The Nation / February 20, 2023
Israeli apartheid is more obvious than ever, and liberal supporters of Zionism are being confronted with a reality that they have tried for so long to deny.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Jerusalem in late January came during a period of notable violence and political upheaval throughout Palestine. But most of the anodyne comments Blinken made during his trip could have been made at just about any time in the past 30 years.
“I underscored the ironclad U.S.-Israeli relationship, our commitment to Israeli democracy & security,” Blinken tweeted with total banality after meeting with Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid. He was equally hollow after his meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, praising the two-state solution and adding, “Anything that moves us away from that vision is—in our judgment—detrimental to Israel’s long-term security and its long-term identity as a Jewish and democratic state.”
It’s business as usual, in other words. The situation on the ground, however, is anything but.
To begin with, Israel has recently intensified its assault on Palestinian life. It has stepped up its demolition of Palestinian homes, its deliberately terrifying midnight raids on Palestinian families, and its brutalization of Palestinians at checkpoints, in schoolyards, in olive groves, and on pastoral hillsides. And the soldiers of its occupation army have been shooting to kill Palestinian men, women, and children at a rate of more than one every single day so far this year. A recent update by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, covering the period from December 20, 2022, to January 9, 2023, documents the killing or wounding of 399 Palestinians by Israeli occupation forces; the demolition of 69 Palestinian-owned structures (and the resulting displacement of 70 Palestinians); 31 attacks on unarmed Palestinians by heavily armed Jewish settlers; and 202 Israeli raids into the West Bank. All this in just three weeks—and not counting the recent incursion into Jenin, in which Israeli troops killed nine more Palestinians (a 10th victim later succumbed to injuries) and inflicted massive damage to homes and infrastructure; or a later raid into Jericho in which Israeli soldiers killed another five Palestinians.
Netanyahu’s new and much more explicitly racist Israeli government is poised to amplify all of these forms of violence even further. In response to a Palestinian reprisal attack at an illegal Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem which left several Israelis dead, there were renewed promises to demolish the family homes of Palestinian attackers, arrest or expel their family members, and carry out other forms of collective punishment.
Such actions correspond to existing Israeli policy. (They are also all flagrant violations of international law.) In that sense, nothing is different about the present moment. What has changed, however, is the Israeli state’s disavowal of the convenient forms of denial and mystification underpinning the myth of what is so often called its “liberal democracy.” And that is a problem for many liberal and leftist elites in Europe and, above all, the United States—because they have clung to those myths for decades to justify their unwavering support for Israel. With the Israeli government revealing the state’s political nature more nakedly than ever, liberal supporters of Zionism are at last being confronted with a reality that they have tried for so long to deny.
The reaction in liberal US circles to the new Netanyahu government has been telling. Representative Jerry Nadler and Senator Bob Menendez, both liberal Democrats and long-standing supporters of Israel, expressed distress and concern at recent developments. California Representative Brad Sherman, another liberal, warned that the formation of the new government “is corrosive to support in the Democratic caucus.” The editorial board of The New York Times—another bellwether for liberal US support for Israel—similarly warned that the “ideal of democracy in a Jewish state is in jeopardy,” and that the United States should “do everything it can to express its support for a society governed by equal rights and the rule of law in Israel.” Even Times columnist Tom Friedman, long one of Israel’s most outspoken US defenders, raised the alarm. “Israel,” he wrote in a recent piece, “is on the verge of a historic transformation—from a full-fledged democracy to something less.”
If Friedman and the rest are wrong, however, and no such transformation is about to take place, it’s not because Israeli democracy is secure—it’s because it was never truly there to begin with (or was never accessible to everyone subject to Israeli rule, which amounts to the same thing).
Liberal self-deception around Israel has been much more challenging since at least 2018. That’s when the Israeli parliament passed the Jewish Nation-State Law, which, as one of the state’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws, made formal and explicit many of the forms of racial discrimination against non-Jews that had hitherto been informal and implicit (as of 2017, 65 Israeli laws contained direct or indirect forms of discrimination against Palestinians). Doubling down, Netanyahu’s recently installed government took power with a formal policy declaration that “the Jewish people have an exclusive and unquestionable right to all areas of the Land of Israel.” The latter is a Zionist expression referring to all of historical Palestine: that is, the pre-1967 Israeli state plus the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza.
