The “Underground Apartheid” of Tel Aviv: Lessons from a Pro-Palestinian Rally

It was zero degrees Celsius in Amsterdam as I approached the main square. From afar I was able to see about 12 Palestinian flags. I am a big believer in engaging in constructive dialogue and trying to see things from an opposing perspective while also helping others to try and see things from my perspective, so I eagerly approached. Accompanying the flags were four people (volunteers?) and many posters. Most of the posters were familiar—the amount of land Jews have taken from the Palestinians over time, pictures of dead children from Gaza, and a picture of Israel associated with apartheid. The apartheid poster caught my eye, as they were depicting all of Israel as apartheid.

Some people apply the apartheid label to Israel with regards to some of its policies, particularly in the West Bank/Judea & Samaria/Occupied West Bank/whatever you want to call it. It mainly stems from the different sets of laws that are applied to Israelis living in the West Bank with Israeli citizenship and the Palestinians living nearby. A lot of it has to do with security, but if Israel were to in fact annex the West Bank without giving full rights to Palestinians, then Israel would certainly be losing its democratic character and earning itself a lot more apartheid supporters.

However, Israel has not yet annexed the West Bank, so let’s stick to “Israel proper” (pre-67 Israel) for now. To argue that Israel is apartheid is factually baseless. For those unfamiliar with Israel; there are Arabs serving in the Knesset, there are Arab professors in universities, Arabs and Jews study together in all universities, they drink from the same water fountains, there is a form of affirmative action for Arabs, there is an Arab on the Supreme Court. If this does not sound like apartheid, it is because it isn’t. Israel is a complicated country with a complicated history and as such has complicated discrimination (like every place on Earth except for Antarctica and Greenland maybe), but discrimination, as bad as it might be, is not apartheid.

Thus, I approached the demonstrators eager to hear their arguments. I must say, for the most part, I was largely disappointed. When I asked the first fellow if the Apartheid was in the West Bank, Israel, or both, he responded both. When I inquired as to where in Tel Aviv, he responded it was “underground.” This perplexed me greatly as I didn’t know if he meant a secret society if there was a language barrier and that he meant it is “hush-hush,” or if there is some rumor about something physically going on underground. With this unique response, I decided I needed to capture it on video. The second time around, I was sent from person to person but the best answer I could get was Arabs can’t go to Jewish areas, which, in Israel, is completely false.

Disappointed, I moved on to the ring leader. She skipped over the apartheid question and began talking about the Balfour declaration and how it was not fair to give all of the mandate to the Jews—which I can understand—before she then said: “all of Israel is stolen land.” I quickly replied, “but all of the land before 1948 was legally purchased, no?” Unable to factually contradict this, she said: “The Jews had dressed up as Palestinians and tricked the sellers.” Perhaps when land sales became forbidden to Jews it occurred, or the Arabs asked the Jews to dress up as Arabs to save face, but I am not aware of any literature that described this as a common practice. Thus, as our conversation drifted from fact to fiction, I decided to call it a day and head inside to warm up my hands.

As I walked away, I was reminded of how it has become such an “us versus them” conflict with regards to narrative, and how often facts just get thrown out the window. Jews need to understand that the establishment of Israel involved the displacement of Arabs. Especially during the War of Independence/Nakba, but also before. Yes, the land was purchased legally, but it sometimes involved the displacement of the “Fellahin” who had a tradition of working the land. Palestinians need to understand the legal basis of land purchases, and, more importantly, their role in the way that this past century and a half has played out. Particularly, that they were not innocent victims in a story of a stolen land.

Although the realism inside me tells me differently, I will blame the unfruitful conversation on the cold weather for now. Perhaps my next dialogue will be more productive. #optimism

About the Author
Ezra is a recent graduate of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and a former Fulbright scholar in Israel. He is currently pursuing a Masters in Public Policy with a focus on conflict resolution and mediation at Tel Aviv University. Ezra is the founder of, and co-host of the podcast “Israel: Beyond the Headlines with Ezra and Alec."
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