‘As long as in this territory west of the Jordan River there is only one political entity called Israel, it is going to be either non-Jewish or non-democratic. If this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, it will be an apartheid state.”
Those are the words of Ehud Barak, defense minister and former prime minister, at last month’s Herzliya Conference, the country’s highest-profile gathering of VIPs. Barak’s statement begs the question: Seeing that Palestinians in the West Bank haven’t been able to vote in Israeli elections since the occupation started in 1967, isn’t he saying Israel has been an apartheid state since then?
So, putting Barak’s statement in the context of this week’s news, should people really be so outraged that a few dozen colleges overseas are staging “Israel Apartheid Week”?
Myself, I prefer the term “colonialism” to “apartheid” when comparing Israel’s rule in the West Bank to other regimes in world history. There are important differences between the occupation and apartheid – for one, apartheid was based on race, the occupation is based on nationality. Yet there are important, obvious similarities, too, the main one being that in both apartheid South Africa and the West Bank, one group of people harshly, systematically and “legally” keeps another group of people down.
Anyway, however different from apartheid the occupation may be, it’s definitely more like apartheid than it is like democracy.
AT THE same time, though, neither Barak nor I are saying that “Israel proper” – Israel in its pre-Six Day War borders – is an apartheid state, a colonial regime or anything but a democracy (albeit one with a great deal of discrimination). What each of us is saying is that the occupation is killing this democracy, but that if we set the Palestinians free, this democracy will thrive.
That’s the difference between Barak, myself and other Zionists, on the one hand, who want to save the Jewish state from apartheid, and the participants in Israel Apartheid Week, who think the Jewish state, even in Israel proper, is by definition apartheid.
They’re wrong. While it’s possible to compare the condition of Palestinians in the West Bank to that of blacks in apartheid-era South Africa, there’s no comparison between the way blacks were treated under apartheid and the way Israeli Arabs are treated in this country.
The most obvious difference is that the demand of the anti-apartheid movement was always “one person, one vote.” Arab citizens of Israel, by the starkest possible contrast, have had this right since the day the Jewish state was founded.
Another brightly-lit sign that Israeli Arabs aren’t living under anything like apartheid is their wall-to-wall opposition to becoming citizens of a Palestinian state – even, as Israel Beiteinu proposes, after a change of borders that would allow them to remain on their land. Israeli Arabs aren’t Zionists, and they have altogether legitimate complaints about discrimination, but the overwhelming majority are not out to dismantle the Jewish state, only to make it more fair and equitable. (As much as I wish foreign anti-Zionists knew this, I wish even more that Israeli Jews did.)
Still, I imagine a black South African, or a white South African who fought apartheid, challenging me: Why can’t Israel just do what we did – forget about Jews and Arabs like we forgot about whites and blacks, and just remake the system into a Western-style, nonsectarian democracy? Wouldn’t “one-person, one vote” be the fairest solution for Israel/Palestine, too?
And I imagine myself answering: In theory, yes; in practice, it would be a disaster. The difference between the situation for blacks in South Africa and for Jews in Israel is that you’re surrounded by hundreds of millions of blacks living in other African countries, none of whom think whites should rule South Africa – while we’re surrounded by hundreds of millions of Arabs living in Arab countries, all of whom think Arabs should be ruling Israel/Palestine.
Imagine if you were in our situation. Imagine if instead of South Africa being bordered by blacks, it was bordered by whites – whites who believed that their kind were the rightful rulers of your country, and who, if given the chance – say, through your color-blind immigration policy – would see to it that they ruled your country again.
If South Africa’s blacks were a tiny minority in a sea of white people who held such beliefs – in a sea of old-style Afrikaners, let’s say – how secure would you feel, as a black South African, living in a nonsectarian democracy based on ‘one person, one vote’?
Now maybe you see why the Jewish state, with all its inequities, is a better, fairer, safer solution for this sliver of the world than the one you South Africans chose – rightly and wisely – in your homeland.
AND SO much for my imaginary dialogue. In all, what I’m saying is that
there’s only one way to go for Jews and Arabs here, and that’s with a
Jewish, democratic state alongside a Palestinian one. The Jews who want
to maintain the status quo will turn Israel into a pariah state, while
the people pushing for one person, one vote will wreck it altogether.
What this means is that everyone who believes in Zionism, justice and
peace has to oppose both the Jewish Right and the international Left.
If either of these two forces prevails, sooner or later this land won’t
be fit to live in for Arab or Jew.