By Sheldon Ranz
“It is with great sadness that I must also conclude that my country has sunk to such political and moral depths that it is now an apartheid regime. It is time for the international community to recognise this reality as well.” – Michael Benyair, former Attorney General of Israel
Starting from the beginning of last year and through the present, the question of whether Israel practices apartheid – in the Occupied Territories, behind the Green Line, or both – has been raised more loudly in the US than ever before. In January of 2021, Israel’s leading human rights non-governmental organization (NGO), B’Tselem, broke with its habit of focusing just on Israel’s human rights violations in the Occupied Territories and called out all of Israel as an apartheid regime in a report entitled “A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is apartheid.” B’Tselem now reports on institutional discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel, a topic that had previously been the sole bailiwick of NGOs like the Haifa-based, Palestinian-run Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights, since 1996. Funded in part by the Open Democracy Foundation and the New Israel Fund, Adalah is well-known for compiling the Discriminatory Laws Database that documents the published statutes Israel uses to maintain its Palestinian citizens’ inferior status; laws that stretch back to Israel’s founding. Like Adalah, B’Tselem cites legal developments in Israel that go back to 1948 to support its claim that Israel has always been an apartheid regime. But because B’Tselem is run by Israeli Jews, it is seen as having more credibility by anyone infected with anti-Arab or Islamophobic bias.
Then, in late April 2021, the US-based NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) released “A Threshold Crossed”, a 213-page report that methodically details how Israel has been committing the crimes of apartheid and persecution in all the lands under its control. It is this report that caused AOC to refer to Israel as an apartheid state. Liberal Zionists at this point, so wedded to opposing BDS, were stunned into silence; all Bernie Sanders could offer was to caution his supporters to ‘tone down’ the apartheid rhetoric. But he was too late to stop the tsunami: a poll taken by the Jewish Electoral Institute found that 25% of American Jews – 1.875 million people – agree that Israel is an apartheid state (38% under the age of 40). And a similar percentage of Israeli Jews believe their own country is an apartheid regime, according to B’tselem.
This month came the capper: Amnesty International (AI), the world’s largest human right’s NGO, issued its 280-page report: “Israel’s apartheid against Palestinians: Cruel system of domination and crime against humanity”. Years in the making, this erases any lingering doubt that the year 1948 saw the birth of not one but two apartheid states, South Africa and Israel. Even before the report was officially released, Israel asked AI not to release the report and also condemned the report as anti-Semitic without having read it. Similar hysterics prevailed throughout the US pro-Israel lobby, be it in Congress or in mainstream Jewish organizations. In an unprecedented gesture, the New York Times imposed a news blackout on the AI report and has refused to even mention it thus far. Liberal Zionist groups are split: some fully indulged in the hysteria; others admitted to having no dispute with any of the facts presented in the report – it’s just the word ‘apartheid’ that they can’t abide, because, deep down, they feel personally implicated. The stigma, the shame of this ‘A’ word, this new Scarlet Letter, is too much for these Hester Prynnes to bear. They’ve invested years of effort fighting BDS, of staking their Jewish identities to the very nature of Israel, and look at where it’s gotten them!
So what’s up with the ‘A’ word? None of the aforementioned NGOs ever claimed Israel was a carbon copy of South Africa under the Boers. The Jim Crow American South was not a carbon copy; neither was white minority rule in Ian Smith’s Rhodesia. But what they all had in common was complying with what we now understand to be the definition of apartheid under international law – the Rome Statute, created in 1998 and activated in 2002. This Statute laid the foundation for the International Criminal Court, where accused war criminals, for example, can be put on trial. Contrary to accusations that Israel has been singled out, AI had called out Myanmar in 2017 as an apartheid state using this same Rome Statute’s definition: “The crime of apartheid means inhumane acts …committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.” This definition of apartheid covers bias based on membership in a racial group considered to be inferior, even if that group is not an actual race but only deemed to be one, i.e., Palestinian Israelis being treated by similarly-hued Israeli Jews as members of an inferior race.
