Monday, March 02, 2009

Israeli apartheid: calumny or reality?

To take note of Israeli Apartheid Week, I am opening the floor to a discussion in which all are encouraged to join, under the usual rules of civil exchange.

The phrase "Israeli apartheid" is obviously an inflammatory one, evoking images of the former regime in South Africa, condemned around the world as racist and grossly cruel and exploitative. But does that make it false?

I'll sketch the affirmative position in broad strokes, and hope that the ensuing debate will provide, no doubt with the usual heat, perhaps a little light as well.


At one time I was of the opinion that the Israeli occupation (and through settlements, the partial annexation) of the West Bank could rightly be said to have imposed "apartheid," but I did not apply the term to Israel proper (within the pre-1967 boundaries). Yet even within Israel itself, as it turns out, the non-Jewish population is not treated equally. Access to land by non-Jews is next to impossible. Even the right to remain on land that is clearly theirs, and here I am referring to the Bedouins of the South Negev, is denied them.

An equally inflammatory companion phrase, "ethnic cleansing," needs to be injected into the discussion as well. This was, in fact, a major element in South African "grand apartheid," leading to the creation of the Bantustans. Whole populations were forcibly removed from land that the whites wanted, and transported to a number of little enclaves, some set up as "independent" states within South Africa, and some as mere reserves, to provide a permanent pool of cheap labour. A case can be made, I believe, that similar policies have been, and remain, in force in Israel and the occupied territories.

What was South African apartheid? What were its main characteristics?

This is not a difficult matter to research. The word (when I use it to describe the SA regime I shall use italics) refers to separation (lit. "apartness") of "races" in South Africa, but assuredly not on a "separate-but-equal" basis. The majority Black population was condemned to be the eternal servants of the master race. Kept apart and yet essential as the hewers of wood and drawers of water for the whites, Blacks had unequal rights, unequal opportunities, unequal lives. And they were kept in their place by hyperpolicing and a myriad of regulations deployed by racial micromanagers, not to mention periodic massacres to discourage dissent.

The core nature of apartheid, then, consisted of 1) racial separation; 2) brutal rule by one "race" over another, using the apparatus of the state; 3) dispossession of land on the basis once again of "race," and the formation of so-called Bantustans, some even with toy versions of self-rule; 4) the use of Blacks as a source of cheap labour to sustain the whites in a relatively lavish lifestyle; 5) disenfranchisement.

What are the similarities and differences between the practice of South African apartheid and Israeli state policy?

Benjamin Pogrund, a former South African now resident in Israel, stresses the differences. Certainly, as he says in a poignant example, Israeli hospitals are staffed by Jews and non-Jews working side-by-side: Blacks and whites never worked together in similar fashion in apartheid South Africa. And the whites in South Africa were a minority, while Jews in Israel are a majority.

He also claims that, unlike Bantustans, the walling off of the West Bank by the Israelis is not to create a pool of cheap labour but simply to remove themselves from the Palestinians. Others disagree that accessible Palestinian labour is not a consideration in Israeli policy: but the Wall would not appear to promote the exploitation of Palestinians. The Wall was, however, a transparent land-grab:
8% of Palestinian land is now on the Israeli side of the fence.

But with the best will in the world, Pogrund stretches matters. He concedes, for example, that most land in Israel (93%) has been reserved for Jews, but is full of hope that a court action by one Arab family may be a breakthrough. Indeed, the High Court of Justice did, subsequent to Pogrund's article, rule that state-owned land must be leased without regard to ethnicity. The Jewish National Fund, however, which controls 13% of Israel's land on which live 70% of the population, wants to keep it Jews-only, and the Knesset helpfully passed a law in 2007 to make it so.

When it comes to matters of ethnic separation, we also know, for example, that Palestinians are restricted to "Palestinian" roads--450 miles of roads in the West Bank are off-limits to them. A system of road segregation is clearly in place. But in another article, that no longer seems to be on-line, "Is Israel the new Apartheid?” Pogrund argued that that this wasn't apartheid at all--because under South African apartheid all roads were shared!

At this point one might wonder if other such non-essential differences (the Israeli government uses Hebrew, for example, while the apartheid South African government conducted its affairs in Afrikaans and English) are going to be advanced to make such fine--and in the case above, damaging--distinctions. We know that, towards the end, the apartheid regime in South Africa was being taken apart piece by piece, while nevertheless retaining its core character.

