Israel’s Big and Small Apartheids

The meaning of a Jewish state

by Jonathan Cook / April 26th, 2010

is the text of a talk delivered to the fifth Bilin international
conference for Palestinian popular resistance, held in the West Bank
village of Bilin on April 21

Israel’s apologists are very exercised about the idea that Israel
has been singled out for special scrutiny and criticism. I wish to
argue, however, that in most discussions of Israel it actually gets off
extremely lightly: that many features of the Israeli polity would be
considered exceptional or extraordinary in any other democratic state.

That is not surprising because, as I will argue, Israel is neither a
liberal democracy nor even a “Jewish and democratic state”, as its
supporters claim. It is an apartheid state, not only in the occupied
territories of the West Bank and Gaza, but also inside Israel proper.
Today, in the occupied territories, the apartheid nature of Israeli
rule is irrefutable — if little mentioned by Western politicians or the
media. But inside Israel, itself, it is largely veiled and hidden. My
purpose today is to try to remove the veil a little.

I say “a little”, because I would need far more than the time
allotted to me to do justice to this topic. There are, for example,
some 30 laws that explicitly discriminate between Jews and non-Jews —
another way of referring to the fifth of the Israeli population who are
Palestinian and supposedly enjoy full citizenship. There are also many
other Israeli laws and administrative practices that lead to an outcome
of ethnic-based segregation even if they do not make such
discrimination explicit.

So instead of trying to rush through all these aspects of Israeli
apartheid, let me concentrate instead on a few revealing features,
issues I have reported on recently.

First, let us examine the nature of Israeli citizenship.

A few weeks ago I met Uzi Ornan, an 86-year-old professor from the
Technion university in Haifa, who has one of the few ID cards in Israel
stating a nationality of “Hebrew”. For most other Israelis, their cards
and personal records state their nationality as “Jewish” or “Arab”. For
immigrants whose Jewishness is accepted by the state but questioned by
the rabbinical authorities, some 130 other classifications of
nationality have been approved, mostly relating to a person’s religion
or country of origin. The only nationality you will not find on the
list is “Israeli”. That is precisely why Prof Ornan and two dozen
others are fighting through the courts: they want to be registered as
“Israelis”. It is a hugely important fight — and for that reason alone
they are certain to lose. Why?

Far more is at stake than an ethnic or national label. Israel
excludes a nationality of “Israeli” to ensure that, in fulfilment of
its self-definition as a “Jewish state”, it is able to assign superior
rights of citizenship to the collective “nation” of Jews around the
globe than to the body of actual citizens in its territory, which
includes many Palestinians. In practice, it does this by creating two
main classes of citizenship: a Jewish citizenship for “Jewish
nationals” and an Arab citizenship for “Arab nationals”. Both
nationalities were effectively invented by Israel and have no meaning
outside Israel.

This differentiation in citizenship is recognised in Israeli law:
the Law of Return, for Jews, makes immigration all but automatic for
any Jew around the world who wishes it; and the Citizenship Law, for
non-Jews, determines on any entirely separate basis the rights of the
country’s Palestinian minority to citizenship. Even more importantly,
the latter law abolishes the rights of the Palestinian citizens’
relatives, who were expelled by force in 1948, to return to their homes
and land. There are, in other words, two legal systems of citizenship
in Israel, differentiating between the rights of citizens based on
whether they are Jews or Palestinians.

That, in itself, meets the definition of apartheid, as set out by
the United Nations in 1973: “Any legislative measures or other measures
calculated to prevent a racial group or groups from participation in
the political, social, economic and cultural life of the country and
the deliberate creation of conditions preventing the full development
of such a group or groups.” The clause includes the following rights:
“the right to leave and to return to their country, the right to a
nationality, the right to freedom of movement and residence, the right
to freedom of opinion and expression.”

Such separation of citizenship is absolutely essential to the
maintenance of Israel as a Jewish state. Were all citizens to be
defined uniformly as Israelis, were there to be only one law regarding
citizenship, then very dramatic consequences would follow. The most
significant would be that the Law of Return would either cease to apply
to Jews or apply equally to Palestinian citizens, allowing them to
bring their exiled relatives to Israel – the much-feared Right of
Return. In either a longer or shorter period, Israel’s Jewish majority
would be eroded and Israel would become a binational state, probably
with a Palestinian majority.

There would be many other predictable consequences of equal
citizenship. Would the Jewish settlers, for example, be able to
maintain their privileged status in the West Bank if Palestinians in
Jenin or Hebron had relatives inside Israel with the same rights as
Jews? Would the Israeli army continue to be able to function as an
occupation army in a properly democratic state? And would the courts in
a state of equal citizens be able to continue turning a blind eye to
the brutalities of the occupation? In all these cases, it seems
extremely unlikely that the status quo could be maintained.

In other words, the whole edifice of Israel’s apartheid rule inside Israel supports and upholds its apartheid rule in the occupied territories. They stand or fall together.

