Israel and Apartheid:
In Defense of Jimmy Carter

by Tony Karon
first printed on his website Rootless Cosmopolitan
reprinted with permission

Nothing makes liberal American supporters of Israel more uncomfortable than the comparison between the circumstances it has imposed on the Palestinians and those that the apartheid regime imposed on black South Africans. That's precisely why it is so important and commendable that Jimmy Carter has tempted the wrath of the Israel lobby and many Jewish-American liberals-in-denial by making that comparison - as he says, it's time Americans took a look at Palestinian life and history, and as any good person of faith or basic humanity would, treat it as of equal value. The point being that Jimmy Carter had to write this book precisely because Palestinian life and history is not accorded equal value in American discourse, far from it. And his use of the word apartheid is not only morally valid; it is essential, because it shakes the moral stupor that allows many liberals to rationalize away the daily, grinding horror being inflicted Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

Or preferably, to avoid discussing it altogether. As Carter notes:

"For the past 30 years, I have witnessed and experienced the severe restraints on any free and balanced discussion of the facts. This reluctance to criticize policies of the Israeli government is due to the extraordinary lobbying efforts of the American-Israel Political Action Committee and the absence of any significant contrary voices. It would be almost politically suicidal for members of Congress to espouse a balanced position between Israel and Palestine, to suggest that Israel comply with international law or to speak in defence of justice or human rights for Palestinians… What is even more difficult to comprehend is why the editorial pages of the major newspapers and magazines in the US exercise similar self-restraint, quite contrary to private assessments expressed forcefully by their correspondents in the Holy Land."

Indeed, you only had to look at the coverage of Carter's book in much of the mainstream media, which focused less on the arguments he presented, than on the - entirely predictable - furor they caused.

Carter makes his intentions clear:

"The ultimate purpose of my book is to present facts about the Middle East that are largely unknown in America, to precipitate discussion and help restart peace talks (now absent for six years) that can lead to permanent peace for Israel and its neighbours. Another hope is that Jews and other Americans who share this goal might be motivated to express their views, even publicly, and perhaps in concert. I would be glad to help with that effort."

This, too, is a welcome intervention. What Carter is doing is challenging a taboo. And as a well-established voice of peace and reason, it's hard to brand him some sort of anti-Semitic Israel basher - although that hasn't restrained hysterics such as Alan Dershowitz and Marty Peretz from doing so.

More disappointing, is the anxious rush to denounce him by such intellectually nimble figures as Slate's Michael Kinsley
, flailing about in search of arguments to dispute the obvious. The apartheid parallel is invalid, says Kinsley, because
" apartheid was founded on an ideology of racial superiority - Israelis teach their children to love everyone as equals whereas Arabs teach their children to hate Jews;
" Israel has Arab citizens that are allowed to vote, but most Jews have been forced to flee Arab countries;
" Israel doesn't have Bantustans;
and, this, my favorite:
" "And the most tragic difference: Apartheid ended peacefully. This is largely thanks to Nelson Mandela, who turned out to be miraculously forgiving. If Israel is white South Africa and the Palestinians are supposed to be the blacks, where is their Mandela?"

Some of these points are too silly to even bother refuting. Carter is careful, conceptually, to apply his apartheid analogy to the West Bank and Gaza, not to Israel itself. His perspective is hardly radical: He is simply setting out to show that despite the popular myth that the absence of peace is a result of Palestinian militancy and terrorism, in fact Israel has not yet shown a willingness to retreat to its internationally recognized boundaries (those of 1967), the basis of a two-state solution. BTW, Mike, apartheid only ended peacefully because the apartheid regime took an historic decision to reverse itself and accept the principle of black majority rule - Mandela's propensity for forgiveness only came into play after that. And if that hadn't happened, Mandela was committed to armed struggle as an essential component of the means of persuasion.

Kinsley defines apartheid as white supremacism plus Bantustans, but that doesn't really get it - the Bantustans meant little in practice; the majority of black people lived in the industrialized cities. And racial ideology was just that - ideology. It didn't describe the lived experience of black people at all. The essence of the system, in fact, was that black people were ruled by an authority over which they had no control or say, like a colonized people, except that their colonizer lived within the same geographic space. (And actually, like many a colonizing power, the white regime was democratic as far as its own social base went, its governments elected and accountable, and governance based on the rule of law - except that its democracy and legality largely excluded black people.) The logic of the system was to physically deny black people access to the spaces occupied by the "colonizing" population, except to the extent that their labor was required - which, of course, was the whole point: It didn't function very effectively precisely because it needed a vast urban black population to run the economy. Here, in fact, is an important difference between Israel and apartheid South Africa - Israel manages with very little Palestinian labor, and as a result the daily intimacy between black and white South Africans created by their economic interaction even at the height of the apartheid system is largely absent in relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel. In South Africa, the fact that black people were driven off their land forced them into wage labor in a common economy; in Israel-Palestine Palestinians have been forced off their land in order to drive them out of a common polity and economy. That, I believe, means that the solution to the conflict in Israel-Palestine will be quite different to that in South Africa, at least in the near term.

