Liberal Zionists ignore ‘apartheid regime’ report because it points to BDS

Vienna, Austria (Cornelia Mitter)

Philip Weiss & Joshua Gold

Mondoweiss  /  January 27, 2021

It has been two weeks since the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem released a bombshell report stating that Israel is an apartheid regime, from the river to the sea. As Hagai El-Ad of B’Tselem put it, on January 12:

Israel is not a democracy that has a temporary occupation attached to it: it is one regime between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, and we must look at the full picture and see it for what it is: apartheid.

There is not a single square inch in the territory Israel controls where a Palestinian and a Jew are equal. This is apartheid.

These statements were a bombshell because an Israeli group led by Jews said this at last, one held in high regard by American liberals. We are used to Palestinians being ignored when they say as much, and Jimmy Carter too. And the former chancellor of Brown University. This time, even CNN reported on the report fairly, and the report has gotten a lot of attention, though the New York Times is silent.

Jewish Voice for Peace has been extremely forthright about the apartheid report, patiently laying out the law and the parallels to South African apartheid. And it has gone further by highlighting the writings of Dr. Lana Tatour, who insists the accurate apartheid analogy is not enough in and of itself, hammering home the argument that Israel is also in its entirety a settler colony.

At The Nation, Mitchell Plitnick says the report has political impact: the Biden administration will have to face the facts, Israel is an apartheid regime.

B’Tselem makes a strong case, one that will be a difficult for the Biden administration to ignore. The organization’s reputation, and its identity as an Israeli rights group, will make it more difficult for American leaders to dismiss the group’s characterization.

Nonetheless, it is likely that Biden’s first inclination will be to ignore this change. There will certainly be attacks on both B’Tselem’s position and the organization itself, both within Israel and in the United States. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has in the past publicly attacked B’Tselem, and his ambassador to the United Nations called B’Tselem’s Executive Director Hagai El Ad a “collaborator” in response to El Ad’s testimony before that body in 2018. Such attacks are sure to be harsher now, and they will likely be echoed by Israel’s supporters in the United States, supporters who are very much a bipartisan group.

Therein lies the problem: it appears that B’Tselem is being ignored by the liberal gatekeepers of official discussion. Liberal Zionists could be giving oxygen to the charge. They are obviously hoping it goes away. The silence of Liberal Zionists in the face of Apartheid is deafening.

The Jewish Forward newspaper has not even covered the report. (Just like the NYT; note that its editor is a former New York Times correspondent in Israel.)

Americans for Peace Now has at least mentioned the report:

If you care about Israel and Palestine, you need to read this. If you care about democracy, you need to read this. You may not like it. You may not agree with it. But you need to read what @HagaiElAd and @btselem have to say.

That materially is, at best, an equivocation.

Democratic Majority for Israel would prefer to talk about Martin Luther King’s support for Israel. And AIPAC (which has many adherents in the Democratic Party) has of course said nothing.

J Street, the avowed alternative to AIPAC – and strong supporter of the Iran deal – has similarly been mum on the B’Tselem report – even though in the past they have hosted B’Tselemcited other B’Tselem reports, and in 2016 said Israel should “listen to B’Tselem” not marginalize it.

These Israel lobby groups are in a bind because in the wake of the report it’s all but impossible to call yourself both progressive and pro-Israel, as J Street and many other groups do. And, if you acknowledge that Israel is practicing apartheid, you are in essence endorsing BDS. Because apartheid is a crime against humanity, and as was the case with apartheid South Africa, one’s duty is to support Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.

No wonder that Democratic Majority for Israel is now working hard to try to change the discussion from “apartheid” to “antisemitism,” saying that BDS is antisemitic. And even J Street has said that BDS must be seen “in the context of rising antisemitism.” 

Liberal Zionist organizations have settled on a policy of focusing on the “occupation,” as if the problem is only what Israel is doing on the east side of the Green Line. Peace Now in Israel slams the latest settlement expansion in the West Bank for eroding “the possibility of an I-P peace in the long-term” and for putting “Israel on a collision course with the incoming Biden administration.” Ori Nir of Americans for Peace Now does the good work of publicizing settler attacks on Palestinians, but avoids the overall issue raised by the report: a government that has different rules for two groups based on ethnicity/religion is apartheid.

The day B’Tselem came out with its news, J Street put out its own report on the some Israelis working against the “absurdity and humiliation” of Palestinian life under occupation. It spotlighted Machsom Watch, one of “the amazing Israeli groups who share our vision and our values, and who work to build and preserve a liberal, democratic society underpinned by the principles of equality, freedom, justice and peace.” Not a word about “apartheid.”

On social media, J Street is organizing support for a return to the Iran deal, praising Biden for restoring aid to Palestinians, and keeping up the mantra of the two-state solution, which Tony Blinken says is “the only way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish, democratic state and to give the Palestinians the state to which they’re entitled.”

Again, nothing about apartheid.

Caught in the middle here is the young Jewish group IfNotNow. IfNotNow is dedicated to ending US Jewish groups’ support for “the Israeli occupation” and it does a good job of calling out atrocities in the West Bank

To its credit, in the wake of the apartheid report, IfNotNow has been talking about apartheid. It has retweeted Hagai El-Ad’s commentary on apartheid. It retweeted Nathan Thrall explaining his important new piece in the London Review of Books. “It is apartheid,” Thrall says. “A 53-year-old occupation is not ‘temporary.’  The permanent occupation and the Israeli settlements are not somewhere ‘outside’ Israel. A state that denies basic civil rights to millions from one ethnic group is not a democracy. It’s apartheid.”

IfNotNow has used the word apartheid for the West Bank.

Unless we in the United States forcefully reject Israel’s illegal settlement expansion, Israel will continue de facto annexing Palestinian lands, cementing the apartheid status quo

The challenge to IfNotNow is, What are they going to do to “forcefully reject” the expansion of settlements? The left-wing discussion is out in front of the young Jewish group. As Ilhan Omar and Marc Lamont Hill demonstrate, Palestinians have an answer: BDS. IfNotNow is inching up to BDS by calling for the conditioning of aid to Israel and supporting Ilhan Omar in her defense of BDS against an attack by the Democratic Majority for Israel.

“We demand accountability for those flouting international law,” IfNotNow writes. And:

How can the new Biden administration stop runaway Israeli settlement expansion? Leverage the billions in annual US military aid to Israel.

That’s good but they can go further! For a Jewish tradition of social justice that was all but built through struggles for labour rights, it is an utter shame to see the near unanimous Jewish liberal/ left rejection of the Palestinian Picket Line that is BDS. 

Philip Weiss is senior editor of Mondoweiss.net and founded the site in 2005-2006

Joshua Gold is a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, and of the DSA, and is an Economics major at Florida Atlantic University