Opinionista Kalim Rajab 17 February 2014

The real, expanded Israel is not a democracy

The Boycott, Disinvest and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel has gathered remarkable momentum over the past year, to the point where it has won some notable victories and is now seen as a potent threat by Israeli policymakers. In part aided by the spotlight on Israel which campaigns such as BDS has helped turn on, PMMG, the largest Dutch pension fund decided earlier this year to cancel all its investments in Israel’s five largest banks, and the EU has similarly placed very punitive hurdles on investment into Israel.

But in much the same way as the BDS campaign has gained further momentum, so too have the adjoining rebuttals to it increased proportionally – perhaps even more so.

One of the arguments which BDS has used is the analogy of the state of Israel to life under apartheid. In one of the higher-profile rebuttals I have seen, Seth Siegel, a member of the conservative but influential US Council on Foreign Relations claims in the Los Angeles Times that the South African apartheid analogy is false, and challenged such critics of Israel to take a 10-part quiz to argue otherwise. Many of the questions he offers are becoming profuse in the debate, and as a result I suspect many are being influenced by them. The quiz answers offers up the following as evidence to the contrary regarding the apartheid question:

  1. The valedictorian of the most recent graduating class at the medical school at Israel’s MIT, Technion, was a Muslim women
  2. Israel, as opposed to all of Iraq, Syria and Egypt is the only country on the list in which the Christian population isn’t falling precipitously
  3. Israel’s Arab Christians make up a third of Israel’s pharmacists, are among the winners of the Israel Prize, the country’s highest civilian honour, and their high school students have a higher rate of success on their graduation exams than Israeli Jewish students
  4. Since Israel left Gaza in 2005, there have been 8000 rockets fired into Israel
  5. By law, Israeli Jews may not refuse to be treated by an Arab doctor
  6. When West Bank Palestinians have a claim that their rights have been abrogated by an Israeli action, they can file a lawsuit with the Israeli Supreme Court
  7. There are 12 Israeli Arabs currently elected to serve in the Knesset, Israel’s 120-person parliament
  8. The Golani Brigade, an elite Israeli army unit, recently made news when it appointed Col. Rassan Alian, a Druze (a small closed sect which is very loosely an offshoot of an offshoot of Islam) , as its commander
  9. Israel’s Supreme Court has as a serving member an Israeli Arab who serves on it
  10. Israel’s 2013 Miss Israel beauty queen was Yityish Aynaw, a black Ethiopian immigrant to Israel.

Many such claims have been used to further the argument that Israel is a vibrant democracy – the only democracy, in fact, in the Middle East. As a direct lead-on from this argument, it follows that it should be encouraged rather than vilified. I have no doubt as to the veracity of all of the above claims – merely their usefulness.

The reason for questioning their usefulness is because such claims are deeply misleading subterfuge – and actually harmful to the ongoing debate about how the international community should view the Israeli government’s actions.

Yes, Israel is a democracy, with some (although increasingly limited) rights for Israeli Arabs. In that regard, comparing it to apartheid South Africa is tenuous.

But the world’s increasing ostracism of Israel, and the reason for the latest economic and cultural boycott, has less to do with what occurs within its borders, and rather more to do with its treatment of non-Israelis in those areas which the state controls – if the UN is to be believed – illegally. Few can deny that Israel looks after its own citizens (including Arabs, though this is becoming less so), who are given a voice in the shaping of the country. But this completely misses the point. For it is in the grey zones of the West Bank and Gaza – areas not belonging to the Israeli state, but completely subsumed to the might of the Israeli army since 1967 to the point where they cannot function properly or have control of their own destinies – where basic human rights violations occur. Thus, what such arguments like the questions in the quiz above fails to grasp (or worse, attempts to obscure) is that the comparison to apartheid is made by examining the Palestinian, not Israeli, areas which Israel suppresses.

In other words, only what I call “contracted” Israel is a democracy. This is viewing the state of Israel in the narrowest sense of the word. “Expanded” Israel, which includes the illegally Occupied Territories, does not meet the same standard.

To return to the South African analogy- during the 1980s the Nationalist government gave “independence” to various tribal bantustans such as Bophuthatswana, Ciskei and Venda to which black people became citizens of their particular tribal area. It never reached the extent to which the Nationalists wanted, but the aim of the ruse was to eventually make the claim that those remaining as South Africans were part of some sort of democracy, and those “outside” of its borders beyond its jurisdiction and therefore beyond how it should be judged by the world.  Of course, no one seriously considered these bantustans to be independent in the slightest bit of the word, entirely dependent as they were – for financial support, air space, infrastructural development, military presence, even currency, in fact everything – on the South African state which surrounded them on all sides and kept a close hovering watch over them.

Yet year after year, the Nationalists tried to peddle the lie that Vendans and Ciskeians were not South Africans and so could not claim they were denied anything by Pretoria. South West Africa (now Namibia) was similarly disclaimed in spite of the fact that it was a client state where South Africa repressed the local people.  It is in much the same way that Israel disavows the Occupied Territories as not being part of it when it disputes the apartheid analogy.

The reality, of course, is far removed from the rhetoric. As Jodi Rudoren writes in a recent New York Times article, Israel has 16 illegal industrial parks in the West Bank and East Jerusalem covering 1,000 plants and 21,000 workers, about two-thirds of them Palestinian. These Israeli industries operate in settlements that most of the world considers illegal and a prime obstacle to peace  – yet Israel does not recognise them when it seeks to define whether it is an apartheid state of not.

In many ways, Israel is an amazing success story – an economic powerhouse in the region, a country which has literary created something out of nothing in the desert. This the world doesn’t begrudge them – in fact it lauds them. What it does begrudge them, of course, is where it fails to acknowledge that, at least in part, its success has been achieved by treading on other peoples’ rights and freedoms.

So the next time we hear arguments which attempt to argue that Israel is a democratic state, we should not be blinded by the fact that such arguments, however persuasive, refer to Israel in the contracted form of the word. The real Israel, in all its expanded glory and horror, is a far different proposition – and deserves all our opprobrium until it sets free the Palestinians to give voice to their freedom and to their own destiny. This is the only way in which the bombs which Seth Siegal refers to, will stop – and the apartheid analogy tag be gratefully removed from the narrative by Israel’s critics. DM

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