Saree Makdisi on Israel and apartheid
Saree Makdisi, 11 March 2010, Issue 473
While South Africa’s apartheid may represent the closest historical precedent to Israel–Palestine, writes Saree Makdisi, the Israeli state’s treatment of Palestinian people in many respects eclipses the suffering imposed by the South African apartheid government on ‘non-white’ people. Though its supporters worldwide refuse to countenance that any form of systematic racism is perpetrated by Israel, Makdisi stresses, the country’s racism is one ‘practised in practice rather than in language’ and is rooted in treating Palestinians as not merely inferior, but subhuman.
[For an alternative view see for instance the many writings of Benjamin Pogrund e.g. his 2005 essay Israel is a democracy in which Arabs vote – Not an apartheid State or his ‘Why depict Israel as a chamber of horrors like no other in the world?’]
Among the highlights of my recent trip to South Africa were a tour of the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg and a visit to the downtown neighbourhood of Fordsie with my close friends Hanif and Salim Vally (who grew up there during the apartheid years – an experience that committed them both to the cause of justice), as well as a walk through the nearby half-demolished neighbourhood of Fietas.
Like Sophiatown in Johannesburg and District Six in Cape Town, Fietas was largely cleared of its non-white population in the 1970s (some of its former residents were forcibly relocated to Lenasia, others to Eldorado Park) and then methodically demolished. Its eerie, grass-grown, open spaces today stand as stark reminders of the city’s violent past, as reminders that under certain circumstances town planning, charting and zoning are immediately violent activities. For all its apparent innocuousness, bureaucracy can be as destructive as any bomb. What happened in Fietas certainly testifies to that: whole families forced to move, a neighbourhood smashed to pieces, homes pulverised by bulldozers materially manifesting a racist bureaucracy’s notion of the appropriate distribution of people and ethnic identities in social space. The logic of racial separation is itself violent; horrendous as its implementation may be, the real crime is in the logic itself.
The violence of bureaucracy and of racist logic is of course one of the central themes in the Apartheid Museum. Of all the exhibits, the one that I found most striking was probably one of the most visually innocuous: a list, adorning one wall, of the various laws and regulations that constituted South Africa’s system of apartheid. That wall, and some of the other exhibits, really brought home to me the extent to which South African apartheid continually registered itself in the verbal and visual field through endless plaques, signs, words, laws, names, classifications – an endless series of binaries constructed around the ultimate ‘blankes/nie blankes.’ One of the most compelling facts about South African apartheid is that it was not just an invisible or inscrutable or anonymous logic, it dared to have a proper name. After all, it insisted on calling attention to itself in its system of explicit signs, labels, markers – on every bus, at the entrance to every bathroom.
There was, of course, no way for me to contemplate South African apartheid without contemplating its relevance for understanding the situation in Israel–Palestine today. For anyone who has been to Palestine, the grass-grown wasteland of Fietas looks familiar for good reason: it has its counterpart in every grass-covered ruin of every one of the hundreds of towns and villages in Palestine whose people were driven from their homes in 1948 because a racial logic dictated that they should not live in a space supposedly decreed (by God and the United Nations) to another people; in every wind-swept wasteland of Gaza where many of those same refugees’ homes were once again bulldozed by the Israeli army to clear lines of sight and make room for free-fire zones; and in every corner of occupied East Jerusalem where Israeli bulldozers have deliberately and methodically demolished Palestinian family homes in a vain attempt to maintain the ratio of Jews to non-Jews in the city’s population (72 to 28, if you are interested in the sordid details) that was determined by city planners in the 1970s – and has been sustained ever since by denying Palestinian residents of the city permits to build, bulldozing their homes when they build anyway, and stripping them of their residency status and expelling them from the city whenever possible. 2,162 Palestinian Jerusalemites have suffered this fate since 2003 alone, expelled to the West Bank suburbs and denied the right to return to the city of their birth, while Jewish arrivals from Moldova, London, Melbourne and Brooklyn who have never set eyes on Jerusalem take their place.
