Is there a better adjective than ‘apartheid’ to describe Israel?
04 Oct 2013 00:00 Ran Greenstein
How can we sort out the conceptual mess that afflicts the debates around the comparison between Israel and apartheid South Africa?
Recent articles in the Mail & Guardian, in particular an interview with Benjamin Pogrund, have shown confusion regarding the meaning of the issue.
First, let us examine the meaning of apartheid. The term defines the regime of political domination and social exclusion that ruled South Africa since 1948.
Another definition emerged in international law, drawing on the South African example but gradually moving away from it. The 2002 Statute of the International Criminal Court contains no references to South Africa and regards apartheid as “an institutionalised regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group”.
We must also bear in mind that the 1965 international convention on eliminating racial discrimination extends the term to cover “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin”.
Biological differences In other words, it is not restricted to “race” in the common meaning that invokes real or imaginary biological differences in its definition.
Although apartheid remains associated in our minds with its South African origins, legally it has no necessary relation to South Africa.
The key question is the identification of a regime that practices systematic oppression and domination by one group over another. How then does it apply to Israel?
To answer that, we need to clarify another concept: Israel.
Although usually seen as residing within its pre-1967 boundaries, the Israeli regime exercises control over Palestinians in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza.
For the past 46 years, all residents within greater Israel have lived under the same regime, which claims to be the sole legitimate political and military authority.
The state controls the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, ruling over eight million rights-bearing citizens (75% of whom are Jews) and four million Palestinian subjects denied civil and political rights. Millions of Palestinian refugees (who were born in the territory or whose direct ancestors were) cannot set foot in their homeland, let alone determine its political future as citizens.
Insiders How is the notion of apartheid relevant to this reality? The Israeli regime is based on an ethnic-religious distinction between Jewish insiders and Palestinian outsiders.
It expands citizenship beyond its territory, potentially to all Jews regardless of their links to the country, and contracts citizenship within it: Palestinians in the occupied territories and refugees outside have no citizenship and cannot become Israeli citizens.
The regime combines different modes of rule: civilian authority with democratic institutions within the Green Line (the pre-1967 boundaries), and military authority beyond it.
In times of crisis, the military mode of rule spills over the line to apply to Palestinian citizens in Israel.
At all times, the civilian mode of rule spills over the line to apply to Jewish settlers.
The distinction between the two sides of the line is constantly eroding as a result, and norms and practices developed under the occupation filter back into Israel.
Israel as a “Jewish democratic state” is “democratic” for Jews and “Jewish” for Arabs.
Minority It is, in fact, a “Jewish demographic state”. The fear that Jews may become a minority is the prime concern behind state policies.
All state institutions and practices are geared to meet the concern for a permanent Jewish majority exercising absolute political domination.
These conditions are particularly visible in the occupied territories: Jewish settlers live in exclusive communities, from which all Palestinian locals are barred (except, occasionally, as “hewers of wood and drawers of water”). They drive on Israeli-only roads, enjoy Israeli military protection and access to all the privileges and services that come with citizenship rights, including voting for the Israeli Parliament.
Palestinian subjects have no say in the way they are governed. “No taxation without representation” is a noble political principle that does not apply to them.
What should we call a regime that leaves millions of its subjects with no political rights, that practises segregation in all walks of life and that denies them the basic right to determine their future?
True, there is a Palestinian Authority as well, but it has no power over crucial issues of security, land, water, movement of people and goods, industry and trade.
All that matters is controlled by Israeli military authorities, which operate on behalf and at the behest of settlers and Israeli interest groups.
That the territories have not been formally annexed to Israel is irrelevant – it changes none of the oppressive practices to which Palestinians are daily subjected.
Some people prefer not to term this regime apartheid because it is indeed different (not better) in some respects from what existed in South Africa before 1994. Fine, but what better term is there?
Professor Ran Greenstein teaches in the sociology department at the University of the Witwatersrand