Why liberal Zionist groups won’t say ‘apartheid’

(Maya Alleruzzo - AP)

Mari Cohen & Alex Kane

Jewish Currents  /  February 10, 2022

Pressed for specific disagreements with the use of the term, leaders of several prominent Jewish organizations focused on how its application might alienate their constituencies.

In a major report released last week, Amnesty International formally accused Israel of committing the crime of “apartheid” in its treatment of Palestinians. Mainstream Jewish groups wasted no time denouncing the human rights group’s report in strident terms. Six of the most influential Jewish, Zionist organizations in the country—including the Anti-Defamation League, AIPAC, and the Jewish Federations of North America—came together for a rare joint statement to argue that the report was “biased,” “demonize[d]” Israel, and would “fuel” antisemitism.

For Jewish groups that identify as liberal Zionist, on the other hand, figuring out how to respond to the report proved more complicated. Such groups tend to consider themselves forceful critics of the occupation, and to agree with many of Amnesty’s findings—yet they remain disinclined to use the word “apartheid” to describe the situation on the ground in Israel/Palestine. The organizations’ formal statements on the report differed in their choice of emphasis: Groups like T’ruah, J Street, and Americans for Peace Now (APN), which focus principally on the human rights abuses that characterize Israel’s military occupation, used the occasion of the Amnesty report to denounce Israeli rule over Palestinians in the occupied territories, and cautioned that a disagreement over terminology should not distract from the substance of the report. Others, such as the New York Jewish Agenda (NYJA) and the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), spent the bulk of their statements denouncing Amnesty’s report as an attempt to delegitimize Israel, while also calling for an end to the occupation.

The varying statements dramatized the fact that liberal Zionist groups now outwardly find themselves at odds with a growing number of prominent human rights organizations—including Israeli human rights groups like Yesh Din and B’Tselem—on the use of the term “apartheid.” For reasons both substantive and strategic, they are attempting to remain in more comfortable terrain: calling for an end to the occupation. But when pressed for specific disagreements with the use of the term “apartheid” in interviews, leaders of several of the progressive or liberal Zionist organizations seemed unwilling or unable to name reasons why it was factually incorrect, focusing instead on how its application might be alienating to their constituencies.

Rather than rebutting the specifics of the Amnesty report, APN, T’ruah, and J Street reserved their harshest criticism for fellow Jewish groups that, they said, were creating a distraction by smearing Amnesty as antisemitic. For example, in its statement, APN wrote that American Jewish groups should direct their attention to the demolition of Palestinian homes, and the violence perpetrated by Israeli settlers, rather than debating the use of the term “apartheid.”

T’ruah wrote that “those truly dedicated to a just, negotiated resolution to the conflict should spend less effort on media outrage over human rights reports and more time working to end the occupation,” while J Street directed its ire at “supporters of Israel who pour time, energy and resources into attacking anti-occupation activists and human rights organizations,” which, they said, failed “to address the very real threat to Israel’s future posed by never-ending occupation.”

Yet even these modest defenses of Amnesty put these groups in an awkward position, since none has adopted or endorsed the use of the term apartheid. Hadar Susskind, the president of APN, said it’s not in his organization’s remit to litigate whether Israel is guilty of the crime of apartheid. “Americans for Peace Now is not a legal organization. We don’t have human rights and international law experts. It would be meaningless, frankly, for us to say it’s apartheid,” Susskind said in an interview. But, expressing a sentiment that was echoed in a number of interviews with leaders of liberal Zionist organizations, he also questioned whether the use of the word apartheid was strategic. “I don’t think, writ large, it’s very effective,” said Susskind. “I just think that it ends up pushing more people out of the conversation.” Rabbi Jill Jacobs, the CEO of T’ruah, expressed similar concerns. “We’re just really focused on the human rights situation there,” she said. “There’s not a reason to sit around and argue about the words that we use. We’re more interested in actually changing the situation for the better.” (Disclosure: Jacobs sits on Jewish Currents’s advisory board.)

Similarly, J Street’s statement acknowledged that the report “shines another bright spotlight on the injustice of Israel’s occupation and the illegality of deepening de facto annexation of the territory it has occupied since 1967”—but it included the caveat that the organization does not endorse the “findings or recommendations of the report” or use the term “apartheid” to describe the situation in Israel/Palestine. When asked for more specifics about objections to the report and the term, a spokesperson for J Street said that the statement should speak for itself, but suggested that the group’s disagreement with the term “apartheid” is based on a strategic desire to avoid getting sucked into a contentious debate over its use.

This choice sparked debate among J Street’s members. Joy Hill, a member of J Street’s National Leadership Circle, a group of donors, told Jewish Currents that upon reading the statement, she wrote to the organization’s leadership email listserv—which includes various donors, staff, board members, and local leaders—to criticize J Street for being wishy-washy. Her email prompted a lively discussion, she said. She disagrees with J Street’s strategic calculation. “I think J Street cares about what it can achieve in the current political climate. The current political climate is that a lot of people have a knee-jerk reaction to the word ‘apartheid,’” she said. “But the more ‘moderate,’ ‘legitimate’ sources that use it, the easier it’s going to be to move the government to be accountable. I have been working with J Street long enough to remember when the word occupation was still not cool to use if you wanted to build power with moderates.”

