Apartheid and antisemitism are abominations which have caused immense suffering to millions of people. So, to use these terms accurately is of critical importance. Cheapening their meaning by using them loosely is itself abominable, as it demeans their authentic victims.
Mercifully, apartheid, in its country of origin, was officially abolished in 1994. Ominously, antisemitism is again on the rise. Now Amnesty International (AI), the widely respected international human rights organization, accuses the Jewish state – conceived as a bulwark against antisemitism – of practicing apartheid; not just in the context of a military occupation but at its core. In turn, the Israeli Government accuses AI of antisemitism. Are these charges cheap sloganeering or is there substance to either of them?
Israel Routinely Violates Human Rights in the OPT
That Israel has been a serial violator of human rights mainly, although not solely, in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) it captured in the 1967 war is well documented and denied only by those who consider compelling evidence of no consequence. Over the 55 years of Israel’s presumptively provisional occupation of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), successive Israeli Governments have encouraged hundreds of thousands of Jewish Israeli civilians to settle in the OPT in close proximity to 3-4 million Palestinians.
While the Israeli settlers in the West Bank have full Israeli citizenship with all the rights and privileges that bestows on them, including being subject to Israeli law and justice, the occupied Palestinians, a stone’s throw away, have very few rights and are subject to Israeli military rule, which rarely dispenses any sort of justice.
Shootings and killings by Israeli armed forces, forced evictions and house demolitions, and violent attacks by settlers are commonplace. Palestinians under occupation are routinely humiliated and corralled by a system of permits, checkpoints, and roadblocks. All Israelis (Palestinian as well as Jewish) are in a way complicit in these misdemeanors just by virtue of being citizens of the country. Conscious of this, a hardy number of them protest vigorously. Some are descendants of Jews who took refuge in Israel from violent pogroms and relentless persecution in Eastern and Central Europe – not least in the Ukraine and Russia -- and recoil at what is being done in their name, which they regard as not just an assault on universal human rights but also an affront to traditional Jewish values of peace, justice, liberty, and equality, proudly echoed in the 1948 Israeli Declaration of Independence.1
In sum, in the same territory, two populations of different ethnicities live, work, and play under different, and blatantly unequal, legal and political regimes. Israel’s only defense against this being tantamount to apartheid is that its rule in the OPT is a temporary occupation that will end imminently and that meanwhile it has been observing the Geneva Convention prohibition against changing the legal and political status of an occupied territory and population. After more than half a century of physical, social, and demographic changes on the ground, it’s not a very strong case, but it’s the only argument that Israel can make.
Apartheid Debate Could Deflect Focus on Ending the Occupation
For years, loyal Israelis have been warning that indefinite occupation of the West Bank together with the construction of settlements there would lead inexorably to a system of apartheid. Among them were former Prime Ministers Ehud Barak, Ehud Olmert, and even David Ben-Gurion (in the wake of the 1967 war), as well as former Likud MK and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. Similar warnings have been issued by diverse others, including former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
These warnings went unheeded while successive Israeli Governments steadily and deliberately built a structure of apartheid in the West Bank, only to react with disingenuous fury when their own diligent creation was called out for what it is. To then accuse the accuser of antisemitism is monstrous. It insults not just the accuser but also the Palestinian victims of Israeli abuses; the past, present, and future Jewish victims of authentic antisemitism; the black and other hapless victims of white-ruled South Africa, and ordinary Israeli citizens who are sometimes the targets of baseless vile epithets which may indeed be motivated by anti-Jewish bigotry. But in this case, the charge is far from baseless.
A more fitting Israeli response would be to deconstruct the apartheid consciously created in the West Bank by swiftly ending the occupation. Unfortunately, there is no sign of this intention at present. What we are more likely to witness is a repetition of the standard Israeli response to allegations of past misdemeanors: first ignore, then deny, followed in turn by discredit, acknowledge, excuse, justify, and finally embrace, culminating in Israel’s kneejerk supporters eventually accepting and validating a practice they once considered abhorrent.
