Beyond Discrimination: Apartheid is a Colonial Project and Zionism is a form of Racism

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In the twenty-eight years of the Oslo peace process, Israel has torpedoed the prospect of a Palestinian state, which offered it an internationally sanctioned pathway to preserving its Zionist settler sovereignty. In doing so, Israel is manifesting to the world what Palestinians have long known: it wants the land without the people and seeks to remain the sole source of authority from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. The Human Rights Watch report concluding that Israel oversees an apartheid regime is more of an acknowledgment of the reality than a revelation of its existence. The report continues  a rich line of existing resources including by Badil, Al Haq, Adalah, the Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa, the Palestinian BDS National Committee, the Durban Review Conference, the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, UN CERD, UN ESCWA, Yesh Din, B’tselem, as well as decades of Palestinian intellectual labor and advocacy. The title of HRW’s report, A Threshold Crossed, reflects that Israel has removed any plausible deniability of its intentions to remain the sole sovereign and to, at best, offer Palestinians the opportunity to govern themselves in autonomous zones – equivalent to North American reservations and South African black homelands, the latter condemned as an instrument to maintain “white minority domination and  to dispossess the African people of South Africa of their inalienable rights” in 1976.

Despite this seeming analytical convergence, there remains significant disagreement among the individuals and organizations who otherwise concur that Israel oversees an apartheid regime. On the one hand, organizations like Human Rights Watch would argue that Israel has only become an apartheid regime as a result of its failure to withdraw to the 1967 borders with slight border modifications and to recognize a sovereign Palestinian state. In this reading, Israel evolved into a monstrous perversion, much like a Frankenstein, and away from the true vision of Zionism. As a result of historical contingencies, Israel now oversees a discriminatory regime tantamount to apartheid. On the other hand, is a dominant tradition among Palestinian intellectuals and organizations that have understood Zionism as a settler-colonial project predicated on Palestinian elimination, and thus as a racist structure since its inception. Within this tradition, the establishment of a Palestinian state did not have the potential to rehabilitate Zionism from its racist character, but instead offered Palestinians a pathway to an attenuated form of self-determination that would have stemmed ongoing Palestinian removal and dispossession. The prevention of a Palestinian state is less the end of a national dream than it is a continuation of a national struggle.

In this essay, I will explore the dominant Palestinian tradition first by highlighting Palestinian intellectual thought on Zionism as a form of racism and racial discrimination. I will also review the legal analysis underpinning Israel’s apartheid regime, which reflects its Zionist ideology rather than the outcome of a failed political project to establish a Palestinian state. The essay will then show how Zionism is better understood as a political and intellectual analog of apartheid in order to emphasize that Israel did not become a discriminatory regime but is defined by such discrimination.  I will conclude with thoughts on the international responsibility to end the apartheid of our time.

Racial Theory of Zionist Settler Colonization 

In 1965, Palestinian scholar, Fayez Sayegh developed a racial theory of Zionist settler-colonization. As an instrument of nation-building predicated on the removal and juridical erasure of the Palestinian people, he explains, Zionist colonization should be understood as “racial elimination” and thus distinct from those European colonial projects defined primarily by racial domination. Sayegh continues that the Zionist belief that Jews constitute a race and a singular people, irrespective of religious piety or identification, produces “three corollaries: racial self-segregation, racial exclusiveness, and racial supremacy.” He comments that the “Zionist settler has learned all the lessons which the various discriminatory regimes of white settler-states in Asia and Africa can teach it,” demonstrating the capacity to even surpass its teachers “for, whereas the Afrikaner apostles of apartheid in South Africa, for example, brazenly proclaim their sin, the Zionist practitioners of apartheid in Palestine beguilingly protest their innocence!” Within a decade’s time, Sayegh would lead the UN effort to amend the Decade Against Racism to insert the word, “Zionism” wherever apartheid, colonialism, and racial discrimination appeared in the text. His efforts culminated in the passage of UNGA Resolution 3379 condemning Zionism as a form of racism and racial discrimination in 1975. In 1991, the Palestinian Liberation Organization agreed to a process within the General Assembly to rescind the Resolution as a condition for entering into the Madrid and Oslo peace talks. The Oslo agreements which resulted are better understood as a model for ghettoized sovereignty undergirding contemporary claims of Israeli apartheid, rather than a roadmap to Palestinian statehood.

