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“You keep on using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
As the thinking shifts to possibilities beyond the two state solution, the term “apartheid” continues to be used as a rallying cry by those who are either unable or unwilling to imagine any other possibilities, and this term therefore deserves some discussion. The most common usage of this term today is to describe a potential future state in which Israel becomes the sovereign over areas in the disputed territories (the west bank) and in a bid to remain a Jewish state is forced to treat the non-Jews there in some fashion differently than they treat the Jews. The exact manner of being treated differently is usually not discussed in any detail but is often assumed to be some sort of across the board denial of voting rights or denial of formal citizenship. This, it is said, equals apartheid, the same situation which existed in apartheid South Africa – a well known system of racial discrimination universally agreed upon to be morally corrupt.
It is worth, then, considering briefly what the definition of apartheid actually is, what it entailed in South Africa, and whether in fact the concept is applicable to the situation in Israel beyond the typical negative rhetorical connotations which Israel’s detractors hope to achieve. A simple Wikipedia search on the term “apartheid” yields the following quotations:
“Broadly speaking, apartheid was delineated into petty apartheid, which entailed the segregation of public facilities and social events, and grand apartheid, which dictated housing and employment opportunities by race.”
“…and the socially enforced separation of black Africans from other races”
“The policies of the Boer republics were also racially exclusive; for instance, the Transvaal’s constitution barred black African and Coloured participation in church and state.”
“The first apartheid law was the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, 1949, followed closely by the Immorality Amendment Act of 1950, which made it illegal for most South African citizens to marry or pursue sexual relationships across racial lines”
“Places of residence were determined by racial classification. Between 1960 and 1983, 3.5 million black Africans were removed from their homes and forced into segregated neighbourhoods as a result of apartheid legislation, in some of the largest mass evictions in modern history]”
From these quotations we see that apartheid entailed several specific points, among them the forced separation by race of public facilities, social events, marriage, sexual relations, and housing, in addition to the exclusion of inferior races from official church and state decision making. In the case of Israel, even the most ardent, single-state, sovereignty-minded, nationalistically motivated settler does not envision any of these things. But the appropriate question is not can we find a few radical people who may support one of these racist elements, but rather, if we are destined for a single state eventuality, are the only options available to either give up completely on the idea of a Jewish state in favor of a so-called “binational state” or to have an apartheid state with the above racist and discriminatory policies directed at non-Jews. Are these really the only two options? Or, stated another way, if we want a single state to be Jewish, is the only way to accomplish this via the aforementioned mechanisms of apartheid? Thus, if we want the state to be Jewish, must we legally enforce the avoidance of marriage and sexual relations between Jews and non-Jews? If we want the state to be Jewish, must we legally force Jews and non-Jews to live in separate neighborhoods? If we want the state to be Jewish, must we forcibly not allow non-Jews to attend Jewish social events? If we want the state to be Jewish, must we have separate public facilities (train and bus stations, courthouses, drinking fountains perhaps) for Jews and non-Jews?
To most people, the absurdity of the above questions is obvious and shows the nonsensical nature of the term apartheid as used in the current debate. What most people who use the term seem to mean is not the forced separation of races or ethnicities, but rather the withholding of some form of voting rights, either voting for the national parliament, the Knesset, or withholding citizenship in some fashion. And while the withholding of general voting rights may be a point worth discussing, the first thing to note is that it is simply factually inaccurate to use the term apartheid in this setting. This term is used, (and this is obvious to most people) as a purposefully inflammatory term which is known to be factually inaccurate, but which, it is hoped, will galvanize world opinion against Israel as it is assumed that no sane person would today be in favor of an apartheid regime. By purposefully using a term which can have no moral defense, this language serves to immediately shut down any debate. And, I believe, this is one reason why there has been no actual discussion of what such a single state might look like.
Perhaps it would be helpful to start with some basic assumptions. Remember, the point is not to wed one’s self to a specific style of government, be it parliamentary democracy, representative republic, or racist apartheid, and then do “whatever it takes” to have one’s chosen system of government put in place. Rather, the point is to think about what kind of society we wish to have and then formulate the most ethical and just system of government by which it may be achieved. Let us begin with two basic assumptions. Firstly, whether we like it or not, Israel is the only stable governmental entity, the only modern nation-state, today and for the past 73 years, between the river and the sea. It may be true that the biblical cradle of Jewish civilization was in the disputed territories of the West Bank, and it may be true that those lands are our historical birthright. It may equally be true that those lands are wanted by Palestinian Arabs or even by the international community as a future Arab state of Palestine. But the fact remains that after 73 years this has simply not occurred. Thus the first point is that we need to at least consider the possibility that there will have to be only one state – Israel – from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean.
