The “Israel Apartheid Week” festival continues to excite students on campuses across Europe (forget those pesky events in Syria, Yemen, Egypt and Iran). But while Apartheid Week has come and gone for another year, the BDS campaign – Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions – plods relentlessly on. Why has the Jewish state, the only liberal democracy in the region, become the obsessive focus of vilification, demonisation and delegitimisation? Why is it considered so uniquely evil – a “racist, genocidal state,” in the words of one of the leading Israel Apartheid Week celebrants in London?
I know about Apartheid. I was born and raised in South Africa, exiled for my anti-Apartheid activism and lived in Israel for a decade. To describe Israel as an apartheid state, to accuse it of racism, to label it genocidal, is, quite literally, nonsense. I will not waste time rehearsing the arguments. In any case, nothing will dent the sacred dogma of the BDS faithful: Israel arouses irrational hatred not because of what it does but because of what it is.
When Apartheid Week rattles round, however, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on some of the very real racism that pervades the Middle East, a region suffused with hatreds – between families, clans and tribes, Sunni and Shi’ites, traditionalists and nationalists, religious and secular, between corrupt, despotic leaders and uneducated, unemployed masses. But the hatred that trumps all others, notwithstanding the Arab Spring, is antisemitism. Judging by the output of the Arabic-language media, Jews remain the source of all miseries that afflict the Arab world.
Virtually all the Jews were forced to leave the Arab world after Israel was established. Not so the Arab Christian minorities – the ancient tapestry of Copts and Chaldeans, Maronites and Melkites, Latin Rite Catholics and Protestants, Armenians, Syriac Orthodox, the Assyrian Church of the East and others. They have paid a high price for hanging on.
A century ago, Christian Arabs constituted 20% of the region’s population. Today, they represent about 5%, and falling. Take Iraq. When the Americans invaded in 2003, about 1.4 million Christian Arabs called Iraq their home. Since then, some 70 churches have been burned and about 1,000 Christians killed in Baghdad alone. Half of the community has fled, leading the Catholic Archbishop of Baghdad, the Rev. Jean Binyamin Sleiman, to lament: “I fear the extinction of Christianity in Iraq and the Middle East.”
If Iraq’s Christians are being “persuaded” to depart by those who bomb their churches and murder their priests, so, too, are Egypt’s Coptic Christians, who have lived in Egypt since the days of the Pharaohs, well before the 7th century arrival of Islam. Last year, some 200,000 Copts – who made up some 10% of Egypt’s 80-million population – fled their homes after being subjected to killings, beatings and church-burnings in both Alexandria and the Cairo district of Imbaba. The haemorrhage continues.
There are no such problems in the Gulf, of course, where Christians, mostly “guest workers”, have no chance of ever becoming citizens. The Saudis have gone one step further to preserve their ethnic purity: churches and Christian worship are simply outlawed (the small, isolated community of Syriacs are forced to live as “catacomb Christians” and worship in secret).
When I visited the then-Mayor of Bethlehem, Elias Freij, about 30 years ago, he happily boasted that about three-quarters of the population of his town, the birthplace of Christianity, was Christian. Today, after a reign of land theft, beatings and intimidation by newly arrived Islamic extremists, the figure is estimated to be 10% and falling. The ancient Christian population of Bethlehem, under pressure from the new Muslim majority, is quietly finding safer havens wherever émigrés are permitted entry.
Bethlehem is a microcosm of a phenomenon that is evident throughout the Palestinian territories. Against a drumbeat of harassment, which has included calls by Muslim extremists to slaughter their Christian neighbours, half of the Palestinian Christians of Gaza fled their homes after the 2007 Hamas putsch. In the West Bank, Christians, who once accounted for 15% of the population, are now down to less than 2%.
It should be noted that since Israel was established – the only state in the region to guarantee freedom of worship to all faiths and the only state, incidentally, to outlaw racism – the Arab Christian population has increased by an estimated 2,000%.
What baffles me is why Europe’s leaders are silent in the face of this apartheid-style oppression that persists in the Arab world? Why do they not speak out and demonstrate solidarity with their fellow Christians? At least part of the answer can be found in the habit of Europeans, in thrall to their colonial guilt no less than their need for oil, to infantilise Arab regimes. Arabs are not held accountable for their behaviour or responsible for their actions, particularly when it comes to human rights.
I once asked the Israel correspondent of the London Times why he devoted so much space to Israel’s misdeeds and so little to those of the Palestinians. His succinct response echoed that of many of his countrymen: “We expect more of Israel.”
That said it all. To hold Arabs to an inferior standard, in my nostrils, carries the unpleasant whiff of racism.