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Debate | Should we use the term ‘apartheid’ in discussing Israel?

Human Rights Watch, a major international advocacy group, on Tuesday issued a report alleging Israeli officials are committing the crime of apartheid. Conversations about the ways in which that term may or may not apply to Israel have become more prominent in recent years. With this latest development, we asked contributing columnists Joel Swanson and Ari Hoffman to debate not just the Human Rights Watch report, but also the broad issues connected to allegations of this seriousness.

JOEL SWANSON: Imagine, if you can, the following system of government.

One ethnicity and religious community has the right to vote for the government that administers the law in a particular territory, while another does not. There are roads that are restricted to members of one ethnicity, while members of another are restricted from driving on them, and even from riding the same buses. Two individuals arrested in this same territory face two radically different systems of justice, depending on their ethnicity and religion.

Joel Swanson | Artist: Noah Lubin

Joel Swanson Image by Noah Lubin

One community has more access to agricultural resources in the territory, while the other can be evicted from their agricultural lands much more easily. Even water infrastructure is distributed unequally.

Would you describe such a system as a liberal democracy? Or would you say you saw evidence of crimes of apartheid?

Because all of the above describes the situation in the West Bank under an Israeli occupation that has now continued for more than half a century. And as Human Rights Watch makes clear in their new report, Israel is practicing apartheid in the West Bank.

Consider some of the points raised in the report, which alleges that Israel has committed the crime of apartheid in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, but not in Israel proper. “Israeli authorities treat the more than 441,000 Israeli settlers and 2.7 million Palestinians who reside in the West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem, under distinct bodies of law,” the report states. “They also treat the two population groups unequally on a range of issues, including protection of civil and political rights; methods of law enforcement; freedom of movement; freedom to build; and access to water, electricity, infrastructure, and other resources and services.”

Skeptics of the apartheid analogy point out, as does the report, that Israeli Arabs who live within Israel proper have more rights than those living in the West Bank and Gaza. And to an extent, this is true; Palestinians with Israeli citizenship can vote for the government that governs them, for example. But a half-century of military occupation cannot help but affect the political culture within the Green Line, as well. Israel has codified more than 65 laws that discriminate against non-Jewish Israelis, including laws that make it easier to revoke Palestinian residency rights in Jerusalem; laws that block Palestinian citizens from leasing up to 80% of the land controlled by the Israeli state; and laws that make it harder for Palestinians to even commemorate their own historical traumas.

These discriminatory laws drive the point home. There is simply no way to administer a “separate and unequal” military occupation in the West Bank for more than half a century without some of that inequality being imported to Israel proper.

Those who reject the analogy between Israel and apartheid South Africa also point out that apartheid in South Africa was intended to be a permanent state of affairs, while the occupation of the West Bank is a temporary state until final status agreements are worked out.

But after half a century, with de jure annexation of the West Bank officially on the Israeli docket, and prominent Israeli politicians insisting that there will never be a Palestinian state in the West Bank, the claim that the occupation is only temporary is increasingly untenable.

As Human Rights Watch points out, much Israeli policy in the West Bank is designed to permanently entrench Israeli settlement there. Israeli occupying forces have “erected nearly 600 permanent obstacles… that disrupt daily life for Palestinians” while increasing freedom of movement for Jewish settlers. The Human Rights Watch report also notes increasing integration between Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Israel: “authorities have entirely integrated the settlements’ sewage system, communication and road networks, and electrical grids and water infrastructure with Israel proper.”

The trend is clear. The most powerful politicians in Israel do not consider the occupation of the West Bank to be a temporary state to be worked out later, but rather a permanent future for their country.

ARI HOFFMAN: No one should be surprised that Human Rights Watch has decided to launch a broadside against Israel.

In the same way that the United Nations has made the Jewish State a particular object of condemnation, Human Rights Watch has relentlessly focused on Israel under the guise of concern for human rights worldwide.

Ari Hoffman | Artist: Noah Lubin

Ari Hoffman Image by Noah Lubin

It’s hard to know where to start when it comes to Human Rights Watch’s outright hostility to Israel. A member of its Middle East and Africa advisory committee is allegedly associated with the People’s Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a terrorist organization. One of its senior human rights investigators was found in 2009 to be an enthusiastic collector of Nazi memorabilia. Its founding director and chairman emeritus took to the pages of The New York Times to denounce the direction of the organization, writing that “Human Rights Watch has lost critical perspective on a conflict in which Israel has been repeatedly attacked by Hamas and Hezbollah, organizations that go after Israeli citizens and use their own people as human shields. These groups are supported by the government of Iran, which has openly declared its intention not just to destroy Israel but to murder Jews everywhere.”