The profoundly humane Canadian academics Heribert Adam and Kogila Moodley ultimately find the apartheid comparison problematic. But they note some key similarities: universal suffrage does not exist when the Palestinians in the occupied territories are factored in. They may vote only for their own captive parliaments (indeed, former Premier Ehud Olmert has quite openly stated that one-man-one-vote would mean the destruction of Israel). And Israel's immigration policies are clearly discriminatory: the Law of Return does not apply to displaced Palestinian refugees, only to Jews.

Current marriage laws in effect in Israel are crudely based upon ethnicity. Marriage to Palestinians does not confer Israeli citizenship--indeed, those Palestinians are banned from Israel--and the children of such marriages must leave Israel when they turn 12 years old. Politicians in the Knesset, infuriated by this law, have referred quite explicitly to Israel as an apartheid state. And they aren't the only Israeli citizens to have done so.

One stark difference, however, is that the South African government did not, as a rule, permit individual whites to shoot, rob and harass Blacks any time they felt like it--that sort of thing was left up to the police and the military (e.g., Sharpeville). On the West Bank, however, settlers are violent proxies for the Israeli state, and are permitted to run wild, shooting at shepherds, stoning children, looting, destroying and killing, and generally terrorizing the local population at will. The police say "they have better things to do" than protect the Palestinians. The IDF collaborates with the settlers--when it isn't attacking unarmed civilians itself. The settlers live large on the West Bank, often in swanky houses, using up 80% of the available water (while nearby Palestinian farmers watch their livestock die of thirst*), and sitting on vast reserves of unused land allocated to them by the Israeli state.

Palestinians are routinely humiliated at numerous checkpoints. The anti-Arab thuggery and racism demonstrated by Israeli forces at these checkpoints is manifest. This type of population control is more than a little reminiscent of the routine South African police harassment of "kaffirs," who were required to carry a passbook at all times and were subjected to frequent humiliating searches and interrogations.

In occupied East Jerusalem, 1500 Palestinians have been handed eviction notices. The comment thread here is interesting. Those who defend the move argue that the issue is building permits. But we know that building permits, like bulldozers, have been used to clear the way for Israeli Jews. In the south Negev, Bedouins who have refused to move into a ghetto provided for them by the Israeli state are under constant attack. Building permits are denied in what are called the "unrecognized villages," although even "recognized villages" are not immune. Bedouin homes are razed. Their ancestral lands have been seized. Move they must: because there are plans to resettle the area with 250,000 Israeli Jews.
In these instances, I would argue that the term "ethnic cleansing" might fairly be applied.


At the beginning of this article I outlined the core aspects of South African apartheid. Does Israel compare, when one substitutes "ethnicity" for race?

1) Ethnic separation. Israel's policy of apartness, as outlined above, is obvious.

2) Brutal rule by one ethnic group over another, using the apparatus of the state.
Again, I believe that case has been made.

3) Dispossession of land on the basis of ethnicity. Ditto.

4) The use of Palestinians as a source of cheap labour. At least arguable. The case could be made, however, that South African apartheid was essentially rooted in the super-exploitation of the Black majority. Is this sufficient to distinguish the two?

5) Disenfranchisement.
Within Israel, non-Jews do have the right to vote. But, as noted, when the occupied territories are taken into account, the matter might be seen a little differently. Just as South African "coloureds" had their own Parliament, so too do the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank--and with about as much real authority and power.

Why compare Israeli state policies with South African apartheid? Certainly one reason is simply to express moral outrage by using a term that carries its own baggage of opprobrium. But another is to point out remarkably similar structural patterns of repression and discrimination against subjugated populations. While comparisons between the Nazi Holocaust and Israel's brutal repression of the West Bank and Gaza are (at least in my opinion) wildly overblown and wrong, and the usage of words like "genocide" equally so, the case that there exists a functioning Israeli apartheid system is not so easily dismissed.

Over to you.

UPDATE: (March 4) More. [H/t Mound of Sound]
*Paul Koring, Globe and Mail (Saturday, May 18, 2002) p. A15. No longer on-line.

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