But the comparison with the essence of apartheid remains valid - in South Africa, black people lived under the control of a state over which they had no control even as they participated in a shared economy, on the West Bank and Gaza Palestinians live under a state over which they have no control which seeks to keep them out of a shared economy. But in both cases, they found themselves ruled by a state that denied them the rights of a sovereign people. Even now, after it has ostensibly withdrawn from Gaza, Israel still tightly controls Palestinian life there, determining whether the lights work and whether salaries are paid, who may enter and who may leave, and much of the time who will live and who will die. Sure, the Palestinians have an elected government (which the Israelis together with the U.S. are doing their best to subvert), but it isn't allowed to govern - post-pullout Gaza, in fact, looks rather a lot like what the apartheid regime had in mind in its original Bantustan policy: A separate geographic state within which Africans could "exercise their political rights" while still remaining under effective sovereign control of the Pretoria regime. In the West Bank, Israel is the effective political authority, and there it creates restrictions on the movement of Palestinians every bit as odious - if not even more so - than those imposed on black people under apartheid. That's because on the West Bank, Israel is not only maintaining overall sovereign control, as in Gaza, but is also trying to "cleanse" of Palestinians vast swathes of the best land illegally settled since 1967, and the networks of roads that connect them.

Jimmy Carter wants American liberals, who're passionate about Kosovo or Darfur, to consider the plight of the colonized Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza, and discuss their own and America's moral responsibility to those people. Kinsley and countless other commentators want to avoid doing that, which is why they need to convince themselves that the reason the Palestinians don't have a state is that they don't have a Mandela; that instead they had an Arafat - in short, that the Palestinians are to blame for their plight.

I've written at length elsewhere about the bizarre habit of Americans of inventing their own Mandelas that have no relationship to the real one - suffice to point out for our purposes here that Mandela was a guerrilla commander who continued the armed struggle until the apartheid regime was ready to concede peacefully to the principle of black majority rule, so one wonders what, in fact, Michael Kinsley imagines a Palestinian Mandela would do. Parsing this question a few years ago in a column, I concluded thus: "Of course, the Israelis would be wrong to think a Palestinian leader who was more like Mandela would be more pliant. Quite the contrary. They'd find it a lot harder to conclude a deal with a Mandela, or any leader of more democratic bent than Arafat. But in the end, they'd be able to rest a lot more assured that such a deal would hold."

Curiously enough, when Nelson Mandela visited Gaza in 1999, he warned that in order for Israel to achieve peace and security, it would have to withdraw from all occupied territories, including the Golan Heights. "It is a realization of a dream for me to be here to come and pledge my solidarity with my friend Yasser Arafat," Mandela said, and told the Palestinian legislature that "the histories of our two peoples correspond in such painful and poignant ways that I intensely feel myself at home amongst my compatriots."

And you'd think that more than two years after Arafat's death, people would start to feel a little silly blaming him for the fact that there's no peace - especially at a moment when the Bush Administration is doing its best to get Mahmoud Abbas to govern in exactly the ways it denounced Arafat for doing, taking personal control of finances and security forces, ignoring elected institutions etc.
Jimmy Carter doesn't say this, of course, but I have a strong suspicion that many - although far from all, and I'm not even sure who's in the majority - Jewish liberals in America have an emotional block on confronting the ugly side of Israel. Let's just say that if the occupiers and settlers of the West Bank and Gaza were Orthodox Christians, or Confucians or Muslims, I'd venture to suggest that the moral outrage over the plight of the Palestinians would be far more universal than it currently is. (Nor is this a uniquely American phenomenon - I've long marveled at the fact that people are who are capable of a strong, objective morally sound critique of just about every human rights abuse everywhere else in the world suddenly become evasive, or even turn into Avigdor Lieberman when the issue is the Palestinians.)

Just don't talk about the war… Menachem Begin, Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin feting South Africa's unrepentant Nazi Prime Minister B.J. Vorster at the Knesset in 1976
A digression: I'll admit that growing up as a Jewish liberal in South Africa, I somehow managed to convince myself that apartheid had nothing to do with us, that Jews were somehow automatically in the anti-apartheid column - it was a lot easier to do this in light of the rabid anti-Semitism of the ruling National Party, whose leaders had actively sympathized with the Nazis. Even then, it wasn't true; evidence to the contrary was everywhere: Israel was, together with Pinochet's Chile, the closest foreign ally of the regime, and in 1976, it welcomed the unrepentant Nazi, Prime Minister John Vorster (who had spent time in an internment camp during the war after being captured running sabotage operations under the direction of the Nazi intelligence service) on a state visit, and even took him to Yad Vashem! Activists of my wing of the Zionist youth movement, the socialist-inclined Habonim, protested, and were told to shut up by the senior leadership of the SA Zionist Federation. The following year, one of the leading lights of the Likud-aligned Revisionist bloc that dominated the SAZF, Abe Hoppenstein, stood for parliament on the National Party ticket.

