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‘Is Israel an apartheid state?’ is not the right question

When we ask whether the country treats its Arab population fairly, the answer is not so simple
Palestinians shows their identity cards to members of Israeli forces as they make their way through a checkpoint to attend the first Friday prayers of the holy fasting month of Ramadan in Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque, in Bethlehem in the West Bank. April 16, 2021. (Wisam Hashlamoun/FLASH90)
Palestinians shows their identity cards to members of Israeli forces as they make their way through a checkpoint to attend the first Friday prayers of the holy fasting month of Ramadan in Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque, in Bethlehem in the West Bank. April 16, 2021. (Wisam Hashlamoun/FLASH90)

For decades now, the international community has been discussing the position and rights of Arabs in Israeli society. Of late, the Afrikaans term “apartheid” (literally “apartness”) has been bandied about, attempting to draw a one-to-one comparison between Israel and pre-1990s South Africa. The recent report by Amnesty International claiming that Israel practices apartheid against its Arab inhabitants is just the most recent and extreme version.

It has become increasingly difficult to discuss this point rationally, since many people react instinctively to the question without rendering it into practical terms. For many, asking “is Israel an apartheid state” translates to “is Israel a bad country,” and inevitably, people defend or attack based on their preexisting emotional investment. But it is worth unpacking this question more carefully, to clarify what such an accusation might mean.

The first thing to note is that the accusation can be interpreted narrowly or broadly. In a narrow interpretation, the question posed is whether Israel is literally like South African apartheid. This question is easily answered: no, not even remotely.

In 1948, the Afrikaner National Party took power in South Africa and made a slew of race-based legislation. All people were divided into racial categories (white, black, Asian/Indian, etc.) and subcategories. Marriage and sex between groups were forbidden. Many public areas such as parks, schools, hospitals, beaches, buses, park benches, etc. were reserved for whites. The Bantu Education act of 1953 designed schools for Black people that would be aimed at preparing them for menial, blue-color work. A few years later, black people were stripped of their voting rights, first partially and then entirely.

Factually speaking, no comparable laws exist in Israel. There is no prohibition on sexual relations between ethnic or religious groups; parks, schools, hospitals, beaches, buses, park benches, etc., are available to anybody regardless of race; Arab-Israelis can vote and serve in the Knesset (there is even an Arab party in the governing coalition), and Arab-Israelis receive full education, including university degrees, which is why many of the country’s doctors, pharmacists, dentists, lawyers, academics, computer programmers, etc., are Arabs.

The accusation of Israeli apartheid could be interpreted more broadly, however. One might say that apartheid in this context is not meant literally, but is a harsh term meant to express discrimination. Thus the question could be phrased, “Does Israel discriminate against its Arab population?” Here, the question is more difficult to answer, since Arabs living in what one might call “greater Israel” have very different experiences depending on where they live:

Gaza Strip

In 2005, Israel unilaterally disengaged from the Gaza Strip. Inside the Strip itself, there is no Israeli military, police, or institutional presence whatsoever. The Arabs there are exclusively under the control of their own government, Hamas. The problem is that, for security considerations (rightly or wrongly), Israel keeps this border closed, as does Egypt. Both countries also monitor imports to Gaza for fear weapons will be brought in. This puts Gaza in an economic vice that has become a humanitarian crisis par excellence. This is something that Gaza, Israel, Egypt, and the Palestinian Authority will need to figure out how to solve, but as the problem has nothing to do with the Israeli government not giving Arabs in Gaza rights – again, the Israeli government does not run Gaza – bringing up apartheid for Gaza is simply confusing the issue and ensuring that it never gets solved.

West Bank

Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) signed a series of agreements (Oslo [1993, Rabin], Olso II [1995, Rabin], Hebron [1997, Netanyahu] Wye [1998, Netanyahu]) that divided the West Bank into three areas. Area A is under Palestinian civilian and police control with no Israeli army presence; Area B is also under Palestinian control, but with Israeli army presence; Area C is under Israeli military control, and also contains many Jewish settlements.

Arabs in Areas A and B live essentially under PA control. Economically speaking, they are in better shape than Gazans, since they have access to work in Israel, though when issues arise, the borders are often closed. Arabs in Area C, in contrast, have it quite difficult, since to get anywhere, they often have to cross Israeli army checkpoints. Moreover, the preferential treatment settlers receive in Area C in comparison to that of the Arabs in this same region is discriminatory, and the local Arabs are often subject to violence from their Jewish neighbors (and vice versa of course) and overzealous government enforcement. Area C Arabs have little recourse to right these wrongs since they are not Israeli citizens but occupied people ruled by a military government. This is still not technically apartheid – settlers and Palestinians in Area C have access to the same supermarkets, gas stations, doctor’s offices, etc. – but it is uncomfortably close.

East Jerusalem and the Golan

Israel annexed these areas and thus, from an Israeli perspective, they are simply part of Israel. As part of this process, the local Arabs were granted a “path to citizenship.” What this means, in theory, is that they can apply for citizenship and after a process gain it, but in practice, the number of Arabs who have done so remains low. This is partly because of reticence on their parts and partly because Israel makes the process complicated.

Moreover, the experience in these two regions is not the same. Israel would likely be happy for the Druze in the Golan to become citizens, but given the sharp conflicts between Jewish and Arab citizens in East Jerusalem, and the debates about what will happen with this area if Palestine ever becomes a full-blown state, Arab Jerusalemites might fairly claim to be in a bind. Moreover, the difference in investment in Arab neighborhoods and Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem certainly gives the impression of favoring one population over another. Again, this is not apartheid, but it is a problem.

Arab-Israelis

Arabs who have lived in Israel from 1948 and on are citizens. As noted above, they have all the rights of Jewish citizens. Yet it is true that, as a group, they face some discrimination. For example, Israeli citizens who marry non-Israelis can generally get citizenship or at least green cards for their spouses. The exception is when the non-Israeli partner is a Palestinian from Gaza or the West Bank. This ban on family unification for Palestinians, what is called the Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law, was passed as a temporary order in 2003, on the heels of the Second Intifada for fear it was being used to give terrorists entry into Israel, but has been consistently extended since then.

The most widespread discrimination is connected to the lack of investment in Arab neighborhoods, including the difficulty they have in obtaining building permits, connection to electricity, improvement of roads, better schools, etc. Indeed, these are the very problems that Mansour Abbas and his Raam party entered the governing coalition to solve.

In sum, while the answer to the question of whether Israel is an apartheid state is clearly no, the answer to the question of whether Israel treats its Arab population fairly is mostly, not really, or not so simple. As someone who sees the difficulty many Arabs face both in Israel proper and in places outside Israel proper (such as Gaza), I sincerely hope we will be able to fix all of them. To do so, we need to stop debating questions that have only rhetorical meaning and instead discuss the real-life problems that continue to plague us. At the same time, we should recognize the good that exists and acknowledge the improvements we are making, upon which we can hopefully build to make Israel a better place for all who live within or even beyond its borders.

About the Author
Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is the senior editor of TheTorah.com and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute's Kogod Center.
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