While there is plenty of evidential justification for characterizing the regime in the West Bank as apartheid, there is a caveat: What actually is gained by labeling it as such? The report calls for an end to apartheid, but it does not call for an end to occupation. This seems absurd, as the only sure way of dissolving apartheid on the West Bank is to terminate the occupation. They are organically linked. Switching the focus to apartheid may obscure the underlying reality of the occupation. It could also play into the hands of those who wish to see the occupation extended indefinitely, and it chimes with the paradigm currently favored by Prime Minister Bennett of “shrinking the conflict,”2 the most recent version of the deceptive idea of making the occupation more bearable rather than ending it. Is this what AI wants, too?
Thus, in the case of the West Bank, the issue is more tactical (whether to call it occupation or apartheid) than substantive. The matter is a lot trickier, however, in the territory of Israel proper.
When does discrimination pivot into apartheid?
That there is legal and social discrimination within sovereign Israel (elaborated in the AI report) and, in some instances, an entrenched pattern of abuses is not in question, but whether this amounts to apartheid is not just a matter of ticking boxes. It’s also a matter of where to position the bar (analogous to when maltreatment becomes torture), bearing in mind that minorities are discriminated against and persecuted in just about every country in the region (and many beyond), in several cases considerably more egregiously than in sovereign Israel (see below).
The crime of apartheid is considered exceptionally serious and – unlike charges of torture, disappearances, extrajudicial executions, and so on – AI has never leveled this charge against any country before, apart from one qualified exception in Myanmar. This puts an onus on the worldwide human rights body to establish a threshold against which countries that discriminate against their minority (or in some cases majority) populations may be assessed. That would be a valuable investigation. But AI has skipped this crucial step and plunged straight into the combustible apartheid pit by picking out sovereign Israel from a clutch of regional contenders and historical foes.
The best way to combat violations of human rights in the Israeli-Palestinian cauldron is to bring the conflict to a tolerable end. As someone who has tried to contribute to that quest for the last few decades, I struggle to see how the AI report is helpful to that goal. The Palestinians are well able to present their own case but, in fully adopting it, AI paints an almost entirely one-sided picture, even if the raw facts it presents, in and of themselves, stand up to scrutiny. An innocent might conclude that the whole point of Israel was to persecute Palestinians.
Putting the Israeli Jewish Perspective into Context
The Israeli Jewish perspective – barely touched on in the AI report, even as context (aside from a passing reference to “the Holocaust”) – is, in a nutshell, that at a time of unprecedented international turmoil, the Jewish state was the product of a relentlessly persecuted people’s frantic survival strategy, that the Arabs rejected the 1947 UN Partition Plan endorsed by more than two-thirds of the General Assembly and attempted to destroy Israel in 1948 and again in 1967, and that the conflict has been marked by
Arab antisemitism and Palestinian terrorism, which have posed serious security challenges for Israel. Again, these raw assertions stand up to scrutiny but paint a distorted picture.
It is important to grasp the core perspectives of the principal parties, because no resolution of the conflict that fails to accommodate the bare minimum aspirations of both peoples is possible or sustainable. But when third parties fully embrace just one or the other discourse, the effect of their lopsided campaigns is most often to heighten tensions, aggravate the problems, and further poison communal relations in countries around the world.
The charge that sovereign Israel, alone and from the beginning, is intrinsically an apartheid state -- and that that is the essence and substance of the problem -- makes light of complexity. It plays into the simplistic notion, promoted by partisans of both sides, that the Arab-Israel conflict, from its inception, is an elemental struggle between good and evil. Eradicate Zionist Israel and dismantle its settler-colonial apartheid, cries the Israel-vilifying current, and all conflict will disappear. Once the Arabs stop their Jew-hatred and give up violence, cries the Palestinian-demonizing current, all the problems will be solved.
By constantly blurring the distinctions between sovereign Israel and the occupied West Bank, the AI report underplays the reality that Palestinian Israelis – unlike occupied Palestinians and South African blacks under apartheid – do have citizenship of the country they inhabit, even if it doesn’t confer the full package of rights and privileges enjoyed by Jewish Israelis. Palestinian Citizens of Israel (PCIs), who comprise roughly 20% of the Israeli population, carry Israeli passports and have freedom of movement and expression and the right to vote and stand for election.
