Response

03.22.12

Why Israel Is Not an Apartheid State

Citing the 1998 Rome Statute to the International Criminal Court, Yousef Munnayer defines “Apartheid” as actions or policies “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.” He thinks Israel fits the bill.

I strongly disagree. For one thing, Jews and Palestinians are not racial groups. But even if they were, Israel within the green line still doesn’t quack in the way Yousef says it does.

Yousef dismisses the green line as irrelevant, saying that “anyone who has traveled through Israel and the West Bank knows that the green line exists on paper only. In every other sense, between the river and the sea, there is one state, there is one regime.” But that’s like saying that because there was “one state…one regime” in the United States in 1960, there was no meaningful difference between the status of African Americans in Mississippi and African Americans in New York.

Yes, of course, Israel’s Palestinian Arab citizens suffer significant discrimination. (I’m using the compound term “Palestinian Arab” since, according to polling by the University of Haifa’s Sammy Smooha, Israel’s Palestinian Arabs remain divided between “Palestinian” and “Arab” in describing themselves.) In 2003, the Or Commission—appointed by the Israeli government itself—declared, “Government handling of the Arab sector has been primarily neglectful and discriminatory.”

But unlike their brethren in the West Bank, Palestinian Arabs within the green line also enjoy citizenship and the right to vote. They sit in the Knesset and on Israel’s Supreme Court. They maintain their own religious courts and their own, state-funded, Arabic-language schools and media, something religious and ethnic minorities in many other countries do not enjoy. Arabic is one of Israel’s official languages. Palestinian Arab citizens have also made dramatic educational and economic gains under Israeli rule. The political scientists Ilan Peleg and Dov Waxman note that in 1948, the illiteracy rate among Israel’s Palestinian Arabs was 80 percent. By 1988, it was 15 percent.

None of this should be a source of complacency, especially given the discriminatory legislation proposed in recent years by Avigdor Lieberman and his allies. Israel badly needs to return to the path Yitzhak Rabin pursued in the early 1990s, when he doubled spending on education for Palestinian Arab Israelis, ended the discrepancy between the amount the government paid Jewish and Palestinian Arab families per child, built dozens of health clinics in Palestinian Arab communities, and introduced affirmative action to boost the number of Palestinian Arab citizens in Israel’s civil service.

But if Israel gets branded an apartheid state although Palestinian Arabs sit in the Knesset and on the Supreme Court, how should we classify Syria, where Palestinian refugees and their descendants are not allowed to vote or become citizens? Or Lebanon, where Palestinians cannot own property or work in numerous prestigious professions? If Israel practices apartheid towards its Palestinian Arab citizens, what should we call Saudi treatment of its Shia minority, who cannot serve as judges in ordinary courts? And what about migrants throughout the Gulf who are barred from citizenship on ethnic grounds?

I’m not saying that Yousef would condone any of this. But if he wants to use the word “apartheid” to describe the condition of Israel’s Palestinian Arabs—who enjoy rights denied to many ethnic and religious minorities throughout the Middle East and beyond—so many countries are going to quack that the term is going to lose any meaning. We should reserve “apartheid” for countries that deny an entire ethnic, racial or religious group the right to citizenship or the right to vote. Israel isn’t one of them.