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Israel/Palestine and the apartheid analogy (part 2)
By: Ran Greenstein
University of the Witwatersrand,
Johannesburg, South Africa
27 August 2010
1. Apartheid of a Special Type
In the previous section I made a distinction between historical apartheid (unique to South Africa) and apartheid in its generic form – a structured system of political exclusion and social marginalization on the basis of origins (including but not restricted to race). I concluded that Israel is different from historical apartheid, but it displays characteristics that allow us to define it as a form of generic apartheid. There is a family resemblance between the two regimes. This applies to Israel in an extended sense, covering ‘Israel proper’ in its pre-1967 boundaries, ‘Greater Israel’ with the occupied Palestinian territories, and ‘Greater Palestine’ with the 1948 Palestinian refugees and their descendants.
By de-linking historical apartheid from its generic form we no longer need to retain a focus on South African racial policies and practices. And yet, I argue in this section, it would be useful to keep a focus on comparing apartheid South Africa and Israel, in order to highlight crucial features of the Israeli system. The comparison would allow us to analyze Israeli-Palestinian relations, evaluate possible alternatives to the status quo, and devise strategies of political struggle and transformation based (among other things) on South African experiences. We must keep in mind here that the point of a comparative analysis is
to provide a list of similarities and differences for its own sake, but to use one case in order to reflect critically on the other and thus learn more about both.
Back in the early 1960s, the South African Communist Party coined the term ‘colonialism of a special type’ to refer to a system that combined the colonial legacies of racial discrimination, political exclusion and socio-economic inequalities, with political independence from the British Empire. It used this novel concept to devise a strategy for political change that treated local whites as potential allies rather than as colonial invaders to be removed from the territory. Making analytical sense of apartheid in South Africa was relatively straightforward since it was an integrated system of legal-political control. Although different laws applied to different groups of people, the source of authority was clear. Making sense of generic apartheid in the case of Israel is more complicated. The degree of legal-political differentiation is greater, as it includes an array of formal and informal military regulations in the occupied territories, and policies delegating powers and resources to non-state institutions (The Jewish Agency, Jewish National Fund, and so on), who act on behalf of the state but in a more opaque manner, not open to public scrutiny. That much of the relevant legal apparatus applies beyond Israeli boundaries (to Jews, all of whom are regarded as potential citizens, and to Palestinians, all of whom are regarded as prohibited persons), adds another dimension to the analysis. For this reason, we may talk about ‘apartheid of a special type’ – a unique system that combines democratic norms, military occupation, and exclusion/inclusion of extra-territorial populations. There is no easy way of capturing this diversity with a single overarching concept.
What are the some of the characteristics of this special system?
• It is based on an ethno-national distinction between Jewish insiders and Palestinian Arab outsiders. This distinction has a religious dimension – the only way to join the Jewish group is through conversion – but is not affected by degree of religious adherence.
• It uses this distinction to expand citizenship beyond its territory (potentially to all Jews) and to contract citizenship within it (Palestinian residents of the occupied territories have no citizenship, and cannot become citizens). Thus, it is open to all non-resident members of one ethno-national group, wherever they are and regardless of their personal history and actual links to the territory. It is closed to all non-resident members of the other ethno-national group, wherever they are and regardless of their personal history and actual links to the territory.
• It is based on the permanent blurring of physical boundaries. At no point in its 62 years of existence have its boundaries been fixed by law, nor are they likely to become fixed in the foreseeable future. Its boundaries are permanently temporary, as evidenced by continued talk of the 1967 occupation as temporary, even though it has already outlived historical apartheid (which effectively lasted 42 years). At the same time, its boundaries are asymmetrical: porous in one direction (expansion of military forces and settlers into neighbouring territories) and impermeable in another direction (severe restrictions or total prohibition on entry of Palestinians – from the occupied territories and the Diaspora – into its territories).
• It combines different modes of rule: civilian authority with all the institutions of a formal democracy within the Green Line, and military authority without democratic pretensions beyond the Line. In times of crisis, the military mode of rule tends to spill over into the Green Line to apply to Palestinian citizens. At all times, the civilian mode of rule spills over beyond the Green Line to apply to Jewish citizens residing there. The distinction between the two sides of the Green Line is constantly eroding as a result, and norms and practices developed under the occupation filter back into Israel: as the phrase goes, the ‘Jewish democratic state’ is ‘democratic’ for Jews and ‘Jewish’ for Arabs.