It has become commonplace to casually use the language of apartheid to refer to the forms of discrimination that Israel maintains in the occupied territories: two different transportation networks, two different housing systems, two different educational complexes, even two different legal and administrative systems for the two populations, Jewish and non-Jewish.
Exactly the same discriminatory logic is at work across the 1949–67 armistice line inside Israel itself, however. And for all the resistance that applying the term to the occupied territories generates, it is virtually impossible to stage a rational conversation about the system of apartheid at work inside pre-1967 Israel. Most of Israel’s supporters in Europe and America, and even some of its liberal critics – the ones who accept that the system of separation that Israel has imposed on the occupied territories may have crossed a certain line – adamantly refuse to countenance the possibility that there is any systematic form of racism in the would-be Jewish state. For them, the 1975 UN General Assembly resolution denouncing Zionism as a form of racism – the only UN resolution to have been subsequently annulled – was itself a vicious form of racism.
When it is levelled at Israel then, the charge of apartheid generates not counter-argument backed by counter-evidence, but rather walls of sheer stony denial, if not inarticulate eruptions of blind rage, as though either denial or sheer fury could permanently forestall argument. It is a stunning fact that, to this day, mainstream politicians, journalists and ordinary citizens in the US and elsewhere, even South Africa itself – I witnessed this myself while delivering my February 2010 lecture at Wits – refuse to engage in argument, evidence and facts on this issue; they cling stubbornly to the mantra-like recitation of long worn-out myths. ‘The Jewish people know what it means to be oppressed, discriminated against, and even condemned to death because of their religion,’ said Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the US House of Representatives, in a feeble attempt to contest the primary assertion of President Carter’s 2006 book ‘Palestine: Peace not Apartheid’ (which even explicitly exempted Israel within its pre-1967 borders from its analysis, restricting itself to the occupied territories). ‘They have been leaders in the fight for human rights in the United States and throughout the world. It is wrong to suggest that the Jewish people would support a government in Israel or anywhere else that institutionalizes ethnically based oppression, and Democrats reject that allegation vigorously.’ Such a refusal to enter into a rational argument, and to fall back on the equivalent of superstition – Jews are superhuman, incapable of evil – is not restricted to the US. ‘If you’re going to label Israel as Apartheid, then you are also … attacking Canadian values,’ said Canadian MP Peter Shurman in a recent angry denunciation of Canadian universities’ annual Israeli Apartheid Week, which was condemned by the parliament in Ottawa. ‘The use of the phrase “Israeli Apartheid Week” is about as close to hate speech as one can get without being arrested, and I’m not certain it doesn’t actually cross over that line,’ Shurman said.
Nor are such forms of denial restricted to politicians. Here, for example, is Roger Cohen, foreign editor of The New York Times, who has previously criticised Israeli policy in the occupied territories, writing in the Washington Post just the other day: ‘The Israel of today and the South Africa of yesterday have almost nothing in common. In South Africa, the minority white population harshly ruled the majority black population. Nonwhites were denied civil rights, and in 1958, they were even deprived of citizenship. In contrast, Israeli Arabs, about one-fifth of the country, have the same civil and political rights as do Israeli Jews. Arabs sit in the Knesset and serve in the military, although most are exempt from the draft. Whatever this is – and it looks suspiciously like a liberal democracy – it cannot be apartheid.’
I have known for some time, of course, that, no matter how many times journalists like Cohen repeat the statement that ‘Israeli Arabs’ – i.e., Palestinian citizens of Israel – have the same civil and political rights as do Israeli Jews, that simply is not the case. Blind recitation may be comforting, but it doesn’t actually transform reality. What I learned from my trip to South Africa, however, is that the parallel between the two situations (South Africa on the one hand and the occupied territories and Israel on the other) is much more extensive than is normally admitted in public discourse, though there are also some notable differences.
