Reporter's notebook

A night of apartheid

A succession of speakers at a three-hour conference in Jerusalem broadly agree that the ‘A word’ describes the status quo; the one dissenting panelist gets seven minutes

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Members of the panel discussing whether Israel is or could become an apartheid state, Feb 20, 2013. From left: Amiram Goldblum (who introduced the event); Danny Rubinstein (moderator); Gideon Levy; Menachem Klein, and Michael Sfard.  (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)
Members of the panel discussing whether Israel is or could become an apartheid state, Feb 20, 2013. From left: Amiram Goldblum (who introduced the event); Danny Rubinstein (moderator); Gideon Levy; Menachem Klein, and Michael Sfard. (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

The breadth of the political spectrum in Israel stretches from one A-word to another, from annexation to apartheid.

There are those on the far-right who don’t believe — or aren’t interested — in a peace agreement with the Palestinians and instead want Israel to annex parts or all of the West Bank. And there are those on the far-left who fear that the failure to establish a Palestinian state in the West Bank will lead — or according to some, has already led — to Israel becoming an apartheid state.

The former group appears to have the momentum: many MKs of the ruling Likud party have come out publicly in favor of annexation; the far-right Jewish Home party, which ran on a platform calling for partial annexation, garnered 12 Knesset seats, quadrupling in size. Still, the right-wing bloc in the new Knesset is smaller than it was in the old one.

The “3rd Conference for the Application of Israeli Sovereignty over Judea and Samaria” — the politically correct term for annexation — last month drew more than a thousand people to a Jerusalem hall, where senior Likud MKs, including a minister, proposed a one-state solution and discussed the best way to implement it. “I believe that this discourse, which began on the right and is gradually spilling over to broad sectors of the Israeli public, will ultimately filter down and make a difference and then what looks like a dream today will ultimately become a political reality on the ground,” then-coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) said at the conference.

Members of the panel discussing whether Israel is or could become an apartheid state, Feb 20, 2013. From left: Amiram Goldblum (who introduced the event); Danny Rubinstein (moderator); Gideon Levy; Menachem Klein, and Michael Sfard. (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)
Members of the panel discussing whether Israel is or could become an apartheid state, Feb 20, 2013. From left: Amiram Goldblum (who introduced the event); Danny Rubinstein (moderator); Gideon Levy; Menachem Klein, and Michael Sfard. (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

In Jerusalem on Wednesday night, the opposite mindset held sway. And their gathering underlined that, in light of the annexationists’ growing confidence, those opposed to it are increasingly ready to use terminology they might previously have resisted, and declare that what’s going on between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River will bring, or already has brought, an Israeli version of apartheid.

Wednesday’s event was organized by a group of left-wingers who are currently forming a new nonprofit called “For the struggle against racism and apartheid tendencies in Israel.” The event, entitled “Is there Israeli Apartheid?” took place in a much smaller venue — the Van Leer Institute, near the President’s Residence in Jerusalem — than last month’s annexation conference. But the hall’s 250 seats were not enough to hold all comers; some people had to stand throughout.

Naturally, the participants of the two conferences could not have been more different. Most people who attended January’s annexation conference were Orthodox; many were English-speaking immigrants. At Tuesday’s apartheid event, hardly any skullcaps were seen and almost no English could be heard. There were no politicians (not even a backbencher from Meretz, Hadash or any Arab party), and leaflets from Machsom Watch (Checkpoint Watch) were handed out, rather than flyers of the Kahanist Otzma Leyisrael party (which failed to win seats in the January 22 elections).

Speaker after speaker, for about three hours, condemned Israel’s policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians, without hesitating to throw around the A-word — until shortly before the event ended, when a sole dissenting panelist was given the platform… and seven minutes to make his points.

‘What else can you call it but apartheid?’

“I am not used to addressing Jerusalemites. I’m not even used to addressing Israelis — they don’t invite me,” joked Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy, one of the panelists, when he got up to speak.

Levy is the journalist behind a controversial article about a controversial survey that ostensibly showed that Jewish Israelis would support Israel becoming an apartheid state or think they already live in one. (The survey was itself commissioned by Peace Now board member Amiram Goldblum, who introduced Wednesday’s event.) And so it wasn’t hard to guess how Levy would answer the question the conference title asked.

“What else could we call what’s happening here?” he asked. He went on to talk about Hebron (where a heavily guarded Jewish community exists within a predominantly Palestinian area), the long lines of Palestinians at Israeli army checkpoints, and “systematic discrimination” in general.

In the early days after the 1967 Six-Day War, people liked to speak about “liberated territories,” and the word “occupation” was taboo, much like the A-word is taboo today, Levy said. “Even the way this conference is titled is very cautious.”

The main problem with Israeli society is that people feel like they’re superior, that they are allowed to do whatever they want, and that, somehow, “Palestinians aren’t really people like us,” Levy alleged. “They once asked [Arab MK] Ahmad Tibi: Decide already, are you a doctor or are you a Palestinian?”

Gideon Levy (photo credit: Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)
Gideon Levy (photo credit: Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)

Of course there are more brutal occupations that the Israeli version, he allowed. “But I don’t know any other occupation where the occupier thinks he’s the victim, where he thinks he’s the only victim.”

Someone in the audience raised his hand, saying that Levy was preaching to the choir; the relevant question was what we, the citizens, can do to change the situation. Should we be supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement?

“I don’t boycott Israel myself, so I cannot ask others to do so,” Levy replied. He added, however, that “as long as Israel doesn’t pay a price for the occupation, nothing is going to change.” Those concerned with the Palestinians’ plight are best advised to return the topic to the top of the national agenda, he said.

