PRAGUE (JTA) — Ha’aretz columnist Danny Rubinstein had the unrepentant last word after being dropped by a British Zionist organization that objected to his calling Israel an “apartheid” state at a U.N. Palestinian rights conference in Brussels.
“I am not apologizing for what I said,” Rubinstein told a crowd of about 100 Monday evening at the New North London Synagogue, according to several people in attendance. “People do use the word apartheid in my circles. My newspaper increasingly uses that word. This is nothing new.
“I only started using the word apartheid recently after Jimmy Carter’s book, though I didn’t like the book,” Rubinstein said, referring to Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. He also noted that “even Ariel Sharon used the word ‘occupation,’ which was a word never used before.”
Rubinstein, the Arab affairs editor for Ha’aretz and a member of the newspaper’s editorial board, had been scheduled to speak Sept. 3 at the annual meeting of the British Zionist Federation, which has about 10,000 members.
After JTA reported on Rubinstein’s Aug. 30 comments at the U.N. conference, however, the speech was canceled by mutual agreement, according to the Zionist group.
Sources familiar with the situation said that Rubinstein offered to cancel when he learned that the federation membership was angry over his remarks, but was hurt deeply by the overall controversy, including a slew of negative editorials around the world.
Several attendees at the London synagogue event said Rubinstein appeared tired, stressed and genuinely shocked by the outcry his comments had caused.
“I never want to go through this again,” Rubinstein was overheard saying to one audience member.
According to another source, Rubinstein had received 20 requests for interviews — and was ignoring all of them. He did not return phone calls from JTA.
In addition to highlighting the increasing use of the word apartheid in left-wing Israeli circles, the flap unleashed dueling waves of outrage between those upset by what Rubinstein said in Brussels and those who were appalled that he would be dropped by a major Zionist organization for speaking his mind.
The talk at the London synagogue was organized by the New Israel Fund, which promotes democracy and human rights in Israel. In a statement explaining its decision to go ahead with the event, the organization rejected the use of the apartheid label but stressed the need to defend “free speech.”
The controversy also underscored what some pro-Israel activists described as a general ignorance among Israelis when it comes to Diaspora life.
Paul Usiskin, a Zionist who heads British Friends of Peace Now UK, a group openly critical of Israeli settlement policy and treatment of the Palestinians, said Rubinstein should have been allowed to speak at the Zionist Federation meeting.
However, he also said that Rubinstein and other Israelis often do not understand how their words are used by those hostile toward Israel.
“There is a difficulty with Israelis, and Danny Rubinstein is not the only one who has fallen in on this, of coming out of Israel and going into another context,” Usiskin said. He added later that “it’s not necessarily the same left wing as what he knows at home.”
Some British Jews have cried censorship, but the Zionist Federation has stood firm.
“The Anglo-Jewish community and other supporters of Israel have been fighting growing efforts by various British unions to boycott Israel, the latest being an attempt by the U.K.‘s University and College Union to sever links with the Israeli academic community,” said Gavin Gross, director of public affairs for the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland. “By using the phrase ‘apartheid state’ to describe Israel, Danny has provided legitimacy to the pro-boycott camp.”
During his talk in London, according to audience members, Rubinstein said he could not fathom why he should modify his positions for an audience abroad — even one that includes anti-Zionists.
“I have a professional responsibility to say what I think, and I won’t change what I say or what I think depending on the place,” he was quoted as saying.
Rubinstein made his controversial remarks in Brussels last week at a meeting put on by the U.N. Committee for the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People. The committee, which was established by the U.N. General Assembly in 1975, the same day the world body adopted the infamous “Zionism is Racism” resolution, has a long history of anti-Israeli activity.
Pro-Israel observers who attended the Brussels event — titled “International Conference of Civil Society in Support of Israeli-Palestine Peace” and held in the European Parliament — say it lived up to their worst expectations and was anything but a peace meeting.
Rubinstein shared the dais with British lawmaker Clare Short, who along with several other participants called for a boycott against Israel and said apartheid was worse in Israel than it had been in South Africa.
Members of the fervently Orthodox group Neturei Karta, known for its fiercely anti-Israel rhetoric and recent participation in a Holocaust denial conference sponsored by Iran, received ovations. Neturei Karta members described Zionism as the biggest form of anti-Semitism.
Speaker after speaker in Brussels decried Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and called for action against the Jewish State. Palestinian terrorism never received a mention, according to Jewish organizations that monitored the conference, including B’nai B’rith International.
At the London synagogue, Rubinstein denied knowing anything about the U.N. committee’s bias.
The journalist who led the discussion with Rubinstein, Ned Temko, the former editor of the Jewish Chronicle and currently chief political correspondent for the British newspaper The Observer, asked the Ha’aretz columnist if he would give the same speech to neo-Nazis or the extreme right British National Party.
According to sources in attendance, Rubinstein responded: “That analogy is not fair. This was the U.N.”
Such parsing infuriated at least one audience member, Robert Dwek, a British freelance journalist.
“Rubinstein says now he is against a boycott of Israel,” Dwek said. “But when asked why he didn’t say that in Brussels, he expressed ignorance about who Clare Short was and was having a convenient lapse of memory about what she said. He never answered the question ‘why didn’t you stand up to her?’”
But Ellen Goldberg, executive director of the New Israel Fund, said that during his talk in London, Rubinstein spoke in a way that was “professional, clear and straight.”
Goldberg said she was impressed with his discussion of “red lines” — Rubinstein’s argument that peace can be made, but one must understand that the Palestinians do not want a state without Jerusalem as their capital, and Israelis cannot and should not accept the Palestinian right of return to Israel, since such a move would spell the end of the Jewish State.