One thing I learned on my trip is that every single major South African apartheid law that I saw on the wall of the Johannesburg museum has a direct equivalent in Israel today.
The notorious Population Registration Act of 1950, which assigned to every South African a racial identity according to which he or she had access to (or was denied) a varying range of rights, has a direct equivalent in the Israeli laws that assign to every citizen of the state a distinct national identity. According to Israeli law, there is no such thing as Israeli nationality. As the High Court put it in the 1970s, ‘There is no Israeli nation separate from the Jewish people.’ So Jewish citizens of the state are classified as having ‘Jewish nationality’, but non-Jews, although they can be citizens of the state, are explicitly not members of the ‘nation’ – i.e., Jews all over the world, whether they want to be affiliated with Israel or not, whose state Israel claims to be. As a result, the national identity of the Palestinian citizens of Israel – who constitute 20 per cent of the actual rather than merely the ideological population of the state – is denied and erased at every institutional level. Unlike Jewish citizens, who are recognised as having a national identity, Israeli law methodically strips Palestinian citizens of their national identity and reduces them to mere ethnicity, which is why the state invented the term ‘Israeli Arabs’ to refer to them. (That term is never used to refer to the Arab Jews who make up a considerable proportion of Israel’s Jewish population – the real Israeli Arabs – because of course in their case Israel wants to erase their Arab identity and absorb them as Jews, whereas in the case of Palestinian citizens the reverse holds true: they can’t be absorbed as Jews, so their indigestible Arabness is emphasised).
This verbal sleight of hand is very hard to dislodge. I have had several fruitless arguments with the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times about the paper’s use of the term ‘Israeli Arabs’ to refer to Israel’s Palestinian citizens. Well, not arguments, exactly – I argue, I present evidence to show the artificial and misleading constructedness of the term and the extent to which Palestinians inside Israel totally refuse it and call themselves Palestinians, but the paper’s editors shrug their shoulders and say that I may have a point, but …
Of course, this linguistic evasion serves a purpose: it is what enables otherwise perfectly rational people like Roger Cohen or the editors of the LA Times to come along and blithely use the state’s discourse to buy into Israel’s erasure of Palestinian identity in total and blissful unawareness that that is exactly what they are doing, and to come out at the other end miraculously saying that the state treats all its citizens equally: the act of discrimination is invisible because it is inscrutable. How, after all, can you acknowledge that Israel discriminates against its Palestinian population when there is no such thing? What Palestinians? There are no Palestinians inside Israel, only ‘Israeli Arabs’. But that’s the point: the denial, the erasure, the act of discrimination, is already there before the utterance is made. There is no language for it; it cannot be uttered.
Indeed, this above all is what so markedly distinguishes Israeli apartheid from South African apartheid. Whereas the latter insisted on giving itself a name and drawing attention to itself through endless verbal and visual cues, the former completely elides and covers over the forms of racism that it embodies just as fully. Those who support racism in Israel can do so in total freedom from having to reckon with the fact that that is what they are doing. It is the ultimate example of what David Theo Goldberg has recently theorised as ‘racism without racism’. This is, in short, the most brilliant use of interpellated denial and erasure that has ever been put into practice in the world, though, like so many things in Israel (e.g., building Independence Park on a Palestinian cemetery in Jerusalem, or inventing the legal category of the ‘present absentees’ to refer to Palestinians who were driven from their homes in 1948 but remained within the borders of the state, or landscaping the West Bank wall from the Israeli side so its true scale is obscured and diminished), it is a purely unintended brilliance, and hence not really brilliance at all, but rather yet one more instance of the mind-boggling forms of denial at which Israel and its admirers are so proficient, indeed, on which the liberal Western admiration of Israel depends for its very existence.
