The meaning of Apartheid for Israel

A shuttered Palestinian shop in Al-Khalil-Hebron that was closed by the Israeli military (Lauren Surface)

Jonathan Ofir

Mondoweiss  /  October 19, 2021

Abolishing Israeli Apartheid means abolishing Zionism and burying the idea of Jewish supremacy, which stands at the core of Zionism itself.

It is autumn. Leaves fall and the fruits ripen. What has been growing since the beginning of the year matures and falls to the ground.

Early this year, two major reports on Israeli Apartheid from prominent human rights organizations – the Israeli B’Tselem and the international Human Rights Watch (HRW) – appeared. B’Tselem in January, titled “A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is apartheid”; then HRW in April, a report titled “A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution”.

The Israeli media was quite silent about this, and no wonder – denial has been the main tool by which Zionism has carried out its colonialist atrocities. First denying Palestinian existence (Yisrael Zangvil’s 1894 “a land without a people for a people without a land”  and Golda Meir’s 1969 “there were no such things as Palestinians.. they did not exist”), then denying their return after having ethnically cleansed them.

This is the preferred Zionist approach – pretend that they don’t exist. Fighting something frontally is usually more time and energy consuming than denying its existence and burying it under the sand, like the 230 bodies of the Tantura massacre of 1948 buried in a mass grave under the parking lot of kibbutz Nachsholim’s Dor Beach. And if you are Israeli historian Benny Morris, you can advocate for a complete ethnic cleansing of the “whole Land of Israel, as far as the Jordan River”, and then pretend you never said ethnic cleansing.

Because this aspect of denial is so great and so strong in Zionism, it is important not only to face it with reality, but also to allow the truth space and time to sink in. And if 73 years were not enough, this year hammered it in: Israel is an Apartheid state.

I am not going to go over the countless details which make it so. I would rather contemplate the meaning of this for Israel – beyond its denial and its desperate countering of evidence and data with propaganda and accusations of “antisemitism”. For the Zionist deniers, it comes down to the simple question: what if they’re right, what if Israel is an Apartheid state?

Israel has no ready escape from it. It is so deeply entrenched in this Apartheid, that a dismantling of it appears as viable as a dismantling of the Zionist dream of Jewish supremacy in a land largely cleansed of non-Jews. While B’Tselem and HRW do not take on Zionism as an ideology (since they relate to policy developments), Zionism is implicitly condemned here – because the policies came from somewhere, they didn’t just happen. And that somewhere is Zionism. The Zionist greed for the land was so great, that it couldn’t but “complete the job” in 1967 and take over the rest of historical Palestine. It wasn’t an accident. The Zionist wish to “liberate the entire country”, as David Ben-Gurion wrote to his son Amos in 1937, was always very strong. And then, when they conquered the rest of it, they started pretending that it’s only temporary.

And so the “peace process” went, where Israel was supposedly speaking about a “two-state solution” but really meaning Bantustans for Palestinians.  

Even the most vociferous Israeli calls for “divorce” and “separation” from Palestinians are based in this same racist Apartheid mindset, as if forgetting that Apartheid means “separateness”.

Israelis want a make-believe situation, like with the 2005 “disengagement” from Gaza, where they say to themselves that the occupation is over. Everyone knows that leaving an open-air prison, throwing away the key and besieging it by land water and air is not “disengagement”, it’s not the end of occupation and it’s certainly not peace – neither is it the end of Apartheid.

For most Palestinians, I believe, none of this is new. Those who have been ethnically cleansed and denied return, know very well that Israel is an Apartheid state – even if it wasn’t defined that way 73 years ago, that’s what it was for them. “Inhumane acts of a character [similar to other crimes against humanity] 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” – that’s the definition of the Crime of Apartheid by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Palestinians have known this inhumanity for many decades, and they don’t need a lecture about it.

But Israelis, most of whom are Zionists, as well as many other Zionists around the world, they need this lecture, and this point needs to sink in – Israel is an Apartheid state.

