Fear of Being Accused of anti-Semitism
Editorial -- Hartford Courant

Most Americans don't think twice about disagreeing, sometimes vehemently, with their government's policies. Objecting to President Bush's domestic or international agenda does not make one an America hater.

Yet when it comes to Israel, criticizing its government's action frequently leads to ugly charges of anti-Semitism. This quickly shuts off - or discourages from starting - a debate on a key foreign policy issue that any democratic society should find healthy.

Those who maintain that the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is wrong do not deserve to be tarred as haters of Israel. All those who support the Palestinian cause are not automatically anti-Semites. Neither are all who believe that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon should be charged with war crimes.

The critics may be wrong, but that does not make them crazy or bigoted. Indeed, there are more than a few Israelis who dislike Mr. Sharon's policy, who believe that the occupation of Palestinian territories is immoral and that the denial of self-determination and compensation for a stateless people ensures only continuing bloodshed.

Nowhere is the debate over the Arab-Israeli conflict more rambunctious than in Israel itself. Yet Israelis who disagree with each other, often passionately, do not hurl charges of anti-Semitism or "self-hating Jews."

But that is not the case in the United States. Here, the subject of Israel is sacrosanct. Regardless of what Mr. Sharon's government does in its treatment of Palestinians, the tendency here in too many quarters is to justify its actions.

If you are in public life in the United States and express a politically incorrect belief regarding the Palestinians or Israel, you'd better brace for the backlash. You'd better be prepared to be lumped with those who hold venal, crackpot racist theories regarding Jews as a people.

Yet those quick to brand others as anti-Semites become indignant when they are reminded that Mr. Sharon and his right-wing cohorts are demonizing and dehumanizing Palestinians in particular and all Arabs in general.

South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for defying white racists in his country, said after a trip to the Holy Land that he was distressed to witness Israel's humiliating treatment of Palestinians. It reminded him "so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa."

In a speech last month in Boston, Bishop Tutu noted that "somehow, the Israeli government is placed on a pedestal [in the United States], and to criticize it is to be immediately dubbed anti-Semitic, as if the Palestinians were not Semitic."

Few American leaders dare to speak their mind in such fashion, even if they believe that Bishop Tutu makes a valid point. That is unfortunate, because Americans should be no less engaged in vibrant debate over the Arab-Israeli issue than the Israelis themselves are. After all, the United States provides Israel with considerable financial, military and diplomatic support and would be called on to defend that country with troops if necessary if its existence were in jeopardy.

If the United States is to effectively play the role of honest broker, it will have to bring Mr. Sharon down from the pedestal and stop treating Palestinians as perennially at fault. President Bush will have to respond more effectively when Mr. Sharon ignores his calls to pull Israeli forces out of occupied territories.

Supporting the Sharon government whether it's right or wrong does not serve Israel well. Yet that is something our lawmakers in Washington seemed oblivious about. Last week, they passed a one-sided resolution declaring unquestioned fealty to Israel and denouncing Palestinians. Connecticut's congressional delegation marched in lockstep, with Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman acting as lead drummer.

Such a resolution certainly does not enhance U.S. credibility as an honest broker.

Bishop Tutu's observation is worth heeding. "If our madness [in South Africa] could end as it did, it must be possible to do the same everywhere else in the world. If peace could come to South Africa, surely it can come to the Holy Land."

Yes, it can. That day will arrive sooner if we learn to talk, write and legislate on the Israeli-Palestinian issue without fear of being accused of harboring anti-Semitic ideas.

May 5, 2002

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