At the end of the day, the South African white, irrespective of her ideological position, had to look at the sign saying ‘blankes/nie blankes’ and affiliate herself accordingly – an awkwardness the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg re-enacts very effectively at its entrance. The Jewish Israeli, and the supporter of Israel overseas, is never forced into that confrontation, never has to make that choice – it’s done for him before language: the racism is pre-digested and rendered inscrutable. Jewish Israelis and admirers of the state can say that Israel treats all its citizens equally, not so much because they do not realise that discrimination operates at the level of nationality rather than at the secondary level of citizenship, but rather because, unlike white South Africans, they are spared from having to reckon with that realisation. They are allowed, and they allow themselves, to see right through it, to indulge in the misrecognition of an ugly reality that is actually staring them in the face, to continuously misrecognise the facts when someone else insists on tabulating, documenting and presenting them – and to erupt in blind resentful fury if the facts are pushed at them too insistently.
Stripping Palestinian citizens of their national identity is not only merely degrading, however. In Israel, various fundamental rights – access to land and housing, for example – are attendant upon national identity, not the lesser category of mere citizenship. Thus, Jews who are not citizens actually have more rights than citizens who are not Jewish; in no other country on earth do racially privileged non-citizens enjoy greater rights than citizens and residents.
Hence, the Group Areas Act of 1950, which assigned different areas of South Africa for the residential use of different racial groups, has a direct equivalent in the system of regulations that determine access to land inside Israel (and inside the occupied territories too, of course, but here I am talking about pre-1967 Israel). Palestinian citizens of the state are legally excluded from residing in officially designated ‘Jewish community settlements’ or ‘Jewish rural settlements’ organised into rural councils that control the vast majority of the land in Israel. Indeed, they are barred from living on state land or land held by ‘national institutions’ such as the Jewish National Fund (JNF), which compose 93 per cent of the land inside Israel, almost every square inch of it Palestinian property violently expropriated by the new state after the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948. Nowhere, in fact, is the extent and institutionalisation of this kind of discrimination more glaringly obvious than in the pronouncements of the JNF, which advertises itself as ‘the caretaker of the land of Israel on behalf of its owners – Jewish people everywhere’. This institution not only acknowledges but proudly justifies its long-established record of discriminating against Palestinian citizens by pointing out that it ‘is not a public body which acts on behalf of all the citizens of the state. Its loyalty is to the Jewish people and its responsibility is to it [i.e., the Jewish people] alone. As the owner of JNF land, the JNF does not have to act with equality towards all citizens of the state.’ Moreover, it points out, ‘Israel’s Knesset [i.e., parliament] and Israeli society have expressed their view that the distinction between Jews and non-Jews that is the basis for the Zionist vision is a distinction that is permitted,’ and, indeed, that its allocation of land to Jews alone ‘is in complete accord with the founding principles of the state of Israel as a Jewish state and that the value of equality, even if it applies to JNF lands, would retreat before this principle’.
As a result of all the forms of discrimination with which they must contend as non-Jews living in the would-be Jewish state (would-be in spite of the continuing non-Jewish, Palestinian presence), some 10 per cent of the Palestinian citizens of Israel live today in ‘unrecognised villages’ which predate the existence of the state by decades or centuries yet do not appear on any official maps. They are therefore not connected to the national power grid, the national water distribution system, the phone network or the mail system. They do not officially exist, other than the fact that all the homes in these villages are slated for demolition because they exist on land that the state retroactively zoned as agricultural, there being ‘no residences’ there, after all. Here again the same logic of profound denial of denial is at work: how can you deny the circumstances of life in villages that according to the state do not officially exist in the first place? There is literally nothing to deny!