Now, there will be many apologists who will try to argue that it didn’t have to end up like this – that it could have been different, if only. If only the “Arabs” didn’t “miss an opportunity”, if only they had taken the “generous offers”. For these deniers, the essential point is to blame it on Palestinians – they could have changed their fate and are therefore to blame for it. If there’s Apartheid, they brought it upon themselves.

It is very possible that these deniers will die with their denial, never turning to see their own racist projection in the eye. But even with all the blame game, there is the reality, once again: Israel is an Apartheid state.

And those deniers, they know quite well, that it wasn’t the Palestinians who ethnically cleansed themselves, neither was it the Palestinians who erased their own villages, and neither is it the Palestinians who build colonialist settlements to dispossess themselves from their own towns, villages and fields. It is Israel, the Zionist Jewish state that does that, it is the state which creates the facts on the ground that make the Apartheid more and more irreversible.

The Zionist hope is that this will somehow work out with time: that the backlash will disappear, that Palestinian presence will somehow be reduced, that Palestinian resistance will somehow recede, that “normalization” despite Apartheid will somehow become prominent with time, and that peace will grow atop the Apartheid. But from this mass Palestinian grave, the evidence keeps appearing.  “We have tended to the mass grave, and everything is in order”, said the Israeli military report after the Tantura massacre (9th June). “After eight days, I came back to the place where we buried them, near the railway. There was a big mound for the bodies had inflated”, said the report by Mordechai Sokoler and Yosef Graf – both guides from Zichron Yaakov accompanying the Haganah Alexandroni units who carried out the massacre. These things don’t just disappear with time. They tend to tell their tales for many years to come, even after the bodies have become bones and are no longer inflating in the heat.

Yes, it may have been different. But it was also predictable that it would go like this. If you covet a land which is occupied by actual people who have lived there as a coherent and thriving society for centuries, if you deny their humanity and even their existence and subject them to the worst of atrocities and then deny you did it – is it any wonder that it’s not just hunky-dory? Is it a wonder that your state is not really the “only democracy” and that it is in fact an Apartheid state?

None of it is a wonder for those who have seen Zionism for its institutional colonialist nature, beyond the romanticism of “return” and supposed “Jewish democracy”. But for those who have been romantic about Zionism, this may be a time for turning.

And there is a way out – both ideologically as well as practically.

While Zionism doesn’t seem to be able to escape its colonialist thrust, there is a way out of Apartheid, and it’s so simple that it’s often dismissed as naive. Offering equal rights in a secular state without discrimination. That short sentence is the antidote to Apartheid. Incidentally, all of the items in it are diametrically opposed to Zionism. I have long opined that Zionism is Apartheid. Abolishing Apartheid thus effectively means abolishing Zionism and burying the idea of Jewish supremacy, which, for all the sugar-coating, stands at the core of Zionism.  

This is what Zionists will want to avoid. That’s why they’ll seek to discredit or ignore the Apartheid reports. That’s why they will fight the ICC. That’s why they’ll call those who point out the crimes “antisemites”. They will not want to give up the privilege. Because, as Frederick Douglass famously said, “power concedes nothing without a demand…it never did and it never will” – and the Zionists do not see the demand as strong enough at the moment. They seek to fight it and weaken it instead keeping the privilege and power. They’ll criminalize the fight against it. This is where moral arguments can go no further. While morals and humanity must be an instructor for those who stand for them, those who seek to actually change the paradigm and mark an end to Israeli Apartheid must use means and policies which will weaken the Apartheid state, and it can’t be just words. Those means are known: Boycotts, divestment, and sanctions. Let the deniers of Apartheid stand on their heels with indignation – their protest is only predictable. They are fighting to maintain their privilege. The fight to end Apartheid is so much more meaningful.

One day, after Israeli Apartheid is abolished, many of these people will come and say how they opposed it and how they didn’t like it. If they really expect to end it now without BDS, they are dreaming, and they are kidding everyone including themselves. This really is no time for jokes, it’s dead serious: Israel is an Apartheid state.  

Jonathan Ofir is an Israeli musician, conductor and blogger/writer based in Denmark