Racism doesn’t get any more explicit than this. If people of one ethnicity—or one racial group, to use the language of international law—constituting approximately half of those living in the territory in question have an exclusive claim to it, the other half of the population is, by definition, altogether deprived of rights.
There’s a word for such a political arrangement—and it’s not democracy. It’s apartheid.
Why, then, Blinken’s rote affirmation of Israel’s status as a “Jewish and democratic state,” when that formula—as oxymoronic as it is even under the best circumstances—is so manifestly at odds with the actual situation on the ground in Palestine?
American politicians across the political spectrum have for years incanted the seemingly magic phrase “Jewish and democratic state” in order to express their support for what has always been an apartheid state while denying that that is what it is. This mantra doesn’t just elide the (very clear) reality of the stark racism at the heart of Israel’s political-legal system. It also serves to cover up that act of denial through the positive affirmation of democracy. Like a psychological sleight of hand, rather than dwelling on the negative, the act of denial (of apartheid) is transacted and made more compelling through the affirmation of the positive value (of democracy), which can be celebrated, as it so often is, with thoughtless ease.
There really is, however, no longer any room for debate on the question of Israeli apartheid. A series of recent major publications (by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Southwest Asia, among others) confirms with hundreds of pages of exacting documentation what Palestinians and others have been saying for decades. This is a state project that has consistently—from the moment of its inception during the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948—discriminated between Jews and non-Jews, granting rights and privileges to the former that it assiduously denies to the latter. As the Palestinian politician Ahmad Tibi once so memorably put it, the allegedly “Jewish and democratic state” is “democratic towards Jews and Jewish towards Arabs.”
Mere citizenship as such doesn’t count for much: What matters, in an ethnic state, is ethnicity itself, or what the Israeli state calls “nationality.” And this is the category that the state systematically uses to classify and differentiate among its own citizens from the moment of their entry into the official population registry, categorizing each into what—again in the language of international law—constitutes a distinct racial group. Exactly as was the case in apartheid-era South Africa, a range of rights and privileges are granted or withheld, sometimes implicitly but increasingly explicitly, according to a citizen’s racial status—Jewish or not—as identified by the state.
Only Jews (whether citizens or not) have access to national rights in Israel; this was always the case, since the state’s law of nationality (the Law of Return) only applies to Jews (an altogether different law grants Palestinian citizens their own limited status), but the principle was reaffirmed and given constitutional status in the Jewish Nation-State Law of 2018. Again, this really shouldn’t be very complicated or surprising: What else could it possibly mean for a state to claim a single ethnic identity—heralded by the sigils and banners of one religion that form all the official emblems of the state—when people of more than one racial group live in the territory it has controlled for over five decades, or fully three-quarters of its existence as a state?
What is surprising is that a violent racial enterprise could, for so long, be repackaged and sold to liberal Western audiences as a “democracy.” But now the state itself is jettisoning the last pretenses of liberal democracy. “I may be a far-right person, a homophobe, racist, fascist,” admitted Bezalel Smotrich, the new finance minister and head of the Religious Zionism party, in a leaked recording, “but my word is my bond.” His colleague Itamar Ben-Gvir, convicted in 2007 for inciting racism and endorsing Jewish terror attacks on Palestinians but now the minister of state security in the new government, was denied conscription in the Israeli armed forces because even the army—the primary enforcer of Israel’s apartheid regime—found his views too extreme. Now he’s the one quite literally calling the shots.
Smotrich, Ben-Gvir, and others in the new government, including Netanyahu, are no longer interested in the forms of denial that had protected the state for decades, guaranteeing support from Western liberal constituencies and all that talk of “shared values” with which we have become so tediously familiar. They’re not interested in pretending any longer. And they’re not interested in appealing to liberal constituencies around the world, having decided to throw their lot in with the wave of nationalist, xenophobic, militarized, Islamophobic, anti-immigrant forces that have been in and out of power in other countries (the United States, Brazil, India, Hungary, etc).