• It is in fact a ‘Jewish demographic state’. Demography – the fear that Jews may become a minority – is the prime concern behind the policies of all mainstream forces. All state structures, policies and proposed solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are geared, in consequence, to meet the concern for a permanent Jewish majority exercising political domination in the State of Israel (in whichever boundaries).
How do these features compare with historical apartheid?
• The foundation of apartheid was a racial distinction between whites and blacks (further divided into coloureds, Indians and Africans, with the latter sub-divided into ethnic groups), rather than an ethno-national distinction. Racial groups were internally divided on the basis of language, religion and ethnic origins, and externally linked in various ways across the colour line. This can be contrasted with Israel/Palestine in which lines of division usually overlap. All potential bases for cross-cutting affiliations that existed early on – anti-Zionist orthodox Jews, Arabic-speaking Jews, indigenous Palestinian Jewish communities – were undermined by the simultaneous rise of the Zionist movement and Arab nationalism to a dominant position in the course of the 20th century. This left no space for those straddling multiple identities.
• In South Africa then, there was a contradiction between the organization of the state around the single axis of race, and social reality which allowed more diversity in practice and multiple lines of division as well as cooperation. This opened up opportunities for change. The apartheid state endeavoured to eliminate this contradiction by entrenching residential, educational, religious and cultural segregation, and by seeking to shift its basis of legitimacy from race to national identity, but to no avail. Its capacity was limited and it was further eroded over time. In Israel/Palestine there is tighter fit between the organization of the state and social reality, with one crucial exception: Palestinian citizens are positioned in between Jewish citizens and Palestinian non-citizens. They are the only segment of the population of Greater Israel/Palestine that is fully bilingual, familiar with all political and cultural realities, with enough freedom to organize but not enough rights to align themselves with the oppressive status quo. As a minority group (15-20% of Israeli citizens and of Palestinian Arabs) they cannot drive change on their own but may act as crucial catalysts for change.
• Under historical apartheid a key goal of the state was to ensure that black people performed their role as providers of labour, without making difficult social and political demands. The strategy used for that focused on externalizing them. Although they were physically present in white homes, factories, farms and service industries, they were absent (politically and legally) as rights-bearing citizens. They were expected to exercise their rights elsewhere. Those who were no longer or not yet functional for the white-dominated economy were prevented from moving into the urban areas or forcibly removed to the ‘reserves’ (also known as Bantustans or homelands): children, women – especially mothers – and old people. Able-bodied blacks who worked in the cities were supposed to commute – daily or monthly and even annually, depending on the distance – between the places where they had jobs (but no political rights) and the places where they had political rights (but no jobs).
• This system of migrant labour opened up a contradiction between political and economic imperatives. To fulfil apartheid ideology, it broke down families and the social order, hampered efforts to create a skilled labour force, reduced productivity, and gave rise to crime and social protest. To control people’s movements, it created a bloated and expensive repressive apparatus, which put a constant burden on state resources and capacities. Domestic and industrial employers faced increasing difficulties in meeting their labour needs. From an economic asset (for whites) it became an economic liability. It simply had to go.
• The economic imperative of the Israeli system, in contrast, has been to create employment for Jewish immigrants. Palestinian labour power was used by certain groups at certain times because it was available and convenient, but it was never central to Jewish prosperity in Israel. After the outbreak of the first Intifada in the late 1980s, and under conditions of globalization, it could easily be replaced by politically unproblematic Chinese, Turkish, Thai and Romanian workers. In addition, a massive wave of Russian Jewish immigration in the 1990s helped this process. The externalization of Palestinians, through denial of rights, ethnic cleansing and ‘disengagement’, has presented few economic problems for Israeli Jews. There is little evidence of the contradiction between economic and political imperatives that undermined apartheid South Africa.
