What kind of society?

Page last updated 12 July 2018

There are various ways of interpreting developments in Israeli society. Liberal and left Zionists tend to see Zionism as the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, building a new society under enormous pressure and trying, in adverse circumstances, to maintain both its Jewish and its democratic character, with (inevitable) shortcomings. Radical critiques generally see it as a settler-colonial society of some kind and tend to look at Israel in comparative perspective. Matzpen (the Israeli Socialist Organisation) was an early proponent of this view, as Moshé Machover one of its founders, explains below. There are discussions as to whether it is more of a settler society (displacing the original inhabitants) or a settler-colonial one (wanting to exploit the original inhabitants). Refinements of this approach include Oren Yiftachels’s analysis of Israel as an ethnocratic society.

In recent years a number of comparisons have been made between developments in Israel and/or the occupied territories and apartheid (obviously not to the exclusion of the settler-society label as well). Uri Davis was one of the earliest users of the analogy in his book Israel: An Apartheid State (1987), but it only really came into widespread use after the start of the second intifada, particularly after the South African Jewish declaration Not in My Name, drew uncomfortable parallels. Other South Africans like Archibishop Tutu and John Dugard concurred, while Benjamin Pogrund rejected the analogy entirely (see below). Some critics countenance its use to describe the situation in the occupied territories but reject it out of hand with regard to green-line Israel (Pogrund again). Others find the situation in Israel, particularly after recent developments and pressure to make the Palestinians acknowledge Israel “as a Jewish state” as tending more and more towards an apartheid one. The term has now come into much wider use in the broader Palestine solidarity movement, particularly since the publication of Ben White’s book, Israeli Apartheid: a Beginner’s Guide (Pluto Press, 2008). For further discussion and links, see Is Israel an apartheid society?

Some (including many within Israel) who use the term are concerned simply with the discriminatory implications of trying to maintain ‘a Jewish state’; others make direct comparisons with the apartheid regime in South Africa, often with strategic implications. This topic is looked at further in Key Debates section, where the issue of whether the term is used to delegitimise Israel, with possible antisemitic overtones, is addressed.


A: Jewish and democratic?
B: What kind of settler society?
C: Apartheid?


A: Jewish and Democratic?

1. Can Israel be both Jewish and democratic?
Ruth Gavison, Moment Magazine, (Dec 2000, Number 6, Volume 25)

Gavison is a pre-eminent Israeli scholar who has written frequently on this topic, in defence of the notion that Israel can be both Jewish and democratic (see her webpage). In this relatively short article from 2000 all the essential arguments are laid out.


2. A Jewish Demographic State
Uri Avnery, Gush Shalom, 12 Oct 2002

“In reality, this is not a ‘Jewish democratic state’ but a ‘Jewish demographic state’. Demography overcomes democracy in all fields of action. An Arab citizen feels at every turn, since childhood, that he has no part in the state, that he is, at most, a tolerated resident.”


3a. ‘Why depict Israel as a chamber of horrors like no other in the world?’
Benjamin Pogrund, Guardian, 8 Feb 2006

In a critique of two Chris McGreal articles (see below), Pogrund argues that Israel is “not a perfect society. It struggles to find itself as a Jewish state (with no consensus about what that means), and it struggles to evolve as a democratic society with full rights for minorities. It deserves criticism for its flaws and mistakes. It also merits sympathy and support in facing unfounded attack.”

3b. Israel has many injustices. But it is not an apartheid state
Benjamin Pogrund, Guardian, 22 May 2015

A more recent restatement, in response to a more widely used depiction of Israel as an apartheid state.


4. Israel can be both Jewish and democratic. Here’s how
Alexander Yakobson, Ha’aretz,  29 May 2014

A strong statement, drawing on European examples, of the argument that states can express the national, cultural or religious identity of the majority while at the same time guaranteeing civil rights and equality for all their citizens.


5. Are Israeli Jews beginning to accept the right of return?

Eléonore Bronstein and Eitan Bronstein Aparicio , in +972, 18 April 2018

A number of new surveys shows that at least a fifth of Israel’s Jewish citizens are open to the idea of Palestinian refugees returning to their homes. So how do we reconcile this with the violence being meted out to Palestinians on the Gaza border?


6. Israel at Seventy: Is the Right Winning the Culture War?

Bernard Avishai, New Yorker, 18 April 2018

Naftali Bennett and his like are indoctrinating the young into their national religious image.

