Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Painful Truth: Israeli Apartheid

This isn't 20th century South Africa; it's 21st century Israel, and it's worse

than South Africa. After all, globally, we are much more sensitized to human rights abuses and collective punishment than we were just a few decades ago. Though a thoroughgoing and explicit system of racial domination in South Africa was not imposed until after World War II, apartheid was rooted in the racist policies and attitudes of the British colonial regime and white settlers. It can be argued, therefore, that the global argument in favor of human rights and against genocide, colonialism and racism (articulated by, for example, the United Nations, the Nuremburg Trials, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) was not potent enough by 1950 to prevent the establishment of the apartheid regime in South Africa or, for that matter, to stop the creation of a theocratic Jewish state in Palestine.

But the Holocaust made a settler state in Palestine possible. After World War II no people in the world, other than European Jews, would have been endorsed by the United Nations in their desire to establish a national state on territory already occupied by an indigenous community. There are those who argue that there was a Jewish presence in Palestine that was at least as continuous as that of the Arabs. There may be some truth to this, but it is not relevant to the central point that Palestinians living on the land did not assent to the establishment of the state of Israel and that tens of thousands of Palestinians were displaced in a process that resembles in every detail other colonial expropriations of land.

It may also be true that some Palestinians were not rooted in a specific spot, but a nomadic existence in a territory does not weaken a people's claim to their land. Neither does it make any practical difference that Palestinians were hardly a coherent political community at the time of the establishment of the Jewish state; such a description suggests that European Jewish leaders were simply better positioned to manipulate major world powers than were the leaders of Palestinian clans and groups. More relevant is the point that South African apartheid is gone, defeated both by native African resistance and international pressure, while Israel, denying that it maintains a system of religious, political and cultural domination and separation, forcefully expands its grip on Palestinian territory, while resisting international pressure and a relatively impotent U.S.

Certainly there is a linguistic argument against the use of the word "apartheid" to describe the regime maintained by the theocratic Jewish state of Israel, but the argument is trite. In Apartheid? Not Israel, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen argues that Israel is not an apartheid state "where political and civil rights are withheld on the basis of race and race alone." Israeli Arabs, Cohen writes, "have the same civil and political rights as do Israeli Jews."

But this statement is a gloss on a reality in which Arabs in Israel live as second-class citizens. Public schools in Arab neighborhoods are underfunded and are clearly a case of "separate and unequal;" the same reality exists in regard to health care, development funding and other government services. Israel also allows Jews from anywhere in the world to come to Israel and assume all the rights of Israeli citizenship, an implicitly clear statement on the differing status of Jewish and non-Jewish citizens.

Meanwhile, many Palestinians, displaced during the creation of Israel, have no rights to citizenship and no way to claim damages for their displacement or for their continuing exile from their homes. They live in de facto bantustans, and are subject to punitive raids by the Israeli armed forces, collective punishment, house demolitions, further expropriation of territory, extra-legal arrest, detention and imprisonment, and regulated access to most essential requirements and services, such as employment, education, health care, sanitation and, even, water. If the Palestinians living in the occupied territories were included in calculations of the Arab population in Israel, the result would reflect the forceful domination by a minority of a distinctly and separately defined majority population. Because it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is apartheid.

But if anything defines the difference between the South African and Israeli apartheid states, it is that the South African version named itself. Israeli apartheid is the apartheid that dare not speak its name. It is understandable that large numbers of American Jews cannot concede this truth, Richard Cohen among them. Israel was created at a moment of celebration and hope for Jews around the world. Freshly scarred by the Holocaust, and still fearful that history might repeat itself, Jews were inclined not to notice that their joy might be the occasion for the suffering of others.

In this way, Israel, became "a beacon of hope," entering the mythology of American Jews and, eventually, becoming the driving force in the creation of a specific American Jewish ideological argument supporting the Israeli state in its current form. The power of that idealizing of Israel pushed me to celebrate Israeli victories in the Six Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Despite the fact of my anti-Vietnam War activism and the continuing displacement of Palestinians, I easily convinced myself that Israel's cause was simply self-defense. It would be many years before I would be willing to judge Israel's founding and expansion in Palestine with the same critical perspective that I routinely applied to the foreign adventures of the United States.