Currently, there are 14 Palestinian members of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset out of a total of 120. An Arab Islamic party is part of the governing coalition. There are Palestinian diplomats, professors, doctors, senior judges, all working in non-segregated institutions. Palestinians are active in business, journalism, sports, and other professions. A Muslim captains Israel’s national football team, which comprises Jewish, Arab and Muslim players.
If Apartheid Is Everywhere, It’s Nowhere
These observations are made not to paint a rosy picture, as PCIs do suffer discrimination, most acutely experienced by Bedouin in southern Israel, but to bring them into the picture. The critical question is: Does the discrimination within sovereign Israel amount, on the whole, to the grave sin of apartheid, especially when compared with other countries? A brief glimpse at the severe discrimination suffered by minorities in some other Middle East states is enough to suggest that if the bar is lowered to include sovereign Israel, most other countries in the region would almost certainly be guilty of the crime of apartheid, too. And if apartheid is everywhere, it’s nowhere.
In Egypt, systematic bias against Copts and other Christians in the job market and for planning permits, along with unprecedented persecution, was documented in an independent 2018 report.3 The Minority Rights Group has reported severe discrimination against the Baha’i population, Jehovah Witnesses, and Ahmadiyya.
Syria is home to a diverse population, including over 2 million Kurds, many of whom are excluded from citizenship. The ruling Alawite sect comprises less than 15% of Syria’s population, yet dominates the upper echelons of the political, military, security, and intelligence sectors. Discrimination is rife, often at the expense of the Sunni majority. Violent suppression of opponents of the regime is commonplace.4
In Turkish-occupied Northern Cyprus, over 100,000 settlers from Turkey replaced thousands of Greek Cypriots who were evicted (or “ethnically cleansed”) from their homes during the 1974 partition. Today, Turkish settlers exceed the number of indigenous Turkish Cypriots.5 Turkish Cypriots were simultaneously ethnically cleansed from Greek areas. Neither side has committed to a right of return. Turkey itself has a long history of discrimination against the Kurdish minority, including sporadic massacres.6
“From Saudi Arabia's establishment in 1932, its minority Shi’ite population [about 15%] has been subject to discrimination and sectarian incitement,” according to the International Crisis Group. Shiites are underrepresented in official positions, and students complain of open hostility from Sunni instructors. Jobs in the police and military are rare and promotion prospects rarer still.7
In the Sunni-led monarchy of Bahrain, the Shi’ite population outnumbers the Sunnis, yet they, too, suffer from institutionalized discrimination. Shi’ite protests are harshly suppressed, and a heavy security presence in primarily Shi’ite villages is maintained. To erode the Shi’ite majority, foreign-born Sunnis are encouraged to become citizens, while the citizenship of hundreds of Shi’ites has been revoked.8
Millions of Palestinians suffer discrimination all over the Middle East. Apart from Jordan, Arab states routinely deny them citizenship, even when they, their parents, grandparents, or even great grandparents were born in the country. Whatever the original justification, their continuing limbo is a severe curtailment of their basic rights. In Lebanon – probably the most egregious case – approximately 280,000 Palestinians are barred from some 70 occupations and from owning businesses and property. They mostly
live in dire poverty, are excluded from most public schools and denied free treatment in hospitals.9 At different times, Palestinians have fled or been expelled from Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Syria.
Further afield, India has recently enshrined discrimination in law by dividing migrants into Muslims and non-Muslims.10 Kashmir has been described as “a place of no rights” where discrimination is rife.11 Pakistan officially became an Islamic state in 1973, making the government beholden to Sharia law, marginalizing other communities.12 Similarly for Iran. Then there is the matter of China’s appalling treatment of the Uyghurs and the systemic discrimination against indigenous peoples in many countries around the world, including the Americas (North and South), Europe, and the Pacific.
This is just a peek. It is neither systematic nor exhaustive, but it does point to inequitable treatment as a ubiquitous problem. So why single out only sovereign Israel for intensive scrutiny?
