How Do You Say Apartheid in Hebrew?

In late autumn of 1985, I made the long journey on Egged buses from my kibbutz near Karmiel to Jerusalem, in order to interview Gidi Shimoni. Shimoni, for me, was a cultural hero, a shining beacon of success for a South African who made Aliya to Israel. Not only was he a member of Habonim, our Zionist-socialist youth movement like myself, but he was an example of one who had made it “big time”; he was a senior Doctor of History at the University of Jerusalem, a leading intellectual and a respected force in academia. The subject of my interview, was Jewish fascism. This was the time when Meir Kahane was elected to the Knesset, riding the wave of racial hate and Jewish superiority to get elected. It was for an article I was writing, for a Habonim publication, which I had volunteered to edit. Shimoni did not disappoint; the impression he had on me has lasted to this day. This quote has stuck with me, never forgotten: “Chauvinism is when you take one value, however honorable it may be, and raise it above all other values. Fascism is when you make that value an absolute, and subjugate all other values to it”. It was like a light came on in my brain, like I had an epiphany, a clarification of the epithet from the definition.

So, when Professor Emeritus Gidi Shimoni published an opinion piece in the Jerusalem Post in February 2011, explaining why Israel was not an Apartheid state, I not only agreed with him, but I used his article in my arguments with people who did call Israel an Apartheid state. Two nights ago, the Knesset passed the Nation State bill, writing into law that which we have known and has been recognized by the vast majority of nations throughout the world – and I found myself wondering what he would say now, in light of his article in 2011? Let me say that I have the utmost respect for Professor Gidi Shimoni; my intention is not to show that he was wrong, but that our reality has changed. (Map of Bantustan states in Apartheid South Africa)

In 2011, his first premise in differentiating Israel from Apartheid South Africa, was in the essence of the nature of the conflict; he wrote, “The essence of Israel’s conflict situation has always been a clash of nationalisms; ultimately over the question of who should have primacy in gaining national self-determination in a contested territory. By contrast, the South African conflict evolved out of a centuries-long, near absolute domination exercised by a self-defined racial minority (the whites) over an externally-defined racial majority of the population, which was denied equal civic rights, above all the primary democratic right, enjoyed exclusively by the whites.”

The Nation State Bill (“the Bill”) states:
– “The State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, in which it fulfills its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination.
– The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”

In other words, for the two million Arabs and other minorities born and living in Israel, Israel is not their national home, and they have no right to self-determination, which is unique to Jews. So, as an Arab, you could trace your roots back to generations living in Israel, and your citizenship is not an indigenous inalienable right, but granted you begrudgingly, whereas a Jew who got off the plane yesterday, has greater claim to be here than you.

Further, in 2011, Shimoni wrote, “The Afrikaans term “apartheid” originated during the 1940s to describe an ideological conception and political program that justified, systematized, reinforced and expanded this pre-existent system of racial discrimination and separation.” – In other words, the Apartheid laws passed in 1960, which enshrined in South Africa’s law books the privilege and preexisting preference for White people in South Africa, had existed for decades, even centuries before the law was passed.

The Nation State Bill states “The state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.”

This establishes legal privilege and priority for Jews and Jewish settlements, making it a legal precept in our laws. Like in South Africa, it formalizes in our law books the preference for Jews and Jewish settlements, something that has existed in so many facets of our life, for decades. Furthermore, it both contradicts and overrides our Declaration of independence, which has been the guiding light and our “presumptive Constitution”. “The state of Israel will promote the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants” and then it goes on to say that it will “uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens without distinction of race, creed or sex; and will guarantee full freedom of conscience, worship, education and culture.” – How can Israel now do that, when the Bill specifically states that it prioritizes one specific ethnic group? You cannot guarantee “full social and political equality for all your citizens”, when you place a higher value on the aspirations of one ethnic group.

Gidi Shimoni then goes on to assert that “world condemnation (of Apartheid) targeted two indefensible wrongs: firstly, the legalized racist basis of apartheid’s enforced inequalities; secondly the adamant refusal of the apartheid regime to cease its unilateral dictates and accept the option of negotiation.”

When you have a clause which says, “The state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation”, you have a legalized basis for inequalities.

How, you may ask? Here’s how. Up until now, the basis for allocation of funds to municipalities has been upon the basis of “X” shekels per capita per city/town. (Of course there has also always been a priorities map – which in itself is built in inequality – but by and large the budget for municipal funding was done according to this key). But now, with the law encouraging, promoting and establishing the consolidation of “Jewish settlements”, the road is clear to allocate “X” shekels per capita for Jewish settlements and councils and “Y” shekels (a lesser amount) per capita for others.

As for the second part, about accepting the option of negotiation: when the Bill writes into law that the right to exercise national self-determination is unique ∂to the Jewish people, and that “Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel”, and that “The LAND of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people, in which the State of Israel was established” (thereby describing not only Israel “proper”, but also the West Bank), what basis is there left for negotiation with the Palestinians? – So, in my opinion, the criterion which Shimoni emphasized was lacking in order to meet the condition of being Apartheid, now exists.