7. The Israeli Government needs more Arab MKs

Naomi Chazan writes in Times of Israel, 4 June 2018

“Conventional wisdom in Israel has consistently maintained that the Arab community in the country, while privy to the fundamental civil right to vote and be elected, is not, as a collective, considered a worthy partner in any ruling coalition in the country. Dating back to the formative years of the state, successive prime ministers and contenders for high office have dismissed the possibility of incorporating Arab parties or their representatives into the government, relegating them in perpetuity to the opposition, and hence to extended political marginalization. They have thus given a hand to the systemic exclusion of Arab society in the country from the corridors of power, thereby contributing to the entrenchment of inequality based on national origin, in direct contravention of the letter and spirit of Israel’s Declaration of Independence.”…

Naomi Chazan is a former Meretz Mk and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, and Emeritus Professor of Political Science at Hebrew University.  She is co-director of WIPS, the Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.

B: What kind of settler society?

1. Israelis and Palestinians: Conflict and Resolution
Moshé Machover, Barry Amiel & Colin Melburn Trust Annual Lecture, 26 Nov 2006

Israel is seen as a colonial settler state but exceptional in at least three ways: it was historically the last colonisation project to get off the ground and is still ongoing; the settlers were not nationals of a European Power who sent them on their colonising mission and protected them; the conflict crystallised as a national one, unlike the usual relation between settlers and indigenous people which assumes the form of a quasi-class struggle. Plus an argument that any genuine resolution of the conflict will only become possible in the longer term, given a change in the regional balance of power.


2. Zionism, Anti-Semitism and  the Struggle against Racism
Nira Yuval-Davis, SOAS lecture, JfJfP 7 Dec 2006

An attempt to identify the common features of all settler-society states and then the specific features of the Israeli Zionist project and of the racism within it.

e.g. “One of the important specificities of the Zionist settler project is that as a result of various [factors] the size of the settler population and that of the indigenous population has been for many years now roughly the same. This means that no one side would be prepared to concede defeat easily and that the conflict, other things being equal, would tend to be much longer and bloodier.”


3. The Other Shift: Settler Colonialism, Israel, and the Occupation
Lorenzo Veracini, Journal of Palestinian Studies , Vol 42/2, 2012/13

The essay highlights the distinction between colonial and settler-colonial formations, between attempts to permanently dominate indigenous constituencies while ruling them from a metropolitan centre (as, for example, Britain’s rule in India and Nigeria) and efforts to erase indigenous peoples for the purpose of replacing them with another socio-political body (as, for example, in the United States, Canada, Australia, and so on).


4. ‘Ethnocracy’: The Politics of Judaizing Israel/Palestine
Oren Yiftachel, Constellations, 1998

Ethnocratic regimes are neither authoritarian nor democratic; but rather are states that maintain a relatively open government, while facilitating a non-democratic seizure of the country and polity by one ethnic group. Despite exhibiting several democratic features, they lack a democratic structure, tending to breach key democratic tenets, such as equal citizenship, the existence of a territorial political community (demos), universal suffrage, and protection against the tyranny of the majority.

This paper traces the making of the Israeli ethnocracy, focussing on the major Zionist project of Judaizing Israel/Palestine…


5. Yes, Zionism is Settler Colonialism
Rabbi Brant Rosen, Shalom Rav, 2 April 2016

Rosen argues that Jewish attachment to the land of Israel was traditionally  expressed as an inherently religious connection and that Zionism as a modern political movement, arising in the 19th century, was an explicit rejection of this Jewish tradition. Cultural Zionism, which wished to see Palestine as the centre of a Jewish cultural renaissance lost out to those who wanted to create a sovereign Jewish state in historic Palestine. And the ony way to do that was by getting rid of (most of) the indigenous population i.e. by means of settler colonialism.


6. Archaelogy should be objetcive, not a tool of Israeli mythology

Emek Shaveh, an Israeli NGO working to defend cultural heritage as a public asset

Emek Shaveh is an Israeli NGO working to defend cultural heritage rights and to protect ancient sites as public assets that belong to members of all communities, faiths and peoples. We object to the fact that the ruins of the past have become a political tool in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and work to challenge those who use archaeological sites to dispossess disenfranchised communities. We view heritage site as resources for building bridges and strengthening bonds between peoples and cultures and believe that archaeological sites cannot constitute proof of precedence or ownership by any one nation, ethnic group or religion over a given place.


C: Apartheid

The literature on this topic is now enormous. A selection of articles are given here, in four more-or-less arbitrary categories: historical (but still extremely relevant), more recent contributions; some more substantial analyses and debates; and finally, without comment, a further selection of noteworthy articles on the topic, generally posted on the JfJfP website when they appeared.


Apartheid I: Early contributions to the debate

1. Apartheid in the Holy Land
Desmond Tutu, Guardian, 29 Apr, 2002


2. The situation in the oPt, including East Jerusalem
John Dugard, Special Rapporteur, UN Commission on Human Rights, United Nations African Meeting in Support of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, Cape Town, 29 and 30 June 2004

An early comparison of the situation under occupation and in South Africa, by a South African Professor of international law.


