Texts on ‘Apartheid’ in Israel/Palestine

The use of the term ‘apartheid’ to describe the situation in Israel/Palestine raises strong emotions amongst zionists and anti-zionists (and, most other groups you can think of). I’ve written about the issue of ‘apartheid’ and naming, specifically the idea of the proper name, before. It seems a worthwhile topic to return to, however, since thanks to Glyn Secker I have a few different perspectives to share and discuss, specifically work by the journalist Uri Avnery and the philosopher Uri Davis.

Uri Avnery has written an article arguing that the use of the term ‘apartheid’ is justified, however, the analogy is not perfect and activists must be careful not to base their actions opposing Israeli apartheid on the campaign against South African apartheid. He marks these essential differences: 1) Whereas both sides in the South African conflict agreed that the state of South Africa ought remain intact, many on both sides of the Israel/Palestinian conflict advocate partitian. 2)  in South Africa a small white minority ruled over a huge black majority, whereas in Israel/Palestine there are a roughly equal number of Jews and Arabs in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. 3) The South African economy was based on black labour, whereas the Israeli government has been careful to prevent the Israeli economy from becoming dependant on Palestinian labour, hiring instead foreign workers from other areas.

According to Avnery, these differences mean that it is not enough to rouse world public opinion about the Israeli Apartheid situation, but rather the Israeli public must itself be convinced. Unfortunately, he does not offer any argument for this claim, it simply stands on its own as the conclusion to the points of difference. Personally, I’m quite persuaded by the argument that the Israeli public is relatively unimportant to ending the occupation – the occupation persists only with strong US support, so the relevant public to raise awareness in is not the Israeli public but the populations of the US and American client states like Canada and to a lesser extent Europe.

Avnery has also argued against the Boycott on the grounds of the role of the Holocaust in the formation of Israeli identity:

The Holocaust will have a decisive impact on any call for a boycott of Israel. The leaders of the racist regime in South Africa openly sympathized with the Nazis and were even interned for this in World War II. Apartheid was based on the same racist theories as inspired Adolf Hitler. It was easy to get the civilized world to boycott such a disgusting regime. The Israelis, on the other hand, are seen as the victims of Nazism. The call for a boycott will remind many people around the world of the Nazi slogan “Kauft nicht bei Juden!” – don’t buy from Jews.

I could point out that this argument ignores open sympathizing with the Nazis on the part of right wing Zionist paramilitary organizations, and that the Israeli state proposed by the Stern gang was openly based on the Nazi totalitarian model. I could also point out that the Zionist Federation of Germany co-operated with the Nazi regime and in exchanged for the Haavara Agreement, agreed to oppose the boycott of German goods which was being supported by North American Jews at the time. The point of this would be to remember that lots of groups sympathized with the Nazis, and that the way we remember some sympathies and not others is a form of historical construction based on reproducing certain power relations. But this is all slightly beside the point. Whether the call for a boycott will remind people of the Nazi boycott of Jewish goods is an empirical question – it can’t simply be asserted, but needs to be based on actual testimony, or ideally, social science research.

Avnery’s argument here relies on the supposition that the Boycott movement will fail to distinguish between the state of Israel and the Jewish People. This is sometimes a hard distinction to make, given that the powerful public relations machine of the Israeli state is constantly trying to equivocate the two. But I think it is too quick to dismiss this project – serious scholars like Judith Butler actually advocate a Universal boycott of Israeli goods on the principle that doing business with a state speaks to the normality of relations with that state – and we should not consider relations with colonial/apartheid Israel to be “normal”. Serious philosophical analyses which distinguish between a state, its citizens, and non-citizens living under its control, are fully capable of clarifying the distinction between an Israeli boycott and a “Jewish boycott”, which of course we should oppose as racist.

Uri Davis, an Israeli philosopher who works on the practical impacts of Zionism has argued that understanding the Jewish National Fund and other bodies that own and administer the land in Israel/Palestine are crucial to understanding how Israel is an apartheid settler-colonial state. He argues that it is through a legal slight of hand between the Israel Land Administration and the Jewish National Fund that 93% of the land of Israel is restricted to Jews:

Approximately 93% of the territory of the State of Israel inside the 1949 armistice lines (otherwise known as the “Green Line”) are classified in law and by force of the Covenant Between the Government of Israel and the JNF, as being designated for settlement and development by “Jews only”. Only approximately 7% of all lands inside pre-1967 Israel are registered in the Land registry (Tabu) as private lands that are exempt from the apartheid restrictions that designate land for “Jews only.” These private lands are partially under “Jewish” ownership (most were purchased arguably legally prior to 1948) and some are under “Arab” ownership (the little that was left under the ownership of the Palestinian Arab citizens of the State of Israel after the Nakba and the waves of massive land confiscation in the course of the first three decades of the existence of the State of Israel).

This argument is interesting because it goes against a standard view held on the Boycott-supporting left: that within the state of Israel the situation is not apartheid, and that apartheid is restricted to the territories. Davis, however, argues that Israel itself is an apartheid state because it restricts the leasing of the vast majority of its land to Jews-only.

It is relevant to note that Davis’ article is from 2006, and legal changes have been made to the JNF since then. However, according to the temporary compromise reached in 2007, the status quo appears to be that the JNF can lease to non-jews only if the Israel Land Administration compensates the sale by giving at least as much land to Jews. So it would seem that, in practice, the system remains quantitatively just as apartheid.


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