Next, let us look at the matter of land control.

Last month I met an exceptional Israeli Jewish couple, the Zakais.
They are exceptional chiefly because they have developed a deep
friendship with a Palestinian couple inside Israel. Although I have
reported on Israel and Palestine for many years, I cannot recall ever
before meeting an Israeli Jew who had a Palestinian friend in quite the
way the Zakais do.

True, there are many Israeli Jews who claim an “Arab” or
“Palestinian” friend in the sense that they joke with the guy whose
hummus shop they frequent or who fixes their car. There are also
Israeli Jews — and they are an extremely important group — who stand
with Palestinians in political battles such as those here in Bilin or
in Sheikh Jarrah in Jerusalem. At these places, Israelis and
Palestinians have, against the odds, managed to forge genuine
friendships that are vital if Israel’s apartheid rule is to be defeated.

But the Zakais’ relationship with their Bedouin friends, the
Tarabins, is not that kind of friendship. It is not based on, or shaped
by, a political struggle, one that is, itself, framed by Israel’s
occupation; it is not a self-conscious friendship; and it has no larger
goal than the relationship, itself. It is a friendship — or at least it
appeared that way to me — of genuine equals. A friendship of complete
intimacy. When I visited the Zakais, I realised what an incredibly
unusual sight that is in Israel.

The reason for the very separate cultural and emotional worlds of
Jewish and Palestinian citizens in Israel is not difficult to fathom:
they live in entirely separate physical worlds. They live apart in
segregated communities, separated not through choice but by legally
enforceable rules and procedures. Even in the so-called handful of
mixed cities, Jews and Palestinians usually live apart, in distinct and
clearly defined neighbourhoods. And so it was not entirely surprising
that the very issue that brought me to the Zakais was the question of
whether a Palestinian citizen is entitled to live in a Jewish community.

The Zakais want to rent to their friends, the Tarabins, their home
in the agricultural village of Nevatim in the Negev — currently an
exclusively Jewish community. The Tarabins face a serious housing
problem in their own neighbouring Bedouin community. But what the
Zakais have discovered is that there are overwhelming social and legal
obstacles to Palestinians moving out the ghettoes in which they are
supposed to live. Not only is Nevatim’s elected leadership deeply
opposed to the Bedouin family entering their community, but so also are
the Israeli courts.

Nevatim is not exceptional. There are more than 700 similar rural
communities — mostly kibbutzim and moshavim — that bar non-Jews from
living there. They control most of the inhabitable territory of Israel,
land that once belonged to Palestinians: either refugees from the 1948
war; or Palestinian citizens who have had their lands confiscated under
special laws.

Today, after these confiscations, at least 93 per cent of Israel is nationalised — that is, it is held in trust not
for Israel’s citizens but for world Jewry. (Here, once again, we should
note one of those important consequences of the differentiated
citizenship we have just considered.)

Access to most of this nationalised land is controlled by vetting
committees, overseen by quasi-governmental but entirely unaccountable
Zionist organisations like the Jewish Agency and the Jewish National
Fund. Their role is to ensure that such communities remain off-limits
to Palestinian citizens, precisely as the Zakais and Tarabins have
discovered in the case of Nevatim. The officials there have insisted
that the Palestinian family has no right even to rent, let alone buy,
property in a “Jewish community”. That position has been effectively
upheld by Israel’s highest court, which has agreed that the family must
submit to a vetting committee whose very purpose is to exclude them.

Again, the 1973 UN Convention on the “crime of apartheid” is
instructive: it includes measures “designed to divide the population
along racial lines by the creation of separate reserves and ghettos for
the members of a racial group or groups … [and] the expropriation of
landed property belonging to a racial group or groups or to members

If Jewish and Palestinian citizens have been kept apart so
effectively — and a separate education system and severe limits on
interconfessional marriage reinforce this emotional and physical
segregation — how did the Zakais and Tarabins become such close friends?

Their case is an interesting example of serendipity, as I discovered
when I met them. Weisman Zakai is the child of Iraqi Jewish parents who
immigrated to the Jewish state in its early years. When he and Ahmed
Tarabin met as boys in the 1960s, hanging out in the markets of the
poor neighbouring city of Beersheva, far from the centre of the
country, they found that what they had in common trumped the formal
divisions that were supposed to keep them apart and fearful. Both speak
fluent Arabic, both were raised in an Arab culture, both are excluded
from Jewish Ashkenazi society, and both share a passion for cars.

In their case, Israel’s apartheid system failed in its job of
keeping them physically and emotionally apart. It failed to make them
afraid of, and hostile to, each other. But as the Zakais have learnt to
their cost, in refusing to live according to the rules of Israel’s
apartheid system, the system has rejected them. The Zakais are denied
the chance to rent to their friends, and now live as pariahs in the
community of Nevatim.

Finally, let us consider the concept of “security” inside Israel.

