Apartheid road signs
Apartheid road signs

It just slips blithely off the tongue, doesn't it, hidden in a seemingly rational statement. Take the recent quote from William Byatt, treasurer of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party which runs as follows: “What I will NEVER do is pretend that honest criticism of Israeli apartheid policies is anti-Semitism…” 

It had been 18 years since my last visit there and I wondered if things had changed so tht any of these anti-Israel sentiments were true. I decided to travel throughout Israel and find out first-hand.
At first glance, this seems like quite a reasonable statement. Everyone has a right to voice criticism, particularly when it refers to an entire country, where there are usually a whole lot of things to find fault with. As a citizen of the great USA, it’s my right to do my best to improve things in my own country, and sometimes this means protesting. The question for Mr. Byatt is not his right to speak out against someone or any country on the planet. It’s rather his description of “Israel apartheid policies.” What apartheid policies? Is this a fair association? 

My wife and I ushered in the new year and decade with a two-week trip to the holy land, aka – Israel. Throughout the year I teach some graduate college courses in south Florida. Being on a university campus in the USA, it’s unfortunately, not an infrequent event when Israel is accused of Islamophobia, racism, and apartheid. Because of that, many of our college youth throughout the world are exposed to these ideas. Some universities even allow an annual “Israel Apartheid Week.” 

But how accurate are these claims?  It had been 18 years since my last visit there and I wondered if things had changed so tht any of these anti-Israel sentiments were true. I decided to travel throughout Israel and find out first-hand.

Let’s start with our “home base” – Be’er Sheva. Our son and his young family made “aliyah” from the comforts of their NY State home and decided to settle in this town in the dessert. At least that’s what went through my mind. After all, the last time I saw Be’er Sheva was in 1969 as a college freshman. Back then, Be’er Sheva featured more camels and dessert sand dunes than homes. Today it is a bustling city with a major medical school and a center hub for computers and technology. It also features one of the largest malls in the Middle East, known as Grand Canyon.

I attended Sabbath services at my son’s tiny but growing synagogue in Be’er Sheva. There were Jews from all across the globe, many very dark-skinned from Africa, probably of Ethiopian origin. In attendance there was a middle-aged doctor who works in a medical clinic nearby. He told me that 80% of the doctors who work there are Bedouins who studied medicine in Israeli universities. At least half the pharmacists and nurses are Arabs, he said, and that is true all over Israel.

I was amazed at how diverse the city is. Wherever we went, we saw this healthy mix of Israelis, Jews wearing skullcaps, and women and men dressed in traditional Arabic garb. We ate in restaurants, shopped in stores, and walked down the busy sidewalks, with this incredible ethnic mixture of people of all sizes, shapes, colors, and religious backgrounds. 

It was a pattern I witnessed all throughout Israel, from the small towns to the large, bustling cities, including Israel’s capitol and historic center, Jerusalem. There I strolled through the Jewish and Arab sections. I heard the mosques issuing their calls to prayer several times a day, including at the crack of dawn. Entering Jerusalem’s “Old City” into the Christian section, I saw large lit-up Christmas trees and colorful reindeer blinking on the ancient stone structures. And I prayed at the Western Wall, one of Judaism’s holy sites. We stopped off for a delicious supper in the artsy town of Yafo and heard a variety of music from American, Israeli, and Arabic cultures.

This was a pattern all throughout Israel. The often-negative coverage from the media and particularly from various college student groups about Israel being an apartheid and cruel state is, in a word, baseless. The reality taking place in Israel is, in fact, the opposite. Israel is a place vibrant and alive with multi-culturalism and respect for all cultures.  One wonders how things are in some of the 22 Muslim countries. Would you see churches and synagogues bustling with people? Would one see Christmas trees? Or observe public menorah lightings? Would Jews and Christians move freely about, working, eating, and living where they choose?

One doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to answer these questions. How many Jews and Christians are even left in these 22 Muslim countries? Any Jewish tourists?