At one point, from the early 1990s on, liberal supporters of the Zionist project in Palestine could content themselves with the narrative that it is possible to distinguish the “good Israel” that had been established in 1948 (via a process of ethnic cleansing and mass demolition and expulsion that could be repressed from liberal consciousness through a complex series of forms of denial) from the “bad Israel” that followed after 1967.
It seemed possible, in other words, for liberal Zionists to bemoan the explicit and nakedly obvious forms of racism and brutality on evidence in the territories occupied in 1967 while turning a blind eye to the more subtle—but just as effective—forms of racism and brutality taking place in the Israeli state within its pre-1967 outlines. Hence the adamant support for the two-state solution still being expressed to this day in liberal circles in New York and Washington. The only remaining value of the two-state solution—which is why people like Friedman cling to it with such ferocious desperation—lies in its sustenance of the liberal myth that the end of the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem would allow a well-nigh miraculous restoration of the “good Israel” and revitalization of the narrative of the “Jewish and democratic state.”
Today, however, it is becoming more and more difficult to deny and look away from the system of racial discrimination with which Israel manages its relationships with all Palestinians—those in exile, whose right of return has been barred since 1948; those living as second-class citizens of the state; and those living under occupation since 1967 on a sliding scale of increasing oppression, isolation, and violence, from East Jerusalem to the West Bank and finally Gaza.
“Israel has established an apartheid regime that dominates the Palestinian people as a whole,” international legal scholars Virginia Tilley and Richard Falk concluded in their 2017 report on Israeli apartheid published by a branch of the United Nations. “The totality of the regime of laws, policies, and practices,” Amnesty International declared in 2022, “demonstrates that Israel has established and maintained an institutionalized regime of oppression and domination of the Palestinian population for the benefit of Jewish Israelis—a system of apartheid—wherever it has exercised control over Palestinians’ lives since 1948.” Human Rights Watch reached a similar conclusion in its own 2021 report, as did the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, which in a 2021 position paper identified “a regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.”
Even those who somehow manage to look past, around, or right through these recent authoritative investigations, however, are finding it increasingly difficult to find somewhere to settle their gaze given that the Israeli state itself proclaims in explicit terms the exclusive rights of one people in territory inhabited by two—and uses its armed might to enforce that claim of exclusion. They will soon have nowhere to look. Perpetuating the narrative of the two-state solution, as The New York Times and Antony Blinken himself did so recently, is a vain attempt to forestall the inevitable.
A prime example of liberal Zionism’s increasing inability to hide the bankrupt nature of the two-state solution—as well as the fact that apartheid is the permanent and essential feature of the Israeli project—came in January, when Representative Brad Sherman gave a perhaps unintentionally revealing interview to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. In the interview, Sherman all but admitted that the main function served by talk of a two-state solution is to disguise the Israeli presence in the West Bank as merely temporary.
“Disenfranchising, if it’s temporary, is entirely legal,” Sherman said. “If it’s occupied territory, you’re working toward a negotiated two-state solution, then people who aren’t going to be under your sovereignty and aren’t going to be your citizens don’t vote in your elections,” he added. “Once you say out loud that the West Bank is a permanent part of your territory, how do you deprive the people who live there?” If only every liberal supporter of Israel could be so candid.
The facts are clear. The “temporary” deprivation Sherman referred to has gone on for 56 years, and the new Israeli government has indeed stated its “exclusive” claim to the West Bank out loud. The two-state solution is dead; even if there were any remaining uncolonized territory on which to create a Palestinian state, that would do nothing to address the rights of Palestinians living in Israel or in enforced exile. There is only one state—an apartheid state—and liberals are ultimately going to have to choose between admitting their endorsement of a project of militant and violent exclusivism or deciding, finally, to support the Palestinian struggle for justice and equality. And, as the selectively incisive Sherman warned in his recent defense of Israel, “If you don’t want to do a lot of thinking, you just root for the side that looks right.”
Saree Makdisi is a professor of English and comparative literature at UCLA and the author of, among other books, Tolerance is a Wasteland: Palestine and the Culture of Denial