Obsessive demography, racism, and a history of apartheid thought

by Yaniv Reich on March 22, 2011

A routine rebuttal to the argument that Israel is an apartheid state is to focus on the conditions of the Palestinian citizens of Israel. Israel’s defenders allege, for example, that Palestinians within its borders (whatever those are taken to be) live better than other Palestinians, or even other Arabs. Others like to point out that Israel has an Arab judge on its Supreme Court, which is an argument on par with the one that the 1960′s US under Jim Crow was not racist or segregated because Jackie Robinson played professional baseball. Moreover, it is verifiably false, as I will discuss in another post; for a taste of the argument I will make, see this article.

Whenever one hears arguments against apartheid that focus on Israel’s Palestinian citizens, it is fundamental to reconnect their history with the broader Palestinian story of which they are an inseparable part. It is disingenuous at best to focus on one subset of the Palestinian population that through historical accident, great bravery in the face of Jewish violence, and/or co-existence with dozens of laws that discriminate against them on the basis of their ethnicity alone, has managed to carve out lives in a state that defines itself without them, and that would love to have them gone.

Zionist thinkers themselves have done an extraordinary job of establishing the link between Israel’s Palestinian citizens’ history and that of its apartheid practices in the occupied Palestinian territories, a history easily overlooked by Israel’s current defenders. These wide-ranging records make clear the manner in which Jewish ethnocracy constitutes a single regime over a fractured Palestinian society, no matter how the specific rights are distributed. For more on this hierarchy of rights, see this previous post.

Here I want to share an article written by Joseph Weitz, Director of the Department of Land and Afforestation of the Jewish National Fund, and chief member of Ben-Gurion’s Transfer Committee tasked with the issue of population transfer, less euphemistically known by the euphemism ‘ethnic cleansing’, of Palestine’s Palestinians in the pre-state and early-state years. He writes in Davar newspaper on September 29, 1967, just three months into Israel’s now 44-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza:

“The first problem is understood by all and needs no explanations. . . . the need to sustain the character of a state which will henceforth be Jewish, and obviously in the near future, by the majority of its inhabitants, with a non-Jewish minority limited to fifteen percent. I reached this fundamental conclusion already as early as 1940, concerning which it is entered in my diary as follows:

“Among ourselves it must be clear that there is no place in the country for both people’s together. . . With the Arabs we shall not achieve our aim of being an independent people in this country. The only solution is Eretz Israel, at least the west part of Eretz Israel without Arabs. . . and there is no other way but to transfer the Arabs from here to the neighboring countries, transfer all of them, not one village or tribe should remain, and the transfer must aim at Iraq, Syria, and even Transjordan. . . There is no other alternative.”

From this perspective a solution of transfer was then suggested which was advocated by B. Katznelson, Y. Vulkani, and M. Ussishkin, all of them now deceased; initial investigations were undertaken to help neutralise this concept concretely. After (some) years, consequent to the UN decision to partition the country, the War of Independence broke out to our great happiness, and in its course a double miracle took place: a regional victory and the escape of the Arabs. In the Six Day War only one great miracle took place: a tremendous territorial victory but the majority of the population of the liberated territories remained ‘fixed’ to their places, which can cause the destruction of the foundations of our state.”

This passage is filled with remarkable content that reflects an all-encompassing vision of establishing an ethnic-based rather than race-based apartheid regime in British Mandate Palestine. But I want to focus on just a few points:

  • Extremely influential Zionists from Ben-Gurion to Weitz to Allon to Livni to Lieberman have always seen the Palestinians as a group that needed to be minimized vis-a-vis the Jewish population.  This has been true from the earliest years of Zionism.
  • Transfer (ethnic cleansing) featured prominently in Zionist thought, as above, and action, as Benny Morris, Nur Masalha, Ilan Pappe, and others have documented.  Moreover, the Zionist leadership was well aware of the rights-oriented sensitivity of this matter and sought since before Israel was established to “neutralise the concept concretely.”
  • Among important segments of the Jewish leadership, the War of Independence “broke out to our great happiness” and accomplished both a “regional victory” over additional, non-UN-sanctioned territory but also the “double miracle” of Arab flight, much of which at the hands of Jewish paramilitary groups.
  • Unfortunately, for these thinkers, “only one great miracle took place” in 1967 and the Palestinians refused to leave their land after Israel’s “tremendous territorial victory” (Editor’s question: hasn’t this war always been sold as one of necessary self-defense? How quickly does existential self-defense morph into “tremendous territorial victory”?  About three months in Weitz’s case—at most.).
  • This passage shows very clearly how the Zionist relationship to Palestinians has been conceived, through various wars and periods, as one of maintaining Jewish privilege and life over and against a Palestinian underclass.  This conception of Palestinian personhood and rights does not vary across Palestinian subgroups, even if the specific rights they have differ, and it links the Jewish treatment of Palestinians during 1948 through to 1967 and today into one apartheid structure with more complexity (and militarized brutality) than we saw in South Africa.

