Encountering Peace: On Apartheid

We must be a free people in our land; in order to do that the Palestinians must also be a free people in their land.

Former South African President Nelson Mandela 390 (photo credit: Reuters)
Former South African President Nelson Mandela 390
(photo credit: Reuters)
Spending days with the Jewish community of South Africa at Limmud is a unique opportunity to meet another dynamic, engaged Jewish community in the Diaspora. My lectures here have focused on political issues concerning Israel and the region, Israeli-Palestinian peace and conflict and the story of the secret back channel for the Schalit negotiations.
Throughout my time here, both in the Jewish community, and in media interviews with the non-Jewish South African press, I have been repeatedly asked my opinion on whether or not Israel is an apartheid state or if it is heading towards being an apartheid status.
Many of the Jews here were actively involved in the anti-apartheid movement in the past. I too grew up boycotting South Africa until 1994. I remember attending the first party at the home of the South African ambassador in Herzliya in 1994 for the inauguration of Nelson Mandela. After holding parties for years on South Africa Independence Day without participants, in 1994 there were over 1,000 people there, including prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, foreign minister Shimon Peres, and president Ezer Weitzman.
It was very emotional to see the Afrikaner ambassador stand tall (he was a big man anyway) with his fist in the air singing the new South African national anthem and watching President Nelson Mandela being sworn in. There was a sense in the air that the impossible was possible – and even we in Israel could, would someday enjoy peace.
MY ANSWERS to the questions about Israeli apartheid were that inside of Israel proper, within the borders of the “green line,” the one million Palestinian citizens of Israel (20 percent of our population), in principle enjoy equal rights, citizenship, participation, the right to vote and be elected. This is not apartheid.
I said that there is discrimination against them, some of it societal and some of it political and structural. In my mind there is no excuse whatsoever after 65 years of independence for the continued existence of discrimination against the Palestinian citizens of Israel. This should not even be part of our discourse.
The State of Israel must eliminate all forms of discrimination and ensure full and absolute equal rights and opportunities for all of its citizens. Our discourse regarding the Palestinian citizens of Israel should be focused on the challenge of how to create a greater sense of shared citizenship in our state.
Naturally the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict makes it more difficult, but we must rise to this challenge. I believe that this will also require us to come to terms with Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people and all of its citizens. This will require us to define collective rights of a national minority in our state.
Thinking is terms of a possible Jewish national minority in a Palestinian state in the future may assist us in defining what this means, when we would also consider what could be the collective national rights of the Jewish minority in Palestine, as well. My answer did not satisfy them.
WHAT ABOUT the West Bank – isn’t there apartheid there? It was difficult for me to say no. There are two populations living there, each under a different legal status – one with political rights, and one without them.
One group lives in modern planned communities with infrastructure matching the wealth of Israel, and the other lives with backwards underdeveloped basic needs.
One group lives under civil law, the other under military law. One group has total freedom of movement, the other cannot move without permits and permissions. One lives under an economic system with a GDP per capita of almost $30,000 the other under $2,000.
How is this any different than a form of apartheid, ethnic/ national/religious separation rather than racial separation? Yes, we rule the West Bank as a form of apartheid.
Our stated policy is that we hope that there will be a Palestinian state and that the Palestinians will live in their own country and not under our control. But after 45 years of our control, no one is fooled by the idea that this is not an apartheid system because the majority of Palestinians live under the rule of their own Palestinian Authority. The PA is not a free sovereign party. It is under the direct control of Israel.
Even the Palestinian president and prime minister requires a travel and movement permit from Israel. Israel controls their borders, their economy, their land and population registry. The PA is basically equivalent in its power to a municipal government in Israel, not much more than that.
How then is this not a form of modernized apartheid? It is very poignant to think this and to hear this in South Africa. For some in the audience, especially the young people, the next question is, “So why not adopt the South Africa solution? Why not just grant everyone citizenship and allow them to vote?” The answer is because both we, the Jewish people, and the Palestinian people, want a state of their own. We both want a territorial expression of our national identity and we will not be prepared to be ruled over by the other side.
Therefore, there is no one-democratic-state solution to this conflict. There is no avoiding this conclusion if our Jewish senses and values effect our decision making and policies.
How can we Jews, with our history and heritage, allow ourselves to be the 21st century perpetuators of a modern form of apartheid? We were strangers in Egypt and now we are free. This is for me the central thread of our identity and the most important lesson of Judaism to humanity.
THERE ARE challenges, dangers and risks involved in making peace with the Palestinians, no doubt.
We know what they are and we have the intelligence to mitigate them and to come up with solutions to the problems.
The challenges, dangers and risks of the continuation of the status quo are far more detrimental to our state and our identity.
We must rise to impetrative of our Jewish values and experience and relieve ourselves of our apartheid status. We must be a free people in our land and in order to do that the Palestinians must also be a free people in their land.
The writer is the co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post, a radio host on All for Peace Radio and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Shalit.