The Black Education Act of 1953, which created a separate and unequal educational system for black South Africans, has a direct equivalent in the administrative procedures that have created separate and unequal educational systems for Jewish and non-Jewish citizens of the state of Israel (and again the same thing goes for the occupied territories too). The naked statistics say it all: the state provides 1,600 subsidised day-care centres, for example, but only 25 of those are in Palestinian towns. Only 4,200 of the 80,000 Israeli children under four years old who attend day-care are Palestinian, though had that number been in proportion to the actual population, it would have been over 20,000. After day-care, Israel invests more than three times as much on a per capita basis in a Jewish student than it does in a non-Jewish (i.e., Palestinian) one. The state’s current list of the 553 towns and villages granted top priority for education excluded all Palestinian towns inside Israel other than four villages. There are 25 special art schools for Jewish children, and none for Palestinian children – citizens of the state all. And at the higher levels of its school system, Israel opens far more curricular tracks to Jewish students than to Palestinian ones. As a result of all these forms of discrimination, and nakedly discriminatory entrance and matriculation procedures – and despite the fact that Palestinians traditionally place great emphasis on their children’s education, a fact attested to by the disproportionately large numbers of Palestinians among the Arab intelligentsia – a far greater proportion of Jewish students make it through high school, get accepted to university and graduate. Only 10 per cent of Israel’s university students are Palestinian, for example, though proportionately speaking it ought to be double that number. Only 3 per cent of its PhD students are Palestinian. Only 1 per cent of its university lecturers are Palestinian.
And the list goes on. South Africa’s Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act of 1949 has its equivalent in the Israeli laws prohibiting Jews from marrying non-Jews (again, there is no proscription in language that announces this prohibition as such, but there is no institution of civil marriage in Israel, so Jews are only allowed to marry other Jews, and then only according to Orthodox religious law); the Natives (Urban Areas) Consolidation Act of 1945 and the Black (Native) Amendment Act of 1952 that required black South Africans to carry passes and regulated their access to urban areas have equivalents in the various Israeli laws regulating and controlling the movement of Palestinians – but not Jews – within the occupied territories and between and among the occupied territories, Jerusalem and Israel; the Public Safety Act of 1953 has an equivalent in the Israeli military regulations permitting the long-term detention without trial of Palestinians (but not Jews, who are protected by Israeli civil law) in the occupied territories – a cumulative total of 650,000 Palestinians have been held prisoner by Israel since 1967, about 20 per cent of the entire population; the Promotion of Bantu Self-Government Act of 1952, which mandated greater official recognition of the Bantustans like Transkei, and the Bantu Homelands Constitution Act of 1971, have an equivalent in the Oslo Accords’ creation of a so-called Palestinian Authority to manage the affairs of Palestinian (but not Jewish) residents of the occupied territories.
Indeed, just as South Africa created Transkei, Ciskei and Bophuthatswana in order to artificially delete as many blacks as possible from South Africa’s own population registry, Israel maintains pockets of the West Bank and all of Gaza as holding pens for the land’s non-Jewish population while settling the rest of the territory with its own population in order to be able to have its cake and eat it too: to absorb the land (settling it) but not the people, and hence to maintain the claim that it is a Jewish state while keeping to a bare minimum the number of non-Jews who officially live within the state – and hence to perpetuate the fiction that it does not disenfranchise the majority of the land’s population that is Palestinian. Of course Israel disenfranchises the land’s Palestinian majority: there are today 11 million Palestinians and 5 million Israeli Jews. Israel’s manipulation of populations and territories, however, obscures as much as possible these material circumstances: 1 million Palestinians are citizens of Israel and linguistically disappeared into the category of ‘Israeli Arabs’, so they don’t count; 6 million Palestinians continue to live in the exile that was violently forced on them in 1948 by Israel, which continues to deny their legal and moral right of return, so they don’t count either. That leaves only the 4 million or so Palestinians in the occupied territories, and they have the blessings of an illusory autonomy (or at least the talk about one day having autonomy) and the collaborationist Palestinian Authority and its hopelessly compromised and politically bankrupt leadership. The fact that Israel has held – while stubbornly refusing to resolve the status of – the occupied territories for over four decades, or two thirds of its own existence as a state, belies the discursive provisionality of the territories’ status. Israel has colonised, planted and partially developed the West Bank and East Jerusalem; it has settled half a million of its own citizens there; it has extended its own laws there; it uses the aquifers and airspace there every single day. In practice, Israel has annexed the West Bank; only in name has it not done so. And the only reason it has not done so is because only the pretence that the West Bank (and Gaza) is exterior to the state allows Israel to maintain a fiction at the level of language that is belied by the material reality – which allows, for example, Roger Cohen to come along and say, well, yes, there may be discrimination in the West Bank, ‘but it is not part of Israel proper’, so it doesn’t really count, and anyway that territory will eventually be the ‘heartland’ of a Palestinian state (something that has been talked about for almost two decades, half as long as the West Bank has actually been occupied, without it making the slightest bit of difference on the ground – e.g., the colonist population has essentially tripled since the first so-called peace talks in 1991).