I did however see some disturbing signs of apartheid in my recent travels to Israel – and I mean signs, literally. While driving to visit the ancient biblical city of Hevron, the road took many a twist and turn. It was a good thing that my cell phone wasn’t working as I needed 110% focus on these roads. But it wasn’t the fast drivers there to worry about. Apparently, there were more vital concerns. I counted more than eight large metal signs at various intersections. A wrong turn could be dangerous for one’s health – particularly if one was in a car with an Israeli license plate. These signs, in red with bright white reflective letters had a strong message written in three languages; Arabic, Hebrew, and English. Here’s the exact wording for us English speaking tourists:

“This Road leads To Area A Under the Palestinian Authority. The Entrance For Israeli Citizens is Forbidden, Dangerous To Your Lives And Is Against The Israeli Law.”

I actually turned on one of these roads when I first saw this sign to make sure I was reading it correctly. I figured, as an American, it was aok for me to enter Area A, but then I remembered that my rental car, with the Israeli plate, was a giveaway. By the way, I purposely didn’t describe it as a “dead giveaway,” but it has been deadly for several people who took wrong turns.

These warning signs left me with a disturbing feeling and some very gnawing questions.

  • Why were these signs necessary?
  • Why were Israelis not allowed to visit these territories?
  • Why could Arabs, Muslims, Bedouins, and Palestinians not just visit Israel proper, but live, work, and worship where they choose?
  • And my last question to all those who ridiculously accuse Israel of apartheid: Who is keeping out whom? The answer is pretty obvious.

I don’t fault all the Palestinian Arabs. I hope many realize that they’re welcome in Israel and that by working together a whole lot of positive things can happen. I blame the so-called Palestinian Arab leadership and religious leaders who preach violence against the “infidel” Israelis, Jews, and Christians. I would like to believe that the vast majority of Palestinian Arabs are good people who want to live and raise their children in peace and happiness.

It doesn’t help when the their schools use a curriculum that brainwashes their kids into thinking that Jews come from apes and pigs. And it certainly doesn’t improve the situation when their leaders have adopted a “pay-for-slay” policy. No joke here. They actually provide funding for Palestinian families whose kids get killed trying to kill Israelis. You read that right. The Palestinian Authority will pay a yearly stipend to the families of individuals who turn into terrorists and pay the ultimate price in the “line of duty.” 

This miseducation of Palestinian youth is nothing short of child abuse of the worst kind. It’s brainwashing that starts even in their pre-school programs, often funded by UNWRA. 

It’s time to call a spade a spade. Yes, there is apartheid taking place in the Middle East. But the shoe is on the other foot here. Yes, there is an ethnic phobia and cleansing taking place but it’s not in Israel. It’s time to remove all funding from outside sources and even governments that help support this horrific policy of “pay-for-slay” towards Israelis. It’s time to stop funding Palestinian schools that preach ethno-centrism and racism.

And finally, don’t take my word for it.  It’s high time for you to visit Israel and see this vibrancy and multi-culturalism that is flourishing within. Israel is a modern-day miracle of how we can all live, work, and play together in peace and mutual respect. 

Is Israel perfect? Of course not. But from my recent experiences there just weeks ago, it offers a strong and powerful light in how to live together with neighbors who might be outwardly different. It’s a living example of democracy at work and a healthy, inclusive society. For those individuals who still harbor these negative “BDS” sentiments about Israel, including Mr. Byatt, time to experience the country for yourself. You’ll be in for some eye-opening surprises.

Just make sure to read the road signs very carefully.

Dr. David Lazerson, known as Dr. Laz, is an educator, author, musician, and conflict resolution specialist. He currently runs a music & drama therapy program for special needs students in Broward County in south Florida . He was inducted into the National Teachers Hall of Fame in 2008. His third book, Sharing Turf, was turned into a major movie called "Crown Heights," in which Howie Mandel plays the role of Dr. Laz. He has several websites: www.ProjectCUREtheWorld.com, wwwTeachMeIfYouCan.org & www.drlaz.com