When My Daughter Called Israel an Apartheid State, I Objected. Now, I’m Not So Sure

In the shadow of annexation, the embodiment of power prevailing over justice and international law, I am running out of counter-arguments. This is how Israel is losing America

Please look closely at America, Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Look at its cities and towns, whose streets are flooding with protesters calling for transformative justice and an end to state-sanctioned violence against innocent civilians.

Look at New York’s 16th Congressional District, where Eliot Engel, a staunch congressional Israeli ally for more than 30 years, was recently ousted by Jamaal Bowman, a progressive black educator who told Jacobin magazine he doesn’t “understand why American taxpayers are subsidizing the detention of Palestinian children while Democrats are criticizing child detention at the Mexican border.”

Look, and you’ll realize that more than 50 years of Israeli control of Palestinian life in the West Bank and Gaza and the expansion of Jewish settlements are steadily eroding America’s historic embrace of Israel.

As an American Jew, the son of a Holocaust survivor, and a firm believer in the right of self-determination of both Israelis and Palestinians, I know. I know, in part, from the many long conversations I’ve had about Israel with my daughter, a recent Harvard graduate who studies human rights.

Last April, Harvard’s Palestine Solidarity Committee organized “Israeli Apartheid Week,” hosting a series of events and lectures that highlighted the injustice and violence associated with Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. I spent most of our Facetime call that week arguing with my daughter as she defended the title choice, drew comparisons between apartheid South Africa and contemporary Palestine, and lamented that some Jewish students seemed more concerned with protecting Israel’s reputation than Palestinian lives.

I pushed back. I told her that this comparison was messy and historically inaccurate, that 20 percent of Israeli citizens are Arab Palestinians who, notwithstanding undeniable discrimination, possess full access to civil and political rights. I explained that the occupation was of course deeply problematic but was ultimately an interim measure, not a reflection of one people’s belief that it was entitled to permanently dominate another. I told her that the Palestinian Authority’s misgoverning of the West Bank was responsible for more abuse and injustice than she realized.

I told her that perhaps if Israel annexed the West Bank, turning this purportedly temporary state of affairs into a permanent system of inequality before the law, we could talk about apartheid — but this, I was confident, would never happen

But as the impossible becomes probable, I am running out of arguments. You are taking an enormous gamble, Mr. Prime Minister, trusting that the United States’ long-standing support for Israel will hold fast as Israel defies international law and declares — as annexation does — that it seeks permanently to dominate and control the lives of Palestinians. But your confidence reflects a deep misunderstanding of where the American polity is going and who it views as partners in the fight against discrimination and inequality.

For decades, a bipartisan consensus has embraced Israel as a beacon of democracy, a champion of human rights, and the United States’ most important ally in the Middle East. This partnership has been crucial to Israel’s security and existence.

From President Truman’s recognition of Israel in 1948 to President Nixon’s emergency airlift of military equipment during the pivotal days of the 1973 Yom Kippur War to the ongoing financial, military, and political support the U.S. provides Israel, the notion that Americans — Democrats and Republicans, young and old — would unwaveringly stand by Israel’s side has been a first principle of American politics.

But this commitment, like so much else, is being destabilized by the groundswell of progressivism that is shaking up American politics. Israel is viewed less and less as a vulnerable land surrounded by a sea of enemies committed to its destruction, and more as a neighborhood bully that has for over 50 years denied the Palestinian people the very thing Jews yearned for since the destruction of the Second Temple — their own homeland.

Support for Israel is dwindling among my daughter’s generation. In a 2019 Gallup poll, only 17 percent of Americans between age 18-34 — compared to 36 percent of those over 55 — expressed a “very favorable” view of Israel. More than a third of Americans under the age of 35 said they view Israel unfavorably. The situation is particularly pronounced among Democrats, especially young ones. Only 13 percent of Democrats today have a very favorable view of Israel, compared with 43 percent of Republicans.

The narratives that might rationalize taking another’s land by force – that the territory is not really “occupied,” that Israel’s sins are petty compared to those of its neighbors, that there is no Palestinian partner for peace, and so on — are Israeli stories, not American ones. To my daughter’s skeptical generation, annexation represents yet another instance of power prevailing over justice. And I will have no answer.

Annexation will not mark the beginning of Israel’s fall from grace in progressive America — for young Americans, it will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. America and Israel are two countries at a crossroads — proceed with annexation, Mr. Prime Minister, and it will be clear who lost America.