This article was posted in the National Post, February 14, 2008.
Last week, various Canadian university campuses hosted events connected to Israeli Apartheid Week. This annual international phenomenon, which began in 2005, serves as an opportunity for those who demonize Israel to spew hatred. As the name suggests, a major theme is that Israel is the Middle East equivalent of South Africa's infamous apartheid regime.
This comparison betrays an acute ignorance -- both of the meaning of the word "apartheid" and of the nature of the State of Israel.
Apartheid is the state-sanctioned and -generated degradation of one or more ethnic groups, based on an assumption of racial inferiority. Such a system relies for its implementation on segregation, denationalization and the denial of basic rights. How anyone could seriously equate Israel with such a system defies logic.
Israel is a liberal democracy, guaranteeing civil, religious and social equality to all its citizens -- including Jews, Christians, Muslims, Druze and Baha'0is. Israel's Arab citizens have the right to vote, and are represented by three Arab political parties in Israel's parliament (the Knesset), representing a gamut of views from communism to Islamic fundamentalism. Several newspapers freely represent the views of Arab citizens in a far freer manner than is permitted among the media of Israel's neighbours.
Complete freedom of religion for all is strictly protected in Israel -- unlike in neighbouring countries, which recognize only one state religion, Islam, and even criminalize and persecute the practice of other faiths. Consider, for instance, Saudi Arabia, whose police recently arrested 40 Christians for the "crime" of praying in a private house. Followers of the Baha'is religion, who are persecuted in Iran, are welcomed in Israel, and maintain their central religious institutions in Haifa and Acre. Coptic Christians, who face restrictions in neighbouring Arab countries, enjoy freedom of religion in Israel.
In Israel, every citizen and resident has the freedom to petition Israel's Supreme Court on any suspicion of a violation of basic rights by any governmental or official body. Arabic is an official language, together with Hebrew. All legislation, jurisprudence and official documentation appear in Arabic. Road signs are in Hebrew and Arabic. Films are subtitled in Arabic, Hebrew and Russian. There is an Arab member of the Israeli cabinet and an Arab judge on the bench of the Supreme Court. Senior officers of the Israeli army are both Arab and Druze, including at the rank of General. Arab soccer teams figure highly in Israel's soccer league, and Arab soccer players are part of Israeli soccer teams.
Does any of this sound like "apartheid"?
One third of the staff of Israel's Hadassah Hospital--one of the most prestigious and advanced hospitals in the entire Middle East, are Arab. Arabs have complete and equal access to all Israeli universities. Haifa University, for example, is 20% Arab.
The Israeli legal system attributes equal status to Muslim shariah law, Christian cannon law, Druze law and Jewish talmudic law for all personal issues such as marriage, divorce and adoption, and religious courts of all faiths explicitly constitute a part of Israel's legal system. Israeli courts strictly enforce equality among all citizens -- Arab and Jew alike -- in the purchase and allocation of land.
Regrettably, the freedoms enjoyed by Israel's Arabs are unknown to Jews in some Arab countries, who are prevented by law from owning property, and frequently suffer persecution. In many Arab nations, Jews cannot even become citizens.
Gays and lesbians, hounded in Arab countries and openly persecuted in Iran, are given protection in Israel's open society. In Israel, women of all religions are not forced to hide behind veils, or face any other religious or social limitation. They comport themselves as they wish.
In Israel, heads or other body parts are not chopped off as criminal punishment. Government-incited religious gangs do not run amok burning buildings and vehicles. In Israel's schools and universities, suicide terrorists are not glorified by posters on the walls. Israel's hit-parade figures genuine pop songs -- not songs calling for jihad and murder.
So how, in all fairness and honesty, can any spectator equate Israel with "apartheid"?
Alan Baker is the Israeli ambassador to Canada.