Then, one of my early forays into campus activism took me, along with some friends, one afternoon, to Herzliah, Cape Town's Jewish high school, to distribute leaflets explaining why black students were on strike across the city. Waiting for the final bell to sound to dismiss the students for the day, a fat, bald mustachioed man came lumbering towards me. I immediately recognized Brenner, my downstairs neighbor. We didn't like each other much, but all I was expecting from him was his customary disapproving grunt. Then I saw the gun in his hand. "I'll take those," said Brenner, grabbing our leaflets. "Now, get in your car and follow me, and if you run away, I know where to find you…" He gestured at us with the revolver, while flashing his police reservist's ID. He drove us down to Caledon Square, and delivered us into the hands of Captain "Spyker" van Wyk, a notorious security police torturer. "Spyker" quickly realized we were minnows and knew nothing of interest to him, and after six hours we were sent home with chilling warnings to stay out of politics. But the experience taught me that Jews were just as capable as anyone else of doing the apartheid regime's dirty work - I later learned that the prosecutor who tried to have Mandela hanged, Percy Yutar, fit the same bill, trying to show the regime that some Jews could be "trusted" - after all, the three white men in the dock along with Mandela were all Jewish, too. (My kind of Jews!) I learned that there was nothing about inherited Jewishness that precluded anyone from doing evil; every Jew in South Africa faced inescapable moral choices.
I have spent my subway commute this winter reading Paul Kriwaczek's sweeping history Yiddish Civilization, a must-read and endlessly revealing tale of the years between the Roman Empire and the collapse of the heym. And one observation about early Jewish life in the Ukraine jumped out at me for its relevance both to the experience of Jews in South Africa, and of the Israeli experience, particularly after 1967.

Kriwaczek, in a prelude to his explanation of the notorious Cossack pogrom of mid-18th century Ukraine, explains the fraught relationship between the Polish nobility, the Ukrainian peasantry and the Cossack warlords, and the way Jews were inserted into that complex and unfortunate web. Polish nobles who had feudal ownership over the Ukrainian villages began renting them to Jewish entrepreneurs. These frontier moneymen were now "owners" of the land and feudal labor of the Ukrainian peasantry, and were inclined, as market forces dictated, to extract as much surplus as they could. At the same time, Jews had long been used by the Polish nobles as their tax collectors and bailiffs, making them the on-the-ground presence of an oppressive feudal system under which the peasants chafed. It was a moral disaster, writes Kriwaczek:

The alliance between ruthless Polish nobles and insecure Yiddish frontiersmen proved dangerous and destructive. The Jews now held a position that nothing in their background or religious law had properly prepared them for. They had been placed in authority over another people, of another social order, another culture and another religion, a people of whom the [Polish noble] magnates, the Jews' masters, regarded as racially inferior and fair game for callous exploitation. Tragically, shaking off the restraining influence of the wise [Rabbinical] counsel of the West, the repeated warnings of the rabbis of metropoiltan Cracow, Posen and Lublin, the Yiddish businessmen who flocked to the colony came to reagard the peasantry in a similar contemptuous light.

The parts I emphasized in italics could as well have been applied to many of the Jews arriving in already colonially-segregated South Africa in the first three decades of the last century. And, of course, to Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

Indeed, Jimmy Carter wasn't the first person to raise the idea in my head that what Israel had created in the West Bank and Gaza is an apartheid situation. Back in January of 1979, when he was still in the White House, I was in Israel, living and working on Kibbutz Yizreel for about six weeks, fervently committed to making aliyah myself. Yizreel, in the Jezreel Valley, was home to a number of graduates of South African Habonim. And I vividly remember a discussion they started with us one afternoon, about the policy of building Israeli settlements in the West Bank that the new Likud government was encouraging. The South African-Israelis saw the continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza as a disaster for Israel and for their own progressive version of Zionism. And they recognized that the settlements were a calculated strategy by Begin and Sharon to create "facts on the ground" that would make handing it back impossible. "And so," one summarized, "you have a situation where Israel now has control over more than 3 million Palestinians. If it annexes the West Bank, they become citizens of Israel, and Israel quickly loses its Jewish majority. So that's not an option. But the settlement policy makes it more and more difficult for Israel to envisage letting go of the territories. So what are you left with? An apartheid situation." Of course. To anyone who had lived in South Africa, it was blindingly obvious.