The rescindment of Resolution 3379 together with the Oslo process have successfully obscured the structure of Zionist settler colonization and Jewish supremacy. The peace process framework created false parity between a nuclear-powered state and a stateless people without a formal army or even an airport – whose nominal president must seek Israeli government permission to travel abroad. Whereas Resolution 3379 made clear that the proper antidote to colonial conflict was the dismantlement of Israel’s racist regime, featuring tactics of isolation, sanctions, and pressure from third party states, the Oslo framework beseeched comparable compromise by ­two incomparable sides and eschewed the determinant element of power and its maldistribution. More, Oslo formalized the geographic and juridical fragmentations that have divided the Palestinian nation into disparate entities as besieged and bombarded civilians in the Gaza Strip, an occupied people in the West Bank, second-class citizens within Israel, and as refugees in forced exile across a global diaspora. The recently sparked Intifada of Unity powerfully overcame Israel’s imposed fragmentations and illustrated the holistic nature of the Palestinian national struggle for liberation once again.

Such fragmentation has also obfuscated Israel’s exclusive jurisdiction over all lands and peoples between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River evidencing its oversight of a singular legal regime tantamount to apartheid. Israel pursues a settler colonial project across this geography and over all Palestinian lives regardless of their juridical status. Its purpose is to acquire the greatest amount of land with the least amount of Palestinians and to concentrate the greatest number of Palestinians onto the least amount of land. Israel fulfills its settler-colonial ambitions through civil law in Israel, military law in the West Bank, administrative law in East Jerusalem, and systemic warfare against Gaza. This is as true in the Naqab/Negev desert, where the state seeks to uproot some 70,000 Palestinian Bedouin citizens of Israel to forcibly transfer them into fragmented urban townships as it is in the West Bank where Palestinians have been steadily removed from Area C and concentrated into Area A – jurisdictional categories established by Oslo II in 1995 (A not so subtle reminder that Oslo is part of the problem). Despite the diversity in legal frameworks, as a composite whole, Israel commits “inhuman acts…for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by [Jewish nationals]  over [Palestinians] and systematically oppressing them” in the name of establishing uninterrupted spatial and temporal Zionist settler sovereignty. Apartheid is both the outcome of Zionist settler colonization that facilitates Palestinian removal and settler implantation as well as the modal legal regime to consolidate its territorial takings. 

The Legal Anatomy of Israeli Apartheid

Israel’s apartheid regime is predicated on the bifurcation of Jewish nationality and Israeli citizenship; there is no such thing as an Israeli national. The Law of Return (1950) defines a Jewish national as someone born of a Jewish mother or has become converted to Judaism and is not a member of any other religion. The Law of Return extra-territorialized Jewish nationality and conferred exclusive rights to Jewish nationals to enter Israel, obtain citizenship, and to settle anywhere within Israel’s jurisdiction, including in West Bank settlements. The legal framework of Jewish nationality effectively affords Jewish persons anywhere in the world, more rights than the Palestinians whose presence preceded Israel’s establishment, including those that were not exiled and became citizens of the state. The Nationality Law (1952), better understood as the Citizenship Law, because the law affords automatic citizenship to Jewish nationals while denying citizenship and residency rights to Palestinians who were driven out, repealed the Palestinian Citizenship Order (1925) and resulted in the de facto denationalization of the entire Palestinian population. This rendered stateless the Palestinian refugees driven from their homes in the 1948 War as well as those resident in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza.

The Law of Return together with the Nationality Law established a tiered order that distinguishes between Israel’s Jewish population who are “nationals and citizens” from its Christian and Muslim Palestinian population who are “citizens only.” This distinction has facilitated the flow of privileges – to residency, citizenship, land ownership, freedom of movement, and the right to leave and return to one’s country – exclusively to Jewish nationals across a singular geography throughout historic Palestine. Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, maintains an ongoing database of laws, currently totaling 65, that discriminate against Palestinians on the basis of national belonging. Israel’s binary system enables the State to achieve its stated goal of maintaining a significant Jewish majority, even in the face of natural population growth. In particular, the bifurcation facilitates a policy of forced population transfer. The most blatant pillar of that policy is Israel’s denial of Palestinian refugees, totaling some 5.7 million, their right to return to their homes and lands, which the State frames as an existential threat to the country. Other laws include the Ban on Family Reunification (2003), Admissions Committees Law (2011), 2010 Amendment to the Negev Development Authority, and Israel Land Administration Law of 2009. Forced population transfer, together with other discriminatory policies, also predicated on the exclusive right to Jewish nationality, violate Articles II(c) and II(d) of the Apartheid Convention. 