3. Israel=Apartheid?
Susie Jacobs, Engage, 20 May 2005

Susie Jacobs, a sociology lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, argues in this scholarly, rigorous and informed piece, that any comparison must be systematic and in context, not used as an easy ‘way out’ of thinking about the real difficulties and uncertainties that exist in the current situation in Israel and Palestine.


4. In February 2006 Chris McGreal of The Guardian set the cat among the pigeons with two extremely interesting pieces on South Africa, apartheid and Israel.

(a) Worlds apart, Guardian, 6 Feb 2006
“Israelis have always been horrified at the idea of parallels between their country, a democracy risen from the ashes of genocide, and the racist system that ruled the old South Africa. Yet even within Israel itself, accusations persist that the web of controls affecting every aspect of Palestinian life bears a disturbing resemblance to apartheid.”
(b) Brothers in arms – Israel’s secret pact with Pretoria, Guardian,  7 Feb 2006
“During the second world war the future South African prime minister John Vorster was interned as a Nazi sympathiser. Three decades later he was being feted in Jerusalem…”

For a series of often highly emotional responses see Benjamin Pogrund’s Why depict Israel as a chamber of horrors like no other in the world? Wednesday, 8 Feb 2006; plus Letters, Tuesday, 7 Feb 2006 and Reactions from other experts and from readers  8 Feb 2006.

See also Israel’s collaboration with South African apartheid where Benjamin Pogrund reviews Polakow-Suransky’s  book, The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship With Apartheid South Africa (May 2010)


5. Jimmy Carter’s book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid (2006)
Accusations of antisemitism fell thick and fast around former-President Jimmy Carter, mainly but not exclusively by any means, because of the provocative title of his book, published late in 2006. There are also number of interesting – and sympathetic – discussions of the book, often from unlikely sources including:

a) Henry Siegman, Hurricane Carter The Nation, posted online 4 Jan 2007 (22 Jan 2007 issue). Siegman is a former executive head of the American Jewish Congress and the Synagogue Council of America.
b) Yossi Beilin The Case for Carter The Jewish Daily Forward, 16 Jan 2007
“[W]hat Carter says in his book about the Israeli occupation and our treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories … is entirely harmonious with the kind of criticism that Israelis themselves voice about their own country.
c) Tony Karom Israel and Apartheid: In Defense of Jimmy Carter, 22 Dec 2006
“The point being that Jimmy Carter had to write this book precisely because Palestinian life and history is not accorded equal value in American discourse, far from it. And his use of the word apartheid is not only morally valid; it is essential, because it shakes the moral stupor that allows many liberals to rationalize away the daily, grinding horror being inflicted Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.”
d) Kenneth W. Stein, My Problem with Jimmy Carter’s Book Middle East Forum, Spring 2007, Vol XIV/2
Stein was one of the people who resigned from the Carter Foundation over the book. This is his critique (called “mostly disingenuous” by Jeffrey Stein of Jewish Voice for Peace). Judge for yourself.
e) Norman Finkelstein Carter’s Real Sin is Cutting to the Heart of the Problem: The Ludicrous Attacks on Jimmy Carter’s Book Counterpunch, 28 Dec 2006. A swashbuckling tour of Carter’s critics.


Apartheid II: More recent contributions

1. “Introduction” to Ben White, Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide
Ben White, on JfJfP website, with permission of Pluto Press, 2009

“It is important to realise […] that to compare the situation in Palestine/Israel to apartheid South Africa is not to try and force a ‘one size fits all’ political analysis where there are clear differences, as well as similarities. Rather, any such comparison is useful in so far as it helps sheds light – in Israel’s case – on a political system that is based on structural racism, separation and dominance… even leaving aside the specific comparison with South Africa, Israel’s past and present policies towards the indigenous Palestinians fully meet the aforementioned definition of apartheid laid out in international law…”


2. We say apartheid, you say hafrada
Jeff Halper/ICAHD submission to the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, Nov 2011

The Cape Town sitting of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine concluded that “Israel subjects Palestinians to an institutionalised regime of domination”. Jeff Halper provided the tribunal with a sober account of the buildings pulled down and put up by the Israeli state, enacting its official policy of hafrada, or separation or apartheid.


3. Call it ‘occupation’ – it annihilates more than apartheid did
Thomas Mitchell and Ran Greenstein, +972,  5 & 8 May 2014

Greenstein and Mitchell take up the debate on whether ‘apartheid’ is the correct name for Israel’s form of rule over non-Jews. In Israel, the separation is less absolute than it was in S.Africa; in the oPt the Palestinians are wholly alien, never to have their national political identity put into effect. Even colonialism – in which the ruled were thought to be in training for nationhood – is too kind a word. And occupation, as has been ruled, is assumed to be temporary…


4. New Basic Law makes apartheid the foundation of Israel
Composite posting, JfJfP 2 Dec 2014

The bill declaring Israel to be the nation-state of ALL Jews betrays Israel’s founding principles and prepares for one state in which non-Jews would be constitutionally subjects not citizens – two of the views expressed in this compendium of articles.


