The Amnesty International report misses the point due to a single word: “apartheid.” People who didn’t read the report condemn it as “antisemitic,” or at least baseless compared to South Africa. Even those who support the condemnation of Israel and consider it an apartheid state don’t have to read the report – after all, almost everything written in it is known and familiar to us.
The problem with the concept “apartheid” is not that it almost certainly prevents the reading of this important, detailed report, but it also blocks the discussion of Israel’s regime, which is rife with discrimination. If you want to understand what’s going on here, you have to make basic distinctions, rather than creating one uniform regime of discrimination.
The success of Israel’s domination of the Palestinians is based on physical separation and a variety of discriminatory regimes. Although the Green Line, Israel’s 1967 border, is erased as far as Jews are concerned, that is not the case for Palestinians. The Palestinians in the West Bank would like to benefit from the civil and political rights of the Palestinian citizens of Israel, despite the built-in regime of segregation and discrimination inside the Jewish state. And no Palestinian Israeli citizen is willing to have his village transferred to the West Bank, which is under military rule, similar to what existed in “Israel proper” from 1948-1966.
Here is the secret to the success of the discriminatory Israeli regime: It is an upgraded apartheid, if you wish, but not a uniform regime. I’m not opposed to the use of the term apartheid to emphasize the legality of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. However, I think it misses the first political goal: an understanding of the situation, which is the first condition for its repair.
Israel’s regime succeeds in dividing and ruling the Palestinians with greater efficiency that the regime of racial discrimination in South Africa in its day. If the racial discrimination there created political unity among the discriminated-against blacks, and a political demand for equality – “one person, one vote” – the Jewish supremacist regime and the graded discrimination divides the Palestinians to such an extent that they cannot establish a national congress that would convene Palestinians from inside Israel, East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Lebanon.
Deniers of the injustices of upgraded apartheid say that there is no racial discrimination here, but rather a “national conflict.” If the conflict really is national, why can’t the Palestinians, who are scattered in regimes that differ from one another, establish a national congress? It’s true that the discrimination is not based on race, but neither is it purely a national conflict.
In any case, this is a conflict between settlers and the original local population. In such cases, the settlers’ goal is to displace and erase the physical presence and collective identity of the original population in order to take over more and more land. In the Israeli case they called it “a land without a people for a people without a land” – a slogan that expressed how Zionism tried to carry out two moves at once: to establish the Jews as a people-nationality, and to dismantle the natives of their shared identity.
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As opposed to South Africa, where they wanted to keep the blacks as cheap labor lacking rights, the Zionist project is a settlement project, aka colonization, like the British settlement in North America, and Australia and New Zealand. Until 1967, the leading political force in Zionism, the Labor settler movement, rejected the typical colonialist economic interest of exploiting local manpower, and they sought to displace them from the labor market and from their land.
However, already by 1948 the Palestinian local population had become consolidated as a national movement, a result of their opposition to the efforts to push them out. Since the expulsion and flight of the Arabs during the 1948 War of Independence, the Israeli regime has been busy imposing physical segregation between Jews and Arabs, practicing “divide and rule” policies on them in order to tighten Israeli control and maintain a regime in which the Jews have greater rights.
It’s true that despite their segregation, oppression and discrimination, the situation of Palestinian Israeli citizens is better than that of blacks in the apartheid regime. But the situation of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza is worse than what happened during apartheid. The siege of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip has created the largest prison in the world, and Israel’s presumed right to bomb from the air and kill civilians was not a common tool used by the whites in South Africa when they oppressed the black opponents of apartheid.
In upgraded apartheid there’s a separation between types of Palestinians: one group in relatively good shape, the others living in oppressive regimes of various gradations that are worse than what was imposed on blacks in the apartheid regime.
That is the problem of resorting to the concept of apartheid: It blurs the differences and blunts Israel’s success at continuing to divide and rule. This condemnation is the harshest one possible, but it prevents us from understanding why the oppression is so successful. According to my analysis, the present regime is worse than apartheid – because it does not enable the Palestinian to fight together for a shared goal.
There are five separate groups of Palestinians subject to various types pf discriminatory regimes, and they have varied political objectives: Within the 1967 border the demand is for equality, in the West Bank they are demanding an independent state, and in Gaza a lifting of the siege. The refugees are demanding the right of return, and the Palestinians in East Jerusalem are confused: They have freedom of movement and social welfare rights like other Israeli citizens, but like the West Bank Palestinians they are denied citizenship, and like them they are threatened by eviction from their homes, attacks by “settlers” and arbitrary killing.
If that is the case, what do all five of these groups have in common? What can we call this regime, which has succeeded in doing what the whites in South Africa were unable to do?
What they have in common is that everywhere between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, and outside Israel’s borders as well, the Jews have more rights than the original inhabitants. The regime is one of Jewish supremacy.
But the gap is not uniform: The Jews’ privileges in the West Bank are greater than those of the Jews inside Israel; the Jews, by means of the Israel Defense Forces, have total control over what enters the Gaza Strip, as well as who enters and who leaves; and outside Israel’s borders the regime of supremacy is most blatant of all: The descendants of the Palestinians who lived here for hundreds of years and became refugees in 1948 are not allowed to return to the county or receive compensation for their property. Whereas every Jew, though lacking a genuine connection to Israel other than at best prayers and Jewish holidays, has a full right to get Israeli citizenship and financial support from the government immediately after their arrival.
So here we have the unique regime established in Israel, as a result of a special historical development that differs from the situation in other places, and differs as well from the dream of the founders to build an ethical Jewish society, a “light unto the nations.” This regime is the opposite, it brings darkness, it fosters discrimination and injustices among Jews as well – a regime without borders that is incapable of stopping the nationalist-racist urge to continue pushing out the Palestinians.
The concept of apartheid is forcing us into a sterile semantic debate, and diverting attention from the Jewish supremacist regime, which deserves strong condemnation and is in need of radical change. The solution for apartheid in South Africa was simple: equal rights for all the citizens. A similar solution won’t work here, because it is far from dealing with the complexity of the Jewish supremacist regime.
The writer is the president of the Israeli Sociological Association and author of “Politics and Violence in Israel/Palestine: Democracy vs. Military Rule” (Routledge, 2010).