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Apartheid? Israel is a democracy in which Arabs vote

Editor's note- Benjamin Pogrund is well equipped to write about apartheid and Israel. He was born in South Africa, where  a leader in the fight against apartheid and outspoken proponent of equality as editor of the Rand Daily Mail. He now lives in Israel, where is is founding director of Yakar's Center for Social Concern in Jerusalem. he is also co-editor of the newly published book, "Shared Histories: A Palestinian-Israel Dialogue".

By way of clarification, the Israeli Law of Return does not use a religious criterion to decide who is of the Jewish nationality. The Law of Return allows anyone who had one Jewish grandparent to return to Israel as a Jew. This creates a conflict with the orthodox Jewish religious establishment, who use the halachic religious criterion of descent from a Jewish mother.

The slogan "Israel as an apartheid state" has been promoted by anti-Zionists to delegitimize the basis of Zionism. The analogy is used to legitimize and catalyze boycott initiatives such as those that were instituted against South Africa. Some people confound it with criticism of the occupation, but the same people would be opposed to Israel if there were not occupation.


Apartheid? Israel is a democracy in which Arabs vote

By Benjamin Pogrund

 Apartheid is dead in South Africa but the word is alive in the world, especially as an epithet of abuse for Israel. Israel is accused by some of being “the new apartheid” state. If true, it would be a grave charge, justifying international condemnation and sanctions. But it isn’t true. Anyone who knows what apartheid was, and who knows Israel today, is aware of that. Use of the apartheid label is at best ignorant and na´ve and at worst cynical and manipulative.

Either way, its inappropriate use cheapens the meaning of the apartheid that South Africans suffered for so long. Just as overuse of “Nazi” has robbed that once-dreaded word of much of its meaning, as happened during the Gaza Strip evacuation in August 2005: the Jewish settlers who yelled “Nazis” at the Jewish soldiers who were evicting them, betrayed and diminished the Holocaust which had murderously swept over Europe’s Jews 50 years earlier.

The word "apartheid" was coined in the 1920s for Calvinist religious purposes but became widely known through the general election in 1948 as the expression of Afrikaner nationalist political, social and economic policy. It can be defined as racial separation and discrimination, institutionalised by law in every aspect of everyday life, imposed by the white minority and derived from belief in white racial superiority.

The description of Israel as an “emerging apartheid state” began to roll perhaps around 2000 and gained wider currency during the regional conferences leading up to the UN Anti-racism conference in Durban in August/September 2001. The anti-racism conference of NGOs adopted resolutions condemning Israel as an “apartheid state” and called for an international policy of total isolation “as in the case of South Africa which means the imposition of mandatory and comprehensive sanctions and embargoes (and) the full cessation of all links…”. There were also repeated references to “genocide” in descriptions of Israel’s behaviour towards Palestinians, plus denunciations of Zionism, Israel’s founding philosophy, as “racism” in a transparent attempt to reinstate the now rescinded 1975 UN resolution condemning Zionism as a crime against humanity akin to apartheid.

The sponsors of these statements and their supporters were so wild and off the mark in their language and actions that they discredited themselves. In addition, that is, to creating near-total distraction from the anti-racism cause which was the purpose of their being there. The conference of governments that immediately followed the NGO meeting rejected virtually every one of the attacks on Israel. Later, South Africa’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Aziz Pahad, spoke of the “disgraceful events” surrounding the NGO conference and said: “I wish to make it unequivocally clear that the South African government recognises that part of that component was hijacked and used by some with an anti-Israel agenda to turn it into an anti-Semitic event.”

So how does Israel stand in regard to the apartheid and racist claims?

 First, Israel inside the Green Line (the de facto border after the 1967 war)

Arabs are a substantial minority, about 20 per cent of the population. In theory they have full citizenship rights. In practice they suffer extensive discrimination, ranging from denial of land use, diminished job opportunities and lesser social benefits, to reports of a family ordered off a beach and children evicted from a park. Only some 5,05 per cent of the 55 500 civil servants are Arabs. Arab villages are often under-funded and suffer from poor services and roads. Schools receive smaller amounts of government revenue, so their facilities are poorer.

None of this is acceptable and especially in a state that presents itself as the only democracy in the Middle East. But is it comparable with pre-1994 South Africa? Under apartheid, remember, no detail of life was immune to discrimination by law. Skin colour determined every single person’s life, literally from birth until death: where you were born, where you went to school, what job you had, which bus you used, what park bench you sat on and in which cemetery you were buried. In Israel, discrimination occurs despite equality in law; it is extensive, it is buttressed by custom, but it is not remotely comparable with the South African panoply of discrimination enforced by parliamentary legislation. The difference is fundamental.

In Israel, discrimination occurs despite equality in law; it is extensive, it is buttressed by custom, but it is not remotely comparable with the South African panoply of discrimination enforced by parliamentary legislation. The difference is fundamental.

