Israeli Apartheid?

Israel is losing the propaganda war.   Mainstream newspapers now provide ample reason to conclude that Israel oppresses the Palestinians with sadistic enthusiasm based on flimsy excuses.   (The Palestinians, after all, have lost the military war.  Even Hamas works hard to suppress attacks on Israel and therefore ‘collaborates’ quite as much as the often-despised PLO.)   While the US Congress fulminates in hysterical denial, the US executive branch understands the nastiness of its increasingly useless ally and, just as uselessly, tries to clean up the mess.  Eventually, too late as usual, nation-states will somehow get the job done.   But the emancipation of the Palestinians won’t even expose, much less discredit, the ultimate principles that sponsored their ordeal.   The founding evil that Zionism injected into Israel’s heart and soul will not only escape but flourish around the world.  That evil, a cloudy stew of ‘peoples’ and ‘rights’, has the potential to create a thousand Israels, none Jewish, all with ‘a right to exist’, all bathed continually with the balm of political correctness.

Israel’s ideology was once called Zionism.   It is, however, a mere variant of the ethnic nationalism still very much in vogue.  It is now pilloried as ‘Israeli apartheid’.   This is partly accurate and for that very reason insidiously misleading.  Israel’s policies are both harsher and milder than South African apartheid.   Harsher, because Palestinians in the occupied territories experience something just as cruel, but far more threatening and violent:  unlike the Boers, Israel’s settlers would rather extirpate than subjugate their victims.   Milder, because Israel practices a kinder, gentler apartheid within its original borders:  ‘Israeli Arabs’ are certainly second-class citizens and endure pervasive discrimination, yet have extensive civic and political rights.   Many if not most of these non-Jewish Palestinians enjoy what in much of the world would be considered an enviable life and economic status.  Yet were the occupation to end tomorrow, with every settler marched across the 1967 border and a truly sovereign Palestine erected in the occupied territories, the evil would persist, less obvious, less grating, but perhaps stronger than ever.

Apartheid was based on racism, the idea that whites are superior to blacks.  Today this has become a bogeyman, distracting us from more dangerous doctrines.   Genuinely racial ideologies are in decline for two reasons.   First, their advocates played the science card.  By the 1950s it was clear that there would never be a scientific consensus supporting doctrines of racial inferiority.  Second, the decline of racial discrimination itself undermined doctrines of racial superiority, because many members of allegedly inferior races proved themselves far more capable than many of their allegedly superior counterparts.  Racism and apartheid ideologies, though far from extinct, are yesterday’s scourge.  They were never crucial to the oppression of the Palestinians.

Many Israelis, like many Egyptians or Canadians or Punjabis or Congolese or Chinese, are racists.   Zionism, however, never was a racist ideology, and the Romantic nationalism from which it emerged has shed its racist content long ago.  This is Zionism’s strength.   True Zionists, and the most efficient Israeli ideologues, never claim that Palestinians are racially inferior.  Prejudiced or not, they understand that such prejudices have nothing to do with Zionism.  Zionism is nothing more than that most sacred of cows, identity politics.   It is an example of what happens when such politics are written into the borders of a state.

Zionism, in essence, claims that there is something called Jewish identity, distinct from Jewish religion yet just as holy, and that the possessors of this identity have a right to – to use a sinister 19th century phrase – their place in the sun.  They have a right to a state of their own.  This was held just a strongly before Hitler’s accession as after.   As some have always insisted, nothing in the Nazi era could have given Zionists a right to wield what they wield today – political sovereignty, and therefore the power of life and death, over every non-Jew within the borders of Israel.   Were it not for the pre-Zionist rhetoric of peoples, of their homelands and rights, Israel would never have been established.   The occupation and all its evils would never have occurred, and Israeli apartheid would never have existed.  The link is causal, not accidental:  most Israelis believe that, because they deserve their place in the sun, they are entitled to defend themselves, pre-emptively and with decisive viciousness, against the victims of their project.  And had the Israelis’ brutality been a little more intelligent, a little less arrogant and excessive, the world would never have turned against them.  When the agony of the Palestinians finally ends, its root cause will still be celebrated the world over.

Aren’t we entitled, after all, not only to our lives and livelihoods, but also to our sacred identity?   Ethnic nationalism was never a defence of individual human rights.   It was the assertion of murky collective prerogatives.   If nasty racists make us feel bad, shouldn’t we have our own little place in the sun?   We can demand that our culture, our selfhood, our deep inner collective nature, have a room of its own, to be defended against all comers.    The irony of it all is that this is, par excellence, a product of the very colonial, white, European culture against which it is supposed to be a defence.   White folks pay the tiny price of denying themselves its privileges – white identity is not an acceptable ‘value’ – and in exchange gets the whole world dancing to their tune.   The embrace of identity politics and multiculturalism – given the increasingly obviously bankruptcy of ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ – is probably the only Western ideological artefact that still has the potential to sweep across the world.

Perhaps no further harm will come of this, but it doesn’t seem likely.  Ethnic identities are really the ideologically approved characteristics attached to extended kinship groups that today take the place of old-fashioned ‘races’.   Once upon a time, there really were distinct ethnicities, and the simple folk who belonged to them were indeed bewildered, though far from crushed, if they found themselves outside the group, if they lost their cultural ‘identity’.   With the exception of a few real tribes in a few real jungles, this is no longer the case, and ‘cultural identity’ has become a shifty label for ethnic identity.

Ethnic identity is, often as not, a payoff glinting in the eyes of bogus ethnic ‘leaders’ or ‘spokesmen’.   This is harmless chicanery.   Far more dangerous is what lies beneath – the idea that any faux-ethnic ‘people’, offered up by any collection of phonies, has the right to preserve its ‘identity’.  Often as not, this conveniently requires getting hold of some land.  On that land will arise that horror of horrors, a state based on ethnic sovereignty, where ultimate and unrestrained power is allocated entirely to some ‘ethnicity’.   Here in the real world there are always others within the borders of that ethnic state, faced with no less than a threat not to their ‘identity’ but to their lives, which now continue at the good pleasure of some ethnic group to which they can never belong.   When Israeli apartheid collapses, the basis for one, two, many Palestines will survive.

Michael Neumann, son of the eminent political sociologist of Nazism, Franz Leopold Neumann, is a professor of philosophy at Trent University in Ontario, Canada.[1] He is the author of What’s Left?, The Rule of Law and The Case Against Israel and has published papers on utilitarianism and rationality.