But will there be consequences for Israeli apartheid?

JVL Introduction

Tony Karon wonders why it has taken Human Rights Watch so long to recognise that Israel is an apartheid state.

It’s not just that the A-word has used by senior public figures like Jimmy Carter, Ehud Barak, Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni and John Kerry – but in the future tense as a warning about where Israel might be heading.

More interestingly, it was already invoked, reluctantly, in the 1970s in Karon’s left-wing Zionist movement in South Africa, where parallels were already being drawn.

“The factors that make it an apartheid state have been a half century’s status quo” – these are now obvious:

  • Both South Africa and Israel were democracies, but also states that denies the democratic rights of citizenship to millions of people they ruled.
  • Both societies, in fact, were products of settler colonialism.
  • Both systems were created by the systematic, violent dispossession and subordination of the indigenous population.

The fig leaf that has concealed the apartheid reality for so long – the rigid separation between a good green-line Israel and a rogue occupier – is finally being stripped away…

To translate that recognition into a reality with bite will involve the same mass mobilisation of civil society as it took to break Western societies’ support for apartheid South Africa in the seventies and eighties.

It is already underway.

This article was originally published by Rootless Cosmopolitan on Wed 28 Apr 2021. Read the original here.

But will there be consequences for Israeli apartheid?

Designating Israel an apartheid state draws attention to the illusions of a ‘peace process’ used to rationalize the international community’s coddling of Israel’s systemic oppression of Palestinians

So, it’s news that Israel is an apartheid state? Not to Palestinians, obviously. Nor to the South Africans (including many Jewish ones) who joined the ranks of that country’s anti-apartheid liberation movement. Nor to anyone covering the Palestinian experience on the ground — Nathan Thrall’s searing NYRB story about how “one man’s quest to find his son lays bare the reality of Palestinian life under Israeli rule” is an excellent recent example. So was the pioneering reporting on this issue of Chris McGreal, who covered both South Africa and Israel for the Guardian.

In some ways, the only surprise I found in Human Rights Watch this week designating Israel as an apartheid state — following leading Israeli human rights group B’tselem doing the same in January — is that it took them this long.

Speaking personally, decades before

I’d been made aware of the connection between Israel’s Jewish supremacist system and the white-supremacist one I’d grown up under in apartheid South Africa. (And it wasn’t only that both systems offered me privileges at the expense of others based simply on my birth.) I first heard the Israel-apartheid link made in Israel in 1978, from fiercely committed Zionists who’d emigrated there from South Africa to start new lives on a “socialist” kibbutz.

The Likud government, elected the previous year, was dramatically escalating the mass settlement of Jewish civilians in territories occupied in the war of June 1967. This clear violation of international law had a strategic purpose: To “create facts on the ground”, altering the political geography to cement Israel’s grip on the Occupied Palestinian Territories. “And so,” one anxious South African Zionist summarized, “Israel now has control over more than 3 million Palestinians [this was 1978]. If it annexes the West Bank, they become citizens of Israel, they get to vote and Israel quickly loses its Jewish majority. So that’s not an option. [They were Zionists, remember.] But the settlement policy will make it more and more difficult for Israel to envisage letting go of the territories. So, what are you left with? An apartheid situation.”

His point was obvious to all of us on my South African delegation: we knew that Apartheid, in essence, meant a system where whole categories of people are denied the full rights of citizenship in the state that rules over them.

I had joined the left-Zionist youth movement Habonim because its (conveniently Palestinian-free) vision of a pastoral socialist utopia seemed, to my troubled yet cloistered teenage white-segregated-suburban mind, the polar opposite of the morally grotesque system of apartheid all around us. Needless to say, that delusion didn’t last very long. For one thing, despite the overt anti-Semitism of South Africa’s white supremacist rulers, Israel had by the 1960s become the most important international ally of the increasingly isolated Pretoria regime.

When Ben Gurion visited South Africa in 1969, Die Vaderland (The Fatherland), one of the regime’s papers, editorialized that, “When we, from our side, look realistically at the world situation, we know that Israel’s continued existence in the Middle East is also an essential element in our own security… If our Jewish citizens were to rally to the call of our distinguished visitor — to help build up Israel — their contribution would in essence be a contribution to South Africa’s security.”