Add to that the demotion of Arabic as an official language of the state. Two million people have just been told that the language they speak as mother tongue is no longer recognized as an official language. What will this mean in the future, in terms of teaching at schools and state exams? Will all Arab students soon have to write their Bagrut exams in Hebrew, giving them an institutional disadvantage in their scholarly achievements, and which could have far-reaching effects on their qualification for university studies, professions and prospects? What will it mean in terms of sign-posting of streets and official offices? What will it mean in terms of budgeting for radio stations and culture?

Not related specifically to the Bill, but when an MK from the coalition (Smotrich), says he does not want his wife to share a ward in the hospital with an Arab woman, how long will it take before hospital rooms will be segregated? Or, when an organization like “Lehava”, which intimidates and targets Jewish-Arab couples finds sympathy among members of  the legislature who sit in government, how long will it take before mixed marriage will be prohibited?

So far, we have talked about Israel “proper”. With regard to the West Bank, Gidi Shimoni did draw parallels with Apartheid and Israel’s activities in the West Bank. This is what he wrote of Israel’s policy in the West Bank, “It fosters Jewish settlement while subjecting the Palestinian majority to a wide range of administrative and legal discrimination and hardship … and limitations on freedom of movement and housing development”. Further, he explained how Afrikaner intelligentsia spoke of “separate development”, a phenomenon clearly evident in the West Bank.

What if Israel were to annex the West Bank? It is no longer far-fetched. The above-stated clauses of this Bill certainly gives that possibility a push forward, when it speaks of viewing Jewish settlements as a national value. It also does this, when it states in its first clause that “The land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people, in which the State of Israel was established”, thereby dismissing the differentiation between the State of Israel and the Land of Israel. When you add to that the pending law proposal to impose Israeli law on Jewish settlements in the West Bank, you have further evidence of us moving in that direction. If Israel annexes the West Bank, what will Israel do with the 2.5 million Arabs living there? Will it make them citizens and grant them franchise? I seriously doubt it. I think they will be disenfranchised, one way or another. That’s another nail, locking in Apartheid. But more worrying, how can it then justify allowing Israeli Arabs living inside Israel “proper” the right to vote, but not Arabs from the West Bank, if the West Bank will become an integral part of Israel? What does that mean about the traditional franchise of Israeli Arabs?

Or, Israel could adopt Naftali Bennett’s solution, which is to impose Israeli law on areas “B” and “C” as outlined by Oslo, while giving area “A” “autonomy”. Residents of area “A” would vote for their own leadership and administration. If you look at the map, you will see that area “A” basically is the area with dense Arab population – Ramalla, Nablus, Jericho etc – and there is no contiguous territorial connection between them (the connecting line is designated as “B”, which would be annexed). This is his way to circumvent the problem of giving 2.5 million Arabs voting rights. Basically, he is manipulating “democracy” for his nationalist purposes. In Shimoni’s 2011 article about South Africa, he says, “The most notable measure of this “reformed apartheid” praxis was the ruthless enforcement of the homelands (“Bantustans”) policy. Only in their own homelands were voting rights to be granted to the blacks, including those domiciled in white areas.” Sound familiar?

Shimoni describes Israel’s activities today in the West Bank as “a policy and vision that replicates the theory and praxis of the reformed phase of South Africa’s apartheid policy, which was adopted as a survivalist strategy… Characteristically, they too cast about for spurious arrangements calculated to ensure Jewish control and privilege (like the Whites did in South Africa) – , devoid of Israeli political rights, or relegation of citizenship and electoral rights to the adjacent Kingdom of Jordan… It is in this respect alone that use of the South African analogy to critique Israel is justified, and importantly so.”

The similarity of Bennett’s plan to the Batustan policy is striking!

I wonder how Gidi Shimoni would view Israel today, as compared to his excellent, defining article seven years ago.

In 1982 I made Aliya and along with the excitement of fulfilling my Zionist dream, was relief that I was leaving Apartheid behind me. Now, I feel like history is repeating itself, and once again Apartheid is casting its shadow on my life. The reason why history repeats itself, even when we don’t forget it, is because we expect for it to be a carbon copy of the previous event, with the exact same policies and the exact same process and events – and that prevents us from identifying its repetition. However, it mutates. It becomes cloaked in euphemistic language. It is obfuscated. To prevent history from repeating itself, we need to see the process for what it is and not go into denial, wistfully thinking “we’re not there yet”. Apartheid is here. It is knocking on our door and the knocking is getting more insistent. Will we open it, or barricade it shut?

About the Author
Paul Mirbach made aliya from South Africa to kibbutz Tuval in 1982 with a garin of Habonim members. Together they built a new kibbutz transforming rocks and mud to a green oasis in the Gallilee. He served in infantry during his army service, serving in both Lebanon and the West Bank, including on reserve duty during the first intifada. Paul still lives on Tuval with his wife and two sons.
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