The Cape Argus op-ed ‘Israel’s apartheid label is a slanderous fabrication’ by South African Zionist Federation chairman, Ben Levitas, is in urgent need of an unemotive response.
His shrill notion that the Israeli Apartheid Week (which creates awareness about Israeli apartheid) is a ‘sinister’ event is laughable. His piece, characterised by sweeping statement, is not only a case of semantic subterfuge, but a neat sidestep of the facts surrounding the issue.
His mantra that Israel is stigmatised because of a difference to its neighbours, and that those objecting to Israeli policies want to deny Israelis human rights, is rhetorical mirage. Surely the whole point of the IAW is to bring Israel back to an awareness of human rights?
What Mr Levitas defends so passionately is a utopian Zionist notion of Israel; this without ever being specific about what he is defending it against. At best, he can infer that what has happened in Israel is not like South African apartheid.
This is, of course, true. Israel is not South Africa. And whilst as South Africans we are painfully conscious of Israeli discriminatory practices against Palestinians, it has to be remembered that in terms of international law, apartheid enjoys a generic definition.
This process began in the UN in 1973 when apartheid was declared a crime against humanity with a scope that went beyond South Africa. This was further re-inforced by the additional protocol to the Geneva Convention of 1977 designating apartheid as a war crime.
The Rome Statutes of 2002 enabled the International Criminal Court to have jurisdiction over apartheid crimes, although it cannot prosecute retrospectively beyond its inception date.
Generically, apartheid has been defined as ‘any inhumane act committed for the purpose of maintaining domination’ by one racial group over any other racial group through systematic oppression. It’s as simple as that, its clauses categorising what has been described above.
What Mr Levitas so conveniently forgets to mention is that the very foundational principle of the modern Zionist state he defends was based on exclusive Jewish ethnicity. He also fails to recall that the Zionist project was from its outset a secular response to events in Europe and Russia.
There is absolutely nothing sacred about the formation of modern Israel. It is well-known that the founding father of Zionism, Theodore Herzl, harboured no religious impulses. He even refused to circumcise his son, and the rabbis of Jerusalem declared him an infidel when he visited Palestine.
Furthermore, Max Nordau – co-founder of the World Zionist Organisation – even declared the Torah ‘repulsive’, saying that Herzl’s Der Judenstat would replace it. This saw the rabbis of Europe condemning Zionism, saying an ethnic Jewish state in Palestine would even rob Judaism of its messianic expectancy.
It is a fact that Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, wanted Jewish political domination at any cost – giving birth to the notorious Plan Dalet (hatched in Tel Aviv’s Red Building in March 1948) that expressly mooted the forced removal of non-Jews from towns and villages.
It is also fact that, according to UN figures, two-thirds of the indigenous Palestinian population were violently exiled. It is a fact too that the UN Partition Decision of 1947 was ignored and that before 1948 – and the declaration of the Jewish state – over 50% of Palestinians had already been displaced.
The Israeli political scientist, Prof Ilan Pappe, has openly used the term ‘ethnic cleansing’. But whatever way one looks at it, an inhumane act – generically apartheid – was committed by political Zionists to give one particular group domination over another. This is how Israel came to be – at the expense of nearly a million Palestinians.
Since 1948, Israeli exclusivity – defended by the moral exceptionalism of its allies in Europe and the US – has been the norm. Even in 1948 Israel, Arabs have always found themselves to be second-class citizens. With less job opportunities than Jewish-Israelis their annual earnings are well below the national average.
There are no ‘Jews only’ signs stencilled on to park benches, granted, but I challenge Mr Levitas to see what would happen if an Arab from Umm ul-Fahm were to try and lease an apartment in Tel Aviv, or to apply for a job in the civil service.
Then Mr Levitas needs to visit the Knesset building to see how many discriminatory laws have been passed against Israeli-Arabs in the past five years (over 40), and whether the Negev Arabs can farm on their ancestral land (they can’t).
I defy Mr Levitas to personally visit the West Bank, dramatically shrunken in size by the apartheid wall. Towns are surrounded by 8 metre barriers, and whilst about 400,000 settlers water their lawns with water poached from Palestinian aquifers, Arab farmers watch their orchards die – this after the uprooting of over 500,00 olive trees. Is this not discrimination?
In Hebron Arabs face the Kafka-esque scenario of an occupation within an occupation – about 600 belligerent, fundamentalist European settlers squatting illegally in the historic town. In Gaza, nearly two million people fester in the world’s largest outdoor prison, the misery induced by Israel who has besieged the territory. I would like anyone to try and endure a humid Gaza summer, characterised by Israeli water cuts.
I challenge Mr Levitas to drive around Israel, away from the neo-European suburbia of Tel Aviv and Haifa, and to see that even on the roads segregation is practised against Palestinian drivers.
Mr Levitas needs to realise that by calling Israel tolerantly ‘multi-ethnic’, he is indulging in camouflage. Whilst amongst Jewish-Israelis there is meant be a subsuming of cultural identity for a greater Israeli one, the reality is totally different. For even within Israeli society there is widespread discrimination, the black-skinned African Falashas last in the social pecking order.
Pointing to neighbouring Arab territories, as Mr Levitas does ad nauseam, serves no purpose in the debate of whether Israel is guilty of apartheid. The path to harmony, human rights, safety and security is through positive engagement, and not maintenance of the status quo.