In 1976, Israel welcomed as an honored guest South Africa’s Prime Minister BJ Vorster, an unrepentant WW2 Nazi foreign intelligence operative. But Vorster was there to seal military deals, Israel ignoring the international anti-apartheid arms embargo to help equip South Africa’s white supremacist regime with aircraft, assault rifles and nuclear weapons. And then there was Habonim encouraging us to move to a Kibbutz in the Gallillee as a counter the “threat of the Arab birth rate” — the sort of ugly racist language I associated with the South African regime, rather than Saint-Simonesque socialist utopia Habonim had sold me.

My Zionist illusions were quickly abandoned once I reached university and was drawn into the anti-apartheid liberation politics led by Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress: Here was a progressive politics that sought the active participation of all who would commit to the struggle for a non-racial democratic society based on equality — the polar opposite of the narrow nationalism of the Zionist vision. More on this, another time — but moral consistency and intellectual honesty required that I critically reevaluate everything I thought I knew about Israel, Zionism and the Palestinian struggle. And the conclusions — such as now reached by HRW and B’Tselem — were obvious.

Israel is a democracy, like apartheid South Africa was — but like apartheid South Africa, it’s also a state that denies the democratic rights of citizenship to millions of people it rules. Both Israel and the South Africa of my youth were states whose democracy was restricted, and structured to ensure the domination of one particular group over those who were either second-class citizens, or not citizens at all but nonetheless subject to rule by the same state. Needless to add, Black South Africans and most Palestinians had no vote in the “democratic” state that ruled them as an authoritarian tyranny, in the manner of a colonized people.

Both societies, in fact, were products of settler colonialism. South Africans of European extraction originally settled in the country under the aegis of Dutch and then British colonialism, then fought for independence from Britain and the creation of a democratic polity confined to those defined as white. The State of Israel was created by a predominantly expatriate European Jewish population, whose settlement in small numbers began in the last years of the Ottoman era but was formalized and accelerated under the aegis of British colonialism after 1917. And like the Boers who had fought a guerrilla war to break free from Britain, so did the Jewish population the British had allowed to settle in Palestine fight a four-year guerrilla war for independence from the UK between 1944 and 1948. The state they created was democratic, but that democracy was structured to ensure the domination of its Jewish population. (Human rights groups concur, today, that the 2 million Palestinians who are citizens of Israel are, in effect, second class citizens. And a further 5 million who live under Israeli sovereign control have, for more than a half century, lived under military occupation.)

Both systems were created by the systematic, violent dispossession and subordination of the indigenous population. I’d grown up believing that the Nakba was a propaganda lie, and that most Palestinians had voluntarily left their homes in 1948 — but at age 18, I read accounts by Jewish participants in the systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing that created a Jewish majority state, and the fallacy of the myths I’d been taught was plain to see.

Settler colonial systems — and yes, the United States also originated as one — are built upon the systemic dehumanization of the indigenous populations (and in the American case, also of enslaved Africans) in order to justify the seizure of their land and/or labor to serve the needs of the settlers’ project, while destroying and erasing the indigenous communities that challenge its claims.

We might wonder what the great grandparents of the young Jewish thugs who last week marauded through Jerusalem chanting “Death to the Arabs” would have made of their descendants acting out the rituals of a pogrom — but pogroms have a well-established place in the history of settler colonialism, where violence against the indigenous people is rendered morally acceptable, virtuous even, in pursuit of “national” objectives.

And, of course, for decades, Israel has warded itself against the sort of international isolation faced by South Africa over its apartheid system, in two ways:

  • By instrumentalizing the shame felt by Western powers over the Nazi Holocaust to smear as anti-Semitic opposition to Israel and Zionism, the nationalist ideology underpinning its apartheid system; and
  • By  sustaining the illusion that the occupation was temporary, and would be ended by a “peace process” leading to a “two-state solution”.

