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It's Israeli Apartheid Week -- Just Tell the Truth

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It's that time again. On campuses the world over, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement is mounting its eighth annual Israeli Apartheid Week.

In the past, this has been a time for hardline pro-Palestinians and hardline pro-Israelis to rumble, counter-accuse, hurl half-truths and, often as not, scrum to an ineffectual draw.

Not this year. This year there's something distinctly unfamiliar in the air. People have begun telling the truth about BDS.

The door was opened by author and lecturer Norman Finkelstein. Earlier this month, Finkelstein, one of Israel's harshest critics, rocked the BDS movement with a critique devastating in its candor.

Finkelstein said he loathed the movement's duplicity and disingenuousness in hiding the fact that a large part of its membership "wants to eliminate Israel."

"I support the BDS," Finkelstein said, but "it will never reach a broad public until and unless they're explicit in their goal. And their goal has to include the recognition of Israel, or it's a nonstarter."

Instead, he said, the movement insists that it's "agnostic" on whether or not Israel should exist. "No, you're not agnostic! You don't want it! Then just say it! But (BDS leaders) know full well, that if you say it, you don't have a prayer of reaching a broad public... And frankly, you know what, you shouldn't. You shouldn't reach a broad public, because you're dishonest."

Though BDS constantly claims successes, "it's a cult, where the guru says 'We have all these victories' and everyone nods their head," Finkelstein said. "People promote it as if it's proven itself and we're on the... verge of a victory of some sort. It's just sheer nonsense. It's a cult. And I, personally, I'm tired of it."

It's Israeli Apartheid Week. You can tell the truth. About BDS. And about Israel as well. It's not the robust and vibrant democracy that's hailed by the right, even as the right works to curb freedoms. It is a troubled democracy, a compromised democracy, under threat from within, under threat from its own government, eroded by war and internal strife and external threat and the human and moral costs of the religion of manifest destiny.

Not unlike the United States at age 64, a country pursuing the brutal occupation of a native population in order to protect ever-expanding settlements, a nation divided over the millions of people in its midst deprived of basic liberties and rights. A work in progress.

But like the United States, Israel is a work in progress which deserves a chance to find its way, to foster and deepen democracy. A work in progress which needs support for efforts at democracy, and recognition when it works.

It's Israeli Apartheid Week. You can tell the truth. There is something in the air here, something distinctly unfamiliar. Something good. A whiff of democracy. A dim horizon of light. The stirrings of hope. And all from the most unlikely of places.

This week alone, in an extraordinary expression of the power of nonviolence, a 66-day hunger strike by one jailed Palestinian forced Israelis, for the first time, to truly face and begin to debate the carefully hidden practice of administrative detention, imprisoning Palestinians without trial, criminal indictment or other due process.

This week, under threat of a possible High Court order, and with an international media spotlight on the case, officials struck a deal under which the prisoner, Khader Adnan, will be freed in April.

This was a week in which Israeli society as a whole began to reexamine itself. In the Prime Minister's Office, the unthinkable occurred: an untouchable, Netanyahu-bosom, backroom boss actually resigned in response to harassment allegations brought by colleagues. In Tel Aviv, the decades-old ban on public transportation on the Sabbath was overturned, in what may prove to be a step of more symbolism than substance -- but this in a country where symbols be more weighty by far than substance.

And, in a move that could have profound implications for Israeli democracy, the High Court quashed the law which exempts the ultra-Orthodox from universal military service. More significantly, the court ordered that a new law on the issue be everything that the satin-coated racketeers of theocratic blackmail have come to fear most: egalitarian, proportionate and consistent with the principles of the laws of a democracy.

It's Israel Apartheid Week 2012. Time for people who support Israel to tell the truth. Yes, the settlements are an obstacle to peace. Yes, the occupation, which exists to protect the settlements, is the opposite of democracy. Yes, the present government speaks of two states in theory alone.

In the democracy that was the United States in the year 1840, there were those who said that slavery was essential, irreversible, eternal, God's will. And that people of color and women of all races should not, and therefore would not, be granted the freedoms and rights of full citizenship, that the only good Native American was a dead one.

And, at the same time, there were those who believed that democracy and equality would become law, however dreadful and protracted the process might be, and they were right.

It is 2012. America's freedoms, its promises of opportunity and openness to immigrants and minorities are still under attack, still being tested. The answer is not to dismantle America, but to strengthen its freedoms.

All Americans deserve democracy and self-determination. So do both of the native peoples of the Holy Land, Palestinians and Israelis alike. This is not to say that either Palestinians or Israelis should have to wait decades or more for justice and freedom. This is to say that in this Holy Land there are people working on both sides, quietly, continually, toward that goal. Not freedom for one people at the expense of the other, but freedom and independence for both.

This is the lesson that BDS has yet to learn. And this is why BDS, and Israeli Apartheid Week, are failures.

Originally published on Haaretz.com