Kerry Was Wrong: In Israel, There May Never Be Apartheid. In the West Bank, It’s Already Here

Defending Kerry’s statement by citing similar statements made by pro-Israel Jews perpetuates the myth that no one else is allowed to criticize.

Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart
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File photo: Palestinian school children walk past a section of Israel's separation barrier in the West Bank village of Abu Dis, on the outskirt of Jerusalem.
File photo: Palestinian school children walk past a section of Israel's separation barrier in the West Bank village of Abu Dis, on the outskirt of Jerusalem. Credit: AP
Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

There’s an easy way to defend John Kerry’s recent claim that if Israel doesn’t achieve “a two-state solution,” it could become “an apartheid state.” Just note that several Israeli leaders and establishment American Jews have said the same thing. In 2010, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak declared, “if this bloc of millions of Palestinians [permanently] cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state” Tzipi Livni, Jeffrey Goldberg, and the late Edgar Bronfman have said all used the “A word” as well.

But justifying Kerry’s statement this way is wrong. It suggests that when it comes to Israel, the test of a statement’s truth is whether prominent Jews have said it too. That’s idiotic. If Kerry’s statement is false, then the fact that “pro-Israel” Jews have uttered the same falsehood is no defense. And if Kerry’s statement is correct, it is no less correct because he’s Irish Catholic. Defending Kerry by citing Barak and Livni - as the State Department did - perpetuates the myth that Jews and Israelis have a right to criticize Israel that non-Jews and non-Israelis don’t. It deepens the culture of inhibition that leads many well-meaning, well-informed American gentiles to avoid questioning Israeli policy because they fear that the only way to safely raise such questions is to accompany them with a heart-warming story about your Bar Mitzvah.

“Accept the truth from whatever source it comes,” Maimonides famously said. What matters isn’t who else said that without a two state solution Israel will become an apartheid state. What matters is whether the claim is true.

And it’s not, exactly. In fact, Kerry’s statement is both too harsh and not harsh enough. The end of the two-state solution will be a historic catastrophe for Israel. It won’t, however, make Israel an apartheid state. Inside the green line, Palestinian citizens of Israel will still vote in Israeli elections, serve in the Knesset and live under the same law as their Jewish neighbors—rights that blacks never enjoyed in apartheid South Africa. It’s possible that permanent, undemocratic Israeli control of the West Bank will erode the democratic rights of Israel’s Palestinians citizens inside the green line. But it’s not inevitable. In fact, although Palestinian Israelis still face structural discrimination, they enjoy greater rights than they did before Israel conquered the West Bank. Until 1966, after all, Palestinian citizens of Israel lived under military law. Now they no longer do, even as Israel imposes military law on millions of their cousins across the green line.

Britain ruled India for close to a century while expanding democratic rights at home. In 1920, the United States undemocratically occupied Nicaragua and Haiti while granting American women the right to vote. It’s not inevitable that making permanent Israel’s undemocratic rule of the West Bank will destroy democracy inside Israel proper. And Kerry has offered no evidence that it will.

Kerry is confusing time and space. The problem isn’t that at some future date all of Israel will turn into an apartheid state. It may not. The problem is that there’s a territory—the West Bank—where Israel is practicing apartheid right now. The International Criminal Court defines “apartheid” as “an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups.” Yes, Jews and Palestinians aren’t races. They’re peoples. But what matters is that the boundary between them is sealed. For all practical purposes, West Bank Palestinians cannot become Jews and because they cannot, they are barred from citizenship in the state that controls their lives, cannot vote for its government, live under a different legal system than their Jewish neighbors and do not enjoy the same freedom of movement. That’s “systematic oppression and domination” by one group over another. And it’s been going on for 46 years.

I sympathize with Kerry’s efforts to awake Israelis to the dangers of perpetuating the status quo. But apartheid is not a problem Israel must avoid in the future. It’s the reality West Bank Palestinians face today. For Jews and non-Jews who care about justice, that should be all the incentive we need.

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