The accusation of apartheid has been in circulation among Israel’s critics for a while. What makes it especially awkwardly timed now is that an Israeli Arab party, Ra’am, is currently at the center of the country’s political galaxy.

The fact that Human Rights Watch treats the experience of Israeli Arabs as bolstering its wholesale condemnation of Israel, rather than serving as a refutation of that conclusion, illustrates just how imbalanced this report is.

The report does not engage with the reality of repeated peace negotiations over the status of the territories, nor with the realities of Palestinian terrorism. Reading it, you would not know that there was no separation barrier between the West Bank and pre-1967 Israel before a wave of suicide bombings terrorized Israeli society. The number of those bombings plummeted once the wall was built. Astoundingly, the Human Rights Watch report mentions the word “terrorism” only in quotes from Israeli officials; it does not engage with the subject of those quotes.

How this analysis is supposed to be conducted in the absence of that word is beyond me.

To see how far Human Rights Watch is from being a credible arbiter of these questions, look at their treatment of the question of Gaza. In 2005, Israel unilaterally withdrew every last Israeli citizen and soldier from the coastal strip of land. Hamas soon rose to power, chartered on the premise that annihilating Israel and murdering Jews were legitimate political aspirations. It launched a barrage of rockets into southern Israel just last weekend.

In response to Hamas’ rise, Israel secured Gaza’s border and maintains control of ingress and egress into its territory. This is how Human Rights Watch describes the situation: “Israel has remained in critical ways the supreme power in Gaza, dominating through other means and hence maintaining its legal obligations as an occupying power, as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the United Nations (UN), among others, have determined.”

The logic is Orwellian: Israel occupies if it stays, and occupies if it leaves. When it comes to the Jewish State, it’s tails you lose, heads we win.

JOEL SWANSON: Ari, I can’t help but notice that rather than begin with any actual engagement with the content of the Human Rights Watch complaints, you begin by attacking the messenger, claiming that their supposed hostility to the state of Israel undermines any possibility that they could serve as credible arbiters of the question of apartheid in Israel. But Human Rights Watch, the organization, is not the issue here.

Their new report may be the occasion of this debate. But lots of other credible organizations and individuals, including Israeli human rights NGO B’Tselem and South African anti-apartheid activist and Nobel Prize laureate Desmond Tutu have made the same allegation. The South African-born Israeli Jewish anti-apartheid activist Benjamin Pogrund, a personal friend of Nelson Mandela who previously strenuously resisted comparisons between his adopted and birth countries, now concedes that he can no longer deny the apartheid reality of the West Bank.

In addition, I’ve always found charges of “double standards” on the part of organizations like Human Rights Watch to be hypocritical. You cite Hamas and Hezbollah as “organizations that go after Israeli citizens and use their own people as human shields.” Hamas and Hezbollah are bad organizations with bad human rights records, as even Human Rights Watch itself has acknowledged. But everyone in American politics admits that Hamas and Hezbollah are bad. Even among the most left-wing Democrats, you don’t find open defenders of Hamas and Hezbollah.

Senator Bernie Sanders, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate who went furthest in criticizing the Israeli government and AIPAC, has critiqued Hamas and Hezbollah. And the vast majority of elected Democrats in Congress back continued aid to Israel with no preconditions.

Meanwhile, a tremendous amount of rhetorical defenses of the US-Israel alliance are premised around the fact that our two nations supposedly have, in the words of the State Department, a “shared commitment to democracy.” It’s strange to me that defenders of Israel want to claim simultaneously that it’s a double standard to condemn Israel for its violations of liberal democracy, and hold up Israel as a moral exemplar of those same democratic values. If your defense of Israel is that it upholds liberal democratic values — a defense no American politicians proffer for Hamas or Hezbollah — you can’t be surprised when we critique Israel for failing to live up to those values.

Let’s take the example of Gaza. Israel continues to control affairs there: It maintains a blockade of goods into Gaza by air and sea and has shut down local power plants. The logic, as you rightly point out, is Orwellian. Either Gaza is part of Israel, in which case the logic of liberal democracy means the Israeli government needs to let Gazans vote, or else Gaza is not part of Israel, in which case Israel has no right to maintain an illegal blockade of Gaza’s sea borders or interfere with its power supply.

Finally, you cite the involvement of the Arab Islamist Party Ra’am, now possible kingmakers in determining the next Israeli Prime Minister, as a milestone for Arab Palestinian integration into the Israeli political process. Ra’am’s possible participation in the formation of an Israeli governing coalition is significant. But the larger point here is that the entire Israeli Zionist enterprise is built on the idea that Jews have to maintain a voting majority in Israel, or else the character of the Jewish state will be threatened.