Singling out sovereign Israel may be perceived as antisemitism
At the launch of the report on February 1, 2022, Dr Agnès Callamard, the new AI secretary general, tried to preempt this question, maybe in recognition that it is here where the charge of antisemitism resonates for many Jews, and for good reason. For long stretches of history, Jews were singled out, scapegoated, and severely persecuted for catastrophes like plague, famine, war, poverty, etc. for which they bore no responsibility or, in other cases, for misdeeds for which they were no more to blame than everyone else. This was classical antisemitism.
So, when the Jewish state is singled out for the crimes of the many, this inevitably raises hackles and summons old ghosts, even among Jews who do not necessarily consider themselves strong supporters of Israel but take exception to the mark of Cain being reserved for the Jewish state. The accusation of apartheid is not like the accusation of torture or other atrocities. Countries can stop practicing torture or disappearances or executions or even apartheid in a province or an occupied territory (by ending the occupation), but when apartheid is alleged to be in the very DNA of a state, the implication is pretty self-evident: exclusion and eradication, familiar Jewish experiences.
Dr Callamard endeavored to head off some of the criticism and inferences by observing that, some four years earlier, AI had accused Myanmar of practicing apartheid against the Rohingya people in Rakhine State.13 The two cases are not really equivalent, inasmuch as the accusation in one case is confined to a country practicing apartheid in a particular region and in the other case being apartheid. Myanmar is also far removed from Israel’s regional and political context.
The other mitigation she offered was that AI recognizes the Jewish people’s right to self-determination and recognizes the State of Israel. It is not clear how she squares that with what is tantamount to a full frontal assault on Israel’s raison d’etre. This is the problem with overstepping the mark without properly thinking through the implications. It can lead to overstepping another mark in compensation, aggravating the problem rather than ameliorating it. The more she tried to dig herself out of the hole of AI’s own making, the deeper it became.
Since when does AI recognize (or not recognize) states? States, not human rights organizations, recognize states. Does AI recognize any state apart – apparently – from Israel? Does it explicitly recognize the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination or only the Jewish people’s right? It looks as if these positions were hastily improvised in a belated attempt to balance the books, inviting justifiable brickbats from both sides. With this report, AI has politicized human rights, which is likely to affect its future work and undermine its hard-earned reputation for impartiality.
Equal Rights on the Road to an Equitable Solution
Even at this late stage, I would urge AI to give serious consideration to adopting a proposal along the lines of one co-authored in 2014 by Palestinian thinker Sam Bahour and myself to the effect of “a Palestinian state now or equal rights until there is a solution.”14
This is a practical, human-rights-focused proposal centered on the principle of equality (national or individual), with the potential to attract widespread support from diverse constituencies. With appropriate pressure, it could spark new currents and promote vigorous debate within Israel and among the Palestinians, and thereby hasten the return to the agenda of practical alternatives for resolving the conflict. It would be unifying rather than divisive, with no one having to feel demonized and isolated.
To summarize, the charge of apartheid in the West Bank is self-evidently true, but switching the focus from occupation to apartheid obscures the imperative to end the occupation, of which apartheid is an ugly offspring. The paramount need is for a worldwide campaign to end the occupation. Only then will the two sides be freed and required to confront their internal inequities, including discriminatory practices.
Hundreds of thousands of learned books and millions of articles have been devoted to explaining, understanding, and trying to resolve this wretched, multilayered, conflict. For AI to throw its full weight behind just one, inevitably skewed, discourse regarding Israel proper is simplistic and not very constructive. For decades, both Palestinians and Israelis have tended to measure their advances by the setbacks of the other side. The AI report fits this pattern and doubtless will be viewed as a setback of sorts for Israel. Whether this setback will translate into a tangible advance for the Palestinians, however, is another question altogether.
3 Harriet Sherwood, The Guardian, 10 January 2018.
4 https://minorityrights.org/country/syria/; https://origins.osu.edu/article/alawites-andfate-syria?language_content_entity=en
14 Le Monde Diplomatique, 8 April 2014