Dialogue Must Acknowledge Israeli Apartheid

Tom Cohn, Contributing Writer

For promoting constructive dialogue on the Israel-Palestine conflict via the Thursday, April 6 “Reclaiming Our Narrative” event, Oberlin Zionists and Africans for Peace deserve everyone’s recognition and gratitude. It was edifying and humbling to hear from Tshepo Ndlovu and Neo Mangope about their experiences as students in South Africa confronting the legacy of apartheid in their country. I hope to honor their message by participating in the conversation.

I will focus my response on AFP’s publication “New Perspectives on Israel and Palestine” from February 16, 2017, distributed at Mudd library and available online. In exposing the publication’s inaccuracies, distortions and inconsistencies, by no means do I accuse anyone in AFP of ill intent. Rather I am concerned they’ve bought into a false narrative that seeks to legitimize the brutality, racism and oppressiveness of Israeli apartheid and settler colonialism in the occupied Palestinian territories.

One of the publication’s most glaring errors is its failure to distinguish the State of Israel from the occupied Palestinian territories. For example, it decries “those who compare the State of Israel to apartheid South Africa” and ubiquitously blames the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement for employing the “analogy of apartheid in Israel.” All of the authors happily report that they visited Israel and witnessed no apartheid, only vibrant democracy, but no one is saying there is apartheid in Israel’s internationally recognized borders. The term is used, however, by Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, many Israeli journalists and even veteran South African anti-apartheid activist Desmond Tutu to apply to the regime imposed on the occupied Palestinian territories. The AFP publication’s core argument is therefore a straw man.

The publication dangerously legitimizes Israeli claims to territory beyond the state’s internationally recognized borders, on the basis of supposed Jewish indigeneity in Palestine — derived from the “uninterrupted presence” of Jews in Palestine for several thousand years, or the historical connection that European Jewish immigrants have with the land. These arguments for Jewish indigeneity, like the entire publication, are replete with ambiguity and hypocrisy. For example, they obviously fail to apply the same criteria for indigeneity to the Muslim and Christian Arabs ethnically cleansed from Palestine.

AFP’s document also claims that “Israel is not a settler state.” Yet former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan claimed to be among a “generation of settlers.” The publication includes the West Bank and Jerusalem as part of Israel and considers even European “descendants of Jewish refugees who were displaced centuries ago” as indigenous to Palestine, claiming they “are back to exercise their inalienable right to self-determination.”

Yet historical connection to land is revealed as a spurious and dangerous justification for territorial conquest in much more extreme examples, including asserted Germanic roots in Slavic territory, Russia and South America among other places, and British pre-colonization claims to North America. Such mythologies are ludicrous and often have deplorable consequences. The same could be said of Zionist settler colonialism.

In this situation, claiming “inalienable right to self-determination” in international law is hypocritical because territorial acquisition by force is blatantly illegal. Moreover, the legitimacy of Israeli claims to occupied Palestinian land is certainly not a question of “fact,” as the publication asserts, and is not recognized as valid by international law or by most of the world.

The publication is also inconsistent in its argument. You cannot both assume the legitimacy of Israel’s territorial conquest while implying the primary driver of the conflict is anti-Semitism. Either the land belongs to the Jewish people and therefore entails displacing the resident Gentile population, or the indigenous Palestinians have no legitimate grievances, only irrational hatred of Jews.

Such inconsistencies are characteristic of Zionist narratives. For example, Israeli diplomat Abba Eban wrote that “one of the chief tasks of any dialogue with the Gentile world is to prove that the distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism is not a distinction at all,” while ardent Zionist historian Benny Morris wrote that “the fear of territorial displacement and dispossession was to be the chief motor of Arab antagonism to Zionism.”

Ambiguity, hypocrisy and inconsistency enable the publication to make absurd claims about the “social stability, modern infrastructure, and economic cooperation between Palestinians and Israelis,” and relative “normalcy of life in the West Bank.” Yet thorough documentation by human rights organizations and the United Nations confirm Morris’ comment that “like all occupations, Israel’s was founded on brute force, repression and fear, collaboration and treachery, beatings and torture chambers, and daily intimidation, humiliation, and manipulation.”

The publication complains of the Palestinian Authority’s “many human rights violations” and “economic and social neglect of Palestinians.” Though it is convenient to point fingers at Palestinian organizations to imply equal blame on both sides, the PA was created so Israel could outsource its repression in the occupied Palestinian territories. All the while, the Gazan economy has been deliberately “kept on the brink of collapse,” according to leaked U.S. State Department cables.

Thus, the PA was never “intended to become a sovereign state” — as the AFP publication states — but a “permanent neocolonial dependency,” as former Israeli diplomat and politician Shlomo Ben-Ami said, and what Yitzhak Rabin called “an entity which is less than a state.” The U.S. and Israel for decades have opposed the international consensus favoring a two-state solution because Palestinian self-determination and statehood interfere with Zionist territorial ambitions.

Meanwhile, all U.N. member nations other than Israel and the United States, with Honduras abstaining, agreed in a 1987 U.N. General Assembly Resolution that “particularly peoples under colonial and racist regimes or other forms of alien domination” may legally struggle for their “inalienable right to self-determination and independence.” Why do we view Palestinian struggle so differently?

Terrorism on both sides is unacceptable, but a study by the National Academy of Sciences concludes that its findings “refute the view that Palestinians are uncontingently violent, showing instead that a significant proportion of Palestinian violence occurs in response to Israeli behavior,” and “suggest that Israeli military actions against Palestinians lead to escalation rather than incapacitation.” The study’s authors also wrote in the Huffington Post that “it is overwhelmingly Israel that kills first after a pause in the conflict.” Re-evaluating responsibility for the conflict is a moral and practical matter. Criticism of Israel’s criminal and discriminatory behavior is not “anti-Israel,” anti-Semitic, or whatsoever opposed to Israel’s right under international law to exist within its own borders. Rather, the Palestinians, like all peoples, deserve to be free.