But Cohen doesn't want to hear it. Those who name Israeli apartheid, who assert that zionism is racism, "have made Israel tone-deaf to legitimate criticism and exasperated with any attempt to find fault," he writes. "Israel has its faults (don't get me started), but it is not motivated by racism. That's more than can be said for many of its critics."

But Cohen "will never get started." Neither he, nor most American Jews, feel comfortable with criticisms of even the most minimal and obvious nature, like, say, the suggestion that continuing Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is an absolute violation of international law. Cohen is as guilty of slamming the door shut on dialogue as are the critics whom he calls "tone deaf." They batter on the door, shout to be heard, and quite frankly are no longer speaking to Cohen or to the garrison state of Israel. Their accusations are aimed at a shrinking group of neutral observers, who may not believe that Israel is a racist or apartheid state, but are not inclined to believe that the name-calling is the problem. The world is watching and losing patience with an Israel that perpetrates continuing injustice.


  1. HHi Jeff:
    Since you wanted to know if this was old hat I’d say so and wanted to share an old DC story that you may not be aware of. I’ll title it Cohen’s judgment on things racist ... given his history… might not be terribly reliable.
    A little over 15 years ago Richard Cohen wrote extensively in the premier edition of the Washington Post Magazine. The cover of magazine had young black teenagers picking the lint from between their toes literally and generally being describe as of ‘no account ‘for just about every other page. Alternate pages featured advertisements of the lifestyle of the uber-rich white Washingtonian. Theme throughout--- wasn’t it just a gosh darn shame that the rest of us (read-white people) have to tolerate these shiftless black people—just what, oh what are we to do. As icing on the cake Cohen added a ‘lovely’ piece on how right Bernard Geotz was a hero to shoot black teenagers in the back because after all if black people wanted to be treated better well they just shouldn't be what society stereotypes them to be. I guess in his mind the same logic applies to Palestinians .
    The reaction was a 'Take It Back' campaign by Washington’s black radio, churches, mosques and civic community which resulted in the returning of tens of thousands of copies of the Mag/Rag to the very front steps of the Wa Po paper . My young self gathered a few dozen copies my friends neighbors and the Sojourners community and headed downtown to watch. It was interesting; I’d never seen the police cordon off the the street of a major media organization. A boycott of the Post and any of its sponsors ensued and oh so soon Cohen or someone from the WaPo went on the radio with the ‘didn’t intent to offend ‘ routine and over time life got back to normal with people expecting the usual presumptuous only vaguely racist argument out of WaPo rather than this premier magazine’s attempt to make Joseph Goebbels proud.
    So much for the old hat that Cohen wears so proudly. Given you’ve enlightened me on some of Chicago’s race history, I thought I’d take this opportunity to do the same where DC WaPo and Cohen are concerned.

  2. Correction, the Richard cohen wrote in the premier edition of the WaPa Mag a around 25 years ago. I'm getting old.

  3. Thanks, Janet, I wasn't in town at the time you describe, but I do remember many people (mostly white folks), initially celebrated Bernard Goetz and his racist crime. It shocks me, but doesn't surprise me, that Cohen did so. I'm sure he has apologized over the years, and even regrets that he ever wrote the piece.

    Regardless, it seems likely that Cohen wouldn't see the parallels between the Goetz column and his defense of Israeli apartheid. That suggests that his likely apology regarding the Goetz piece was more closely linked to his embarrassment about being the object of controversy than any sudden understanding of the way racism in the dominant culture distorts one's perspective on events. At the very least, it is obvious that Cohen's understanding of the historical victimization of the Jewish people blinds him to the current victimization of Palestinians.

    As you and I have discussed in the past, the conversation on race in this country never gets very deep. Sometimes, when people err publicly, they apologize, often cutting short any possibility of a deeper discussion.

    It ought to be clearer to all Americans that slavery is our original sin, that it ended only a short time ago and was followed by segregation, discrimination and terror campaigns against African Americans, both separately and collectively. The harms growing out of those attitudes and events continue to affect virtually everything we do today, including developing and implementing social policies.

    American Jews need to understand that the creation of a Jewish theocratic state on Palestinian territory is a similar sort of original sin, however much the creation of Israel has been rationalized as compensation for the Holocaust and more than 1,000 years of Christian attacks on Jews and Jewish communities.

    Personally, as a white man and an American Jew, I continue to struggle with my own role in perpetuating systems of oppression that are rooted in historical attitudes and events over which I had no direct control.

