Posted on: January 11, 2010 Posted by: Mitchell Plitnick Comments: 0

I intend to write a good deal more about the important ideas Henry Siegman put forth in his article in the Nation this week. But there’s an important aspect to my thoughts on the piece that I felt needed a separate reading.

Siegman decided to bluntly call Israel “the only apartheid regime in the Western world.” I’m no longer interested in discussing whether the label is appropriate or not. The overriding point is how much the word diverts attention from much more important, and much less academic, discussions about the situation on the ground.

Henry Siegman

For a broader overview of the question and why the whole thing is a big distraction, I’ll refer you to a colleague’s piece here.

But the point today is that Siegman’s decision to make this statement was bound to cause controversy, and he knew it. OK, maybe that’s what he wanted. But did he really want that statement to become the focus of his article?

As I’ll expand on in my upcoming piece on this, Siegman’s article contains some very important ideas and analysis. But the Jewish Telegraphic Agency report on Siegman’s piece focuses entirely on the apartheid point, which amounted to one sentence in Siegman’s article.

It’s not only the mainstream Jewish media that bore in on this point; the tweets from left-wing bloggers and activists also focused overwhelmingly on the statement.

This is the problem. The question of whether the apartheid label fits on Israel is not as important as the realities on the ground that raise the question in the first place. And the apartheid debate is dwarfed in importance even more by crucial questions of what to do about it.

Jimmy Carter’s apology for greatly expanding the use of this terminology was widely seen as self-serving. Maybe it was. But the debate itself makes it more difficult for American Jews, Israelis and those who are neither but are more interested in peace than in the nationalism of one side or the other in this conflict to bring the realities on the ground onto the center stage of political discourse.

The term is a distraction. Whether or not to label policies that insert illegal settlements populated by Israeli citizens in the midst of an occupied people with no guaranteed rights and hold 1.5 million people under a strangling siege as apartheid matters not one whit. The policies and the conditions remain the same.

At one time, it might perhaps have been reasonable to think that this term would help shed light on the realities. It has proven not to be so. It’s time to let go of this phrase which is now a powerful tool in the hands of those who would deny the realities of occupation and Israeli excesses.