Shayna Abramson

Is Israel Apartheid?

Saturday night. The wine has been poured. The glasses are passed around the table. The conversation turns to politics.

“What would you do if Israel became apartheid?”

This question has become increasingly common at left-wing gatherings – and it based on a very important premise: that Israel is currently NOT an apartheid state.

Israel, within its borders, has one legal system for all citizens, with full equality before the law. When the government felt that the Equality of Opportunity in Employment Law was not being properly implemented, they created an Equality of Opportunity in Employment Commission to make sure that the law was properly carried out. Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews vote and serve in the Knesset and the Supreme Court, and both attend and teach at Israeli universities.

That’s not to say that discrimination does not exist. Racism is a big problem in Israeli society. But having social discrimination is not apartheid. Unfortunately, racism against minority groups is a problem that is prevalent in many Western democracies. In the USA, education, health, and economic outcomes for African-Americans are much lower than for Caucasians. That is terrible, but it does not make the USA apartheid – just as Israeli discrimination, while a serious issue, does not make Israel apartheid.

This brings us to the territories outside of the Green Line. These territories are not legally part of Israel, because they have never been annexed. Israeli law does not apply there. Instead, there is a hodgepodge of Jordanian, Ottoman, and Israeli military rule, moderated by the Supreme Court. This does lead to unequal outcomes and different daily realities, but it is NOT equivalent to Israel’s enacting two different legal systems for two different groups by applying its official legal system to West Bank Jews. Simply put, not every situation that leads to unequal outcomes is apartheid.

So what does classify as apartheid?

The International Criminal Court’s Rome Statute defines apartheid as “inhumane acts of a character similar to those referred to in paragraph 1, 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”.*

This means that as long as Israel does not intend to maintain the Occupation – as long it intends to relinquish control of the West Bank as part of a two-state solution – it by definition CANNOT be committing apartheid. The Israeli government officially maintains that the Occupation is currently a security necessity, and that once a credible Palestinian leadership comes to power, it will pursue a peace deal that involves relinquishing control of the West Bank.

That is the left-wing argument for why Israel is NOT apartheid. This is a crucial fact, that Israeli Leftists must repeat, not only because as Israel-lovers, we wish to defend our country against false accusations, but also because if we give in to the argument that Israel is already apartheid, we lose the ability to fight against the possibility of Israel’s becoming apartheid.

When I was in seminary, it was a popular belief that kissing a guy was as “bad” as having sex. This didn’t lead to a lack of kissing, but it did lead to a lot of sex. If Israel is “kissing” discrimination, the way to oppose that isn’t by claiming that kissing=sex, i.e. apartheid. Instead, we must acknowledge the difference between the two, and the process that leads from one to the other, in order to stop the process before full fucking commences.

Unfortunately, when justice ministers try to advance bills to officially apply Israeli law to the West Bank, and when anti-boycott bills fail to distinguish between boycotting settlements and boycotting Israel, it becomes a lot harder to advance a left-wing anti-apartheid argument.

The left-wing argument, after all, is premised on two pillars: 1. The temporary state of the Occupation 2.The lack of application of Israeli Law to the West Bank. If Israel officially applied Israeli Law to West Bank Jews, and if it made it official policy that the Occupation was permanent, both of those pillars would fall apart.

This would leave Israel with a major PR problem, since most of the political leadership in the Western world take the left-wing view – for the moment, anyway. Even Theresa May, the Conservative Prime Minister, is not a proponent of settlements, and President Donald Trump has proved uncertain about the matter.

Many on the Israeli Right dismiss the PR problem, claiming that Zionism means that Jews no longer have to care what non-Jews think, and besides, they’re all anti-Semites anyway – remember the Holocaust?

But the fact is, that in today’s globalized economy, what other countries think has important economic implications. Israel does foreign trade that is impacted by the regulations of foreign governments, as well as by popular opinion abroad, which can put pressure on companies to divest from Israel.

The fact also is, that if Israel does become apartheid, Zionism will have failed. The Zionist dream, from its inception, was about creating a modern Jewish nation state with equality for all its citizens, including Arabs. That theme remains constant, from Herzl through Jabotinsky.

As a matter of fact, Jabotinsky believed that in every cabinet where the Prime Minister is  a Jews, the Deputy Prime Minister should be an Arab – and vice versa. Today, this statement would be regarded as extremely left-wing, even though Jabotinsky is the father of Right-Wing Zionism – which perhaps explains why left-wing dinner parties in Jerusalem often involve copious amounts of alcohol.

*Paragraph 1 lists: “Murder; (b) Extermination; 4 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (c) Enslavement; (d) Deportation or forcible transfer of population; (e) Imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law; (f) Torture; (g) Rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity; (h) Persecution against any identifiable group or collectivity on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender as defined in paragraph 3, or other grounds that are universally recognized as impermissible under international law, in connection with any act referred to in this paragraph or any crime within the jurisdiction of the Court; (i) Enforced disappearance of persons; (j) The crime of apartheid; (k) Other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.”

About the Author
Shayna Abramson, a part-Brazilian native Manhattanite, studied History and Jewish Studies at Johns Hopkins University before moving to Jerusalem. She has also spent some time studying Torah at the Drisha Institute in Manhattan, and has a passion for soccer and poetry. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in Political Science from Hebrew University, and is a rabbinic fellow at Beit Midrash Har'el.