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Saying Israel is guilty of apartheid isn't antisemitic. Just ask these Israeli leaders.

An open letter from four Jewish Democrats really misses the mark.
Photo collage: David Ben Gurion, Ehud Barak, Israel Ehud Olmert
Are these former Israeli leaders also "antisemites" for warning about apartheid?MSNBC; Getty Images

Here are two statements that can be true at the same time: Most criticism of Israel isn’t antisemitic; Some criticism of Israel is extremely antisemitic.

Neither one contradicts the other. But you might not know it from some of the recent coverage of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Last week, Pakistan's foreign minister invoked long-standing tropes about Jewish power and influence by referring to Israel’s “deep pockets” and “control” of the media in an interview with CNN that went viral. I am all for criticizing examples of media bias and double standards but these were undeniably “antisemitic slurs,” which is exactly what I tweeted after watching the minister’s comments. Pro-Pakistani government trolls on Twitter then spent several days and hundreds of tweets condemning me as a “sellout” and a “Zionist apologist,” among other choice labels.

I wonder if any of those trolls saw my Peacock show earlier this week. I hosted a discussion about apartheid and war crimes in Israel and the occupied territories with representatives from two prominent human rights groups, B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch. Both well-respected groups accused Israel of the crime of apartheid for the first time this year.

On Wednesday, however, four Jewish House Democrats penned an open letter in which they claimed that statements accusing Israel of apartheid “are antisemitic at their core and contribute to a climate that is hostile to many Jews.” Though their names weren’t included, it was a clear rebuke of statements from Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and other progressive members of their caucus in recent weeks.

In response, I would ask the four drafters of the letter if I am now antisemitic for agreeing with Human Rights Watch’s 213-page report detailing how “deprivations” of Palestinian rights by Israel are now “so severe that they amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution?” Is my award-winning MSNBC colleague Ali Velshi, who recently said — and wrote — that “the idea that it’s even remotely controversial to call what Israel has imposed on Palestinians a form of apartheid is laughable,” an antisemite as well? (Ali, incidentally, is the child of brown South African parents who left that country because of, wait for it, apartheid.)

Is B’Tselem, an acclaimed Israeli human rights organization staffed by Jewish Israelis, antisemitic for accusing Israel of creating an “apartheid regime?” How about Yesh Din, another Israeli human rights organization staffed by Jewish Israelis? The group issued a legal opinion concluding that “the crime against humanity of apartheid is being committed in the West Bank.”

You can, of course, agree or disagree, in good faith, with the claim that Israel is guilty of the crime of apartheid. But it’s not antisemetic; apartheid is not an insult or a trope; it is a “crime against humanity” clearly defined under international law “as inhumane acts … committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.”

It wasn’t anti-Christian to condemn South Africa for apartheid policies and practices in the 1980s; it isn’t anti-Jewish to condemn Israel for what many believe to be apartheid policies and practices today.

The letter from these Democratic lawmakers is yet another example of the way in which the charge of antisemitism — a serious and growing problem here in the United States — is often used and abused by defenders of Israel to protect the world’s only Jewish state from any and all criticism. Perhaps above all else, Wednesday’s open letter is also a reminder of how pro-Israeli politicians in the United States, in their zeal to denounce and discredit their rivals, pay little attention to the rhetoric or actions of actual Israeli politicians in Israel.

If statements connecting Israel to apartheid are “antisemitic at their core,” how then do the letter’s signatories explain the fact that some of the Jewish state’s most senior and prominent politicians have also invoked the threat, or even the reality, of apartheid in Israel and the occupied territories?

Here are 10 of them, including four men who served as prime minister of Israel:


“Israel … better rid itself of the territories and their Arab population as soon as possible. If it did not, Israel would soon become an apartheid state.” - a quote attributed to former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion by Israeli journalist Hirsh Goodman, after the Six-Day War in 1967.


“I don’t think it’s possible to contain over the long term, if we don’t want to get to apartheid, a million and a half [more] Arabs inside a Jewish state” - former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin during a TV interview in 1976.


"If this bloc of millions of ­Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state." - remarks at the Herzliya security conference in 2010 from former Prime Minister Ehud Barak.


"If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights, then, as soon as that happens, the state of Israel is finished.” - former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in 2010


“We established an apartheid regime in the occupied territories” - op-ed for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in 2002 from former Israeli Attorney General Michael Ben-Yair.


“What acts like apartheid, is run like apartheid and harasses like apartheid, is not a duck — it is apartheid” - op-ed from former Israeli Environment Minister Yossi Sarid for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in 2008.


“The state of Israel practices its own, quite violent, form of apartheid with the native Palestinian population.” - an op-ed by former Israeli Education Minister Shulamit Aloni for the Israeli news website Ynet in 2006.


“In the situation that exists today, until a Palestinian state is created, we are actually one state. This joint state … is an apartheid state.” - remarks by former Israeli Ambassador to South Africa Alon liel to a Jerusalem conference in 2013.


“The Supreme Court could have taken a braver decision and not relegated us to the level of an apartheid state.” - Zehava Galon, former chair of the Meretz party, in an interview with the Jerusalem Post in 2006.


“On the Palestinian matter, [Benjamin Netanyahu’s] policies are leading to either a binational state or an apartheid state.” - Meir Dagan, a former head of the Mossad spy agency, in a TV interview with Channel 2 in 2015.

Maybe the Democrats who penned that letter should write a follow-up, one explaining clearly how it is that Israel has, by their logic, been led for so much of its history by “antisemites.” I look forward to reading it.