Defending Apartheid

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

In 2017 the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) issued a report on the conditions of Palestinians under Israeli rule. The report covered the situations of both Palestinian citizens of Israel and the subject population in the Occupied Territories. The report concluded “Israel has established an apartheid regime that dominates the Palestinian people as a whole.”

Though U.S. and Israeli pressure managed to suppress the report, evidence for this charge of apartheid is clear-cut. More recently, the facts have been brought together in a succinct presentation by the noted journalist Jonathan Cook. In a 2018 issue of The Link, a publication of Americans for Middle East Understanding, he wrote an expose` entitled “Apartheid Israel.” Some of the particulars Cook looks at are citizenship inequality, nationality inequality, marriage inequality, legal inequality, and residential inequality. The predictable Palestinian struggle seeking equality and the end of apartheid is seen as a subversive movement by both Israel’s Jewish majority and its increasingly rightwing governments.

Of course, some Israeli Jews do understand that the country has a serious problem with racism. For instance, this comes through in the June 2020 Haaretz report that indicates that as “world sensitivity to racism and oppression” increases “historical injustice in Israel is … only getting worse.”

The “Nation-State” Law

One of the ways things are getting worse in Israel is through the enshrining of Zionist-inspired apartheid in law. On 18 July 2018 the Israeli Knesset (Parliament) enacted a “Nation-State” Law. It defines the State of Israel as the nation-state “of the Jewish people only.” In other words, only Jews can hold “nationality rights” in Israel.

MK (member of the Knesset) Yariv Levin dubbed the law “Zionism’s flagship bill … that will put Israel back on the right path. A country that is different from all others in one way, that it is the nation-state of the Jewish people.” MK Amir Ohana, who chaired the special committee that shaped the bill, stated: “This is the law of all laws. It is the most important law in the history of the State of Israel, which says that everyone has human rights, but national rights in Israel belong only to the Jewish people.” The absurdity of this proposition is exposed by the fact that the Palestinian minority has been denied significant aspects of its human rights for over 70 years. As it turns out, the two categories of rights, national and human, have been interdependent ever since the development of the sovereign state.

Hannah Arendt’s Insight

Acting on the claim that one can separate out human rights, much less civil rights, from “national rights” has proven disastrous in the modern political era. Significantly, it was a brilliant Jewish intellectual, Hannah Arendt, who pointed this out following the horror of the Holocaust and on the occasion of the U.N. pronouncement of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Arendt pointed out that, in the era of the nation-state, rights are defined and enforced within state entities claiming sovereignty over both territory and population. If a state decides that for racial, ethnic, religious, or any other reason, that only one portion of its population is worthy of first-class citizenship, it can proceed to deny to all those who do not qualify any and all rights. This is, of course, what the Nazis did to the Jews, and more recently is reflected in how Myanmar treats its ethnic minorities, how China treats its Uyghur population, and Saudi Arabia discriminates against its Shia religious minority, and so.

The United Nations has proven unable to effectively challenge this perversion of sovereignty. Keep in mind that the United Nations is itself made up of nation-states which reserve the power to discriminate as a consequence of sovereignty. This has made it difficult for the U.N., as an organization, to enforce a “universal” and “inalienable” conception of rights. In truth, the only way to achieve universal rights is to replace the nation-state’s claim that its sovereignty allows it alone to grant rights—replace it with enforceable international law that assures equitable application of rights.

Israel’s High Court of Justice Defends Apartheid

Israel is now acting out the scenario Arendt identified. There were many complaints against the nation-state bill, coming not only from the Palestinian Arabs, but also from the Druze community and even elements of the Mizrachi Jewish population. Thus, on 22 December 2020, fully two and a half years after the passage of the bill, the High Court of Justice held a public review of the law.

Two sections of the law drew particular objection from those appearing before the court. First was the objection to the bill’s official designation of “Jewish settlement as a value that the state is obligated to promote.” Considering the fact that such settlements most often lead to eviction of Palestinians from their land and homes, and the steady segregation of populations based on ethnicity and religion, it can’t help but be seen as an important historical factor in Zionist apartheid. The second was the law’s purposeful demotion of Arabic—it will no longer be an official language of Israel. The implication here is that loss of recognition of the language spoken by the Palestinians, Druze, and at least the first generation of Mizrachi Jews is equivalent to their loss of equal social and political status with those who speak Hebrew.

Throughout the ensuing debate the eleven High Court judges could not, or would not, recognize that giving elite legal and social status in law to one group of religiously identified citizens must have detrimental legal consequences for other non-elite citizens and subjects. That it would was a point made by Attorney Hassan Jabareen, the director of Adalah—the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights.

The rejoinder of the judges made in reference to the emphasis on “Jewish settlement” was that “the fact that Jewish settlement is perceived as a national value does not mean that there should be no equal allocation and legitimate civil rights for others.” As observers noted, this reply is ahistorical. It simply ignores Israel’s history of “over 70 years of discrimination, in which hundreds of towns, cities, and villages were established for Jews while not a single new locale was built for Palestinian citizens. As if Palestinian land was not expropriated for constructing Jewish communities.”

The same obtuseness was displayed when it came to the demotion of the Arabic language. The judges just could not see why losing its status as an official language was so painful for Arabic speakers. They were not moved when one of the plaintiffs pointed out, “there is a violation of convention here. The rules of the game have changed. My language, at least formally, has maintained its status from the time of the Ottomans until the 20th Knesset. Language was the only collective right [afforded to] the indigenous minority in its homeland.”