The Israeli situation can perhaps be better likened to the United States: blacks enjoyed rights under the Constitution but the rights were not enforced for decades; it took the Supreme Court’s historic judgement in Brown vs Board of Education in 1954 to begin the process of applying the law.

The difference between the current Israeli situation and apartheid South Africa is emphasised at a very human level: Jewish and Arab babies are born in the same delivery room, with the same facilities, attended by the same doctors and nurses, with the mothers recovering in adjoining beds in a ward. Two years ago I had major surgery in a Jerusalem hospital: the surgeon was Jewish, the anaesthetist was Arab, the doctors and nurses who looked after me were Jews and Arabs. Jews and Arabs share meals in restaurants and travel on the same trains, buses and taxis, and visit each other’s homes.

Could any of this possibly have happened under apartheid? Of course not.

A crucial, indeed fundamental, indicator of the status of Israel’s minority — and another non-comparison between apartheid South Africa and Israel — is that Arabs have the vote. Blacks did not. The vote means citizenship and power to change. Arab citizens lack full power as a minority community but they have the right and the power to unite as a group and to ally with others.

Nor does “Zionism is racism” stand up to scrutiny. On 29 November 1947, the UN General Assembly voted for partition of the then Palestine so as to create a state for Jews and a state for Arabs. For Jews it was Zionism come true — the return to their ancestral home and the creation of a refuge from centuries-old persecution. They accepted partition but Arabs did not. Israel now has a Jewish majority and they have the right to decide how to order the society, including defining citizenship. If the majority wish to restrict immigration and citizenship to Jews that may be incompatible with a strict definition of the universality of humankind. But it is the right of the majority. Just as it is the right of Saudi Arabia and other Arab states not to allow Christians as citizens, or the right of Ghana and other African states to reject or restrict whites as citizens, or the right of South Africa to have a non-racial citizenship policy. It’s the norm for countries to have citizenship laws and immigration practices which do not subscribe to universal ideals, but which are, on the contrary, based on their perceptions of colour or religion or economic class or whatever. Europe demonstrates that every day in dealing with would-be economic migrants.

Israel’s “Law of Return”, giving every Jew anywhere in the world the right to immigration — apart from exceptional cases relating to known criminals and kindred miscreants — is part of the majority’s right to decide whom to admit. It stems from the original purpose in creating a Jewish state, or a state for the Jews. Orthodox rabbis in Israel have a controlling influence in deciding who is a Jew. Descent is matrilineal. It is a religious issue — not an “apartheid” one as some claim — which is being fought over among Jews, with the Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism demanding a role.

At the same time, it is clearly unfair from the victims’ point of view for Israel to give automatic entry to Jews from anywhere while denying the “Right of Return” to Palestinians who fled or were expelled in the wars of 1948 and 1967, and their descendants. This unfairness, to put it at its mildest, is a tragic consequence of war. Again, however, it is not unique to Israel. The same has happened in recent times, often on far greater scales, in Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, India and Pakistan, to list but a few parallel situations.

In any event, what is racism? Under apartheid it was skin colour. Applied to Israel that’s a joke: for proof of that, just look at a crowd of Israeli Jews and their gradations in skin-colour from the “blackest” to the “whitest”. In international usage, “racism” has broadened and now seems to cover any prejudice or discrimination against another group. Under this definition, Israel, a young country that was founded less than 60 years ago, is a hotbed of discrimination and complaints about discrimination. Arabs suffer most but there are constant complaints of discrimination and unfair treatment from (Oriental) Sephardic Jews and (Western) Ashkenazi Jews, as well as religious and secular Jews. There is no shortage of abrasive reports claiming discrimination. One illustration: three prestigious Ashkenazi religious seminaries for girls were reported to maintain a quota whereby only 30 per cent of Sephardic origin are admitted because they are viewed as inferior; this was described as progress because previously the quota was 17 per cent.

The non-comparison is seen yet again in the possibilities of change. In South Africa, change for the better was simply not possible during at least the first 30 years of Afrikaner Nationalist rule. Even if a court occasionally blew a hole in an apartheid law, the all-white parliament rapidly enacted legislation to close the loophole. In contrast, change is possible in Israel, and change is happening. Gains range from the first hiring of Arabs by the parastatal Israeli Electric Corporation, through equality in budgets for Muslim cemeteries, to affirmative action in government service such as last year’s appointment of the first Arab judge to the High Court of Justice. Change is imperfect and too slow and there is backsliding, but it is happening.

Even on the critical issue of land: with most of Israel reserved for Jews, an Arab nurse, Adel Kaadan, has been striving for a decade to move into the Jewish town of Katzir. The High Court opened the way for him but bureaucratic tricks have kept him out. It seems he is now on the verge of success — and more cases are in the pipeline to challenge land discrimination.


