled and took their picture.

An art display of Bible-story sculptures graced the plaza. Cell phones rang, horns honked on the nearby street, and people of every age and description laughed and talked and celebrated the glorious weather.

And so it was that Spring arrived in the charming and controversial city of Jerusalem, eternal capital of the land of Israel.

Then as now, there are those choose to produce and propagate Fake News about the place, stubbornly refusing to seek out and discover the facts of the matter.

Meanwhile, the rest of us who love Israel and her Jewish people will continue to applaud their courage. To admire their innate goodness and authenticity. And to honor their deep commitment to Truth.