The Distance Between 'Vibrant Democracy' and Apartheid

Israel will only be truly independent and democratic when it starts to live for itself instead of fighting empty PR battles.

Anshel Pfeffer
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Jets twirl above the South African government's center in Pretoria on April 27, marking the end of the apartheid era in 1994. Credit: AP
Anshel Pfeffer

So what is the moment Israel “winds up” being an apartheid state, as United States Secretary of State John Kerry put it last Friday at a closed briefing? Right before he put out his statement of retraction wishing he could “rewind the tape” because after all, “Israel is a vibrant democracy.”

There are a lot of conclusions to be drawn from this latest episode, not least that Mr. Kerry is a (re)windbag.

But if we accept both his statements at face value, then the distance between being a vibrant democracy and an apartheid state must be very short. If the only thing we have to do is sit back and wait for the status quo and demography to do the work, Jerusalem will become Pretoria and we will all start playing cricket and speaking English in a funny accent.

All it proves is that Israel=apartheid is a lazy comparison made either by a pontificator with little understanding of democracy and history, or by those who are eager to propagate a series of myths − including the ridiculous “BDS is a real threat to Israel” one. A country can’t be at once both a vibrant democracy and teetering on the brink of apartheid, just as much as a thriving economy won’t be brought to its knees by ineffectual boycotts that don’t exist anywhere outside the Internet. 

So congratulations, John Kerry. You have just joined the league of amateur historians, right along with Benjamin Netanyahu, who yet again this week in his Holocaust Remembrance Day speech tried to convince us that Iran 2014 is Germany 1938. 

The only problem is that Kerry was wrong on both counts. Israel isn’t about to become an apartheid state, but at the same time, it can hardly be called a “vibrant democracy” when the vibrancy ends at the Green Line and it still has varying degrees of military and civilian non-democratic control over three or four million civilians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

It doesn’t matter how you count them, or whether the people without civil rights Israel rules over outnumber its “legitimate” citizens. What matters is that Israelis should not be able to convince themselves they are anything more than a limited democracy at best while this situation has been ongoing for nearly 47 years. 

The apartheid label is being applied to Israel to confer on it a degree of illegitimacy and to try and imply that it should be the target of boycotts in the same way South Africa was in the 1980s (though whether the boycotts were the major factor in finally ending apartheid is highly questionable). But as an argument, it serves the right wing even more than it serves the Israel-haters. If the only question is whether Israel can be described as apartheid and whether its very legitimacy is in question, then all you need to do is silence people like Kerry, which isn’t at all hard to do, and then you have nothing else to prove.

The Israeli left and its supporters abroad are playing into the hands of the right wing when they join in this discourse of shoddy comparisons, existential threats of “delegitimization” and a diplomatic “tsunami” about to crash down on our heads. Because when these threats fail to materialize, as they always do, we will still be left with our imperfect and limited democracy to deal with. 

A seasoned Israeli diplomat told me this week that “back in the 70s and 80s, my predecessors were hearing exactly the same warnings from our supporters in America and Europe. That the anti-Israel atmosphere on the campuses is poisonous, that an entire generation is being turned against us by the hostile media, that we will wake up one morning and find that Israel is isolated. And all these years have passed and Israel has diplomatic relations with dozens more countries, and our economic and cultural ties around the world have never been better. In the meantime we’ve built up this massive imaginary enemy, we have devoted resources to fighting it and not done anything to actually fix our country.” 

The greatest achievement of 66 years of Israeli independence has not been making the desert bloom, teaching Jews to defend themselves or building an export-based high-tech economy, though these are all massive in their own right. It has been the fact that within the confines of the pre-1967 borders, despite having to fight wars and absorb millions of immigrants, nearly all of whom were born and educated in dictatorships, this has been a stronger and more open democracy than nearly every other country that gained independence in the post-World War II era. The fact that governments have been replaced by elections, that the media holds the powerful to account and can bring down prime ministers, and that civilians by and large can go out to protest in the knowledge they won’t end up in hospital or worse, are not luxuries we can or should take for granted.

Israel does not need to defend its legitimacy. The moral and historical case for having a state for the Jewish people is evident to any moral person with a sense of history. It certainly doesn’t need Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to affirm that in order to finally get around to drawing its borders and reaching an accommodation with another nation living in this land: one state, two states, whatever works for all of us best. And we don’t need John Kerry to give us his patrician seal of approval. 

You don’t have to harken back to apartheid to see how imperfect and limited democracies can corrupt themselves and tear their societies apart. Just look northward to Turkey or Russia − two countries which seemed only a few years to be emerging finally into a period of free elections, financial success and open media − to realize just how fleeting these can be. Israel is here to stay, but whatever democracy we have is never guaranteed.

Countries rarely lose international legitimacy (if that means anything at all) by becoming less democratic. Certainly not if they’re nuclear powers with natural gas reserves and highly sought-after technological products to sell. As New York Times columnist Roger Cohen correctly observed last week, Israel’s economic success is “sustainable,” even while the conflict with the Palestinians remains intractable. Asian markets are more important to its prosperity than the Western chattering classes.

But if independence means anything, it should mean trying to be a better country for our own sakes. Not because of empty external threats, but because we have a whole lot to lose from within by becoming a smaller version of Turkey. 

Our independence will remain limited not by any financial or diplomatic dependency on allies and trading partners, but because we remain beholden to our fear of how others see and define us, and regularly forget there was an actual purpose in developing a more just society based on universal and Jewish values. Israel’s very real achievements were not won just to provide talking points for debates on campus, in television studios and at the UN, but so we could be a free people in our land. 

According to United States Secretary of State John Kerry there is a thin line between apartheid and a vibrant democracy.Credit: AFP