Whether or not the “peace process” could ever have achieved justice for Israel’s Palestinian victims is a moot point; the Oslo process ended 20 years ago and all that remains of it are the elements useful to Israel’s maintenance of the apartheid status quo: The Western-funded administrative and security institutions of the Palestinian Authority that were once intended as a transitional vehicle for a journey towards Palestinian statehood, but today are today simply an extension of the occupation.

Nobody familiar with the reality on the ground, today, can seriously imagine a “two-state solution” as a plausible path to Palestinian rights and freedoms. But that doesn’t prevent its incantation by those who seek to absolve themselves of moral responsibility to act against a system defined in international law as a crime against humanity. Watch Biden State Department spokesman Ned Price’s absurd answer to questions about where Palestinians should take their human rights complaints, and you’ll see how this works. (Yes, the Biden Administration is showing every sign of being true to bipartisan form of being to Israeli apartheid what the Reagan Administration was to South African apartheid.)

Ehud Barak, Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni and John Kerry had invoked “apartheid” in the future tense — a warning that at some point, failure to complete the two-state solution would mean Israel would be recognized as an apartheid state. Of course, the factors that make it an apartheid state have been a half century’s status quo, so what these warnings actually meant was that at some point the two-state fig leaf would no longer be able to hide the reality that Israel is one, apartheid state from the river to the sea, and the world might feel obliged to take action. That moment of recognition may be upon us, if the findings of major human rights groups are any indicator.

And the bad news for Israel’s ostensibly liberal backers is that the idea— even in Carter’s formulation — that “apartheid” describes the occupation, and that this is somehow separable from Israel-proper is not sustainable, either. Both the HRW and B’Tselem reports, and Nathan Thrall’s analysis have thoroughly debunked an illusory distinction between a “good” Israeli state inside the former “Green Line” boundaries vs. a “bad” Israeli state in the somehow detachable occupied territories.

As Nathan noted, while Israel’s enablers futz over ways to revitalize the “peace process” illusion, “millions of Palestinians continue to be deprived of basic civil rights and subjected to military rule. With the exception of six months in 1966-67, this has been the reality for the majority of Palestinians living under Israeli control for the entire history of the state. South Africa’s apartheid lasted 46 years. Israel’s is at 72, and counting.”

Needless to say, the expected p.r. war over nomenclature aside, Israelis don’t see any reason to retreat from their apartheid system. That’s because unlike the South African variant, Israel’s apartheid system has had no downside for its perpetrators; apartheid may be a crime against humanity, but Israel suffers no consequences for perpetrating it. If apartheid South Africa had enjoyed the extent of political support in the U.S. political system that Israeli apartheid has today, Nelson Mandela would surely have perished in prison. Any attempts to hold Israel accountable in international criminal courts faces aggressive opposition from the US governments of either party. Even the mildest efforts on Capitol Hill to tie US military aid to restraining Israel’s increasingly brazen abuse of Palestinian communities under occupation is slapped down by bipartisan consensus. Israel is an apartheid regime that can count on much of the US political establishment backing it to the hilt, even to the extent of violating US freedom of speech by criminalizing effort to hold Israel accountable via BDS pressure.

But, but, but: Israel and its enablers wouldn’t be so concerned to silence recognition of its apartheid system if it wasn’t aware of how South Africa came to be the focus of an international campaign of isolation that played a major part in forcing that regime to end apartheid. South Africa was banned from the Olympic Games and the World Cup, and from world rugby and cricket. It faced an international cultural boycott, economic sanctions and divestment. But here’s the key: all of that pressure took more than two decades of dedicated work by civil society activists at all levels to muster — eventually to the point that the governments of the Western powers felt compelled to back away from a regime they had supported by default as a Cold War ally. Thatcher’s Britain and Reagan’s America were staunch allies of South Africa’s apartheid regime — until the mass mobilization of their citizens made it impossible for them to shield Pretoria from the consequences of its system.