Michael Sfard, a human rights lawyer working for various leftwing organizations, started his presentation by saying that he doesn’t use words lightly, and that he used to object to the application of the A-word to the situation in Israel.

“Not all discrimination is apartheid, just like not all murders, or even massacres, are genocide. Let’s reserve these terms for the really drastic phenomena,” he said. But over time, doubt crept in and he opened a folder under the name “Apartheid?” in which he would collect articles and emails about incidents that could fit into that category.

He then explained how the legal situation in the West Bank effectively achieved “almost complete separation” between Israelis and Palestinians.

Modern law is territorial, he said, which means that anyone can smoke marijuana in Holland, because it is legal there, regardless of what citizenship a person holds. But since Israel never applied Israeli law to the West Bank, the status quo there is one in which the law is applied not according to territory but to nationality. An Israeli and a Palestinian could commit the same crime in the same place in the West Bank; the Israeli would be subject to Israeli law (with a certain legal protection mechanism), while the Palestinian would be subject to a military court, according to Sfard.

Michael Sfard (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)
Michael Sfard (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)

“I imagine you can guess that over the years the symbol on my folder changed from a question mark to an exclamation symbol,” he said.

Sfard did mention, in passing, that Israel of course has security concerns, knowing that this question could come up even with this choir of the ostensibly converted. But actually, the topic hardly came up. One person asked whether the government isn’t justified in seeking to maintain a military presence in the Jordan Valley for security reasons, but the panel seemed to mock the notion.

“I’m not sure whether this question is serious or ironic,” Gideon Levy said. When the questioner made plain he truly wanted an answer, Levy told him that Israel is not alone on the planet and that, regardless of whether the threats are imagined or real, Israel didn’t have the moral right to decide what to do with territory that belongs to others.

The next speaker, Menachem Klein, a senior lecturer in Bar-Ilan University’s political science department and a B’Tselem board member, focused his remarks on the situation in East Jerusalem. What happened there could not just be described using the A-word; it was, rather, “ethno-apartheid.”

Hebrew University professor emeritus Frances Raday tried to answer the conference’s question by looking at how international law (such as the United Nations’ 1973 Apartheid Convention) defines the A-word. She also slammed Israel for refusing to cooperate with a recent UN Human Rights Council probe into the settlements, despite acknowledging that the body is obsessed with Israel.

“Not one country in the world thinks settlements are legal,” said Raday, who directs the Concord Research Center for Integration of International Law in Israel. “This is not our territory to decide what’s going on there.”

However, after a lengthy excursion into UN probes and investigations and resolutions, she concluded that the term apartheid could only be applied to Israel if it intended to keep the West Bank forever. If the government’s plan is to eventually arrive at a two-state solution, than the situation is not apartheid as defined by international law, she said.

Raday was followed by Oren Yiftachel from Ben Gurion University’s geography and environmental development department, who said that we should stop using the word occupation to describe what’s going on in the West Bank. “That word implies it’s temporary, but that is not what’s happening,” he said. He then juxtaposed a map of Israel/Palestine and apartheid-era South Africa. “Some things that are similar, some things are different,” he said.

Next up was Alon Liel, a former Foreign Ministry director-general, who said that it was hard for someone like him to agree with the harsh words already spoken. In the end, though, he had to acknowledge that “in the situation that exists today, until a Palestinian state is created, we are actually one state. This joint state — in the hope that the status quo is temporary — is an apartheid state.”

There is a real danger of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank becoming an integral part of the state, Alon, Israel’s ambassador in Pretoria from 1992 to 1994, said. “When that happens, when the West Bank and [Israel in the pre-1967 lines] become one, and the Palestinian residents of the West Bank will not have citizenship — we’re apartheid,” he said.

Similarities between the “original apartheid” as it was practiced in South Africa and the situation in Israel and the West Bank today “scream to the heavens,” added Liel. There can be little doubt that the suffering of Palestinians is no less intense than that of blacks during apartheid-era South Africa, he asserted.

‘From my independent knowledge of apartheid, I can say that it has become a generic and instrumentalized code word, so much so that it lost all true meaning’

As the evening wound down, it almost felt like poetic justice — or injustice, depending on where you stand — that the last speaker, the only one who fiercely disagreed with the application of the apartheid term to the current Israeli-Palestinian situation, was cut short because time had run out.

Another event had been scheduled for 8:00 P.M. and so professor emeritus Gideon Shimoni, the former head of the Hebrew University’s Institute of Contemporary Jewry, who was born and brought up in Johannesburg, had to make his point in exactly seven minutes, as the first arrivals for the next event began walking into the hall. He spent the first two of those seven minutes lamenting that he would not now be able to present the full address he had prepared.

“From my independent knowledge of apartheid, I can say that it has become a generic and instrumentalized code word, so much so that it lost all true meaning,” said Shimoni. “It’s a code word that is not being used to analyze a sociopolitical phenomenon, but rather as a rhetorical weapon… to demonize and excoriate the State of Israel, a political entity that defines itself as Jewish and democratic.”

While everyone agreed on the necessity to fight the just fight (against discrimination and for a two-state solution), he said, employing the term apartheid in this context was “rather unfair and lacks intellectual honesty.”

All the terrible things that were described this evening, “from land theft to various draconic restrictions, as much they are worthy of condemnation — they are not apartheid,” he said.

Shimoni said he would have liked to elaborate further. Perhaps another time, he concluded, somewhat bitterly.

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