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Jewish Journal

Note to boycotters: Israel is not a thief

by David Suissa

July 3, 2012 | 3:26 pm

Alice Walker in 2007. Photo by Virginia DeBolt

Alice Walker in 2007. Photo by Virginia DeBolt

There is an obvious way to respond to author Alice Walker’s refusal to allow her novel “The Color Purple” to be translated into Hebrew. In case you missed it, Walker accused Israel of being “guilty of apartheid and persecution of the Palestinian people, both inside Israel and also in the Occupied Territories.”

The obvious response is to refute her charges, as many writers have done.

As Daniel Gordis wrote in JPost: “Walker writes as though the Palestinians are identical to the blacks of South Africa; they suffer only because of the color of their skin (or their ethnicity, in this case), not because of anything they have done. She writes as though Israel is the only obstacle to their ‘freedom,’ as though Israel is, as a matter of policy, committed to perpetuating their second-class status without end. But no reasonable reading of the Middle East justifies any such claim.”

Gordis adds: “[Walker] even makes a point of saying that Israel is guilty of apartheid inside the Green Line as well. But name a single country in which some minorities do not get the short end of the stick. Is every country on the planet therefore guilty of apartheid? And if so, why boycott only Israel? It can’t be because of Israel’s social policies, which are far better than those of many other countries that Walker is not boycotting.”

I agree with everything Gordis said, but I also think he didn’t go far enough.

Here’s my theory: As long as the world believes that Israel is an “illegal occupier,” nothing we do or say will make much difference. The haters and boycotters of Israel will keep exploiting that perception. The stench of the illegal occupation will continue to undermine the good that Israel does, inside or outside Israel.

In other words, the strongest case Israel can make against boycotters is to show, once and for all, that it is not a thief.

Israel’s historic mistake has been to unwittingly reinforce, in its search for peace, the dubious and dangerous narrative that it is returning stolen land.

When Israel made its peace offers, it never said: “We believe that, according to international law, Israel has a legitimate claim to Judea and Samaria. But for the sake of peace, we’re willing to give up most of that land.”

By focusing on security and failing to make this legal claim, Israel allowed the illegal narrative to take hold — and the haters and boycotters went on to have a field day.

As if that weren’t bad enough, Israel’s land concessions were perceived as worthless. Since the Palestinians believed that all the land already belonged to them, and no one ever disabused them of that notion, what was there to negotiate?

The sad part is that Israel could have made a strong case that the territories are not, in fact, stolen land. At the very least, they had enough evidence to argue that the land is “disputed” rather than “occupied.” For example:

Jeffrey S. Helmreich, author and writer for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs: “The settlements are not located in ‘occupied territory.’ The last binding international legal instrument which divided the territory in the region of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza was the League of Nations Mandate, which explicitly recognized the right of Jewish settlement in all territory allocated to the Jewish national home in the context of the British Mandate. These rights under the British mandate were preserved by the successor organization to the League of Nations, the United Nations, under Article 80 of the U.N. Charter.”

Stephen M. Schwebel, professor of International Law at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (Washington), and President of the International Court of Justice from 1997 to 2000: “Where the prior holder of territory [Jordan] had seized that territory unlawfully, the state which subsequently takes that territory in the lawful exercise of self-defense [Israel] has, against that prior holder, better title.”

Eugene W. Rostow, former U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs and Distinguished Fellow at the U.S. Institute for Peace: “The Jewish right of settlement in the West Bank is conferred by the same provisions of the Mandate under which Jews settled in Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem before the state of Israel was created. … The Jewish right of settlement in Palestine west of the Jordan River, that is, in Israel, the West Bank, Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, was made unassailable. That right has never been terminated. …”

There are plenty of books and essays that elaborate on the above. But the point here is not to defend the wisdom of the occupation; you can believe that the occupation is the dumbest move Israel ever made and still believe there is value in making a legal claim to the land. In fact, maybe the occupation will end only after Israel regains its moral standing by showing it is not occupying stolen land.

A thief is never credible. Israel needs to face the monster head-on and begin an all-out campaign defending its legitimate claims to Judea and Samaria. It’s the most powerful way to counter the boycotters.

There will always be haters of Israel, but we don’t have to make it easier for them. Before Israel can make peace, it needs to reclaim a piece of the truth.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

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