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Stop Cheapening Important Historical Terms

Just as Anti-Vaxxers are not “Refuseniks,” Palestinians are not experiencing either “apartheid” or “genocide.”

Micha Danzig served in the Israeli Army and is a former police officer with the NYPD. He is currently an attorney and is very active with numerous Jewish and pro-Israel organizations, including Stand With Us and the FIDF, and is a national board member of Herut North America.

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Micha Danzig
Micha Danzig served in the Israeli Army and is a former police officer with the NYPD. He is currently an attorney and is very active with numerous Jewish and pro-Israel organizations, including Stand With Us and the FIDF, and is a national board member of Herut North America.

Recently, heroic human rights activist Natan Sharansky, who spent over nine years in Soviet prisons as part of his very personal and also very public fight for Jewish freedom in the Soviet Union, commented on how the use of the term “Refusenik” to describe people who refuse to get vaccinated against COVID-19 “cheapens” the term.

Sharansky (who coined the “3-D” test for determining when criticism of Israel is actually antisemitic”) described how the term “Refusenik” came to be: “Half a century ago, a modest Russian language teacher from London, Michael Sherbourne, started making regular phone calls to Jewish activists in Moscow. He coined the term to describe the people who were refused to get visas to leave for Israel.” Sharansky added that the term “became the symbol of people refusing to accept the rules of the totalitarian regime … It was the term that became the code word for the biggest mobilization of the Jewish people and freedom-loving people from all over the world in order to bring down the Iron Curtain.”

Sharansky then went on to say that using the term “Refusenik” to describe anything other than those who stood up to and suffered imprisonment and worse at the hands of the Soviet tyrants and apparatchik cheapens the term.

Sharansky’s concern regarding the misuse of the term “Refuseniks” brings to mind the frequent misuse by Israel-haters, particularly on social media, of terms like “apartheid” or “genocide” in order to attack Israel and to justify (as Sharansky described) their weaponization of the 3-Ds (demonization, delegitimization and double standards) against Israel.

“Apartheid” is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “a former policy of segregation and political, social, and economic discrimination against the nonwhite majority in the Republic of South Africa.” The Merriam-Webster Dictionary adds the following note to its definition: “The extreme racial segregation of apartheid lasted from 1948 to 1994 and included such restrictions as where people of certain races could live or own land, what jobs they could hold, and who could and couldn’t participate in government.”

Apartheid, which in the Dutch creole Afrikaans language means “apartness,” was a brutal system of government created by European colonialists (largely Dutch and English) who had no historical, religious or indigenous connection to the land they ruled, via their system of denying anyone deemed “Black or colored” the right to vote and numerous other rights.

In Apartheid South Africa, any non-white person could not: vote, participate in government, become members of the parliament or supreme court, become officers in the army or police,  go to beaches, malls or hospitals, or even sit on the same park bench as a “white” person.

No such restrictions or government-mandated segregation exist in Israel where Arabs, Jews, Druze, Circassians and others regularly visit the same beaches, busses, malls, stores, hospitals, etc. In Israel, all citizens, regardless of color, ethnicity or faith, have the same civil rights, vote in Israel’s elections, and serve in all aspects of government, including in Israel’s parliament (the Knesset) and on its Supreme Court.

In Israel, an Arab judge, George Karra, an Israeli Supreme Court justice, sentenced the Jewish former president of the country to nine years in prison. In Israel, numerous Arabs and Druze serve as high ranking officers in Israel’s military and in its various police and security services. And in Israel, the Chair of the Board of the country’s largest bank (Leumi) is an Arab. Can anyone imagine any of these things occurring under the brutal government-mandated segregation called “apartheid” in South Africa?

Of course not. Given the clear inapplicability of the actual definition of “apartheid” to life and law in Israel, the Israel-haters simply change the definition of the term to fit their deceptive narrative.

When those who label Israel an “apartheid state” are confronted with the inaccuracies of their charge by those noting that no citizens in Israel are treated differently based on their race, faith or ethnicity, they quickly switch gears and defend their inapt use of this inflammatory trigger word by claiming they are not referring to how Israel treats its own citizens, but by how it treats Arabs who are not Israeli citizens, those who are under the jurisdiction of either the Palestinian Authority or Hamas.

A distinction between how countries treat citizens and non-citizens is not “apartheid.” All countries treat citizens and non-citizens differently, and all countries offer to their citizens certain rights and benefits they don’t offer to non-citizens. But those who hate Israel never seem to be concerned by these facts, or by how the way they dramatically alter the basic definition of “apartheid” both cheapens the term and diminishes the suffering endured by Black people in Apartheid South Africa.

A distinction between how countries treat citizens and non-citizens is not “apartheid.” All countries treat citizens and non-citizens differently, and all countries offer to their citizens certain rights and benefits they don’t offer to non-citizens.

Instead, to defend their characterization of Israel as an apartheid state, they make false claims including the statement that Israel has separate roads and license plates for Arabs and Jews. The truth is that for necessary security reasons, in some parts of the disputed territories Israel has separate roads for citizens and non-citizens. And it has different colored license plates for those who are Israeli citizens (again, regardless of ethnicity or faith) and for those who are not citizens and live under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority or Hamas. None of this equates to the race-based rules and distinctions that were imposed on all citizens of South Africa under apartheid.

