Sometimes when a debate seems all but settled, a prestigious voice can reopen it. So it is with Richard Goldstone, who states the following in a New York Times op-ed entitled “Israel and the Apartheid Slander”:
“In Israel, there is no apartheid. Nothing there comes close to the definition of apartheid under the 1998 Rome Statute: “Inhumane acts … committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.” Israeli Arabs — 20 percent of Israel’s population — vote, have political parties and representatives in the Knesset and occupy positions of acclaim, including on its Supreme Court. Arab patients lie alongside Jewish patients in Israeli hospitals, receiving identical treatment.”
(Richard Goldstone, “Israel and the Apartheid Slander”, New York Times, November 2011)
Goldstone speaks with triple authority – as a South African judge, as the first chief prosecutor of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda, and as the head of a UN Human Rights Council investigation into Israel’s invasion of Gaza. It’s therefore worth noting that, even on the most generous assumptions, he’s wrong.
Uri Davis, in Apartheid Israel, has documented how Israeli Arabs are disadvantaged by systemic discrimination. Let’s grant, for the sake of Goldstone’s argument, that this disadvantage doesn’t amount to oppression. Still, Israeli apartheid, as defined in the Rome Statute, is virulent and real.
There are inhumane acts committed against Palestinian Arabs. This doesn’t really seem to be in dispute.
Let’s still suppose that none of these, or few of them, are inflicted on Israeli Arabs but only on Palestinians in the occupied territories. Nevertheless they are “committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.”
The Israeli laws surrounding qualification for Israeli citizenship give, and are intended to give, Jews domination over Arabs in Israel. They do so by assuring that Jews can get citizenship in a wide range of circumstances in which Palestinian Arabs cannot.
These laws, whose stated purpose is to keep the state Jewish, identify Jews by ancestry, not religion. This is as much as to say that they are racial laws. ‘Race’ is certainly a shifty and controversial term, but for that very reason, ancestry-based laws are considered to have as much of a racial character as laws are likely to have: that is why, for instance, the UK laws that restricted certain passports to ‘British patrials’ were thought, if not racially motivated, then certainly racially tainted. (Thus Lord Mishcon, recorded in Hansard: “The effect of the Immigration Act 1971 is that most British patrials are white people, while virtually all British non-patrials are of non-European descent.” British Nationality Bill, Hansard, July 22 1981)
So we have racial laws, designed to maintain racial domination. We have oppression as part of that design. Even if we grant that the oppression is not visited on Israeli Arabs, we still have apartheid within the definition of the Rome Statute.
The definition does not require that no subgroup of the oppressed group be treated non-oppressively. That requirement would not have been met even by South African apartheid. It is sufficient that, in a state where racial dominance is maintained by fundamental laws, oppression of a dominated group exists. That other laws protect some subgroup of that dominated group from oppression is neither here nor there.
Goldstone also claims that Israel inflicts suffering on the Palestinians for ‘security reasons’. Even if this could possibly apply to all of Israel’s cruelties, it is irrelevant: it would only establish that Israel had a motive for apartheid, not that it didn’t practice apartheid. His other excuse – that some day, some time, Israel might possibly relinquish the occupied territories – is beyond irrelevant; it is fatuous. Here and now, Israel practices apartheid within the limits of the definition Goldstone cites.
Michael Neumann is a professor of philosophy at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. Professor Neumann’s views are not to be taken as those of his university. His book What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche is published by Broadview Press. He contributed the essay, “What is Anti-Semitism”, to CounterPunch’s book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism. His latest book is The Case Against Israel. He can be reached at: email@example.com