• Apartheid was the latest in a long list of regimes in which white settlers dominated indigenous black people in South Africa. For most of the colonial period, people of European origins were in the minority, relying on military power, technological superiority, and ‘divide and rule’ strategies, to entrench their rule. Demography was never an overriding concern. As long as security of person, property and investment could be guaranteed, there was no need for numerical dominance. When repression proved increasingly counter-productive, a deal exchanging political power for ongoing prosperity became an option acceptable to the majority of whites. Can such a deal be offered to – and adopted by – Israeli Jews, for whom a demographic majority is the key to domination and the guarantee of political survival on their own terms? Most likely, not.
In summary then, apartheid of a special type in Israel is different from historical apartheid in South Africa in three major respects:
• At its foundation are consolidated and relatively impermeable ethno-national identities, with few cross-cutting affiliations across the principal ethnic divide in society.
• It is relatively free of economic imperatives that run counter to its overall exclusionary thrust, because it is not dependent on the exploitation of indigenous labour, and;
• Its main quest is for demographic majority as the basis for legal, military and political domination.
In all these respects it is a system that is less prone to an integrative solution along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa. At the same time, it is subject to contradictions of its own, which are crucial to its dynamics and present potential opportunities for change:
• Its foundational act of ethnic cleansing left behind a weak and disorganized minority Arab group. With Palestinians no longer a demographic threat, the rump community could be incorporated into the political system which displayed many of the characteristics of a ‘normal’ democracy. Its members used this to re-organize and build a solid foundation for resistance politics, combining parliamentary and protest activities that have challenged Israel’s exclusionary structures from within. This strategic location has given them a useful vantage point from which to play a vanguard role in the struggle to transform the system.
• The geographically expansionist drive of the Zionist project has come into clash with the demographic imperative to ensure a Jewish majority. Ethnic cleansing along the lines of 1948 might provide a way to reconcile these contradictory thrusts, but it is not really feasible under the glare of international media and public opinion. Although no immediate change is likely, it is clear that the status quo is becoming increasingly unstable and is not going to last long.
• The changing international scene begins to show signs of eroding support for some aspects of the regime. For two decades it benefited from an international context that saw the collapse of the Soviet block and its policies of isolating Israel in alliance with ‘progressive’ third world regimes. The turn of the USA and its western allies against major Arab and Islamic forces also benefited the Israeli regime, which positioned itself as the frontline in the ‘war on terror’. This period was used to entrench its hold on the occupied territories, divide the Palestinian people and its leadership, isolate and crush resistance to the occupation, and silence critical voices. In the last few years though, both Israel’s capacity to dominate its region, and the west’s support for its campaigns, have declined. Though it is not yet facing real military or political challenges, expressions of weakness abound. Among them, growing international solidarity with the struggle of Palestinians against the occupation and for political rights plays an important role. The rise of civil society movements and alternative media is increasingly counteracting the unconditional support given by western governments and traditional media to the Israeli state, though not necessarily all its policies. The Internet has not quite killed Israeli PR yet, but has definitely wounded it. There is thus room for cautious optimism that the tide of is beginning to turn.
2. Prospects, Solutions and Strategies
Where does all this leave us? Avoiding the temptation for easy labels and name calling, we must examine the actual consequences of the analysis.
In Israel/Palestine there are two ethno-national groups. Israeli Jews are unified by their legal status as full citizens. Palestinian Arabs are divided by their legal status into citizens in ‘Israel proper’, resident non-citizens in ‘Greater Israel’, and non-resident non-citizens in ‘Greater Palestine’. The two groups are distinct by virtue of their language, political identity, religion and ethnic origins. Only about 10% of them (Palestinian citizens) are fully bilingual. Many Jews have Arab cultural origins, but their legacy has been erased through three generations of political and cultural assimilation. The delusion that these ‘Arab Jews’ actually or potentially share any political consciousness – even if in a dormant form – with Palestinians must be laid to rest. On the face of it, this would seem an ideal argument for a two-state solution, but things are a bit more complicated than that.