Some of the liberal Zionist groups did take issue with a number of the report’s substantive claims. In particular, several criticized Amnesty for including in the report the events of 1948, when an estimated 750,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes by Zionist militias and, following Israel’s declaration of independence, the Israeli army. These Palestinians were barred from returning because they are not Jewish. In its statement, T’ruah said it does not “agree with the report’s assertion that Israel has carried out a system of apartheid since its establishment, nor do we agree that Israel is entirely responsible for the bloody events of 1948 or for the welfare of Palestinian refugees living in other countries.” Rabbi Josh Weinberg, the URJ’s vice president for Israel and Reform Zionism, said in an interview that as a Zionist, he felt “attacked” by this feature of the report. “This isn’t just, ‘Israel has erected checkpoints,’ which I don’t think Zionists would disagree with,” he said. “This is about how having a Jewish ethnic nation state founded in 1948 is the definition of apartheid and is illegal.”

In an interview, Paul O’Brien, executive director of Amnesty USA, stressed that Amnesty does not take political positions on the legitimacy or illegitimacy of any state, and that the report does not claim that Israel was an apartheid state in 1948—especially since the word apartheid did not even become part of international law until 1965. But, he said, the organization believes that referring back to 1948 is necessary to establish crucial context in the report. The “policies and practices” Israel erected in 1948 to protect “the ability of the Jewish people to have a state” created conditions that later developed into aspects of Israel’s apartheid, he said.

At least two Jewish groups that identify as liberal Zionist criticized the report in more overarching terms. One was the URJ, which represents the largest—as well as what is typically considered the most progressive—of the major Jewish denominations in the US, and which was forceful in its condemnation of Amnesty International. The group called Amnesty’s report “replete with discredited and inaccurate allegations,” said the apartheid accusation was “wrong,” and charged that the human rights group didn’t understand the “history, context, and nuance of the situation.” Weinberg told Jewish Currents that one of his biggest concerns about the use of the term of apartheid is that he believes it may not be appropriate to describe Palestinians as a “racial group” experiencing discrimination, an aspect of the international definition of the term. “I’m not sure the occupation, however terrible it is, is based on definitions of race and ethnicity. I think it’s national and political,” he said. (In the report, Amnesty acknowledged that defining a racial group is challenging, especially given the subjective nature of the category, but argued that “the laws of Israel perceive and treat Palestinians as a separate and inferior group,” and that “this status is treated as an immutable characteristic,” fulfilling the definition of a racial group under international law.)

The NYJA, whose advocacy work focuses on New York City and state politics, also strongly criticized the report: Its statement said that the report “labels Israel an apartheid state in a manner that undermines Israel’s existence as the democratic nation state of the Jewish people affording equal rights to all its citizens.” The statement added that NYJA specifically disagreed with Amnesty’s application of the word “apartheid” to both the situation in the occupied territories and the situation within Israel’s pre-1967 territory—a feature that sets the report apart from a Human Rights Watch report released last year, which said the “apartheid” designation applied solely to the occupied territories. “By using the term ‘apartheid’ to describe the entire state of Israel itself, Amnesty International undercuts its credibility and misrepresents the rights, participation, and freedoms—provided under Israel’s Declaration of Independence—of Palestinians and other minorities living in Israel,” NYJA said. (O’Brien echoed the report’s findings that the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the area within Israel’s 1948 borders Israel are “all part of a coherent system of oppression and domination,” even if the exact legal rights and forms of discrimination experienced by Palestinians in each area vary.)

In an interview, Matt Nosanchuk, president of the NYJA, conceded that the report’s description of the conditions Palestinians live under is “not inaccurate,” stressing that his organization’s issue was particularly with the term “apartheid.” Nosanchuk also had strategic concerns about the use of the term to describe Israeli rule. “It’s very hard for many American Jews to listen when the overall framework is challenging their beliefs and commitment to their core,” he said. “If we want to move toward ending the occupation, the question that people have to ask themselves is, in describing the conditions, are there ways to do it that enable others to hear, or [does it just] deepen the divide?”

Palestinian American analyst Yousef Munayyer pushed back against those concerns, saying that it was important for groups to accurately characterize reality on the ground in Israel/Palestine, whether or not a term is divisive. “There’s something fundamentally un-strategic about being dishonest about the situation and allowing the politics of a particular community or coalition to guide how clear we’re going to be in reflecting the reality on the ground, instead of letting the facts speak for themselves,” he said.

Amnesty, for its part, continues to stress that its finding of apartheid was not a political statement, but rather the result of a fact-based process in which the organization analysed evidence on the ground in light of international human rights standards. “The international legal standard of apartheid is met,” said O’Brien. “We recognize the word has emotional connotations, but that’s not the perspective that Amnesty is going to use to drive whether we look at the international standard or not. That’s what it is, what it should be called. The evidentiary base for all of the elements of the crime is there.”

Mari Cohen is an assistant editor at Jewish Currents

Alex Kane is a senior reporter for Jewish Currents