When it comes to “genocide,” the Israel-haters take the misuse and cheapening of an important historical term to another level.

“Genocide” is a term “used to describe violence against members of a national, ethnic, racial or religious group with the intent to destroy the entire group.” It describes “acts committed with intent to destroy” a national, religious, or ethnic group. The first use of the term “genocide” was in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish lawyer who fled Nazi occupied Poland in 1941. As a boy, Lemkin was greatly disturbed by the Turkish mass-murder of Armenians during WWI; and in 1944 he was searching for a term to describe the Nazi crimes against the Jewish people, and he came up with “genocide” by combining genos, the Greek word for race or tribe, with the Latin suffix cide (“to kill”).

Given that the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism includes: “[d]rawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis” and “[d]enying the fact, scope, mechanisms (e.g. gas chambers) or intentionality of the genocide of the Jewish people at the hands of National Socialist Germany and its supporters and accomplices during World War II (the Holocaust),” it is not particularly surprising that Israel-haters would try to do both of the foregoing by deploying the term “genocide” to describe Israel’s actions toward Palestinians.

But if using the term “Refuseniks” to describe COVID-19 anti-vaxxers cheapens the history of actual Refuseniks, then what is the effect of describing as “genocide” a conflict that in nearly 100 years has resulted in around 25,000 Israeli and 17,000 Palestinian casualties?

In the genocide that first horrified Lemkin, the Ottoman Empire killed approximately 1,000,000 Armenians in barely 1.5 years. In the genocide from which Lemkin escaped in 1941, the Germans killed over 6,000,000 Jews in barely four years. And in the last genocide of the 20th century, in Rwanda, the Hutu majority killed over 800,000 Tutsi in less than four months.

These are genocides. Approximately 17,000 people killed in various armed conflicts over the course of nearly 100 years is not a genocide. In the case of the Holocaust, the worldwide Jewish population before 1939 and the beginning of WWII was 16.6 million. By the end of WWII, over one third of the world’s Jews were dead. And today, nearly 80 years after the Holocaust, the worldwide Jewish population is still well below its pre-WWII numbers at 15.2 million.

This stands in sharp contrast to the Palestinian population. At the end of WWII, and three years before the Palestinians’ leadership rejected peace and partition and chose instead to join forces with the entire Arab League in a disastrous attempt to destroy Israel (a war that killed 1% of Israel’s population, the equivalent of 3.3 million Americans), the Palestinian Arab population was barely 1 million. Today, according to the Palestinian Authority itself, there are over 11 million Palestinians worldwide, and well over four million living under the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. This is not a genocide. It is a war that has sadly lasted nearly 100 years, and while every loss of life in war is tragic, not every loss of life in war is part of a genocide. If it was, then the term would lose all meaning, and it would certainly lose the meaning intended by Lemkin: to mark particularly heinous crimes against humanity like those perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire and the Nazis.

Those who hate Israel abuse, misuse and cheapen terms like “apartheid” and “genocide” (and many others, like “ethnic cleansing” and “occupied territories,” which would require more room than there is in one essay to discuss) for two reasons. The first reason is clarified by Sharansky’s 3-Ds.

If one associates the one Jewish state with two of the great evils of “apartheid” and “genocide,” then the demonization and delegitimization of Israel are not far behind. And if one can get people to believe that a state with equal civil rights for all citizens, regardless of color or ethnicity, is practicing “apartheid” and/or that a population growth of ten times in under 80 years is “genocide,” then the effort to get people to apply a double or different standard to the one Jewish state has plainly succeeded.

If one associates the one Jewish state with two of the great evils of “apartheid” and “genocide,” then the demonization and delegitimization of Israel are not far behind.

In Sharansky’s lament regarding the misuse and commoditization of the term “Refusenik,” Sharansky expressed concern not only with how the term is being cheapened, but also with the loss of any sense of proportion.

Those who hate Israel want this loss of proportion. They want the world to focus unique and oversized attention on the one Jewish state. If the world were to focus attention to those most in need of it (such as the Uyghurs, the Rohingya, the starving in Yemen, the victims of slave trade in Africa, the displaced from war in Syria, the refugees in South Sudan, etc.), then the Palestinian Arab leadership—which has declined every peace/partition offer since 1937—could no longer count on the outsized focus of the world on Israel, and also keep pinning their misguided hope on the idea that one day the world will help them destroy Israel without them having to make any compromises for peace.

This is what makes this misuse and cheapening of terms like “apartheid” and “genocide” so disturbing. It trivializes the horrors experienced by those who suffered under apartheid and genocide and minimizes the evil of their perpetrators. It also further emboldens the continued rejectionism of the Palestinian leadership, a rejectionism that has prevented peace in the Levant between Palestinians and Jews for nearly 100 years.

When good people make it clear that this misuse and cheapening of such important and historical terms is unacceptable, and is itself a form of antisemitism, then peace among Palestinians and Jews will become far more likely. May that day arrive soon. Be”H.


Micha Danzig served in the Israeli Army and is a former police officer with the NYPD. He is currently an attorney and is very active with numerous Jewish and pro-Israel organizations, including Stand With Us and the FIDF, and is a national board member of Herut North America.

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