Calling Israel’s Discrimination What it Is

The H-2 section of Hevron, where Palestinians must walk on separate sidewalks from Jews.

Cross-posted with the Jewish Daily Forward “Forward Thinking” Blog:

Forward columnist Philologos recently took the Israeli daily Ha’aretz to task for using the term “apartheid” in its reporting on a poll that showed most Israelis support discrimination against Arab citizens. “Apartheid” and mere discrimination are two very different things, Philologos claimed. He suggested that Ha’aretz should be censured for using such a damning epithet.

Philologos went on to define what he sees the critical difference between “apartheid” and “discrimination.” The former refers to “the systematic segregation of one people, race or group from another,” while the latter means “the systematic favoring of one people, race or group over another, such as exists in numerous countries around the world today.” And while Israel may practice regrettable discrimination against its Arab citizens, he claimed it was a “lie” to suggest that it is in any way an apartheid state.

While Philologos may be a fine linguist, his knowledge of international human rights law is sorely lacking.

Contrary to Philologos’ characterization, the term “apartheid” does not refer simply to segregation, although the term comes from a word in the South African Afrikaans language that means separate-ness or segregation. In legal terms, apartheid applies to a wide range of acts in which a dominant racial regime commits institutionalized oppression against another ethnic group.

According to the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, for instance, the “crime of apartheid” was included in a list of “crimes against humanity,” and defined as:

(Inhuman) acts…committed in the content of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.

Earlier, in 1973, the UN’s General Assembly adopted the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. Among the “inhuman acts” listed were:

(Any) legislative measures and other measures calculated to prevent a racial group or groups from participation in the political, social, economic and cultural life of a country.

There is certainly a compelling claim to be made that the term “apartheid” may appropriately be applied to Israel’s treatment of its Palestinian citizens. In a recent report, Adalah, an Israeli legal NGO, described no fewer than 30 laws, either enacted or proposed, that create different sets of legal rights for Jewish and non-Jewish (i.e. Palestinian) citizens of Israel.

While many Jews prefer to view Israel as an essentially healthy, if flawed, democracy, those willing to face the painful truth have long known that the so-called “democratic Jewish state” would more accurately be described as a democracy for Jews but not for non-Jews. Consider the following facts:

- Israel has no constitution that guarantees individual liberties for all. Palestinian citizens’ homes and land are regularly seized or demolished to give housing to Jews. B’tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, recently reported that the citizenship of increasing numbers of East Jerusalem residents are being revoked to make way for more land appropriation.

- There are separate schools for Palestinians and Jews. In Israeli universities, no courses are offered in Arabic, even Arabic literature. Use of Arabic in road signs is banned except in towns that the government deems Arab.

- While Jewish citizens of Israel can confer citizenship on new spouses who are not already Israeli citizens, Palestinian citizens cannot. According to the law, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who marries a Palestinian resident of the West Bank or Gaza may not reside inside Israel. The ruling literally affects the lives of thousands of couples and their precious right to marry if they so choose. In upholding this law, one Israeli Supreme Court judge conceded that Palestinian rights take a back seat to maintaining a Jewish majority in Israel. “Human rights are not a prescription for national suicide,” he wrote.

- Palestinian citizens of Israel have distinguishing characteristics on their ID cards, presumably so they can be easily identified for additional scrutiny by law enforcement agencies. Palestinians are regularly harassed, searched and asked to produce identification, based entirely on their race. While Jewish citizens are legally entitled to a speedy trial, fair legal representation and clear charges, these laws do not apply to Palestinian citizens.

There are many more examples of ways that Israel systematically privileges Jewish citizens over non-Jewish citizens. Organizations such as Adalah, B’tselem and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel have extensively documented these methods.

It is important to note that these are not simply a collection of random discriminatory laws, as Philologos would have it. Taken together, they constitute a systematic, institutional “legal” system that maintains Jews’ privileged status in the Jewish state and, most critically, seeks to ensure a Jewish demographic majority within Israel’s borders at all costs.

One telling case in point: back in 2005, Shimon Peres told U.S. officials (in a statement recently revealed by Wikileaks) that Israel had “lost” land in the Negev “to the Bedouin” and would need to take steps to “relieve” the “demographic threat”.

Flash forward to January 2012: the Israeli government approves the Prawer Plan for mass expulsion of the Arab Bedouin community in the Negev desert. When fully implemented, this plan will result in the forced displacement of up to seventy thousand Arab Bedouin citizens of Israel and the destruction of thirty-five “unrecognized” villages.

At the end of the day, it really is academic whether we choose to label this kind of policy — and many others like it — to be “discrimination,” “institutional racism” or “apartheid.”

The real question before us not what to call it. For Jews who purport to cherish human rights, the right question is: what are we willing to do about it?