As I have said, the apartheid nature of relations between Jewish and
Palestinian citizens is veiled in the legal, social and political
spheres. It does not mirror the “petty apartheid” that was a feature of
the South African brand: the separate toilets, park benches and buses.
But in one instance it is explicit in this petty way — and this is when
Jews and Palestinians enter and leave the country through the border
crossings and through Ben Gurion international airport. Here the façade
is removed and the different status of citizenship enjoyed by Jews and
Palestinians is fully on show.

That lesson was learnt by two middle-aged Palestinian brothers I
interviewed this month. Residents of a village near Nazareth, they had
been life-long supporters of the Labor party and proudly showed me a
fading picture of them hosting a lunch for Yitzhak Rabin in the early
1990s. But at our meeting they were angry and bitter, vowing they would
never vote for a Zionist party again.

Their rude awakening had come three years ago when they travelled to
the US on a business trip with a group of Jewish insurance agents. On
the flight back, they arrived at New York’s JFK airport to see their
Jewish colleagues pass through El Al’s security checks in minutes.
They, meanwhile, spent two hours being interrogated and having their
bags minutely inspected.

When they were finally let through, they were assigned a female
guard whose job was to keep them under constant surveillance — in front
of hundreds of fellow passengers — till they boarded the plane. When
one brother went to the bathroom without first seeking permission, the
guard berated him in public and her boss threatened to prevent him from
boarding the plane unless he apologised. This month the court finally
awarded the brothers $8,000 compensation for what it called their
“abusive and unnecessary” treatment.

Two things about this case should be noted. The first is that the El
Al security team admitted in court that neither brother was deemed a
security risk of any sort. The only grounds for the special treatment
they received was their national and ethnic belonging. It was
transparently a case of racial profiling.

The second thing to note is that their experience is nothing out of
the ordinary for Palestinian citizens travelling to and from Israel.
Similar, and far worse, incidents occur every day during such security
procedures. What was exceptional in this case was that the brothers
pursued a time-consuming and costly legal action against El Al.

They did so, I suspect, because they felt so badly betrayed. They had made the mistake of believing the hasbara
(propaganda) from Israeli politicians of all stripes who declare that
Palestinian citizens can enjoy equal status with Jewish citizens if
they are loyal to the state. They assumed that by being Zionists they
could become first-class citizens. In accepting this conclusion, they
had misunderstood the apartheid reality inherent in a Jewish state.

The most educated, respectable and wealthy Palestinian citizen will
always fare worse at the airport security check than the most
disreputable Jewish citizen, or the one who espouses extremist opinions
or even the Jewish citizen with a criminal record.

Israel’s apartheid system is there to maintain Jewish privilege in a
Jewish state. And at the point where that privilege is felt most
viscerally by ordinary Jews to be vulnerable, in the life and death
experience of flying thousands of feet above the ground, Palestinian
citizens must be shown their status as outsider, as the enemy, whoever
they are and whatever they have, or have not, done.

Apartheid rule, as I have argued, applies to Palestinians in both
Israel and the occupied territories. But is not apartheid in the
territories much worse than it is inside Israel? Should we not concern
ourselves more with the big apartheid in the West Bank and Gaza than
this weaker apartheid? Such an argument demonstrates a dangerous
misconception about the indivisible nature of Israel’s apartheid
towards Palestinians and about its goals.

Certainly, it is true that apartheid in the territories is much more
aggressive than it is inside Israel. There are two reasons for this.
The first is that the apartheid under occupation is much less closely
supervised by the Israeli civilian courts than it is in Israel. You
can, to put it bluntly, get away with much more here. The second, and
more significant, reason, however, is that the Israeli system of
apartheid in the occupied territories is forced to be more
aggressive and cruel — and that is because the battle is not yet won
here. The fight of the occupying power to steal your resources — your
land, water and labour — is in progress but the outcome is still to be
decided. Israel is facing the considerable pressures of time and a
fading international legitimacy as it works to take your possessions
from you. Every day you resist makes that task a little harder.

In Israel, by contrast, apartheid rule is entrenched — it achieved
its victory decades ago. Palestinian citizens have third or fourth
class citizenship; they have had almost all of their land taken from
them; they are allowed to live only in their ghettoes; their education
system is controlled by the security services; they can work in few
jobs other than those Jews do not want; they have the vote but cannot
participate in government or effect any political change; and so on.

Doubtless, a related fate is envisioned for you too. The veiled
apartheid facing Palestinians inside Israel is the blueprint for a
veiled — and more legitimate — kind of apartheid being planned for
Palestinians in the occupied territories, at least those who are
allowed to remain in their Bantustans. And for this very reason,
exposing and defeating the apartheid inside Israel is vital to the success of resisting the apartheid that has taken root here.

That is why we must fight Israeli apartheid wherever it is found —
in Jaffa or Jerusalem, in Nazareth or Nablus, in Beersheva or Bilin. It
is the only struggle that can bring justice to the Palestinians.

Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books). Read other articles by Jonathan, or visit Jonathan’s website.

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