March 6th, 2010

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] On why Israel's apartheid-like and why it doesn't really matter

It's Israel Apartheid Week from the 1st through the 14th of March, and as one might expect of a worldwide event protesting Israeli policies in very charged terms this week has triggered a fairly huge amount of controversy. A couple of days ago, it was denounced by the entire Ontario Provincial Parliament.

Me, I have to say that my thoughts on the subject can be traced back to Israel's discriminatory marriage laws, the ones which don't allow for the option of civil marriage and so make it impossible for Israelis of different religious backgrounds to marry each other within the country. Back when I first read Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem, I was struck by her observation of the irony that an Israel with marriage laws scarcely distinguishable from the Nuremburg Laws which forbade Gentile-Jewish intermarriage was prosecuting a racial supremacist, but didn't think much of it. As the debate over same-sex marriage intensified in Canada, culminating in the current marriage laws, I began to take quite a lot of notice of the ways in which marriage laws, by allowing (or not) people the basic right to form a family, reflected the basic ethos of a society. Now? Most of my friends here--and by friends I mean people I regularly spend time with, not people I'm cordial enough over the Internet--are involved in the sort of border-transgressing relationships that aren't recognized in Israel thanks to the Israeli electorate. Same-sex or opposite-sex, crossing lines of ethnicity or nationality or religion, of any number of racial backgrounds--all of my friends are in relationships which, regardless of whether or not they fit the monoethnic/religious opposite-sex model that's the only sort of relationship that can be contracted within Israel's borders, matter to them. And yet, the marriage laws of Israel that have been in effect since the foundation of that state would make it impossible for most of my friends to solemnize their very real and very solemn relationships within the frontiers of Israel. Why? These would be relationships contracted across religious boundaries, between Christians and Jews (say); these would be relationships contracted across the ethnic boundaries that so often correspond roughly to religion. These relationships, in short, transgress the boundaries that the electorate of Israel, uniquely among the electorates of the middle- and high-income democracies of the world, feels has to be maintained. Like can only marry and form families with like; unlike groups must forever stay apart. Everyone has to know their place.

A lot of people have debated the question of apartheid in Israel, of course, and many of Israel's defenders have argued that Palestinians in Israel enjoyed greater rights and freedoms than Arabs in Europe. That made sense at the time, actually. It was only later that I realized that was a comparison of apples and oranges. Europeans of Arab background are almost all of relatively recent immigrant stock, and it has always been trendy to abused immigrants; leaving aside the barriers that Israel is building to keep refugees traversing the Sinai for making it into the Negev, Israel's Ethiopian immigrant community hasn't received the best treatment, the rabbinate even doubting the Judaism of the Ethiopians that was the only reason those tens of thousands of African refugees were admitted as full citizens in the first place.

Israeli Palestinians, in contrast to Europeans of Arab descent and arguably even to Israeli Jews, are indigenous to Israel. Can ethnic Belarusians and Ukrainians in Poland marry their ethnically Polish fellow citizens without either converting to Roman Catholicism or leaving the country for a spell? Is Italy's South Tyrol under Italian military occupation, the German communes much more so than the Italian ones? Are there restrictions governing the amount of land that Germany's Sorb citizens can own? Are political parties in France advocating the expulsion of the Bretons to Wales, back where they came from in the 5th and 6th centuries after all, acceptable partners in coalition government? Compared to other indigenous minorities in Europe, Israeli Palestinians are far less secure, far more threatened. The fate of the Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip has been far worse than that since 1967, between the confiscation of land and resources for explicitly Jewish (not Israeli) settlements regardless of Israel's domestic laws and international obligations and the systematic efforts to keep the unoccupied Palestinian communities from developing a self-sustaining society not vulnerable to strangulation by Israeli occupations of one kind or another. And let's not forget that Israeli Palestinians--never mind Palestinians in the occupied territories--are legally barred from marrying Israeli Jews.

Is Israel an apartheid society? South Africa under apartheid was run by people representing an electorate that wanted the different ethnoracial groups of that country--especially the non-whites, the ones who had no representation at all in the government but who could overturn things entirely if they were allowed --to develop separately. This meant that the South African government would keep people from forming families if these families cross ethnoracial boundaries; this meant that the South African government would occupy the places where the country's non-whites lived, readily using lethal force if needed to keep things in order; this meant that the South African government would strictly limit the amount of land that non-whites could own and the location of the land that they could own, explicitly excluding them from enjoying the same public services that whites enjoyed or even (in the case of the bantustans) any claim to political representation; this meant that political parties advocating the vilest racism and wildest violence against non-whites would be acceptable.

By these standards, Israel does indeed look quite a lot like it's run according to apartheid principles. Moreover, since apartheid states can run only with the support of the majority of their self-designated electorates, it stands to reason that Israelis share in the bigotries implemented as policy by Israel. Boycotts and sanctions against Israel aimed at deterring Israel from doing these bad things are defensible.

Does the matter of Israeli apartheid count so much, though? I don't think so.

Part of the reason is that Palestinians were unlucky. Douglas Muir observed a few years ago that, if Kosovo had blown up in 2002 instead of 1999, Milosevic could have successfully repositioned his image: no more a genocidal despot, he could be a defender of Christendom democracy against terrorism. Regardless of their religious background, the Palestinians' political leadership has never managed to establish successful and durable alliances with external powers, falling on the wrong side of the Cold War or the War against Terror or the Clash of Civilizations. The Palestinians are iconic, sure, but the icon doesn't translate into much. Israel's a far more important power in any number of dimensions than the scattered Palestinians, and the countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran that one might expect to be particularly sympathetic to the Palestinians at best treat them as disposable chess pieces. Who cares about them, really?

More importantly, the principles of apartheid dismantled in South Africa and maintained in Israel have very long histories elsewhere in the world, especially in those nation-states built--like South Africa and Israel--by European immigrants at the expense of local populations. Canada's First Nations and Australian Aborigines were denied full citizenship well into my parents' lifetime, after all, and in an area of tightening immigration restrictions and growing xenophobia it's increasingly difficult for members of some groups to form families of their own, barred on grounds of citizenship. No one's interested in an over-close examination of those principles.

Israel's apartheid deserves to be tackled, but I doubt that it will be tackled in any systematic way by any world power of note. Some will protest, some will call those protesters bigots, controversy will ensue, nothing will change until the Israelis unharden their hearts.

[FORUM] What are some politically delicate group identities?

In the comments to my post about the East German flag-waving by the side of the luge track during the Vancouver Olympics, kentrosaurus linked in my comments to an interesting discussion over at dict.leo.org surrounding the proprieties of waving the East German flag at all.

  • East Germany remains a distinct territory inside reunified Germany, East Germans remain a distinctive population within the German, and there's no reason why East Germans shouldn't continue to celebrate their identity? It's not all about the Stasi.

  • Or is it? East Germany was a totalitarian regime, a puppet state founded on mass repressions that disappeared as quickly as it could, and the East German flag by definition was an emblem of tyranny beyond rehabilitation.


  • Was waving the East German flag as offensive an act as waving the Confederate flag is commonly taken to be? By extension, if the East German flag is as fundamentally unacceptable an emblem as the Confederate, what else could be used to represent the collectivity of East Germans? Or does the very creation of East Germany by totalitarian tyranny invalidate the idea of being East German at all, or at least the idea of expressing it publicly for the world to see?

    What do you think? Are there any group identities, or collective nostalgias, like the East German or the Confederate, that strike you as politically delicate?

    Discuss.