On this last point, I want to buttress the argument with a powerful image I saw today, which captures better than anything I’ve seen how rights are distributed on the basis of ethnicity and it’s intersection with a history of ethnic conflict.  These maps were produced by Arena of Speculation, an interesting new initiative by a group of spatial thinkers:

From left to right: Israeli ID, West Bank ID, Gaza ID, Stateless Palestinian Refugee

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 LifePeace April 23, 2011 at 6:20 pm

Yaniv – Shalom rav,

I am not a particular fan of calling Israel an apartheid state – not because I believe in defending the occupation but because I think it belittles apartheid, but if one is to do it, one should do it right, and your opening paragraph, while good rhetoric is lousy logic. You write about people defending Israel’s actions with regard to her palestinian citizens by mentioning a supreme court judge. No. Israel within the green line is a not an apartheid state because Israeli Palestinians have the right to vote. Black south africans did not have the right to vote (or have you forgotten that). No-one is going to use one high court judge as opposed to the voting rights of 1.2 million people as an argument. Don’t put up the other side’s strawmen arguments if you are only going to lie about what they are!

You write:
Others like to point out that Israel has an Arab judge on its Supreme Court, which is an argument on par with the one that the 1960′s US under Jim Crow was not racist or segregated because Jackie Robinson played professional baseball.

Actually it would be on a par with America having had an african american judge at the time, which of course they did not, so once again – good rhetoric, bad honesty and logic.

Your main case rests on the fact that Israel’s defenders against the label of aparheid don’t take into account everyone who claims to be a Palestinian and only addresses Israeli Palestinians. Once again – this isn’t true. Israel is quite willing to accept the fact that Palestinians in the West Bank live under occupation (and even our Likud PMs have said that that is terrible) but military occupation is not the same as apartheid. Or if it is, then Britain, the US, Australia, Serbia and all of Nato must be apartheid states, I assume?

So your argument rests on the rights denied Palestinians in exile (or living in Mandate Palestine in Jordan). In which case, once again – I refer back to the case of the british empire. Is Britain an apartheid state because it has not given citizenship to all the people it dicked over under empire? When India was part of the empire, the subjected Indians should have been given citizenship, should have been allowed to travel to Britain and take british citizenship. Why should they not all now have the right of return to the UK?

2 Yaniv Reich April 23, 2011 at 7:36 pm

Thanks for starting this conversation. You raise some good points, which I think will make for a good “teaching moment”.

You are right that I chose a more sensational argument against apartheid (i.e. having an Arab on the High Court). And I think you are right that the most important difference is voting rights. I could, possibly should, have been more careful to provide the stronger arguments of those who are against using apartheid terminology. With that said, the point about having an Arab on the court arises all the time; I hear this argument constantly. To cite just one example, check out this link (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alan-dershowitz/lets-have-a-real-aparthei_b_485399.html). In that article, Dershowitz brings up the judge on the court *immediately* after the point about voting. My opening paragraph, therefore, is much more substantive than “good rhetoric with lousy logic”. And it is in no way a straw man.

You take issue with my comparison to famous athletes, suggesting the right comparison should be having black judges, which you claim the US did not have. I agree judges are the right comparison, but you are wrong about the existence of black judges. Even under the darkest and most segregated Jim Crow, we had black judges on state and federal courts. For example, Justice Jonathan Jasper Wright was on South Carolina’s Supreme Court in the Reconstruction years starting in 1870. Surely, his presence on that court does not change our judgements on the extraordinary, institutionalized segregation that prevailed there and then. In other words, I chose famous athletes for my example, but I could have done the same thing with sitting black justices. I appreciate you making this point, because now I can make this argument even more potent.

You are absolutely right that people who argue against the apartheid nomenclature usually fail to extend their “analysis” to all Palestinians who live under Israeli control. I believe this makes it harder for them to apply an appropriate analysis of apartheid practices. Clearly, military occupation is not the same thing as apartheid. No one, including myself, would make that argument. But what Israel is doing is using a military occupation to enforce a “two-tier system of laws, rules, and services that Israel operates for the two populations in areas in the West Bank under its exclusive control, which provide preferential services, development, and benefits for Jewish settlers while imposing harsh conditions on Palestinians” (Human Rights Watch, “Separate and Unequal”, 2010). This regime of highly preferential and highly discriminatory treatment, which is assigned based on ethnicity, is what arguably satisfies the Rome Statute definition of the crime of apartheid, not the military occupation per se.

So my argument rests on much more than just the denied rights of Palestinian exiles. In addition to the institutionalized discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel and the Palestinians of the Occupied Territories, Israel also maintains a citizenship policy of “return” that discriminates explicitly and without apology on the basis of ethnicity/religion—Jews are fine, Palestinians are not. This case has absolutely nothing to do with the bizarre and misconstrued analogies you tried to give. The right analogy wouldn’t be giving citizenship in Britain; it would be Indians who were, for example, forcibly moved by the British colonial authority, now trying to claim citizenship in India, i.e. their home country. Should Indians in such a hypothetical situation be allowed to return to India? Of course. Just like Palestinians expelled from their land and property, which was then seized by the newly formed Jewish state for Jewish use only.

3 Boris Mann June 27, 2012 at 3:33 pm

When you talk of false tine you must always remember 4 facts
1 no such thing as a falsetine language
2 no such thing as a falsetine religion
3 no such thing as a falsetine king or queen or royalty
4 no such thing as a falsetine currency

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