In 2012, the Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights submitted this legal analysis to the Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD). The CERD Committee concluded that Israel is in violation of Article 3 of ICERD condemning “racial segregation and apartheid” though it would not name it as apartheid thus evidencing one site of the schism between Palestinian legal advocates and sympathetic but reticent mainstream institutions.

Zionism and Apartheid: Not an Analogy

Jewish supremacy is not an unintended feature of hawkish politicians – it is a constitutive feature of the Zionist project across the Israeli political spectrum. Outgoing Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said it best when he explained that Israel is “the national state, not of all its citizens, but only of the Jewish people.” There is no Israeli law that ensures equality and, in 2018, the Israeli Knesset made this explicit in its passage of the Nation State Law that declared that only Jews have a right to self-determination and declared that Jewish settlement across all the land is a constitutional obligation. Still, and nonetheless, opponents deny the prevalence of Israeli apartheid by emphasizing its distinction from South African apartheid. In particular, they highlight the absence of a white ruling class as well as the exceptional understanding of Jewish supremacy in Israel as the manifestation of a successful national liberation struggle. Aside from the fact that any such comparison is irrelevant in regard to the applicability of the Apartheid Convention- the CERD Committee concluded as much in 1995 when it found that apartheid is not particular to South Africa but applies to “all forms of segregation in all countries” –  the historical context illuminates that the issue is not whether Israel is like Apartheid South Africa but that Zionism and Apartheid are political and ideological bedfellows both in their inception as well as their historic strategic alliance. 

The connection between Zionism and Apartheid reflects, in part, their common origins within the crucible of British empire. Richard P. Stevens highlights that the group of politicians responsible for the successful adoption of the Balfour Declaration designating Palestine as a site of Jewish settlement in 1917, namely Lord Balfour, Lord Milner, Joseph Chamberlain, General Jan Smuts, and Lord Selbourne, were also central to the passage of the South African Act of Union in 1909. At the core of both initiatives was the advancement of Western imperial interests in the African continent as well as the Middle East. European Zionist leaders, like Chaim Weizmann and Theodor Herzl understood this well as they appealed to Turkish, British, and German leaders for the right to settle in Palestine arguing that settlement in Palestine would “…form a portion of a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism.” In his discussion with Cecil Rhodes, infamous for his colonization of southwestern African territory and who dreamt of realizing an “all-white Africa,” Herzl entreated,

You are being invited to help make history…It doesn’t involve Africa, but a piece of Asia Minor; not Englishmen, but Jews. How, then, do I happen to turn to you since this is an out-of-the-way-matter for you? How indeed? Because it is something colonial.

More, and as demonstrated by Robin DG Kelley among others, South African apartheid was fundamentally a settler colonial project, intent on removing Black Africans, albeit, internally as opposed to the external displacement characterizing Palestinian removal, expropriating their lands, concentrating them into small territories known as bantustans, and supplanting their indigenous sovereignty with Afrikaaner sovereignty. African apartheid was far more than the white supremacist project we remember it for, its proponents also understood it as a movement for Afrikaner self-determination against British oppression on a land without a people – meaning, no recognized juridical people with the right to self-determination. 

Zionists argue that  Zionism is also a national project of Jewish self-determination. However, as articulated by Abdeen Jabara in 1979,

There is only one unconditional rule attached to the right of national liberation. No man or people may achieve national liberation at the expense of another people. Given this fact, any movement including Zionism which seeks to solve the national problem of one people at the expense of another may not properly be called a move­ment of national liberation.

As the Third World revolted against imperial domination throughout the 1960s and 1970s, newly liberated peoples and national liberation movements balked at Israeli arguments that Zionist settler sovereignty represented Jewish self-determination. This was especially true in the aftermath of the 1967 War when Israel’s dominion of the Egyptian Sinai, the Syrian Golan Heights, and the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza made it an imperial power. In that context, Israel aligned itself with racist regimes and colonial powers against Third World liberation movements, central to which was the Palestinian liberation struggle.