What this means is that Israeli Arab parties have never been permitted to participate in Israeli governing coalitions on either the left or right. Even the most strenuously anti-Netanyahu Jewish politicians continue to refuse to consider sitting in a government including Arab parties.

As Human Rights Watch argues, “To sustain Jewish Israeli control, Israeli authorities have adopted policies aimed at mitigating what they have openly described as a demographic ‘threat’ that Palestinians pose. Those policies include limiting the population and political power of Palestinians, granting the right to vote only to Palestinians who live within the borders of Israel as they existed from 1948 to June 1967.”

There are, in total, now more Palestinian Arabs than Jews living between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. If they could all vote equally, Israeli Jewish parties would not have the numbers to block a Palestinian Arab from becoming Prime Minister. Jewish parties only maintain their power by systematically denying the right to vote to the majority of Palestinians living under their control.

It’s quite simple. Israel either needs to allow the creation of an independent state of Palestine in the West Bank, or grant equal voting rights to every person, Jewish and Arab, living there, even if that means a Ra’am Prime Minister.

The Israeli government is willing to do neither. That, I would submit, is apartheid, and not liberal democracy.

ARI HOFFMAN: I want to step back and think about the usefulness of the term “apartheid” in thinking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Palestinians on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip are not citizens of Israel: they are ruled by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Israeli citizens are barred from entering cities like Jericho, which are under full Palestinian control. The Human Rights Watch report references “the State of Palestine” as a signatory to various international treaties, implicitly acknowledging that Palestinian self-determination does not involve entering more fully into the Israeli political system.

While inequalities persist within the Green Line, the Arab Israelis who make up 20% of Israel’s citizenry do not suffer from the de jure discrimination that defined the apartheid regime — and the Human Rights Watch report doesn’t argue that they do.

All of this makes it even more troubling that this legacy has been turned against Israel, most egregiously in the “Israel Apartheid Week” phenomenon on college campuses. The charge of apartheid has been used to target not only specific Israeli policies, but the existence of the Jewish State itself, and the moral probity of those who dare to support it.

The accusation of apartheid reduces a complex geo-political conflict to a morality play, and paints in misleading black and white what is actually a nuanced and textured set of circumstances. It also serves as a vehicle for a whole set of rhetorical assaults on Israel that converge around advocacy of a one-state solution. That perspective is connected to an inability to abide the existence of one solitary Jewish State, among dozens of Christian and Muslim ones.

JOEL SWANSON: You argue it’s wrong to analogize between apartheid South Africa and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, precisely because South Africa was one single state, while the West Bank is not part of the Israeli state.

But if the West Bank is not part of the Israeli state, then Israel has been unjustly occupying a foreign country for more than half a century, and has a moral and legal obligation to withdraw from that sovereign state and allow it to be independent. But as Human Rights Watch points out, instead of moving in that direction, the Israeli government has moved in the opposite one, entrenching the occupation through “continued settlement expansion over the course of the decades-long ‘peace process.’” As Human Rights Watch argues, de jure annexation, in which Israel would openly assert that the West Bank is legally part of Israel and not its own sovereign state, would change little on the ground. It would merely “formalize the reality of systematic Israeli domination and oppression that has long prevailed without changing the reality that the entire West Bank is occupied territory under the international law of occupation.”

You cannot have it both ways. And I’m much less interested in debating which term is in fact more accurate than in pointing to the fact that, in practice, a system which treats people differently based on race and religion is becoming more and more entrenched with each passing day.

ARI HOFFMAN: I think there is another way forward: The recognition that in the volatile Middle East, the awkwardness of the status quo can sometimes be better than the alternatives. There are real costs to the current arrangement. Blaming Israel for the complicated consequences of the decades-long wars against its existence is not the path to get to a better future.

But Israel’s absorption into the region via the Abraham Accords suggests that peace may take an unusual or unexpected form. If that happens, no one will be more surprised than Human Rights Watch. It is hard to see what’s coming with your eyes closed.

Ari Hoffman is a contributing columnist for the Forward, where he writes about politics and culture. He is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at N.Y.U., and his writing has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Tablet Magazine, The New York Observer, and a range of other publications. He holds a doctorate in English Literature from Harvard and a law degree from Stanford.

Joel Swanson is a contributing columnist for the Forward and a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago, studying modern Jewish intellectual history and the philosophy of religions. Find him on Twitter @jh_swanson.

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