9 Comments on “Calling Israel’s Discrimination What it Is”

  1. The photo was taken by members of Mural Arts in Palestine delegation in September 2012. It is Shuhada Street near Abraham’s Tomb. The barricade is only two blocks long, because Palestinians are denied the ability to walk or drive on Shuhada Street. There are 101 checkpoints in Hebron. As the result of the closing of Shuhada (American tax dollars paid for the repaving of the road) many Palestinian homes and business have been blockaded or shut down. Apartheid is about the systematic geographic separation of populations based on identity which is racialized. Race is not a biological category but a constructed social identity in order to dominate and control a population deemed as ‘other’. This barricade barely scratches the surface of what Apartheid means in Israel. FYI Mural Arts in Palestine is a project of The Fellowship of Reconciliation and coordinated by Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb and Dara Wells Hajjar

  2. Vicky says:

    “[T]he right question is: what are we willing to do about it?”

    Amen to that.

  3. I am sending this article to my US Senators (Washington State) today.

  4. i_like_ike52 says:

    There are several important factors to keep in mind when reading this misleading piece.

    (1) The strict security situation in Hevron is due to the fact that the Arabs want to drive the Jews out of the city, as they did with their massacre of the Jews there in 1929. Jews will not leave the city, or actually the 2% that Israel controls, so as long as there is a security problem, there will, unfortunately, the strict security controls.

    (2) What is wrong with Israel being a Jewish state and maintaining a Jewish majority? We Israelis DO NOT ACCEPT YOUR ‘PROGRESSIVE’ RELIGION that all distincitions between people are invalid. Jews have right to survive as do all other ethnic groups and religious groups.

    (3) All the Arabs states define themselves as “Arab” (this is the first clause in the Palestinian Constitution) and also that Islam is the state religion with Sharia as an important base for legislation. Sharia law discriminates against non-Muslims. When you want to “contact your Senator” I presume that you are saying that somehow the US should “punish” Israel for defining itself as a Jewish state and the aid should be ended. Well, the US also gives aid to the Palestinians and Egypt and other Arab/Muslim states that practice discrimination YET YOU do not call for them to be punished! This hypocrisy merely shows that it is Jews and Judaism that trouble the “progressives”, not “discrimination” as such.

    (4) Here is what is going on in Syria….a country held up for a long time as a “secular, multi-cultural state that was supposed to serve as a model for anti-Zionists with “Jews happily under Arab/Muslim” rule.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/09/world/middleeast/in-syria-missteps-by-rebels-erode-their-support.html

    Anybody who thinks we Israelis are going to allow ourselves to have our security and well-being based on the good-will of the surrounding Arab population is hallucinating. The Arabs/Muslims slaughtering each other (and who did the same in Lebanon, Yemen, Algeria and other places) view each other as “brothers”. With us Jews, on the other hand, they have a problem. Food for thought.

    • Vicky says:

      When my parents saw Hebron my dad was almost reduced to tears. The mother of a friend, who lived in South Africa (her father-in-law was the pathologist who examined the body of Steven Biko, so the fight against apartheid affected her family life intimately), also visited and told me, so matter-of-factly, “I’ve seen all this before.”

      Israel exercises direct military control over roughly 20% of Hebron city (H2). The policies that the army enacts there are not about ‘security’. They are about power, and that power is felt even in the cramped little cantonments that are ostensibly under the jurisdiction of the PA. There is nowhere in the West Bank where you can go to get away from it. This is the exact opposite of safe, to have thousands of children growing up in a situation where every Israeli they ever see carries a gun, and where the Magen David and menorah appear on watchtowers and armoured cars and weapons. Jewishness for them is conflated with power, the abrupt closure of the street, the pounding on the door in the middle of the night. And shouldn’t this make you happy? Here and elsewhere, you have written about how important it is to have power, how it’s the only thing that anybody will ever respect, how it will make the Arabs learn. If you relish the concept of power so much, why so touchy when people talk about apartheid? It is simply an effective means of deploying such power, and there are people who share your views who take positive pleasure in it for that reason. But you don’t. You flinch away, talk about how misleading the word is. Instead of questioning the motives and ideas of people who criticise this regime, I think you need to spend some time questioning your own.

  5. Benjy Ben-Baruch says:

    One scholar defended the application of the term “apartheid” to Israel stating that of course Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians is not identical to South Africa’s past oppression of blacks. Indeed South Africa’s apartheid in the 1950s was not exactly the same as South Africa’s apartheid in the 1960s. But there is no other modern political system of ethnic repression more comparable to Israel’s than the South African apartheid system. Comparable in brutality. Comparable in its blatant undisguised systematic and institutionalized laws and methods of enforcement. Comparable in its ideological and value systems. Not identical. But very comparable.

    Israel richly deserves its pariah status.

    And American Jews who care about the future of the Jewish people should care about the devolution of Israel. We should not be supporting Israel. We should not be looking to Israel for moral or religious leadership. Rather, we should be leading Israel back to those values that we recognize as core Jewish values.

    We need to be very clear and communicate to Israelis that we do not share their “Jewish values”. We do not share their vision of the ideal Jewish future. And we utterly reject their agenda for our future.

  6. [...] Calling Israel’s Discrimination What it Is Rabbi Brant Rosen Shalom [...]

  7. Wendy Carson says:

    Israel like any country in this world must immediately stop this contimual practice of discrimination.As a jew we have a social responsiblity to put pressure on Israel to stop thes horrid actions.

  8. [...] and chronology are not and cannot be anti-Semitic. Criticizing the apartheid Israeli regime is not anti-Semitic, it is the same moral obligation that lead to criticizing the [...]


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