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Condemning Israel of “apartheid”: Implications, limitations and potential dangers

The past few years have witnessed interesting developments regarding the use of the word “apartheid” in political, legal and media circles to describe Israel’s régime of oppression against Palestinians. Some consider the concept of apartheid to be the cornerstone of our liberation struggle. Others view it as just another word to describe Israel’s oppression, along with occupation, ethnic cleansing, genocide, settler colonization and others. So what exactly is apartheid? What are the word’s legal implications, its limitations and its potential dangers?

What is apartheid, and what is the added value of condemning Israel of it?

“Apartheid” is an Afrikaans word that refers to separating or setting apart, and a literal English translation of which would be “apart-hood”. It is also a fundamental legal term, considered to be a “crime against humanity” by the United Nations, and defined by the International Criminal Court as the “inhumane acts … 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”. Notably, this means apartheid refers to what a state does rather than it is—more on that later.

Prominent individuals and organizations who have used the word apartheid to describe Israel’s actions include UN officials such as Michael Lynk and Saul Takahashi, “Western” politicians such as UK deputee Claire Short and former US president Jimmy Carter, international institutions such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and ESCWA, and Israeli organizations such as Yesh Din and B’Tselem. Interestingly, even notable colonial figures such as the former heads of the Mossad Meir Dagan and Tamir Pardo have labeled Israel’s actions as “apartheid”—positions worth analyzing, given the fact they are still staunch Zionists.

These are notable developments in the history of the world’s position on Israel. It indicates, not only politicians’ awareness of Israel’s racist and racial régime, but also their willingness to say so out loud, which reveals a shift in the balance of power. The word “apartheid” also brings to mind the South African régime, helping endear our cause to many in the “West”—including members of political parties that support settler-colonialism, such as the US Democratic Party, UK Labour, French “France Insoumise”, or German SPD. Finally, the word provides a legal basis for prosecution by international courts.

The above achievements can play a crucial role in future efforts by Palestinians and our allies aiming at isolating the “Jewish state”—Efforts we should get organized to play a role in. But also, efforts the limitations and potential dangers of which we should be aware of.

Limitations and potential dangers

At least three factors must be taken into consideration, particularly given the legal implications of the word “apartheid”. First, we should be aware that what affects international decisions is the balance of power, not moral ideals or even legal decisions. We’ve recently seen the limitations of the International Court of Justice, which came as no surprise to those aware of its nature as a colonial tool. This not to say this confrontation should not be waged; just that we should be aware it is the enemy’s court.

Second, apartheid is defined as the domination imposed by a “racial group” over others. This poses complications. The idea that there is such a thing as racial groups and that Jews form a single group is not one we should normalize with or even delve in (HRW’s caveat in this regard is worth considering). But even if there were such a thing as racial groups, and even if Jews were scientifically proven to form such a group, it would be completely irrelevant to our cause. Our liberation struggle would have been just as worthy regardless of the racial, ethnic, religious or other background of the colonizers and ours.

This ties in with the third point, which is the difference between the concept of apartheid and its legal definition. Zionism claims that Jews throughout the world form a single nation that possesses collective rights, including the right to self-determination, i.e., a right to a state of their own. Its settler colonial enterprise to establish a Jewish state in Palestine is the natural consequence of this ideological viewpoint. This is the very definition of “apart-hood”, setting Jews “apart” from their own societies in their homeland and “apart” from the native society in Palestine. Zionism’s politicization of identity is fundamentally segregative in nature. Israel’s actions are merely an inevitable consequence of this original sin.

Yet, as noted earlier, the legal definition of apartheid only applies to a state’s actions. To illustrate the difference between the concept of apartheid and its legal definition, let us consider two elements that are fundamental to Israel’s nature as a settler colonial state: Its refusal to allow Palestinians refugees to return and its granting automatic citizenship to all Jews of the world. This is apart-hood at its finest, setting Palestinian natives “apart” from their homeland by forbidding them from returning to it while setting Jewish natives “apart” from their homeland by inviting them to leave it for another. Does this fit the legal definition of apartheid?

The answer is not clear-cut. As mentioned, apartheid is defined as “inhumane acts … committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other”. Israel can make the legal case that denying Israeli citizenship or denying entry to “its” land is a state policy that can be criticized but that is not “inhumane”. It could also make the legal case that its motivation or purpose is not “domination”, since it is not seeking to dominate the millions living in Jordan, Lebanon and the rest of the diaspora. It can also invoke its right as a state to grant citizenship to whomever it wishes, leaving us with the burden of proving that this is an “inhumane act of oppression and domination”. This shows the limitations of a legal term that fails to challenge Israel’s nature as a state that defines itself as “exclusive to the Jewish people”.

In this context, it is noteworthy that B’Tselem’s report “A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is apartheid” does not mention Palestinian refugees as a victim of Israeli apartheid, perhaps on account of their being outside the geographic region between the river and the sea! Amnesty International’s and HRW’s reports do consider the denial of the right of return to be apartheid, although such references are fleeting. On the other hand, they do not consider that Israel’s grant citizenship to all Jews of the world—the very foundation of settler colonialism—to be apartheid. This explains why notable Zionists such as those mentioned above are comfortable using the term “apartheid” as well: Its legal definition is largely compatible with Zionism. Interestingly, the ESCWA report on apartheid was different, as it referred to Israel itself as a “racial state” that is “designed” to dominate non-Jews. It is no wonder that Zionists fought tooth and nail to have it removed from the UN’s website.

The fight to condemn Israel of apartheid is one we should wage. But our media use of the term “apartheid” should not eclipse that of “settler colonialism”, which more fully captures Israel’s essence. And the legal fight should not replace arenas of confrontation such as armed resistance, direct action, boycotting, political lobbying and the fight to reclaim the narrative and center it around the solution: The transition from the “Jewish state” and its apart-hood to its fundamental antithesis—One Democratic State, a state for all its citizens, from the river to the sea.

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