The second point is simply that many would prefer that state to be a Jewish state. Once we have those two basic assumptions, a single state and a Jewish state, the question is then how can it be accomplished without resorting to the above apartheid measures? A related question might be, “How can this be accomplished in the most ethical way possible?” And yet a third related question would be, because politics (and indeed much of life in general) is the art of compromise, “How can this be accomplished in a manner which preserves the most overall goodness and minimizes the most overall badness?” It is also worth drawing attention to a similar question often asked in the current debate, which is, “How could it be possible to maintain a Jewish state and yet at the same time treat everybody equally?” It is important to note that this question is not exactly the same as the others because it assumes as a starting point that everybody must be treated equally. And by equally, most often people mean “exactly the same.” The difference between this question and the previous ones illustrates how the very way we ask the question loads the dice and prejudices the available answers. Because while on its face most people believe in the abstract quality of “treating people equally,” it is hard to see how one can hope to have a purposefully Jewish state if there are no differences allowed between Jews and non-Jews. (Unless, of course, the Jewishness of the state is not deliberate, but rather accidental, which is a popular delusion propagated by many defenders of “Jewish democracy” today.) In a Jewish state, Jews and non-Jews will experience the state in very different ways. Jews will experience their own native language and their own native national holidays, for example, while non-Jews will experience a foreign language and foreign holidays. If these different experiences are not allowed because we’ve defined our initial parameters to be that everyone must experience the state in exactly the same way, then we have a problem. You see, the point is not, “would a single Jewish state be apartheid,” but rather, what would we have to do – what compromises would we have to make – what differences from the American model, if you like, would there have to be – in order to keep the state Jewish? And are we ethically comfortable with those compromises or differences?
So, for example, if I were to think about this issue and then come to the conclusion that in order to have a single state that was still Jewish, I would have no choice but to use legal means to prevent non-Jews from having sexual relations with Jews, and to forcibly prevent non-Jews from attending Jewish social gatherings – then I would say to myself, gee, that sounds pretty racist and unethical – maybe the entire project just isn’t going to work. Fortunately, I do not suspect we would have to resort to such ridiculous measures.
Perhaps it is first worth considering just what it is about the state that makes it Jewish in the first place? What do we even mean when we say the state is Jewish? Then we can better discuss how to go about preserving those things. Well, we might say that for a state to be Jewish it has to have Hebrew as a language. It has to have the Jewish holidays as the official holidays and use the Jewish calendar. Perhaps public tax dollars should be used to fund Jewish programs such as Jewish religious learning. One might want a Jewish state to function as a safe haven for Jews in other parts of the world and therefore always remain open to Jewish immigration – something akin to the current “law of return.” One might then, when crafting their Jewish state, say that instead of denying voting rights to non-Jews, one could simply take those elements which make the state Jewish and write them into a constitution which would require a much higher voting threshold in order to amend. Thus even if non-Jews were allowed exactly the same voting rights as Jews, the Jewish traits of the state would be preserved constitutionally. Alternatively, one might divide laws into those with purely civil effect, traffic laws, healthcare, building codes, for example, and laws about Jewish things – what kinds of Jewish religious institutions should tax money support, or should official recognition be given to the American Reform and Conservative movements, or should there be a mixed Jewish prayer area at the Western Wall, for example. For the civil laws, all citizens would have voting privileges; but when voting on “Jewish laws” only the Jewish citizens would vote. Again, this is only one possible example, and while certainly different than other models, notably the American model, we are talking about a unique situation which calls for unique solutions. If we are unable to even talk about them, it will be very hard to find any solutions.
Perhaps it would be easier to look at a different country. In Great Britain, the official state religion is that of the Anglican Church. Now in reality, there is a hierarchy of authority in the Anglican Church, and if rules are going to be changed they are done so at the discretion of the Church itself (non-democratically; which is apparently ok.) However, consider the following thought experiment: If the Church of England were to consider changing some ritual law over how communion is taken and they wished to put the question to a vote, would a Jewish or Hindu or Muslim citizen of Britain demand or even assume that they should be granted the right to participate in such a vote? Or would they be content to let the Anglicans sort it out for themselves, despite the fact that it is the official state religion we are talking about, and they are a citizen of that state, and therefore in some sense it is their state religion, too? Would it be unethical to limit participation in that decision to citizens of the Anglican faith? Would it be apartheid? When seen in this light, we may consider whether it would be possible to have a situation in which all citizens of our hypothetical country called “Israel” participated in all decisions relating to civil law, and yet decisions about the Jewish aspects of the country would be made by those practicing the Jewish faith. And by the same token, if there were a certain city within our hypothetical Israel which were a Muslim Arab town and which had a mosque which held city-wide festivities on Muslim holidays, would we expect that nearby Jews should have the right to shared decision making in how those Muslim holidays are celebrated? Or would we be content to say that the Jews can manage their affairs and the Muslims can manage theirs? Would that be racist? Apartheid? And if we are content to let the Muslims manage their affairs and the Jews their’s, then it is worth noting that although the resulting situation could be described as fair, It certainly isn’t “equal” or “exactly the same” for Muslims and Jews because each has decisions which are exclusively theirs to make.
This is a complicated topic, and my point is not to work out every detail of a single Jewish state in a single short essay. But I think it is clear that when we engage in the discussion in an open and honest way – in a way which seeks to maximize the freedom and liberty for all people while at the same time preserving the national Jewishness of the state – that there is simply nothing that even remotely resembles “apartheid” in those discussions. And that if at a minimum we use more respectful language, we can cultivate an environment where we can break free of the extremely limiting and inflammatory rhetoric of the past.