The Guardian view on Israel and apartheid: prophecy or description?

JVL Introduction

Is something seismic shifting at the Guardian? Or is its latest editorial just a flash in the pan?

For years this newspaper has acted as gatekeeper deciding what left or liberal criticisms of Israel were allowable and by whom, guarding the dyke against the rising tides of pro-Palestinian sentiment, and contributing to the conflation of such sentiment with a probable antisemitic motivation.

The B’Tselem report calling Israel an apartheid society has blown a hole in the dyke from a quite unexpected direction. No-one can call its authors antisemitic.

The editorial reposted below agonizes about it. It doesn’t like B’Tselem’s use of language, it calls it a deliberate provocation – but it doesn’t condemn it. At heart it knows it to be true.

Following on Peter Beinart’s trajectory in the States and Avram Burg’s in Israel, a stark choice is going to have to be made, between an ethnocratic authoritarian Jewish state (an apartheid one, to boot) or one of equal rights for all from the river to the sea.

Where will the Guardian come down? It has never argued for either; and now has all the appearance of a beached whale being left high and dry by the receding tides.

No wonder the writers of the editorial see no option but to wring their hands.

This article was originally published by the Guardian on Sun 17 Jan 2021. Read the original here.

The Guardian view on Israel and apartheid: prophecy or description?

With no roadmap for peace, Israel risks being compared to the old South Africa


It was a deliberate provocation by B’Tselem, Israel’s largest human rights group, to describe the Palestinians in the Holy Land as living under an apartheid regime. Many Israelis detest the idea that their country, one they see as a democracy that rose from a genocidal pyre, could be compared to the old racist Afrikaner regime. Yet figures such as Desmond Tutu and Jimmy Carter have done so.

There is a serious argument about injustices to be had. Palestinians – unlike Israeli Jews – live under a fragmented mosaic of laws, often discriminatory, and public authorities which seem indifferent to their plight. Apartheid is a crime against humanity. It is a charge that should not be lightly made, for else it can be shrugged off. Some might agree with the use of such incendiary language, but many will recoil. The crime of apartheid has been defined as “inhumane acts committed in the context of a regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups with the intention of maintaining that regime”.

There are nearly 5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, all without Israeli citizenship. In the West Bank, Palestinians are bereft of civil rights, while Israelis in the occupied territory enjoy the full support of the state. Hamas won Gaza’s election in 2006, but the blockade that Israel imposes means it is in charge. Egypt has sealed its border, but nothing and nobody can get in or out without Israeli permission. Meeting the needs of Gaza’s growing population, say relief agencies, is at the whim of Israel. About 300,000 Palestinians in the areas formally annexed in 1967 – East Jerusalem and surrounding villages – do not have full citizenship and equal rights. Last year, the Israeli NGO Yesh Din found that Israeli officials were culpable of the crime of apartheid in the West Bank. Such a finding can only be a tragedy for all, including this newspaper, who wish the state of Israel well.

B’Tselem argues that Palestinians are afforded various levels of rights depending on where they live, but always below Jewish people. The group says it is becoming impossible to insulate Israel from its prolonged occupation project, leading it to run an apartheid regime not just outside its sovereign territory but inside it. There are about 2 million Palestinian citizens of Israel, a minority under pressure not to antagonise the Jewish majority. Within Israel, discriminatory policies are not difficult to find. National security is invoked to justify often racist citizenship laws. Jewish-only communities have admission committees that can legally reject Palestinians on the grounds of “cultural incompatibility”. A web of land and planning laws squeeze Palestinians into a shrinking space. There are Israeli Arabs whose prominence in society belies the poverty of the majority.

Israel has a problem of historic discrimination. But under Benjamin Netanyahu’s government there has been the enactment of the nation state law that constitutionally enshrines Jewish supremacy and a plan to formally annex parts of the West Bank. Some prominent Jewish intellectuals, such as the writer Peter Beinart, have given up on the idea of a Jewish state. No government formed after the forthcoming election will support genuine Palestinian statehood or have a viable peace plan.

This begs B’Tselem’s heretical question: what if there is only, in reality, one regime between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, rather than one political power that controls the territory in which there are distinct regimes? A system of separate and unequal law and systemic discrimination against Palestinians has been justified because it was meant to be temporary. But decades have passed and the situation worsens. If this is a twilight for democracy and equality in the Holy Land, one can only hope that the night will be short.

Comments (16)

  • dave says:

    Fence sitting indeed. They have the cheek to say: “Such a finding can only be a tragedy for all, including this newspaper, who wish the state of Israel well.” It’s as though they’ve only just become aware.

  • Linda Edmondson says:

    I think you’re being too kind. Its very first sentence gives the game away – ‘deliberate provocation by B’Tselem’. This has all the hallmarks of a Guardian piece that recognises that many of its readers are appalled by the actions of Israel, as a state, towards Palestinians inside and outside the borders of Israel. It could even have been written by Jonathan Freedland, who has published quite a few hand-wringing pieces on the travails of the Palestinians, but still manages to march to the drumbeat of the British Board of Deputies when it suits him. No doubt it will be followed quite soon by some comment about Corbyn’s antisemitism, or his tolerance of it within the Labour Party. Excuse the cynicism.

  • John Bowley says:

    Israeli apartheid is the worst of all. The old racist South African apartheid is a dreadful example of what not to do. It is being done within the State of Israel.

    Hypocrisy and circumlocution are embedded throughout the media.

