Amnesty’s ‘apartheid’ report helps transform mainstream debate, as shown by ADL’s hollow defense of ‘Jewish state’

The Wall (Issam Rimawi - APA Images)

David Letwin

Mondoweiss  /  February 14, 2022

The groundbreaking Amnesty International report on Israeli apartheid would not have been possible without Palestinian resistance, including the BDS campaign and the Great March of Return in Gaza.

On February 1, 2022, Amnesty International (AI) published a 280-page report called “Israel’s apartheid against Palestinians: Cruel system of domination and crime against humanity”. Days before the report was even officially released, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a prominent apologist for the Israeli regime (and reactionary underminer of domestic social justice movements), released a statement attacking the document.

“This new report,” the ADL statement says, “goes beyond criticizing Israeli policies and actions to painting Israel’s very creation as illegitimate, immoral, and faulted,” which the ADL declares a “hateful characterization.” 

But the characterization isn’t hateful at all. On the contrary, it is entirely accurate, and should be a point of departure for any honest discussion of Palestine. 

The facts are clear. During the Nakba of 1948, Israel was forcibly established on Palestinian land through a campaign of terror and ethnic cleansing by Zionist settler-colonists intent on a state based on “maximum land with a minimal number of Arabs.” In the 74 years since, Palestinians throughout historic Palestine, as well as the diaspora, have been subjected to a system of racist discrimination and ongoing dispossession by the Israeli state. Indeed, one of the report’s most important contributions is that it makes clear systemic Israeli oppression of Palestinians did not, as often depicted, start with the 1967 Occupation, but goes back to the founding of the Israeli regime.  

The ADL statement makes no attempt to substantively refute any of this. In fact, the statement is devoid of any meaningful critical engagement.

It neither quotes nor links to the report itself. There are no citations of any kind. It states, “ADL strongly disagrees with many condemnatory conclusions made in the report regarding Israeli policies and actions, particularly in its lack of context and regarding the inaccurate characterizations of Israel’s treatment of its Arab [Palestinian] citizens,” yet never explains why the ADL disagrees with the report or how its characterizations are “inaccurate.” Instead, the statement asserts a “Jewish right to self-determination in its historic homeland,” as if that claim were somehow responsive to the report’s findings — and over 1,500 footnotes — or could in any case justify a settler-colonial apartheid state.

“We reject altogether,” the statement continues, “the report’s call for a right of return of all Palestinian refugees, which would mean in effect, the end of Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.” Although clearly meant to stir empathy on Israel’s behalf, it is hard to imagine a more damning condemnation of the Zionist project than admitting that “Israel’s existence as a Jewish state” is wholly dependent on denying the universally recognized right of Palestinian refugees — refugees created by Israel in the first place — to return to their homes and homeland. Moreover, as an inalienable human right, the refugees’ right to return cannot be “rejected” by the Israeli regime in the first place. It is for the colonized to claim their rights, not for the colonizers to either accept or deny them.

Desperate to distract from Israel’s crumbling public relations image, the ADL statement invokes an all-too familiar trope: Calling apartheid Israel to account places “Jews in danger” and “likely will lead to intensified antisemitism around the world.” Yet by falsely conflating Zionism with all Jews, by functioning as a watchdog state for U.S. and Western imperialist interests, by embracing rather than rejecting antisemitic dogma about Jewish “otherness,” and by allying with white supremacist antisemites around the world who see in the Israeli state a reflection of their own Islamophobia and desires for a “racially pure” polity, Israel itself contributes to the very anti-Jewish hatred it claims to protect against.

The AI report is not above criticism, the ADL’s attack notwithstanding.

First, neither the report nor many of those celebrating its release acknowledge that Palestinians have been saying all of this and more for decades, only to be ignored or silenced not only by the mainstream political and media establishment, but by the “progressive except for Palestine” opposition.

Second, the report mentions neither Zionism nor colonialism, though both underpin the relentless injustices inflicted on Palestinians since 1948 (and for decades prior).

Third, it fails to affirm that, like indigenous resistance to settler colonialism everywhere, Palestinian resistance to Israel is a predictable — and justifiable — response to a regime based on stolen land.

Finally, on its website AI says “it does not consider that Israel labelling itself a ‘Jewish state’ in itself indicates an intention to oppress and dominate.” How could the demand for a “Jewish state” in Palestine, a state where, in the words of Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, “the value of ethnic superiority and supremacy overrides any other human and civil value,” lead to anything other than oppression and domination? 

Despite these deficiencies, the report both reflects and contributes to an important shift in public mainstream discussion of Palestine that would have been unthinkable not that long ago. A line has been crossed, and moving forward, Israel’s attempt to whitewash itself as a “Jewish and democratic” state will likely be accepted by no one other than its enablers. The phrase “apartheid Israel” will likely become as common as “apartheid South Africa” was a generation ago, in part because others will be emboldened by the AI report.

But credit for this shift ultimately goes to Palestinians themselves, who, with little outside material support — as opposed to Israel, which receives $3.8bn annually in U.S. military aid alone — have steadfastly resisted Israel’s attempt to effectively erase them. And without the growth of the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, and Palestinian popular resistance movements like the Great March of Return and the Unity Intifada, it is not clear when or if AI would have arrived at its current position.

Moreover, in the movement to topple apartheid Israel, grassroots Palestinian resistance, not NGO legalism, needs to be positioned front and center. As Haifa-based Palestinian activist and Adalah attorney Soheir Asaad recently explained, “We expect our allies and supporters, the free people of the world, to be attentive to movements on the ground, what analytical frameworks they put forward and centralize them.” 

That the ADL has no credible response to the Amnesty International report is in many ways as significant as the report itself. It shows once again that the Zionist establishment cannot morally defend the “Jewish state,” and explains why it increasingly relies on “brute force” tactics, like unconstitutional anti-BDS legislation and wild smears of antisemitism.

Unable to win the argument, the only option left is to try to bludgeon Palestine advocates into silence. While such tactics pose a very real short-term threat, they cannot stop the global Palestinian liberation movement from bending history’s arc toward justice.

David Letwin is a co-founder of Jews for Palestinian Right of Return