  4. I agree that Cohen and many Jews like him will never "get started", thanks for the observation. But that's not the problem. He uses his power and position to ensure that no one else should get started as well. (How he does this might be fuel for another blog post on this site.)

    As one who has "batter[ed] on the door, shout[ed] to be heard, and quite frankly [is] no longer speaking to Cohen or to the garrison state of Israel", I find the the group of neutral observers is increasing, not shrinking. Many of the 1,000 vehicles passing by our weekly vigils understand "No more wars for Israel", and honk their approval. Increasing numbers "get it".

    I often hoist beers with Joe Sixpack and his TeaParty friends. More often than not, they display honest anger at their tax money being used to pound Palestinian infants with white phosphorus, rather than repairing Michigan's devastated economy and roads.

    The people who argue that there was a Jewish presence in Palestine as long as that of the Arabs are either whistling past the graveyard or haven't read Shlomo Sand's "discovery" that European Jews have no lineal connection to the land, whatsoever.

  5. Victimization and Country Building hmmmmmmmm Sounds like good old white supremacy to me.

    I heard a Native American Leader speaking a few years ago about how when Israel was established it was 20% of the land and now the reality has flipped and the official state is 80% with Palestinians unable to eek out an existence on the remaining 20%. I also recall Jewish collegue of mine stating around the time of the WaPa Cohen episode above (She was really dissapointed in Cohen at the time) that Israeli's are 'just settling a country the way everyone else has done'-ostensibly by wiping out the ability of the indigenous population or destroying its ability to sustain itself.
    While I see the holcaust as the greatest tragedy perpetrated on a people as a group in the last century- I have grown to view Israel as part of historical European hegemony over indigenous people (White Supremacy). I see the settlement of Liberia as a client state of ex-slaves which resulted in a century of civil war and bloodbath against the indeigenous Africans in the same light. Simply put Liberia can be viewed as a freed black folks doing the white supremacy thing--Israel is zionist Jewish folks doing the white supremacy thing. People may historically feel they have every reason to want to nation-build but utimately they know (like nobody else because they have been at the brunt of oppression themselves) that they have no right to do what they are doing.Every Israeli knows this to their core--they are just getting over for as long as it lasts. And terms of original sin in the US, the settlers knew their disease spreading, war mongering, enslaving (of both AFrican and Native Americans) and land apprpriating was wrong but they did it anyway because the government rewarded them under the table (sometime over the table) for doing so. Simply put its human commerce at its worst-follow the money and one will easily understand the state of affairs in Israel or anywhere else for that matter.

    And in terms of Cohen he may be alot of things but blind because of the holocaust (now 60 year later) is'nt one of them. I agree with Henry that Cohen uses his power in the way he sees fit.
    In addition to the persistent efforts to denigrate the Palestinian people another argument for the 'white supremacy' is historical Israeli discrimination against non-power (rea-brown or black) Jewish groups. Isreali policies have allowed for the dumping of Ethiopian jews blood donationseven and the placing the Sepahrdic infants (parents told they died at birth) with other Jewsih families...

    While White supremacy is a painful context in which examine israel given thehistorical brunt born Jews in Europe & holocaust victims and survivors of Nazi White Supremacy given the historical context it simply stands to follow that what comes out of the European theatre of oppression becomes that same type of oppression itself. What one resists often persists and churns and festers internally within group and continually sets itself up in juxtaposition to the non white'other' in this case the Palestinian.

  6. Janet, you raise an interesting commentary on our use of language: how easily "white supremacism" falls off the tongue, but how difficult - yet more germane to the state of "Israel" - is "Jewish supremacism".

    Theodore Herzl did not write "Der Weissenstaat" He wrote "Der Judenstaat". The Balfour Declaration did not call for a "National Home for the White People", it called for a "National Home for the Jewish people". And of course the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel claims "We ...hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel"

    Part of our job as activists, imho, is to resist the colonization of our language in parallel with the illegal colonization of Palestine, and - like Jeff has shown - the colonization of our media.

  7. Henry,

    Enlighten me, please. How, in this instance, have I demonstrated the colonization of our media? And please be specific, colonization by whom?

  8. Sure...

    Richard Cohen, in this instance is the one who claims that Apartheid is not the correct word to be applied to Israel. He's not alone: Norman Finkelstein tells Arabs not to use the word Zionism; Noam Chomsky downplays Boycotts as something that might not be effective, just makes us "feel good"...

