There is one important fundamental about truth: Genuine truth gives one the power to tolerate even the most heinous criticism. Tolerance of criticism is a sign of confidence. Intolerance is a symptom that what you believe may not really be true. So throw the toughest, harshest argument against what I believe, because I have faith in my own truth. Do you?
The Middle East is ripe with intolerant views that reflect the insecurity of people who refuse to see the truth. And the first truth assaulted is existence. By denying one's existence, it becomes easy to respond to provocations with violence. It's easy to kill something that doesn't exist. Easy to deny something that doesn't exist. And easy to explain to your own people when things don't go your way that it's their nonexistence that is the problem, rather than your own failure.
Palestinians and Israelis have been denying each others' existence for years.
The late prime minister Golda Meir declared: "There was no such thing as Palestinians." Israelis still argue that Palestinians don't exist.
Arabs do the same, insisting Israel does not exist. They refer to it as "the Zionist entity." Well, if Israel doesn't exist, how can it be an entity? Why are so many people afraid of something that doesn't exist? When denying existence doesn't work, people turn to denying the celebrations of existence.
Every year, Palestinians and Israelis mark May 14 in different ways. For Israelis, who mark Israel's creation using the Jewish calendar, it's a celebration. For Palestinians, the date is one of mourning.
Both sides take the reaction of the other as an offense rather than with understanding. Arabs see Israelis celebrating their victory in anger. Israelis watch as Palestinians commemorate their failure as a tragedy. So Jews are prohibited from celebrating Israel's existence in Arab countries, and Israel is moving to adopt laws prohibiting Palestinians from celebrating the nakba. When banning the words that address existence doesn't work, people turn to using words that hurt.
One word that hurts Jews is "apartheid." Many Jews refuse to even speak the word itself, referring to it as the A-word in much the same way that Americans revile the pejorative racist description of black people, as the N-word. The word apartheid has more power to hurt than its actual meaning, which is why Palestinians seem to have glommed on to it.
What is the word apartheid and why are we fighting over it?
The word apartheid surfaced in, of all years, 1948 as the name of a political party in South Africa that symbolized the official policy of segregating blacks from whites.
In the 1950s, '60s and '70s, apartheid evoked a sinister meaning and became a bludgeon the world used to strike down South Africa's separation of the races. South Africa's racist white regime fell and the man it had imprisoned for 25 years, Nelson Mandela, became the new South Africa's first black president.
I can understand how Israelis fear the word. It invokes the issue of separation -- a word Israelis have used to describe the wall. It plays to Arab claims that Israel is a racist country that discriminates against non-Jews.
It's first victim was Jimmy Carter, who while president ushered in the first peace accord between Israel and Egypt. He wrote a book that used the A-word in the title.
I think Carter is one of the most reputable people in the world. The most caring, genuine human being who ever became a leader. But like many Arabs, Carter exaggerated the problem by using the word. Carter tried to explain he wasn't talking about Israel, but about how Israel's occupation of the West Bank evoked images of apartheid.
Israelis and Jews around the world recoiled in anger and responded with punitive attacks against his character. Although Carter has backed down, the rejectionist Arabs have not.
Rejectionist and extremist Palestinians and their Arab allies have launched "apartheid week" to attack Israel. Although they are a minority they have built up a mirage of public support by exploiting the unanswered anger of the majority in the Arab world.
The word apartheid does not really apply accurately to the Palestinian-Israel conflict. The word occupation does. But the rejectionists no longer like the word occupation. Apartheid symbolizes the creation of one state, while occupation fuels the movement to create two.
In misusing the word apartheid, the rejectionists and their angry, blind followers are pushing toward reenacting the transformation of South Africa in Israel and Palestine.
Palestinians who support "apartheid week" do so either out of sinister hatred of Jews, or out of blind, unreasoning anger that simmers because they can't properly vent. The inability to release pent up anger empowers the rejectionist minority but stems from the failures of Palestinians and Arab leadership.
When Arabs couldn't defeat Israel, they turned toward demonization. And when demonization didn't work enough, they simply exaggerated the truth. Exaggeration is a common trait among Arabs and Israelis, too.
It's not easy for Israelis to deal with. Israelis also come in two categories, those who hate Arabs and those who are angry with Arabs but don't know how to deal with the issue of justice and compromise.
Most Israelis simply denounce anyone who uses the word apartheid as anti-Semitic -- another abused word used as a bludgeon for those who criticize Israel.
The word anti-Semitic is to Palestinians what apartheid is to Israelis.
I could ask Palestinians, won't it make the creation of a Palestinian state that much harder to achieve if they put all their bets on the word apartheid? I could ask Israelis, doesn't it show a weakness in your beliefs if you are so afraid of one simple word?
Maybe the answer is that both Palestinians and Israelis live in the dark shadows of one real truth -- that they have done terrible things to each other over the years.
What frightens me more than the violence that has wracked the region over the past century is when people start attacking the use of words.
Is it anti-Semitic to criticize Israel? No. Tolerance of criticism of Israel or Palestine is a sign of strength and hope.
Is it "apartheid week?" Or is it really "apartheid weak"? Rather than hold celebrations that fuel a hatred of Israel around an exaggerated word like apartheid, Palestinians should instead organize rallies and conferences that call for compromise based on peace and the creation of two states.
But Palestinians have to ask themselves the same question that Israelis must face: Do we release our anger against each other, or do we control it, and focus it on peace?
Peace and compromise are words I feel very comfortable to live with, even in a backdrop of anger.
(Named Best Ethnic Columnist in America by New America Media, the writer is a Palestinian-American columnist and peace activist. He can be reached atwww.YallaPeace.com)
(Originally published in the Jerusalem Post Wednesday March 20, 2010.)