Israel’s Guilty of Occupation, Not Apartheid

Yes, Israeli commentators and political figures use the term 'apartheid,' but mostly as a warning for the future and about the present.

A pro-BDS student at an Open Hillel Conference.
Gili Getz

As expressed in her recent Haaretz op-ed, “Israeli Leaders Talk About Israel and Apartheid. So Why Can't We?” Caroline Morganti, and the Open Hillel movement with which she is affiliated, are right that the American Jewish establishment, especially campus organizations, are highly oblivious to the political discourse in Israel. This may be a result of their misguided (and inconsistent) policy of non-intervention in Israeli politics. However, when it comes to using the term “apartheid” to describe Israel, a few important distinctions and facts are often missed.

First, while it is true that Israeli commentators and political figures have used the term ‘apartheid’, it is most often in the service of a warning and not a description. Morganti recognizes this but doesn’t dwell on it. There is nothing in Hillel’s guidelines that suggests such warnings are “out of bounds” for discussion.

By contrast, when campus BDS activists employ the word, it is meant to describe Israel as an apartheid state. This is not a warning but a statement that has grave political implications. 

Second, the reason a campus group like Hillel sets certain standards is because its primary purpose is to provide a safe and productive space for Jewish students, most of whom hold broadly pro-Israel views, at least in regards to the state’s legitimacy. The constant use of the word “apartheid” has the effect of branding pro-Israel students as racists and bigots. 

So although Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and other groups that refer to Israel as an apartheid state are engaging in activity protected by the First Amendment, it should surprise precisely no one that Hillel International does not welcome these views.  

Third, those who condemn Israel as an apartheid state presuppose the one-state solution as the only solution. Like the far-right in Israel, they dispense with the Green Line and assume Israel to be a unitary entity between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. In this view, there is no occupation but an apartheid regime that transcends the Green Line. 

If the Jewish state relies on a system of apartheid to exist, it may well have no right to exist. This, by and large, remains a fringe view among Jews in both America and Israel. The fact that the American Jewish establishment doesn’t welcome this view into its institutions is hardly a sign of rigid intolerance.

Many would suggest this policy is not applied consistently. For example, right-wing Jewish supporters of the one-state solution, such as Tzipi Hotovely or Haaretz’s Moshe Arens, are probably not blacklisted from partaking in Hillel events. However, this misses the point. Hillel is trying to keep out anti-Israel views that are characterized by antagonism toward the very legitimacy of the Jewish state.

Lastly, it mustn’t go unsaid that Israeli policy over the last four decades bears much of the responsibility for the prevalence of the apartheid comparison. By building large and illegal settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, cities and outposts that as of 2013 had around 650,000 residents, Israel itself undermined the separation between its legitimate sovereign territory and the occupied Palestinian territories. 

The reality of Israeli citizens living and traveling alongside disenfranchised Palestinians, projecting the appearance of an apartheid state, is a situation Israel created on its own. 

But this should not change the basic fact on the ground: Israel is occupying the Palestinian territories in the same way France occupied Algeria, with both military personnel and civilians. That Pieds-Noirs were living in the same territory as Algerians did not render France an apartheid state. Such a claim would not only have been wrong but would've been bound to alienate potential allies in France. The same applies for Israel.

Indeed, apartheid South Africa is a particularly inappropriate comparison. The present situation in the occupied territories certainly contains similarities to South Africa. The non-contiguous 'areas' (A,B and C) created under Oslo, which were intended to be temporary, can't help but bring to mind the bantustans. But unlike South Africa, there is a legitimate Jewish state on 78% of the land between the river and sea, and the creation of a Palestinian state on the remaining 22% would not be an injustice but rather the proper implementation of international law. 

Abe Silberstein writes on Israeli politics and U.S.-Israel relations from New York.