Sure, the Pretoria regime had no equivalent of the strategy of making the spurious and insulting claim that the Nazi murder of millions of European Jews somehow indemnifies the State of Israel from accountability for its crimes against humanity, or the claim that those who dare challenge it are driven by anti-Semitism. No doubt, some will smear the HRW report as anti-Semitic. But that device is getting old. Younger Jewish Americans are increasingly willing to challenge these cynical invocations of European Jewish history to excuse and protect Israeli apartheid. The recent Jerusalem Declaration on Anti-Semitism is an explicit critique by mostly Jewish academics of efforts to paint opposition to Israel and Zionism as anti-Semitism.

And by tying their conclusions to the definitions of apartheid in international law, both HRW and B’Tselem have torched the fig-leaf of a two-state solution that has, until now, been invoked to shield Israel from reproach for its oppressive system. Their call to action is focused on Palestinian human rights and equality — a profound challenge not only to the moral torpor and evasions of responsibility of international powers that have declined to act against the perpetrators of an ongoing crime against humanity, but also to the idea that Palestinian human rights will be achieved via the chimera of partition. More, as they say, to come…

Comments (7)

  • MAX COOK says:

    We MUST all end Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, if they want to stay where they are then Palestinians must have there share of their land and be able to live their lives free from Israeli oppression and its disgusting apartheid system.

  • Diamond Versi says:

    The Israeli lobbying machine is so powerful that it has blinded the Western World which needs to wake up and work towards the eradication of the apartheid system so prevalent in Israel. Currently, criticism of Israel’s policies is labelled as anti-Semitism.

  • Harry Law says:

    Keir Starmer said he supports Zionism “without qualification”. Now that both human rights organisations B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch have joined the UN Commission for West Asia the ESCWA in a report by Richard Falk and Virginia Tilley condemning Israel for the crime of Apartheid, does that not make Starmer a supporter of Apartheid?

  • Mike Scott says:

    I do agree with most of this article, but it’s extremely unhelpful to the Palestinians and their allies to describe either white South Africa or Israel as democracies.

    We all need to say loud and clear that Israel is NOT a democracy and to point out the support the Israeli government had for apartheid at a time when the rest of the world was waking up to the realities of the SA regime. This should be a major part of any campaign to explain to the apolitical and the ignorant exactly what is going on in Israel/Palestine.

    Very few people would now feel comfortable about praising the originators of apartheid, so it’s common sense for us to show how clear the similarities are – and why.

  • Prof Monty Jochelson says:

    The Israeli treatment of Palestinians may indeed be lamentable , but in my not uninformed opinion to equate it with Apartheid is a convenient and lazy comparison .Like beauty Apartheid is in the eye of the beholder. All members of JVL will believe that Israel is a clone of pre Mandela South Africa whilst the Zionist lobby with think the opposite.
    The truth is perhaps in the middle.

  • DJ says:

    The continued existence of the state of Israel depends on a system of apartheid and the denial of the right of palestinian refugees to return to their homeland. When more people can see this, it will be easier to challenge this rogue state and the Zionist ideology which underpins it. The establishment and the Israeli Lobby understand this. This is why they have to dismiss accusations of apartheid made against Israel even though they know them to be true. For them, the defence of Israel trumps any concerns about the injustice of the system of apartheid imposed on the Palestinians. Clearly they will never admit to this. Instead they will hide behind a meaningless “peace process” to achieve an illusory two state solution. We need to be absolutely clear. There is nothing remotely democratic about the Israeli settler colonial regime! We owe it to the Palestinians to build an international solidarity campaign to support their struggle against it.

  • Professor Monty Jochelson says:

    I have a question for DJ .When Ben Gurion declared the establishment of Israel in 1948 five Arab countries attacked it.As we all know this led to the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees. At the same time ,hundreds of thousands of Jewish people were forced to flee from Arab countries where they had lived happily for centuries ..(This fact is totally ignored by many members of JVL. Indeed some of my own family members escaped from Egypt in 1956 .)So in other words there was a virtual exchange of populations as happened in in the Indian subcontinent a year before that.That seemed to be ok.
    So why shouldn’t the Jewish refugees also be entitled to some sort of compensation ?

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