While the international community (slowly and belatedly) moved to isolate the South African regime, Israel sustained the Apartheid economy through the development of a robust arms industry. The South African government regarded Israel as a fellow country under siege “situated in a predominantly hostile world inhabited by dark peoples.”  In 1973, the UN General Assembly condemned the unholy alliance between Portuguese colonialism, South African racism, zionism and Israeli imperialism.” Two years later, the UN would condemn Zionism as a form of racism and racial discrimination in Resolution 3379 placing it squarely within the agenda of the Decade Against Racism originally conceived to dismantle African Apartheid. The international community achieved that mandate within the span of two decades on the African continent. At that very moment of South African and Namibian liberation, Zionist settler colonization and apartheid found a new lifeline in the Oslo “peace process.”

International Responsibility to end Israeli Apartheid: A Matter of Time  

Israel has successfully used the liberal veneer or peacemaking to expand and entrench its settler-colonial enterprise.  It has increased its settler population from 200,000 to nearly 600,000 in the West Bank. Its settlement enterprise carves the West Bank into more than twenty non-contiguous territories. It has built an annexation wall that runs primarily through the West Bank and confiscates another thirteen percent of the territory.  It oversees the de facto annexation of Area C- or 60 percent of the West Bank- and has stated explicit intentions for de jure annexation. Israel has declared its sovereignty over East Jerusalem, prohibits Palestinian travel and presence between the West Bank and Gaza, securitized the entire 2 million person population in Gaza, and continues a policy of forced population transfer to undermine Palestinian national cohesion and maintain a Jewish national majority. While Palestinians have long theorized, taught, demonstrated this outcome as the logical end of political Zionism, Israel has now created the circumstances that make it undeniably clear.

At issue in 2021 is not whether Israel oversees an apartheid regime but whether the international community is willing to acknowledge it and take responsibility for its dismantlement. The obstinate refusal to do so reflects both a commitment to Zionist settler sovereignty as the optimal solution to combat anti-Jewish bigotry as well as an, often-explicit, expectation that Palestinian life is expendable and worth the cost of that endeavor. Palestinians have continued to demonstrate that a decolonial future and a state of its citizens is mutually reinforcing of Jewish life and affirming of Jewish belonging in historic Palestine – just not as their masters. Even these progressive visions have been maligned as anti Semitic demonstrating the perverted weaponization of antisemitism to protect Israel from accountability rather than to protect Jews from violence and racial discrimination.

The writing, however, is on the wall. In the United States, which remains Israel’s primary patron of economic, military, and diplomatic support, Palestinian freedom has increasingly become central to progressive politics. Contemporary renewals of Black Palestinian solidarity have recently accelerated this trend. Polls indicate that support for Israel will increasingly become part of a conservative platform alone. According to a 2016 Pew Research Poll the share of liberal Democrats who sympathize with Palestinians doubled since 2014. For the first time, more liberal Democrats are sympathetic to Palestinians than they are to Israel. And support for Israel is the least among millennials demonstrating a telling generational gap. So too is the fact that former Israeli ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, recently encouraged Israel to focus on Christian evangelicals who, in his estimation, are more sympathetic to Israel than American Jews.

We can continue to debate the legal questions in the academy and produce more hundred-paged reports evidencing systematic discrimination intended to maintain the supremacy of one racial group over another at the United Nations. But it is the situation on the ground and the potency of the Palestinian narration of their own situation that will ultimately compel a paradigmatic shift. The recent and ongoing Intifada of Unity has ushered significant advancements in that effort as evidenced by U.S. Congressional members condemning apartheid on the House floor and objecting to a $750 million transfer in military support to Israel as well as “more than 300 academic departments, programs, centers, unions and societies” globally endorsing Palestinian rights. Taking international responsibility to end Israeli apartheid means applying the pressure necessary for its dismantlement. In the meantime, Palestinians will continue to struggle for their freedom as they have for over a hundred years in the hope and belief that they can pave a path for far more optimal futures for joint liberation than those that have been offered by programs of exclusive sovereignty and perpetual domination.


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