Is Israel an Apartheid State?

Posted: March 28th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: racism, The Left, The Right, The Settlements, this is personal | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I got involved recently in several arguments concerning the issue of Apartheid, and whether or not we can name Israel an “Apartheid-state”. As most people can understand, this is not just an academic debate on definitions, but one that invites immediate political action. The word “Apartheid” symbolizes for us today something which is totally immoral. A regime that can’t be fixed, a system that’s wrong from its foundations. It’s an accusation not to be taken – nor made – lightly. Here are my thoughts on the matter.

If you asked me some years ago whether you can accuse Israel of Apartheid, I would have answered “no“. Today my answer is more complex. It’s something like “it depends“. I fear that we are heading towards the day when it will be a definite “Yes“.

To begin explaining what I mean, I have to make a distinction between (a) the situation within the 48’ borders and (b) the situation in the West Bank.

A. Within the 48’ borders (the Green Line), Israel is a democracy. A flawed one, but still, a democracy. The main flaw of this democracy is the discrimination of its Arab citizens, which is unlike this of any other Western democracy.

I am not comparing the actual state of Arabs in Israel to other minorities in other democracies. Maybe the Arabs are in better shape than some other groups. Maybe not. What I’m talking about is their legal statues. Many countries discriminate minorities in their practice, but Israel is a state which favors Jews by its nature (and laws) over other nationalities. A Muslim can become an American or a Frenchman, and enjoy full rights (in theory), while an Arab can’t become a “full Israeli” and enjoy those rights, not even in theory, because those rights are reserved to Jews. This makes Israel a unique case in the West.

This is a very important point, because a system that discriminates in practice but remains equal in theory provides tools to fight this discrimination. When discrimination and favoritism are inherent parts of the system, it’s almost impossible to fight them.

Many people who praise Israel as a Jewish state admit that it is also a state which favors Jews. Some even say that this is the way it should be. Others fail to see or to understand the problem at all. Here are some examples for this unique discrimination:

The first and obvious one is the fact that a person who is the son of a grandchild of a Jew can become an Israeli, even if he has nothing to do with Judaism and never considered himself a Jew, doesn’t speak Hebrew, and even intends to leave the country. At the same time, an Arab who was born here can’t become an Israeli (*).

Another example is the case of the new Citizenship and Entry into Israel Temporary Order (which is not temporary at all). According to this law, if a young Arab man marries a non-Israeli Arab wife, he can’t bring her to live in with him in Israel. She can’t become an Israeli, and in most cases she can’t even enter the state. I don’t know of such a law in any other democracy. Note that it’s not the wife’s right who is being violated – since she is not a citizen – but the husband’s, who is avoided the right to build his family where he wishes to, and with whom he wishes to (**).

A third example is the story of the Jewish National Fund, which holds much of the states’ land, but is doing everything in its power, even after repeated court orders, not to sell it to Arabs. The claim that this land was bought with Jewish money to begin with is just not true: most of the Fund’s land was given to it by the state, for this exact reason – so it wouldn’t be sold to Arabs. The JNF is in fact a government agency that as a rule does not serve 20 percent of the population.

There are other examples of official policies that favors Jews in Israel. You can read more about the situation of the Arabs in Israel in the first chapter of the Or Commission report. This was an unbiased commission, appointed by the Israeli government in 2002 to investigate the death of 13 Arab citizens in the October 2000 events. There is a lot of other material on this matter, but the fact that this report was done by an official state commission grant it its special statues. Here is a link (in Hebrew. I couldn’t find an English version).

And still – I wouldn’t call this Apartheid, just a flawed democracy. It is a system that should be fixed, not destroyed.

Things are different in the West Bank.

B. I hope we can agree on these two facts: that Israel is in control of the West Bank, and that Israel is building settlements there. It has been building them since 1968, long before the first Intifada, and encouraging people, through economical benefits, to move there.

Until the 90′s, I think that most people in Israel just assumed we are going to keep this land. When I went to school – an ordinary public school – we drew the map of Israel with the West Bank and Gaza in it.

But there is a problem: If Israel actually keeps the land, it needs to annex the people as well. And since we won’t give them civil rights, this can be seen, and with good reason, as Apartheid. Maybe not the South African model of Apartheid, but some Israeli version of it.

When I say these things to my Right-wing friend, they usually take the debate back to the issue of terrorism or “Arab Rejectionism”. If it weren’t for them, they say, we wouldn’t be in the West Bank. After all, there was a peace process and look where it got us.