    Cohen would not like us to use Apartheid, thereby playing the role as gatekeeper: what one can say and cannot. Ergo, he attempts to colonize our language. I guess I'd have to define colonization of language as the invasion (as into a movement) and control in media...

    You have pierced that shield, that gate, and argued convincingly that Apartheid is a perfectly good description of the result of Israeli policy.


  9. I still don't see it, Henry. The suggestion from Noam Chomsky that a boycott of Israel is not likely to be an effective weapon against the Israeli occupation is hardly evidence of the colonization of our media. That's simply a disagreement on tactics and not necessarily an important one. Chomsky has been writing and speaking about the tragedy inherent in the creation of the Jewish state for almost as long as there has been one. And he has been equally clear about the role of the United States in supporting and maintaining Israel as an instrument of U.S. policy in the Middle East. In every way that I can think of Chomsky's views are an antidote to media cheerleading on Israel. And he has been equally clear about the role that American Zionist organizations have played as obstacles to any sort of move toward self-determination for Palestinians.

    And Norman Finkelstein has, among other things, written a whole book detailing the way the Holocaust has been exploited by Israel and American Jewish organizations. Again, I think your critique here is a matter of tactical disagreement: what is the best way to be heard on the subject of the establishment of the state of Israel, the displacement and subjugation of the Palestinian people, and the military occupation of their land. Mainstream media has never shown much interest in Finkelstein, either.

    Cohen, of course, is another matter, but his obvious and specific interest in policing the debate hardly rises to the level of "colonization" of corporate media, which, in my view, has always been a significant institutional opponent of peace and solidarity movements in the United States.

    By the way, you misunderstand my observation that the number of people who are "neutral" about the conflict is shrinking. I intended to suggest that Americans, Jewish or otherwise, are increasingly opposed to Israeli policy toward Palestinians and that the pro-Israel lobby is losing momentum and credibility.

  10. I should have been more clear, and maybe not gone after two dogs at once, sorry. The one dog is my point of colonizing the language by supporters of “Israel”, and I should have focused on Cohen. He wants us not to use the word Apartheid, and you’ve countered that its use is appropriate. Now that’s just one word, agreed, and just one person holding the line (and you discrediting that line). Is it part of a bigger picture? I think yes.

    Let’s take al-Nakba for another example: children’s textbooks in “Israel” have removed its entry, or any recognition of the Catastrophe (al-Nakba) of 1948 that befell the Palestinians. And by the way, according to Dr. Ilan Pappe, it wasn’t “tens of thousands” of Palestinians displaced by Jewish force, it was 800,000, a significant difference to some. There’s also a movement to force the United Nations to drop al-Nakba from its lexicon. The method of persuasion for this task will most likely be similar to the one that caused the UNGA to remove it’s 1975 finding that Zionism is a “form of racism and racial discrimination”.

    Now, very regrettably, Aljazeera (English) uses the word “neighbourhood” to describe “Israel’s” illegal settlements in their descriptions. I just saw this yesterday. Another example of an organization kowtowing to the demands of others to soften or otherwise disguise the true meaning of the word. This is what I’m calling colonization.

    Was Rachel Corrie “murdered” by agents of a foreign country, or was her death a “regrettable accident”, as those with a pro “Israel” agenda want us to believe? Me? I believe she was cold-heartedly run over by a knowing thug, who then dragged the blade of the D-9 bulldozer back over her again. I wonder if Cohen would protest if you used what in my opinion would be the correct word…

    And the biggest whopper out of this short list I’ve provided is the word “anti-Semitism”. We know it means “anti-Jewish”, but there aren’t (to my knowledge) complete words that define other bigotry: if you hate the Irish, you might be called “anti-Irish”, but there is no special word to describe that. And the importance of anti-Semitism is that it subliminally conjures up and broadcasts the false notion (ref: Shlomo Sands, The Invention of the Jewish People) that Ashkenazi Jews were descended from the Middle East. Palestinians, Syrians, Lebanese, etc are semites. We are not.

    I should give a well-deserved nod to Chomsky here, for it was his Manufacturing Consent book and video that allows us to see how public opinion gets manipulated by media. Maybe he would agree with my term colonization…

    If anyone’s interested in a description of the second dog in my previous comments, I’ll be happy to respond.