The cultural divide between Jews and non-Jews in Israel/Palestine that has been evolving into apartheid since before 1948 reached a tragic legal climax in the decision-making of these eleven judges. They confirmed in law a process that condemns non-Jews to a legal no-man’s-land. As the Druze lawyer told the court, “There is not a word on minority rights; it is a badge of shame for the State of Israel. … It is doubtful whether Jewish students who are educated on this law will be willing to accept Arab citizens at all in the future.”

“The Desired Reality”

Why were the eleven Israeli High Court judges so obtuse? Perhaps it is because they have been acculturated to see Zionist Israel as an exceptional place—a justification unto itself. As Yariv Levin described it above, Israel is “a country that is different from all others in one way, that it is the nation-state of the Jewish people.” This exclusiveness is the raison d’être of the Zionist project—it is its ultimate “noble” goal. For those within the exclusive Zionist tent, assigning the term apartheid to their accomplishment is to judge a special case by supposedly non-applicable generic rules. To persist in doing so is regarded as a sign of anti-Semitism rather than facing the facts.

This situation has been addressed by the Haaretz journalist Amira Haas. Haas is “the daughter of Holocaust survivors and resides in Ramallah, where she is the only Jewish Israeli journalist living in the West Bank.” She was in the United States in June 2019 and gave an interview to Mari Cohen for the publication Jewish Currents.

Haas explains the current situation this way: “The current reality is actually one state, which is an apartheid state. This means there are two separate laws: one for Palestinians and one for Israeli Jews. The Palestinian population is subdivided into groups and subgroups like the nonwhite population of [former apartheid] South Africa. They’re disconnected from each other. They are treated differently by Israel, while Israeli Jews live in the entire country, like one people, with full rights.”

The apartheid nature of Israel is a developmental plan of the state. Haas explains that Israel’s main goal is “to get more land, and to manipulate the Palestinian demography. … You see that this is really a plan. [Israeli leaders] sit and they think about how to implement it, and what regulations will achieve this goal. … One by one, step by step.” And, one has to conclude after seventy years that Israeli apartheid is sustainable because most of the world’s governments accept it. That, of course, could change, but there is no sign that it will in the near future.

It is also sustainable because it is what Israeli Jews want. “For Israel, this is the desired reality: that Palestinians live in their enclaves, deprived of any ability to develop their economy, and that the world gives them donations so that they can sustain themselves. And that’s it. There is no desire on the part of Israel to reach a different reality. There has been a kind of an illusion among Jews [in the diaspora] that Israel wants a solution. But [Israeli Jews] don’t see that this is a problem.”

Can it get worse? Yes, it can. Religious fanaticism can make it worse. Haas goes on to explain, “The question is, will the Israeli messianic religious right-wing segment of the population that has gained a lot of power in Israeli politics—will it succeed in accomplishing its aims: the mass expulsion of Palestinians and annexation of the great majority of the West Bank? It’s not enough for them to have Palestinians living in enclaves. They want more.”

It is this overall attitude that explains the ability of Israeli Jews to feel little or no obligation to help Palestinians in the Occupied Territories to maintain their health care systems or provide Covid-19 vaccinations. The act of official segregation has not diminished Israeli control, only any acceptance of Israeli responsibility.


History is full of tragic irony. At the end of the 19th century Germany was considered one of the most civilized nations on the planet. One world war and a Great Depression later, many  Germans were electing Nazis and gearing up for the Holocaust. Up until the mid-20th century, the Jewish people were considered peace-loving and a reservoir of brilliant minds. One Holocaust later, many of them, both survivors and those in the diaspora, had joined a Zionist movement determined to create a racist warrior state.

Over time we become products of our local environment. That environment narrows our range of thought and choice. When the environment changes, those who endure change with it, not always for the best. The Holocaust traumatized its survivors, and some of them went on to produce “a nation-state for the Jewish people.” They might have pulled this off benignly if they had done so on some unpopulated planet. However, they chose Palestine in an allusion to biblical Israel—a disingenuous choice given that most Zionists were atheists. Palestine was not an unpopulated place, and thus, today, over 20 percent of Israel’s population is not Jewish.

The fact that Palestinians have no nationality rights means, historically, that their possession of any other sort of rights is precarious. They are like the Jews in any number of anti-Semitic historical circumstances—a fact that seems to have escaped our modern-day Hebrews.

It didn’t have to be this way. As a species we have a very wide range of experience, and with the proper historical awareness we can broaden out our current decision-making beyond the dictates of our local environment. In fact, after World War II some Jews tried to do just this. Even through the trauma of the Holocaust, they could see that the goal of a Jewish state in Palestine meant war with the indigenous population. Their own sense of the Jewish past told them that there were alternatives. These people were known as “cultural Zionists,” and they sought a democratic, equalitarian Palestine as a shared, multicultural home that guaranteed the protection and continuing development of Jewish cultural heritage, alongside those of Muslims and Christians. Palestine could have become a “spiritual” home for the Jews, with generous though controlled immigration opportunities. It was a possible peaceful route to Jewish recovery after the Holocaust.

Whatever one might think of this alternative, it was never seriously considered by those “political” Zionists convinced by persistent anti-Semitism that the survival of the Jews could only come through having their own nation-state. This path combined an evolving Jewish nationalism with a racist exclusiveness (the “chosen people” claim) that also ran through Jewish history. Zionists ignored that part of their historical reality, and today’s Apartheid Israel, along with its insistence that Judaism and Zionism are synonymous, is the result. As you sow, so shall you reap.


Lawrence Davidson is a retired professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.