There are, of course, major differences between apartheid inside Israel and apartheid in South Africa.
I have already pointed out one of the major differences: the legibility of South African apartheid and the relative illegibility – inscrutability – of Israeli apartheid. Nowhere in Israel or the occupied territories is there a sign that baldly says ‘Jews only’. The racism is practised in practice rather than in language. That’s what enables supporters of Israel to engage in the endless equivocation and hair-splitting to which they are so often reduced in defending a form of racism that denies that that is what it is. For example, to the charge that there are two different road networks in the West Bank, one for Jews (connecting colonies to each other and to Israel) and one for non-Jews, the retort – one that is routinely deployed by Israeli hasbara and propaganda outfits in the US and Europe, such as CAMERA, whose capacity for linguistic contortionism is so extreme that it is almost comical – is invariably to insist that one network is reserved for all Israeli citizens, not just Jewish ones. In the most narrowly literal sense – at the level of language that has ceased to function as language because it no longer conveys meaning, because it is not meant to – that’s true. On the other hand, only Jews live in the West Bank colonies (Palestinians, whether they are citizens of Israel or not, aren’t allowed to live there because they are not Jewish), so in practice if not in name one road network is set apart for Jews. Again, as with so many other things, what’s in play here is a form of denial that can’t bring itself to acknowledge itself for what it is. It is by staring so obsessively at language, not seeing the absent meanings because they are not conveyed in language – ‘where does it say “Jews only”?’ – that the supporters of Israel allow themselves to avoid recognising the material reality: there does not have to be a sign saying ‘Jews only’ in language in order for Jews only to use the road in practice. Unlike apartheid in South Africa, what we see in Israel is racism that avoids language; racism without a proper name, or, in Goldberg’s formulation, racism without racism. That doesn’t make it any less racist, however.
Another difference is that the system of apartheid inside South Africa, for all its violence and viciousness, was never as violent or as vicious as the system that obtains inside Israel and the occupied territories. The movement of blacks in South Africa was controlled, not banned altogether, as is the case, for example, with Gaza. The South African government dispatched Caspar armoured cars and soldiers with rifles into Soweto – not heavy tanks, Apache helicopters firing Hellfire missiles and F-16s dropping one-ton bombs on people. The Sharpeville Massacre was an exceptional event in South Africa; for Palestinians, it would – though this is of course not to diminish it – hardly stand out in a list of massacres extending from Deir Yassin and Tantra in the 1940s to Kufr Qassem, Rafah and Khan Younis in the 1950s to Sabra and Shatilia in the 1980s to Nablus and Jenin in the 2000s to Gaza in 2008–09. There is nothing like a precedent for Israel’s 2008–09 assault on Gaza in the entire history of apartheid in South Africa: the murder of one out of every thousand people; the destruction of tens of thousands of homes at one go; the cutting off of vital supplies of food, medicine, fuel and construction materials to a population composed – as Gaza’s is – largely of children, condemning them to malnourishment; the gloating in print, for all the world to see (though not for it to make a shred of difference), as the Israeli Harvard fellow Martin Kramer did recently, that the reduction of population by siege and malnourishment will also reduce the number of ‘redundant young men’, and hence reduce the threat that Gaza poses to Israel.