The South African rainbow nation, which was based on the multiplicity of identities and the absence of a single axis of division to align them all – unity in diversity – is clearly unlikely to be replicated in Israel/Palestine. Elements such as the use of English as the dominant medium of political communication, shared by all groups, or Christianity as a religious umbrella for the majority of people from all racial groups, do not exist in Israel/Palestine as a whole. At the same time, if we look at ‘Israel proper’
, the situation is not all that different from South Africa. People of all backgrounds – veteran Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews, new Russian and Ethiopian immigrants (many of whom are not Jews in a strict sense), and Palestinian citizens – use Hebrew in their daily interaction and largely share similar social and cultural tastes. In mixed towns, such as Haifa, Jaffa, Acre, there are neighbourhoods in which Jews and Arabs live together with little to distinguish between their life styles except for their home language and religious practices. Without idealizing the situation, they have much more in common with one another than white suburbanites have with rural black South Africans, during apartheid or now.
But, of course, we cannot look at them in isolation, just as we could not have looked at the relatively benign white–coloured interaction in apartheid Cape Town in isolation from the broader racial scene in the country. What we
do is use these emerging realities to build a foundation for a new political perspective, that of bi-nationalism. Bi-nationalism is not a ‘solution’, and does not compete with the endlessly discussed but vacuous one-state or two-state solutions. It is an approach based on the recognition that two ethno-national groups live together in the same country, separately within homogenous villages and towns in some areas, but also mixed to varying degrees in other areas. Historical patterns of demographic engineering that resulted in forced population movement and dispersal (most notably the 1948
and the post-1967 settlement project) have created a patchwork quilt of mono-ethnic and bi-ethnic regions, separated by political intent rather than by natural or geographical logic.
Acknowledging this bi-national reality is not meant as an argument for a particular form of state. Rather it is a call to base any future political arrangement on the need to accommodate members of both national groups as equals, at both individual and collective levels. In the words of radical Jewish activists who put together the 2004 Olga Document, “this country belongs to all its sons and daughters—citizens and residents, both present and absentees (the uprooted Palestinian citizens of Israel in 48’)—with no discrimination on personal or communal grounds, irrespective of citizenship or nationality, religion, culture, ethnicity or gender.”  This statement of principles must not be confused with a call to establish a one state or a bi-national state. It is the essential condition for the success of
arrangement, be it one, two, or many states. The alternative would be an imposition by one side on the other, which would render a solution unviable.
It is interesting to note that the formulation above seems to draw on the 1955 Freedom Charter, which asserted, “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white”. The simple elegance of the South African original was transformed here into a comprehensive but very cumbersome language, a testimony to the difficulty of conveying unity in the face of rigid fragmentation. But it is far less difficult to convey unity –
as a first step
– among all Israeli citizens. Making Israel a state of and for all its citizens is both logical (just as France is a French state, the home of all French people, and South Africa is the state of all South Africans, so should Israel become an Israeli state, the home of all Israeli people) and just. In the same way that Nicolas Sarkozy of Hungarian (partly-Jewish) origins and Zinedine Zidane of Algerian-Muslim origins can be citizens equal to the descendants of the Gauls, all Israeli citizens are entitled to an equal status regardless of their links to the ancient Hebrews.
At the same time, unlike France, in Israel people seek incorporation as individuals
as groups. In the Vision Documents, a series of proposals and statements written by academics, intellectuals and activists representing the Palestinian-Arab minority in Israel, the quest for equality is combined with the quest for recognition as a national collective. For example, in the Haifa Declaration they call for a “change in the definition of the State of Israel from a Jewish state to a democratic state established on national and civil equality between the two national groups, and enshrining the principles of banning discrimination and of equality between all of its citizens and residents.”  There is an unresolved tension here between the call for a democratic state with no ethnic character, and the notion of equality between ethnically-defined groups. A similar though milder tension is found in the post-apartheid South African constitution, which establishes non-racialism as an overarching principle but recognizes the legitimacy of racially-based affirmative action policies. It is an explicit attempt to redress historical legacies of racial discrimination, particularly regarding access to land and employment, without recognizing the permanent existence of racial groups, let alone any claims to representation and resources.
The bi-national approach is compatible with either option: a non-ethnic state, and a state that enshrines equality between individual citizens and provides structured representation for groups in fields such as education and culture. Both must lead to the removal of “all forms of ethnic superiority, be that executive, structural, legal or symbolic”, and the adoption of “policies of corrective justice in all aspects of life in order to compensate for the damage inflicted on the Palestinian Arabs due to the ethnic favoritism policies of the Jews.”  Democratizing Israel in this way is important in its own right and also as a way to reinforce other campaigns. If Palestinian citizens are no longer ostracized as illegitimate actors, the struggle against the occupation would receive a big boost by escaping the confines of the progressive Jewish left.