But how building settlements helps fighting terrorism? Even the Army doesn’t think so.

You see, I look at the settlements as the litmus test for Israel’s intentions in the West Bank. If it was only a security issue – if only the army was there – You wouldn’t call it Apartheid. No one though that the 20 years of Israeli occupation in South Lebanon were an Apartheid. THAT was a security issue. The West Bank isn’t about security. Ask any settler why we are there and he will tell you frankly that “this is our land”.

Before we dismiss the accusation of Apartheid, I think we all have to ask ourselves what we really think about the West Bank’s future. If you say that this land should stay under Israeli control – than you have to say what you do with the Palestinians’ civil rights. A sort of a limited autonomy for the Palestinians wouldn’t work here, just like it didn’t in the case of the Bantustans. And if you say that Israel is to leave the West Bank when the security situation will allow it, than we have to stop taking parts of the land to ourselves and dismantle the settlements, rather than go on building new ones, like the new government intends to do.

That’s the basic question that Israel has never fully answered: is the West Bank Israeli land or is it not? And since we never answered this question, the world looks at our actions in the West Bank, and gathers that we believe this land is to stay Israeli. So they call it “Apartheid”.

C. Naturally, if Israel decides to stay in the West Bank for good, this separation between the situation within the Green Line to the situation in the annex territories will not be valid anymore, and the whole Israeli system will be looked upon as Apartheid – meaning one that gives different rights to different groups of citizens.

D. So far, This was a rights-oriented discourse on my behalf. When you talk about Apartheid you have to discuss rights; avoiding it makes the debate meaningless. But I would like to end with some realpolitik:

Some people claim that we can’t give the Palestinians their state, certainly not now. That we should find other solutions, or even that the rush to find a solution was the real problem. That we should wait, maybe a generation or two, and see what happens than.

Meanwhile, what’s happening in the West bank and especially around Jerusalem is that the “Green Line” is disappearing. Soon, the Palestinian state won’t be an option at all. Some people already think it isn’t an option. Here we find an ironic unanimity between the political Right and the radical, mostly European, Left. They all say: forget the two states. On this small land, with the way the populations are spread (largely thanks to the settlements), with all the different problems –security, water etc. – we just can’t divide it into two.

But does anyone in the Right really consider the meaning of this? What we’ll have is one political unit on the entire land, where Jews makes about 55 percent of the population and Palestinians about 45. Without getting into demographic trends or the international pressure, does anyone thinks that this political structure can survive? And on top of all, with 30 percent of the population not having any rights and living on the verge of starvation? Are you willing to bet it will survive? Do you think it will look like Belgium (which is also falling apart…)? More likely that it will turn into a constant civil war, Yugoslavian style. And even if there is no violence at all (which is very unlikely in this region), it won’t be a Jewish state, since Jews will enjoy a slim majority, at best. This is the real problem with the 1967 occupation – Israel took something it can’t swallow.

The fact is that a Palestinian state is the only way to save the Jewish state. The real threat to Israel is not that there will be a Palestinian state, but rather that there won’t be one. Some Palestinians understand that, and that’s why there is a growing movement calling “to shut down” the Palestinian authority (which brought them only suffering and corruption), and return to the situation before the Oslo accord.

And let time do the rest.


* I’m not saying we should let the refugees in; I’m just describing the situation. I will try to develop the point of “the Law of Return” in the future.

** The Supreme Court approved this temporary order once in a very split decision (6-5), and is supposed to rule again on the matter soon.

2 Comments on “Is Israel an Apartheid State?”

  1. 1 Shaul Hanuka said at 5:07 am on March 30th, 2009:

    My answer would be yes, we are.
    I loved this article.

    Recently I was asked by a friend on myspace about the new “right wing” coalition and what my take on that. The “Citizenship and Entry into Israel Temporary Order” was my main case when saying there is no difference between left and right and the rising of Avigdor Leiberman will not make the new government more hawkish or raciest.

  2. 2 noam said at 2:50 pm on March 31st, 2009:


    I agree. the “Citizenship and Entry into Israel Temporary Order” started a whole new situation. The Supreme Court ruling on the issue should come soon, so it will be very interesting to see what happens. In the previous verdict Aharon Barak went with the minority against the Order, but now he is out, and it is a different court (a much weaker one).