Veterans from the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa who visit Israel and the occupied territories consistently say the same thing. ‘It is worse, worse, worse than everything we endured,’ noted Mondli Makhanya, editor-in-chief of the Sunday Times of South Africa, after a recent visit to Palestine. ‘The level of the apartheid, the racism and the brutality are worse than the worst period of apartheid. The apartheid regime viewed the blacks as inferior; I do not think the Israelis see the Palestinians as human beings at all.’
And that of course is the major substantive difference between South African apartheid and Israeli apartheid. There is a world of difference between inferiority and dehumanisation: it is the difference between exploitation and annihilation. As the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg makes very clear, in South Africa the system was designed to enable the exploitation of black labour, to use black people’s labour power to work in houses, offices and gold mines, but deny them equal rights – for the white elite to have its cake and eat it too. The Israeli system is not about exploitation of Palestinian labour; labour from the occupied territories is now totally irrelevant to the Israeli economy, having been made up for by recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union and the supply of cheap workers from southeast Asia enabled by global circuits of exchange. It is, as it has always been, about the removal of one population and its replacement by another, a process that began but did not end in 1948, and that continues to this day every time a Palestinian home is demolished in Jerusalem, every time a Palestinian family is expelled from the ghost town that is central Hebron, every time a Palestinian Jerusalemite is stripped of her residency papers and expelled from the city of her birth, every time a Palestinian family is shattered and broken because of an Israeli law that was instituted in 2003 that prevents a Palestinian in Israel or Jerusalem from marrying and living with a spouse from the occupied territories, even though of course a Jewish Israeli can marry a Jewish colonist from the West Bank and they can live together wherever they please (when a similar law was proposed at the peak of apartheid in South Africa in 1980, it was summarily dismissed by that country’s high court as an unacceptable violation of black people’s right to family; Israel’s high court upheld that country’s new law in 2006).
In a word, as I have put this in other contexts, South African apartheid was bio-political in nature, concerned with the management and administration of living black labour. Israel’s is, to borrow the phrase that Achille Mbembe has elaborated so effectively, necropolitical, concerned with the destruction and erasure of Palestinians, something that every Palestinian resists every single day, if only by the act of stubbornly continuing to exist.
This necropolitics depends crucially and absolutely, however, on the system of inscrutability and invisibility that allows Israelis and the supporters of Israel to go on practicing and endorsing a vulgar and violent form of racism without having to reckon with and acknowledge the fact that that is precisely what they are doing. I have argued in other contexts – most recently in my Critical Inquiry article about the construction of a so-called Museum of Tolerance (really a kind of shrine to Zionism) right on top of the ruins of the most important Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem – that there are two main forms of Zionism in practice today: a hardcore Zionism which we see at work in, for example, the pronouncements of Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s current foreign minister, who has made an open call for the expulsion of Israel’s Palestinian citizens the platform for his recent meteoric rise in Israeli politics, which involves a kind of brutal honesty; and a softcore Zionism – the dominant one still – whose adherents are, by virtue of the linguistic and historical and emotional short-circuits I have described here, spared from having to reckon with and honestly acknowledge that what they support is a racist enterprise; it is only on the basis of that very inscrutability, in fact, that they can go on supporting it. This is the kind of Zionist position that says, for example, in all innocence, that it is anti-Semitic to criticise Zionism because it only represents the Jewish people’s right to have a national homeland like every other people. In asking so insistently why Jews should be denied the same right that every other people have, the softcore Zionist depends on the emotional short-circuit I have discussed here to mis-recognise the very question she is asking, for the flip-side of the same question is not whether Jews have a right to a homeland, it’s whether that right cancels out the Palestinian people’s own right to a homeland (and the answer to that question is an absolute no). Only by concentrating so obsessively and self-absorbedly on the recto of the question does the softcore Zionist avoid having to deal with its hideous verso and with the indelible fact that there is not, there never was and there never will be a way to create a Jewish state in Palestine without denying or negating the Palestinian claim to the same land and the historical rights attendant on that claim. Rather than making the denial of Palestinian rights an explicit component of her ideological position – as the hardcore Zionist does – the softcore Zionist removes that denial from her field of vision, in effect denying that there is anything to deny to begin with. And as I said earlier, the great strength of Israel’s system of apartheid is that it is structured in such a way that it never ever makes the great mistake of South African apartheid by forcing people to confront the nakedness and vulgarity of its racism. So they can support it and go on thinking of themselves as virtuous, ethical and progressive, technologically chic, friendly to animals and kind to the environment.