Making Israel a state of all its citizens would not change the boundaries of political sovereignty, would have no demographic implications, and would require no negotiation with external forces. It would not challenge ‘the right of Israel to exist’ but rather seek to modify the internal basis for its self-legitimation. In other words, it would be a process carried out entirely by its own citizens, probably undertaken over a period of time. Making Greater Israel a state of all its residents, and establishing common citizenship, is different in all these respects, however. It would mean a fundamental change in the boundaries of citizenship and the allocation of power, requiring a radical re-alignment of the political scene. It is not feasible in the short term as there are no serious political forces advocating it at present, and it cannot be seen as a substitute for the ongoing struggle against the 1967 occupation.
There is no doubt that the occupation is the biggest festering sore in Israeli-Palestinian relations. Futile negotiations over the last two decades have led to its intensification rather than mitigation. The only way forward is an ongoing campaign to put an end to it, without having anything to do with the diplomatic process or with the one-state, two-states, debate. The occupation manifests itself in the daily life of the population in numerous ways (both in Gaza and the West Bank, though differently). Wherever it operates it give rise to localized resistance. Without being too specific here, expressions of resistance to restrictions – on free movement, access to land, economic activity, water use, study, construction, and so on – must be supported, with the use of all means excluding armed attacks on civilians – demonstrations, sanctions, boycotts, mass defiance campaigns, legal challenges in Israeli and international courts, appeals to global public opinion, and the like. I am in no position to provide tactical advice – local activists are the authority on the matter – but strategically it is important to de-link the struggle against the occupation from the state of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (or Hamas for that matter). A crucial lesson of the South African transition is that subordinating local struggles to the requirements of grand diplomacy helped the ANC gain power, but it also frequently led – after the transition – to the neglect of the concerns that gave rise to the struggle in the first place.
The third dimension of Greater Palestine – refugees and their rights – is the most challenging to the boundaries of Israeli citizenship and control. It can be resolved only in a staggered manner. First, the present absentees – about 25% of the Palestinian population in Israel itself who were removed from their original homes in 1948 but have become citizens – must be allowed access to their property and confiscated land. This would have no demographic implications and would not involve changes in citizenship status. Second, the original 1948 refugees could be invited back: only about 50 - 75,000 of them are still alive, a small number that could be accommodated demographically easily enough (an addition of 1% to the population). Such steps obviously would be opposed with the use of one of the two most potent weapons in the Israeli arsenal of internal self-justification: they would create a precedent.  And, indeed, the fear of the majority of the Israeli-Jewish population is that any recognition – even symbolic and limited in its practical implications – of the right of return would lead to an uncontrolled influx of millions of refugees. This is highly unlikely – research indicates that only about 10% of them are likely to exercise the right of return – but the matter would require ongoing educational, political and legal campaigns.  Again, it is strategically important that the struggle have nothing to with the one-state, two-states, debate or with diplomacy. The right of return is vested in individuals rather than the political leadership, and they are the only ones who can negotiate on their own behalf.
It is this issue, above all, that makes the Israeli apartheid of a special type different from historical apartheid, and more difficult to overcome. As a result of it, Palestinians have been deprived of the most important weapon of struggle used by black South Africans: their strategic location in the economy and their ability to use the threat of withdrawing their labour power (in other words, strike) as a crucial political lever. Due to the historical trajectory of excluding indigenous people in Israel/Palestine, compared to their incorporation in a subordinate economic role in South Africa, they operate outside the boundaries of the Israeli-dominated economic system. This exclusion is not complete – it does not apply to Palestinian citizens and to a minority among West Bank residents – but it applies in Gaza and fully in Greater Palestine. As a result, those excluded in that way can apply pressure on the regime from the outside – using protest, diplomacy and violence – but lack any meaningful strategy of change from within. In this respect, they are dependent on the work of forces internal to Israel (Palestinian citizens together with progressive Israeli Jews), and on pressure applied by forces in the Middle East region and internationally. Solidarity and educational efforts are crucial here, as well as the evolving sanctions and boycotts campaigns. 
