It’s always different when it’s you

Israel has many injustices. But it is not an apartheid state | Benjamin Pogrund | Comment is free | The Guardian

This bit of self-serving liberal Zionist guff was in yesterday’s Guardian — actually, it was the most prominent opinion piece on the tablet edition (I don’t get the print anymore), despite being more or less a rehash of another piece Pogrund wrote for the Guardian several years ago in which he claimed that whatever you could call Israel’s stranglehold over Palestinian life was, it wasn’t Apartheid. In this case “the A-word” raised its head when Israel’s defence minister, Moshe Ya’alon, approved a scheme which would involve the segregation of buses in the occupied territories, with Arabs banned from using Israeli-run services. As someone who really knows what Apartheid is, having spent 26 years as a journalist in South Africa and having been the first non-family visitor to Nelson Mandela while he was in prison, he claims that “there are few charges more grave” and that there is no comparison. The piece boils down to a criticism of tone and presents technical details as if they were fundamental differences, with a fair element of arguing from authority and a touch of The Color Purple’s Miss Millie (“ain’t I always been good to you people?”).

His piece hinges on two facts: first being that Israeli Arab citizens, although discriminated against, can vote and that there are Arab judges, surgeons, and army brigadiers and that Jews and Arabs can use the same hospitals, parks, buses etc., and the second is that Palestinian Arabs in the occupied territories are not Israeli citizens. While the first is true and the Israeli Arabs had no equivalent in South Africa under Apartheid, it is not necessary to be entirely without rights to be oppressed, and many racist societies have such minorities. In the USA under slavery, there were some Black citizens who were not slaves; later on, under Segregation, Blacks had the vote in some Southern states (e.g. Tennessee) but not others. Muslims were not formally stripped of rights in India during the 2002 Gujarat riots, in which they were massacred and raped and their properties were burned, or after it, when according to some reports, Muslims had to disguise themselves lest they be attacked in the street. So, the fact that Arab citizens of Israel are not subject to the same régime as Palestinians in the occupied territories can vote does not negate the claim that the latter is equivalent to Apartheid, and that Israel is a racist society.

As for the “not citizens” claim, this one is straight out of the Hasbara handbook. I recall someone on a Usenet newsgroup back in the 1990s flinging this at me when I compared Israel to Apartheid. For many of us, the fact that Palestinians are denied citizenship of the country that controls their comings and goings and can lock them up on a whim is part of the charge, not the defence. In fact, South Africa set up so-called homelands for Black people which consisted of 13% of the land area of South Africa, and in 1970 passed the Black Homelands Citizenship Act, which stripped Black South Africans of their citizenship and made them citizens of their homelands or “Bantustans”. In 1978, Connie Mulder, Minister of Plural Relations and Development, told the House of Assembly that if their policy was fully implemented, not one Black citizen of South Africa would remain. So, while the ‘homelands’ were not recognised internationally, internally many Black South Africans were not South African citizens but subjects, and had “citizenship” only of petty states, all of them encircled by South Africa and none of them recognised by any other country, entites much like the one Israel is prepared to tolerate in the West Bank. So, the comparison is not that far-fetched and is certainly not obscene.

Pogrund then furnishes us with a brief back-story about how the West Bank and Gaza came to be occupied, only skimming the surface of the tyranny of that occupation: the monopolising of resources (particularly water), the theft or destruction of crops, the construction of a wall that separates Palestinian homes from farmland, the harassment and humiliation of travellers, the arbitrary arrests and detentions, including of children, the fostering of racism among Israel youth (nowadays directed not only against Palestinians but also against African immigrants), and so on. He claims:

This is occupation. It is a tyranny. It is wrong and must end. The point does not need to be embellished.

But he does not suggest how this tyranny must be ended, because it could only end with a full Palestinian state with control of its borders, or the granting of citizenship to all residents of the occupied territories. The first could only work if the settlers are moved out, or agree to live under Palestinian rule, which most would not. The second, although Arabs would still be a minority, would be rejected by Jews on the grounds that it compromises Israel’s status as a “Jewish democratic state”.

Regardless of the back-story, in any case, the facts are now that Israel, whose base entirely consists of recent Jewish settlers and their descendants, is a ‘democratic’ state to its citizens, ruling over a group of native subjects who have no vote and face severe restrictions on their movements and economic opportunities which are in many respects more stringent than those placed on Black South Africans under Apartheid. Israel has maintained this situation for years and appears to have no plans to change it, occasionally mouthing talk of a “two-state solution” which its liberal apologists continue to cling, while blaming the Arabs for always sabotaging it. It’s not exactly Apartheid and perhaps there is a place for an academic paper setting out the distinctions between the discriminatory régimes in Palestine and South Africa, but that’s not what this article is. It’s an attempt to use the “tone argument”, where a member of an oppressor class tells his or her ‘inferiors’ (or their allies) that he really sympathises with them (there is always an affectation of concern, in this case his claim that the Apartheid comparison “distracts from the main issue”, which he doesn’t name), but that they might get their message across better if they were not so harsh or strident.

Nobody ever said that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is exactly like Apartheid, but two systems do not have to be identical to be comparable, just similar in a number of important aspects, much as some régimes have been labelled Stalinist without the need for dramatic purges or state-engineered famines. To anyone not deeply invested in maintaining a Jewish-dominated state and willing to excuse whatever lengths the Israelis will go to in order to crush the native resistance to their rule, the oppression by Israel in Palestine does appear broadly similar to Apartheid, and the excuses get less valid and historical background less relevant with each day that Israel maintains the status quo. Pogrund’s position is extraordinary: a man who opposed Apartheid when he was a white man in South Africa, being tried and on one occasion imprisoned, yet after Apartheid fell (after he had left), he migrated not back to the new South Africa, but to another country where his people dominated and oppressed another.

He finishes with the standard Zionist whine against Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) activists: “Why do they single out Israel, above all others, for a torrent of false propaganda? Why is Israel the only country in the world whose very right to existence is challenged in this way?”. The answer is firstly that the white state he lived in that used to rule over South Africa was challenged on that basis, and fell, and secondly that there is no Zionism without the displacement and/or oppression of the native inhabitants of Palestine, and no amount of liberal good intentions will mask the oppression, except in the minds of the liberals who turn a blind eye to the racism of those they ally themselves with. Make no mistake: the white South Africans had their justifications for denying Blacks their rights as well; like Zionists, they did not think their behaviour was unreasonable (they thought Blacks were inferior; Pogrund takes a side-swipe at Israeli Arabs by claiming that they are under-represented in universities because they underperform at school). The main difference between Zionist oppression and that of Apartheid is who is doing the oppressing, and Zionists (Jewish ones especially) identify with Jews in Israel and don’t identify with the Boers in South Africa. It’s always different when it’s you doing the oppressing, but it’s much the same when you are the oppressed.

(An updated version of Phil Ochs’s Love Me, I’m a Liberal can be found here.)

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