Second, the West Bank

It is occupied by Israel. No occupation can be benign. Israeli harshness and misdeeds are reported day in and day out by Israeli media. Everyone is suffering, Palestinians as victims and Israelis as perpetrators. Death and maiming haunts everyone in the occupied territories and in Israel itself. Occupation is brutalising and corrupting both Palestinians and Israelis. The damage done to the fabric of both societies, moral and material, is incalculable.

But it is not apartheid. Palestinians are not oppressed on racial grounds as Arabs, but, rather, as competitors — until now, at the losing end — in a national/religious conflict for land.

The word “Bantustan” is often used to describe Israel’s policy about a future Palestinian state. It might look like that, superficially. But the root causes — and even more, the intentions — are different. White South Africans invented the Bantustans to pen blacks into defined areas that served as reservoirs of labour; blacks were allowed to leave only when needed to work in white South Africa’s factories, farms, offices and homes. The Israeli aim is the exact opposite: it is to keep Palestinians out, having as little to do with them as possible, and letting in as few as possible to work. Instead, workers from other countries are imported to do the jobs that Israelis will not do.

If Israel were to annex the West Bank and control voteless Palestinians as a source of cheap labour — or for religious messianic reasons or strategic reasons — that could indeed be analogous to apartheid. But it is not the intention except in the eyes of a minority — settlers and extremists who speak of “transfer” to clear Palestinians out of the West Bank, or who desire a disenfranchised Palestinian population. The majority of Israelis — 60 to 70 per cent, opinion polls consistently show — want to get out of the West Bank, with divergences of opinion only on where the final borders with a Palestinian state should be drawn.

The separation barrier/wall/fence currently being built is part of this scheme. Its immediate purpose is to prevent Palestinian suicide-bombers from entering Israel. That aim enjoys popular Israeli support. Had it been confined to that and had the barrier run along the Green Line it would have been an ugly blot on the landscape as well as a statement of the failure to achieve peace. However, the barrier has gone further: the Israeli government is using it as a land grab, intruding into the territory that everyone knows should be the future Palestinian state. About eight per cent of that Palestinian land is inside the barrier, on the Israeli side. One of the effects is gross disruption of the lives of thousands of Palestinians who face extreme difficulty in gaining access to jobs, hospitals, schools and their fields.

The barrier/wall/fence, as it now is, is a repugnant aspect of Israeli policy, and all the more so because it is also meant to protect scores of Jewish settlements on the West Bank. But it is not apartheid. Calling it the “Apartheid Wall” is a debasement of the word for the sake of slick propaganda.

“Apartheid” is used in this case and elsewhere because it comes easily to hand: it is a lazy label for the complexities of the Middle East conflict. It is also used because, if it can be made to stick, then Israel can be made to appear to be as vile as was apartheid South Africa and seeking its destruction can be presented to the world as an equally moral cause.

Israel has withdrawn from the Gaza Strip (although consequent problems such as border control still have to resolved). Now the pressure is to end West Bank occupation. It must happen because it is the only way to secure peace with Palestinian and Israeli states living side by side. There’s a hard haul ahead, to negotiate evacuation and possible land swaps to compensate for land, such as in the towns which have been built with populations of up to 35 000 and which Israel wants to retain. It would, however, be unrealistic to believe that withdrawal from the West Bank will be enough in itself. Peace can only ultimately come when the rejectionists — the Palestinian organisations like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and Arab states like Iran — accept the fact of Israel’s existence.

Is a binational state the answer? On the face of it, of course. Unfortunately, and for the foreseeable future, it belongs to a never-never land. It looks more attractive the further one is from the Middle East. On the ground it enjoys support only from the extremes on both sides. It’s a non-starter for the vast majority of Israelis because it would mean the end of the Jewish state. Those who propagate from afar lack a sense of Jewish history and the survival ethos created by centuries of persecution. Nor do most Palestinians want it. Why should they drown themselves in a joint state which will be dominated by Jews in every walk of life, whether the economy, government or the professions? Rather their own Palestinian pond in which they will be the masters.

Instead of one-sided attacks on Israel, which are not only counter-productive but raise worrying questions about motives, there should be an unequivocal commitment to peace. Genuine peace efforts should have twin aims: first, to persuade Israel to end the occupation and help a viable Palestinian state to come into being; and second, to persuade the rejectionists to change so that Israelis need no longer fear annihilation if they let down their guard. 

This article appears in Focus 40 (December 2005). Focus is published by The Helen Suzman Foundation. This article may be reproduced free of charge as long as both Focus and The Helen Suzman Foundation are accredited, and a copy of the reprinted article is sent to P O Box 1524, Parklands, 2121/ Fax 011 880 1850.

It is reproduced here permission of the author.

This article first appeared on  the Web as Israel is a democracy in which Arabs vote - Not an apartheid State at Zionism and Israel Information Center

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