I’m torn about this approach. Let me say, flat-out, that Israel’s policies – taken as a whole – cannot fairly be said to be the equivalent of Apartheid. (For anyone wondering where I stand on other very basic issues – does Israel have a right to exist, etc? – I completely endorse everything stated in this post at It’s All Connected.)
The Guardian series doesn’t conclude that Israel is an Apartheid state; on balance, I think the article makes a convincing case that Israel has racist policies but, despite some similarities, falls short of Apartheid-level discrimination. Here’s a couple of more-or-less representative paragraphs from near the end of the second article:
Daniel Seidemann, the Israeli lawyer who is fighting Jerusalem’s residency and planning laws, says that he used to reject the apartheid parallel out of hand but finds it harder to do so nowadays. “My gut reaction: ‘Oh, no! Our side? My goodness, no!’ I think there’s a good deal to be said for that reaction to the extent that apartheid was rooted in a racial ideology which clearly fed social realities, fed the political system, fed the system of economic subjugation. As a Jew, to concede the predominance of a racial world view of subjugating Palestinians is difficult to accept,” he says. “But, unfortunately, the fact of the absence of a racial ideology is not sufficient because the realities that have emerged in some ways are clearly reminiscent of some of the important trappings of an apartheid regime.”
So what is accomplished by making the comparison? Well, I suppose that more people will read it because of its controversial subject (witness this blog post). This might be useful, since the article includes information about discrimination in Israel that is not well-known – at least, not here in the States. (Admittedly, things may be different in Britain, where the story was published).
At the heart of Israel’s strategy is the policy adopted three decades ago of “maintaining the demographic balance” in Jerusalem. In 1972, the number of Jews in the west of the city outnumbered the Arabs in the east by nearly three to one. The government decreed that that equation should not be allowed to change, at least not in favour of the Arabs.
“The mantra of the past 37 years has been ‘maintaining the demographic balance’, which doesn’t mean forcing Palestinians to leave,” says Daniel Seidemann, a Jewish Israeli lawyer who has spent years fighting legal cases on behalf of Jerusalem’s Arab residents. “It means curtailing their ability to develop by limiting construction to the already developed areas, by largely preventing development in new areas and by taking 35% [of Palestinian-owned land in greater East Jerusalem] and having a massive government incentive for [Jews] to build up that area.”
The down side is that no one’s talking about these aspects of the article. Instead, by framing the article as a question about Apartheid, Israel’s defenders are given license to defend Israel by correctly pointing out that things in Israel are not the same as they were in Apartheid South Africa.
That is of course true – but there’s a lot that falls short of Apartheid that is nonetheless terribly wrong. The moral lesson of South Africa should not be “anything that isn’t as bad as Apartheid is okay.” But somehow, that is where discussions of Israel tend to go.
I’m also distressed by the Apartheid angle because Apartheid is one of our iconic images of “evil perpetuated by a state.” Using such an iconic, stark image of evil to describe the Israel/Palestine conflict has the effect of covering up the extent to which some Palestinians – those that commit or support terrorism – are morally co-responsible for creating the current, appalling situation.
In the States, extremely nasty political rhetoric (“objectively pro-terrorist,” wingnut, etc) co-exists with a crushing political timidity, in which only a tiny range of political opinions are considered acceptable. To seriously criticize Israel – or, for that matter, the U.S. – for the brutality of the occupation, and for the recent use of the security wall (which is a good idea) as an excuse for a land grab, is well outside of the tiny range of acceptable “mainstream” views in the USA. In that context, it may seem strange to object to fundamentally unfair attacks on Israel, such as equating Israeli policy with Apartheid. Since we’re going to be treated as intellectual pariahs no matter what we say, why not use extreme arguments and rhetoric?
But we can’t know for certain that our arguments are irrelevant – indeed, at some level we must believe that political criticism has a hope of making a difference, or why else would we bother? But if we’re going to act as if we believe that our views and statements might contribute, in some way, towards changing the world, then probably it makes sense to try and express our views in a manner that is honest and responsible. Just in case.