  • Eveline van der Steen says:

    I would not be surprised at al, as Linda (above) suggests, if this has been written by Freedland cs. It squirms from the first line to the last, and I’m sure the Guardian wd have been much happier if B’Tselem had kept quiet. They owe it to the vast number of their readers who are critical of Israel to say something but obviously they don’t see the need to rehabilitate Corbyn or admit that he even had a point. Too much to expect, I’m sure. I’d be interested to see either Freedland or Nick Cohen comment on this, but I’m not holding my breath.

  • Tim says:

    And the second sentence isn’t any better, claiming Israel “rose from a genocidal pyre”. No, it rose in the midst of someone else’s country. The pyre was hundreds of miles away in central Europe!

  • Stephen Branscombe says:

    I believe that because of the reluctance of British MSM to deal with the injustice that Palestinians suffer under Israeli occupation many people are unaware just how bad it is. The more this can be brought to the public’s attention the better. I hope other papers will follow suit and keep this in the news, although I won’t hold my breath. I know if more people are aware and speak out there’s more chance of this becoming mainstream and influencing LP policy. But I am sure the vast majority of Guardian readers are fully aware already of course, as of course, must be the majority of LP members including Keir Starmer.

  • Chris Wallis says:

    The last comment nailed it. Yesterday’s edition carried an article about Corbyn’s appearance at the High Court, with an explainer that managed to repeat their calumny about the ‘damning’ EHRC report, and other partial stuff. It’s too late for them to roll back on the big lie, or they’ll look like idiots, but their readership is dwindling as their readers are not idiots. Owen Jones tried a fundraiser for the G on fB and got shot down in flames by ex-readers affronted by their treatment of Corbyn. Freedland, whose work in the Jewish Chronicle is more obviously partisan, is the successor to Harry Sacher, who was C P Scott’s political correspondent and helped draft the Balfour Declaration. Scott introduced Weizmann to Lloyd George. The G has a lot to answer for.And as for Katharine Viner, she’s been to Palestine, she worked on the diaries that became the stage play My Name Is Rachel Corrie about the American girl killed by an Israeli bulldozer driver demolishing Palestinian houses. She clearly knows whereof she does not speak.

  • Kuhnberg says:

    The Guardian will never concede the case for Palestinian rights so long as Freedland and Cohen are given care blanche to vilify those who argue that Israel systematically abuses those rights and has become an apartheid state.

  • George Peel says:

    I’ve noticed a ‘creak’, rather than a ‘seismic shift’.

    It seems like a game – baby-steps – to see if they can eke out a few more subscribers. Certainly, not back to the ‘good old days’ of Alan Rusbridger.

    I had to search for any report, on the launch of The Project for Peace and Justice. Having found it, it was less than effusive, was posted online before the launch had, even, ended, with no mention of Noam Chomsky, at all.

    All seemed to be, simply, going through the motions, so – no – I won’t be subscribing, just yet.

  • Stephen Williams says:

    When was the last time a Palestinian voce was heard? As for news, war-crimes are routinely concealed, even child-killing. And Steve Bell censored.

  • Paul Wimpeney says:

    The editorial is a wonder: how to collect all the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and refuse to put them together to reveal the image that was on the box all along. How can you “wish Israel well” if that country is as you are in the process of saying what it is? Why would you want to wish it well if the conditions you are describing are the reality? And if they are not the reality why are you saying that they are?

    I think that for the Guardian Israel is a kind of “Fiddler on the Roof” fantasy, with lovable kosher grandmas and Klezmer bands emerging from the Nazi genocide to claim a homeland, that can now boast of itself as the home of the silicon chip and the freedom-loving enlightened ones surrounded by Arabic darkness and primitives.

    Those people who insist on using words like Nakba or ethnic cleansing or apartheid are just missing the miracle before our eyes (or even worse, to continue the Guardian line of recent years, they are hiding their antisemitism behind a more modern lexicon.)

    I can’t remember the old joke accurately but it went something like: why do human beings have cleft buttocks? So that, like the Guardian, they can sit on both sides of the fence at the same time.

  • Greville Mills says:

    The time for sitting on the fence has past. Whilst people are indignant about what’s happening in Hong Kong (and rightly so) no one bats an eyelid over the atrocities occurring daily in Palestine; both of these places had, at some time in the past, a more than passing interest at stake in the safety and protection of the UK. How easy the Teflon coating of politicians has enabled them to ignore the human rights abuses going on in each place, when their political or financial interest is compromised.

  • Valentin Kovalenko says:

    Do we need to be told what almost everyone knows anyway?

  • goldbach says:

    It’s a small first step, but it will take a consistent stance advocating peace, justice and equality for the Guardian to atone for the shameful campaign it waged, over 5 or 6 years, against advocates of peace, justice and equality such as Jeremy Corbyn. Don’t hold your breath.

  • bob cannell says:

    This was the same day that Rafael Behr, in Guardian Weekend, effectively blamed Jeremy Corbyn for the heart attack he suffered in 2019. In the middle of an intensely personal article he makes these gratuitous remarks about his stress increasing as anti-semitism increased following Corbyn’s election. The Guardian crucified him but are still sticking the spear in.
    So we didnt have to wait long for normal service to be resumed.

  • DJ says:

    The Guardian clearly finds it difficult to acknowledge the truth about the system of apartheid established by the state of Israel. For some reason it is “provocative” for an Israeli human rights organisation to do so. Faced with this truth this friend of the state of Israel is totally incapable of advancing any credible argument to defend it. This is why it supports the IHRA definition of antisemitism which is designed to brand those who speak the truth as antisemites.If you can’t win the argument it makes sense to silence your adversaries in this way. So far they have got away with this. As more people call for an end to this Jewish supremacist state they will find this harder to do.

Comments are now closed.