By way of broad conclusion, a political strategy that might work would anchor the concerns above in the language of democracy, justice, equality and human rights, instead of that of diplomacy and statehood. The advantage of this approach is that it can associate itself with the global justice movement and struggles of diverse independent forces, civil society organizations, media activists, and so on.
What possible form can such strategy take? A thorough discussion deserves a study on its own, and only a brief outline – focusing on campaigns within ‘Israel proper’ – is possible here. First, we must recognize that progressive forces can neither ignore nationalism (risking total marginalization) nor surrender to it (risking losing their voice). Second, in a society historically shaped by sharp ethno-national conflict most social and political issues are affected by the conflict, but should not be reduced to it. Third, the conflict can be seen as an overall framework, but its many dimensions may be better tackled as multiple political fronts that call for different local approaches and contingent alliances. This requires charting a course that would go
without seeking to write it off.
Concretely, a series of campaigns that position Palestinian national demands within a broader framework of rights is one way of establishing a link between particular and universal discourses and opening the way for cooperation between Palestinians and – at least some – Israeli Jews on specific issues. Examples may include questions of access to land (affecting Palestinians as well as ethnically and socially marginalized Jewish groups), questions of citizenship and immigration policies (affecting Palestinians as well as many Jews with ambiguous legal status such as recent Russian and Ethiopian immigrants), questions of labour organization, jobs and access to services (affecting Palestinians, working class Jews, and migrant workers from Eastern Europe and South-East Asia), questions of culture, education and social exclusion (affecting Palestinians, Oriental Jews and orthodox Jews), questions of gender and sexuality (affecting everyone), and so on.
Each of these campaigns would involve alliances between different groups working for different causes, but they all share, in their specific domains, a quest for a greater equality and democracy for all, regardless of origins. They all fall under the ‘radical democracy’ approach as advanced by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, though without necessarily having an overarching theme to unify them. Unlike the traditional approach of the radical left, this strategy is not based on expectations that Jews would renounce Zionist ideology, confront state power directly, and opt for a common socialist future. Rather, it assumes that they would show some willingness to address some of the concerns of Palestinians, working jointly with them, if these were in line with their own concerns.
This approach does not tackle directly all of the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, some of which pit Israeli Jews and Palestinian against each other as mutually exclusive groups fighting over resources and rights. In the short to medium term there is no prospect of weakening the boundaries between these groups or constructing an identity that would transcend ethno-nationalist loyalties. No easy formulas to deal with this situation exist, and current debates over one or two-state solutions miss the crucial point: the Palestinian population was fragmented in 1948 and further in 1967. A holistic political solution would have to address all its components (the 1948 dispersal of refugees, the 1967 occupation, and the fate of Palestinians citizens), but is very unlikely ever to be implemented simultaneously. Hence, forces seeking to change the status quo need to work on each component on its own, instead of seeking in vain to solve all issues in one big bang, with some magic formula.
Progress on one front should not be impeded by the lack of progress in another, and the final outcome cannot be predicted in advance. The key guiding principle for a solution is common to all components, however: the need for a bi-national approach, which would treat members of each ethno-national group equally, as individuals as well as collectives. The combination of a political approach operating on many different but related fronts, with a new mode of activism focused on direct action and creative media, educational, and legal strategies, may be the way forward. There are not obvious answers here, but posing the right questions is a crucial step towards a solution.
1. “The Olga Document”,
2. Mada al-Carmel, Arab Center for Applied Social Research, The Haifa Declaration (Haifa, 2007): www.mada-research.org/UserFiles/file/haifaenglish.pdf
3. The National Committee for the Heads of the Arab Local Authorities in Israel, The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel (Nazareth, 2006):
4. The other such weapon is that Israelis must never lose face because it would mean erosion of their power of deterrence. So, every ‘hostile’ action demands an immediate counter-action, at least twice as powerful (and it’s not a bad idea for the counter-action to precede the action …)
5. The work of the Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights stands out in this respect: www.badil.org
6. There is not enough space to develop this theme here, but see discussion of the academic boycott campaign in
Links to the latest articles in this section
Handshakes in Geneva
What Comes Next: Towards a bi-national end-game in Palestine/Israel