I’ve never imagined a simple equation between the non-racial democracy for which we fought (and which we won) in South Africa and achieving a unitary state democratic solution for Israel and the Palestinians. Indeed, I’ll admit to being anything but dogmatic on just how that conflict is to be solved. While in principle, I’d certainly prefer a unitary democratic state with full democratic equality for all its citizens, I can see the considerable differences between our situation and the one in Israel/Palestine that render a single state solution exceedingly difficult. At the same time, I can also see that Israel’s systematic territorial expansion may already have rendered a Palestinian state unviable. (For more on this issue, listen to Ali Abunimah and Akiva Eldar debate the unitary vs. two-state solution on Canadian radio.)
But what’s clear enough is that for the past 40 years, there has been only one state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, and that state has been Israel. And Israel has been an apartheid state: Like South Africa, it’s a democracy ruled by law for one group of people, and a military-colonial regime for another. Those who complain about it the use of “apartheid” to describe Israeli policies are either in deep denial, or else argue, as many liberals do, that the term is not helpful because it is provocative or “demonizes” the Israelis. This, too, though, is an evasion: The purpose of using the term is precisely to draw attention to the fact that Israel is routinely engaged in practices long deemed abhorrent by the international community, but because of Israel’s claim to represent the Jewish people and because of our history of suffering, this reality is simply overlooked, excused, or ignored. So, yes, using the word “apartheid” to describe what Israel is doing in the West Bank is meant to make people feel uncomfortable over what Israel is doing, and to recognize that condoning it is the moral equivalent of condoning apartheid. Clearly, that’s why Israeli human rights advocates routinely use the term.
Israeli apartheid is eloquently explained in today’s Haaretz by Amira Hass, the exceptionally courageous moral beacon of Israeli journalism, as a daughter of Holocaust survivors living in Ramallah. In a blistering moral challenge to her fellow Israelis, she writes:
Those who say they support a two-state solution are ignoring the other facet of the democracy-for-Jews – the military regime that it imposes on the Palestinians. This regime creates faits accomplis all the time, foiling the last chance for a solution (i.e. full withdrawal with slight changes to the June 4, 1967 lines and establishing a Palestinian state).
The Jewish citizens who enjoy their democracy are not personally harmed by its other facet. On the contrary, they gain from it – cheap land and quality housing, additional water sources, a cadre of security professionals in demand worldwide, and thriving defense industries. This is the “calm” that even self-defined peace supporters refrain from disrupting.
In the Soviet empire and racist South Africa – like in today’s Burma (Myanmar) – objecting to oppression involved a high personal price. Therefore, one could understand the objectors who chose not to act. In Israel, because it is a democracy for Jews, all those who sit idle, ignoring what is being done in their name, bear a heavy responsibility.
Chiefs of staff, prime ministers, ministers and generals are not the only ones responsible. Anyone who theoretically objects to oppression, discrimination and expulsion, but does not actively take part in the struggle and in creating a constant popular resistance to topple the apartheid regime we have created here, is responsible.
Amira Hass is hardly alone among Israelis in answering the moral challenge she outlines. There are dozens of Israelis, week in and week out, working to challenge the occupation, in pretty much the same way that we, a handful of whiteys, were doing alongside our black comrades in South Africa in the 80s.
Elsewhere, Hass has written of the efforts of these groups, and how they remind Palestinians of the existence of “other” Israelis, and knit together the sort of humane, decent civil society that transcends the boundaries between the two peoples:
Since the 1990s, Israel has endeavored to separate the two peoples. It has restricted opportunities to meet and get to know one another outside the master-serf framework, VIP meetings or luxurious overseas peace showcases from which the term “occupation” is completely absent.
Because of this separation, the Palestinians know only settlers and soldiers – in other words, only those whose conduct and roles in the system justify the Palestinians’ conclusion that it is impossible to reach a just agreement and peace with Israel. This separation also reinforces Israelis’ racist – or at best, patronizing – attitudes toward the Palestinians.
The anarchists, Machsom Watch, Yesh Din, Rabbis for Human Rights, the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, Physicians for Human Rights and other activist groups – few as their members may be – disrupt the separation policy and its ills. They remind the Palestinians that there are other Israelis, so perhaps there is still hope. And in their immediate environment, they expose Israelis to facts and experiences that make it difficult for them to keep wallowing in their voluntary ignorance and disregarding the dangers that our oppressive regime poses over the Palestinians.
Those in America upset by the use of the term “apartheid” in reference to Israel might find it illuminating to encounter some of those Israelis who, like the white activists of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa during the 80s, regularly cross “the line” to stand where the metal of the occupation meets the flesh of its victims, to bear witness and also to remind Israelis and Palestinians that a different future is possible based on recognition of a common humanity.