What, one may ask, is to make of the numerous Palestinian Israelis in important positions in Israeli society today? How does this square with our traditional understanding of apartheid? For instance, Israeli courts have Palestinian judges, and those courts have prevented the banning of Arab candidates for elections. A Palestinian Arab party, the anti-Zionist Islamist Ra’am Party (formerly of the Joint List) is now part of the governing coalition. Well, as prize-winning columnist Gideon Levy points out, all this is just tokenism: “It’s so good to wave the High Court of Justice, which has not prevented a single occupation iniquity, and Mansour Abbas to prove there’s no apartheid. Seventy-four years of statehood without a new Arab city, without an Arab university or a train station in an Arab city are all dwarfed by the great whitewasher of the occupation, the High Court of Justice, and a minor Arab coalition partner, and even that one considered illegitimate.”(Ha’Aretz, Feb 3)
Why ‘illegitimate’? Because Mansour Abbas, the chair of Ra’am, recently ‘converted’ to State Zionism by endorsing the racist Nation-State Law, recognizing Israel as an ethnocratic Jewish state, an act that earned him broad condemnation from across the Palestinian Israeli spectrum. He makes quite the contrast to the most popular Palestinian politician in Israel, Joint List chair Ayman Odeh. As recently as 2018, Odeh told a South African radio station, “You have to ask – a country that practices apartheid, does it have any loyalty to its Arab citizens? A country that committed Nakba, does it have any loyalty to its Arab citizens? How do you expect Arab citizens to be loyal? Instead of asking about loyalty, it should be a question of citizenship – put an end to the occupation and give equality to all.”(Jerusalem Post, March 8, 2018)
The policy recommendations in all of these reports are sound and familiar to those who have opposed apartheid in the past – boycott, divestment, sanctions. The AI and HRW reports, for example, endorse the Palestinian Right of Return. There are occasional missteps: AI does not call for the end to the occupation, but only to Israeli apartheid; HRW states that the term ‘apartheid state’ is legally invalid and should not be used, but does not say what should be used in its place. But that pales in comparison to the tremendous value and power of the information contained in these reports.
The publication of these reports represent an important opportunity for social democrats to make our voices heard. Our 2017 pro-BDS resolution took no stand on the issue of Israeli apartheid per se, but we noted that as far as Israeli laws that discriminate against its Gentile citizens are concerned, “Looking at these laws as one package led the Black Lives Matter movement to characterize not just the occupied West Bank but Israel as a whole as an apartheid state. While this label is controversial, these laws clearly undermine democracy and promote bigotry.” Since then, what was once deemed controversial has been replaced by a general consensus of leading human rights groups who now agree with what the Palestinan people have been saying all along – that Israel has been an apartheid state virtually from the outset. But what path forward can we offer to the aforementioned 25% of American Jews who are dismayed by Israeli apartheid?
Demographics and membership rolls reveal that the vast majority of adults among the 25% are not doctrinaire anti-Zionists, be they Satmar Hasidim, members of DSA or Jewish Voice for Peace. Instead, they subscribe to some form of Zionism and some form of two-state option that dovetails with our advocacy of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions aimed at Israel. Outreach to this growing base using educational resources – handy summaries of both the B’Tselem and AI reports, for example – radiating outward from our established chapters would be a good place to start. Lobbying open-minded legislators and candidates for political office is another worthwhile investment. And let’s not forget working with Muslim-Americans and their friends, who have caught a lot of heat from the rise of Islamophobia these decades past.
One way in which a number of these tendencies are coming together is in New York City, where several members of a strong contingent of pro-Palestinian City Councilmembers elected last year have discussed with SDUSA scheduling hearings on whether NYC should declare Israel an apartheid state with a view toward severing all financial ties between the two, i.e., full divestment (Israel is NYC’s fourth largest trading partner). The hearings would include testimony from all the major human rights groups involved in Israel/Palestine work. Not to be overlooked is the input of courageous retired Israeli Jews who were once part of their country’s establishment, who blew the whistle on what Israel was doing early on. Alon Liel, former Israeli ambassador to South Africa, called out Israel as an apartheid state decades ago; Michael Benyair, Israel’s Attorney General during the second Yitzhak Rabin Administration, told Ha’Aretz twenty years ago that “In effect, we established an apartheid regime in the occupied territories immediately following their capture. That oppressive regime exists to this day.” (March 3, 2002). Now, he has evolved to see all of Israel as Liel did back then, and announced his full support for the Amnesty International report.
Fasten your seat belts! Things are going to get wild with accusations and recriminations as those desperate to hold on to the power, perks and privileges of hafrada – Israeli apartheid – will do everything they feel necessary to ensure just that. But in 2022, it is we social democrats who will make folks understand that the road to justice in Israel/Palestine runs in large part though New York City and other metropoles. Just a few years ago, who’d have seen that coming??
Sheldon Ranz is Director of Special Projects for Social Democrats USA and the editor of Socialist Currents.org