Where does this leave Palestinians and those who advocate for their rights?
There are, I think, two immediate conclusions from this discussion. One point is this: the reason negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis so often seem so futile is that the whole point of the linguistic short-circuits and forms of denial of denial that I have been discussing here is to forestall negotiation, or at least to bypass and render unapproachable the core of the conflict between Zionism and the Palestinians. The great strength of a racism that exists outside of language – that exempts itself from language – is that it is also quite impervious to language: every attempt to point to it and say ‘that’s the problem’ will be met with the perfectly sincere reply ‘what problem?’ What racism? What villages? What road network? What Palestinians? This is a structural complex for which there is no resolution at the level of language and hence diplomatic negotiation (let alone negotiation between two totally unequal parties). Hence the manifest futility of the attempts to end this conflict by raising consciousness among Israelis or supporters of Israel around the world, or appealing to their better instincts, the sheer stubborn refusal to acknowledge reality is demonstrated every single time lectures on Palestinian rights around the world are met with that wearily familiar wall of solid denials and that total refusal to entertain facts, evidence, reason, laws, principles – if not actually eruptions of inarticulate fury – to which we have all grown so accustomed.
The second point is that it should be even more obvious than ever that, in view of the system of apartheid in place in Israel and the occupied territories – a system of apartheid that is inseparable from the project to create and maintain the pretence of a Jewish state in what is fact a profoundly heterogeneous land – there can be no peaceful and just resolution of the Zionist conflict with the Palestinians until the attempt to replace one people with another, to impose a monocultural identity on a multicultural country, is abandoned and its institutions completely dismantled. Creating a Palestinian statelet in the West Bank alongside an Israel whose claim to Jewishness would be reinforced in a two-state solution would do little for West Bankers, less for Gazans, nothing for the refugees and their descendants, and less than nothing for the Palestinian citizens of Israel, whose status as reviled non-Jews would become even worse. Only the creation of a democratic and secular state in all of historic Palestine, in which Israeli Jews and Palestinians – all of them, the ones now under occupation, the ones living as second-class citizens of Israel, and the refugees of 1948 and their descendants, whose right of return is absolutely beyond question – can live as equal citizens can resolve this conflict once and for all.
From these two conclusions a third follows as well. A just peace will not come about by merely pleading with or trying to persuade Israeli Jews to do the right thing and abandon and dismantle the racist system that endows them with privileges while denying fundamental Palestinian rights. All the closest historical precedents to this conflict – above all South Africa – remind us that privileged groups don’t abandon their privileges just because that’s the right thing to do or because they are made to feel bad about enjoying those privileges; they abandon them only when they have no other choice. This case is no different. A just peace fundamentally requires non-violent, outside pressure to be brought to bear on Israel, which is why for so many people of goodwill around the world, and for so many Palestinians themselves, the growing BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement is a source of such hope.
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* Saree Makdisi is a professor of English literature at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and the author of ‘Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation’ (W.W. Norton, New York, 2008).
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