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[KE CyberTorah] No, its not an apartheid state

No, it's not an apartheid state

I find myself in an odd position of needing to explain why Israel is not an apartheid state. I preface this essay with a full awareness that Israel’s control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip is replete with ethical challenges. Israel has sometimes failed to live up to the highest ethical standards in its treatment of the Palestinians. Its occupation of the West Bank is more ethically nuanced than Gaza because the Palestinian Authority works with Israeli security to prevent attacks and because movement is so restricted, sometimes in arbitrary ways.

Nevertheless, referring to Israel as an apartheid state is only an epithet. It was a specific term that South Africa used to refer to itself and a specific policy of racial abuse. While there have been some efforts to define apartheid in more general terms, those definitions are hard to fit to the Israeli context. Its only purpose is to delegitimize Israel.   

Within Israel there are two separate questions. One: how does Israel treat its Arab Israeli minority? And two: how does Israel treat its Palestinian non-citizens? Based on our answers we can address whether we should support Israel or describe Israel as beyond the pale of civilized nations.

On question number one, Arab Israelis are full legal citizens. They do face discrimination especially around land use and settlement growth. They've also faced bigotry, being referred to and treated as outsiders and not real Israelis on a number of occasions. At the same time, this minority is seeing dramatic increases in education and household wealth. Medical professions are increasingly filled by Arab-Israelis. The tech sector similarly is beginning to see increasing participation by Arab Israelis. 

On the second question there are serious issues of freedom of movement especially within the Palestinian Authority. However, the South African regime legally discriminated against residents on the basis of skin color, not residence pre 1967. Further, there were laws that enforced separation even when the races mixed. Bathrooms for example were separate. When Palestinians do come into Israel proper, no such discrimination exists. Further, all races agreed they were part of the same sovereign entity. The dispute was about races within a larger state.

By contrast, the Palestinian Authority exists as a quasi sovereign entity actively representing the interests of the Palestinian people. They work with Israeli security. They control legal and policing over large sections of the West Bank. The restrictions on freedom of movement came in around a time of bombings targeting civilians, including a notorious bombing that targeted a young adult nightclub, not because of racial politics. The security barrier was erected because Palestinians were taking pot shots at Israeli cars driving past Bethlehem. Israel can and should tie movement and other freedoms to increasing security cooperation, limit settlement construction to larger blocs like suburban Jerusalem, and help Palestinian areas build and grow. These reforms are within legitimate political discussion, not the abhorrent behavior of the apartheid regime. 

Finally, Israel is committed to negotiations with the Palestinian people and has a clear and legal commitment to the full citizenship status of its Arab Israeli citizens. Hamas by contrast is explicitly committed to the destruction of Israel even as they are the sole functioning political entity in Gaza. The residents of Gaza are the greatest victims of Hamas. Billions of dollars in aid meant to help rebuild and create functioning civic society has been redirected towards missiles, tunnels, and other tools of destruction. Imagine if the Palestinians had used those resources to build their own functioning state...

Referring to Israel as an apartheid state serves only to attack Israel. I believe Israel’s actions towards its Arab residents needs reform; I want Israel to act more ethically towards the Palestinians. However, overwrought labels belittle the true horror of apartheid South Africa and obfuscate the depth and complexity of what happens in Israel. Israel will find a path out of this current state only when both Israeli and Palestinian civic cultures evolve internally and in conversation with one another to the point they can imagine a shared peace. Labeling and delegitimizing either party only draws that process out longer. In the meantime, let’s avoid useless labeling and set our hearts towards the real work of peace making.

Shabbat Shalom-
Rabbi David Booth

Sat, December 9 2023 26 Kislev 5784