5. Apartheid of a special type?
Ran Greenstein, The Johannesburg Salon, JfJfP 13 Feb 2011

A nuanced analysis of the Israel/Palestine reality which Greenstein characterises as “apartheid of a special type” – a unique system that combines democratic norms, military occupation, and exclusion/inclusion of extra-territorial populations. On the baisis of this, he argues that one approach to challenging this system would be to foster a bi-nationalism that would accommodate members of both national groups as equals, and facilitate negotiation underpinned by the discourse and values of democracy, justice, equality and human rights, rather than those of diplomacy and statehood.


6. Time to call it what it is: Israeli apartheid
Bradley Burston, Ha’aretz, 17 Aug 2015

An anguished Bradley Burston, who immigrated from LA to Israel in 1976, argues that he has finally had to recognise that the mesh of laws which the Israeli state has amassed to restrict every possible form of independent Palestinian life can only be called apartheid.


7. The Two Apartheids
Fawwaz Traboulsi & Assaf Kfoury, Jacobin, 27 May 2015

Explores the similarities and differences between South African apartheid and the Israeli system, and looks for lessons from the struggle against South African apartheid. “A major gap in these comparisons [usually] made between the South African case and the Palestinian case is their neglect of what it will take to change conditions in the neighboring Arab ‘front-line states’ and make them provide the necessary means to buttress the long effort to contain and ultimately reverse the Zionist project.”


Apartheid III: Some longer analyses

1. Apartheid and Occupation under International Law
John Dugard, Hisham B. Sharabi Memorial Lecture, 29 Mar 2009

“While international law tolerates military occupation, it does not approve it, specifically one that has continued for over 40 years as in the case of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory. Furthermore, during that time, Israel has introduced two other elements—colonialism and apartheid. Although there are many similarities between apartheid as it was applied in South Africa and Israel’s policies and practices in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, the systems are not identical. There are features of the Israeli regime in the occupied territory that were unknown to South Africans. This year’s Hisham B. Sharabi Memorial Lecture was delivered by Professor John Dugard.”


2. How to combat apartheid Israeli-style
Ran Greenstein, +972, JfJfP 6 Oct 2013

For some time, South Africans resented the use of their word, apartheid (Afrikaans for separation), as a description of any other system. The oppression and exploitation of black Africans by a white minority seemed exceptional in its brutal, lethal, total oppression. In two articles, Ran Greenstein, Israeli Jewish South African, looks at what makes the Israeli and S. African systems of ethnic segregation different – and alike.


3. Israel and apartheid revisited – part 1 and part 2
Ran Greenstein, Israel Occupation Archive, JfJfP 29 Aug 2010

In this long, two-part analysis Ran Greenstein casts a refreshing eye over the whole debate, arguing that “The notion of apartheid may be applicable in different ways to different components of the system. While Israel clearly is different from South African historical apartheid, in crucial respects it has affinities with apartheid in its generic sense.”


4. A racism outside of language: Israel’s apartheid
Saree Makdisi, Pambazuka News, JfJfP 11 Mar 2010

Palestinian writer Saree Makdisi freely acknowledges the differences between Israel and South Africa but finds many analogies. He shows in detail how the High Court ruling in the 1970s that “There is no Israeli nation separate from the Jewish people” feeds through into widespread discrimination against Palestinians within Israel who are notionally equal citizens. Palestinians are stripped of their national identity which is not only degrading in itself, but has material consequences in terms of housing and land rights for instance, which are attendant on national identity not mere citizenship. He finds in Israel a racism expressed in practice, not in language, and denied by Israel’s supporters: “where does it say ‘Jews only’?”


Apartheid IV: yet more…

(all except the last reposted on JfJfP website)

Falk’s final report, on the terms ‘hafrada’/apartheid, UN Human Rights Council, Jan 13, 2014
Israel, boycott, apartheid – the argument, Ha’aretz debate, Nov 2013
Enforcing Jewish separateness Eva Illouz on how it’s done, Ha’aretz, 23 Nov 2013
How will Israel govern its majority of non-Jews in Israel and oPt?, Jewish Forward on the numbers, Sep 2013
‘We have created this monster, a dual legal system’, interview with lawyer Michael Sfard, +972, 28 Jul 2013
Apartheid through the minds and bodies of children, UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, Jun 2013
Thanks be to Superland for showing us what we are, Gideon Levy, Ha’aretz, 4 Jun 2013
Annexation or Apartheid: (some) Israelis search for a word for their reality, Oren Yiftachel, 28 Feb 2013
Top analyst from CIA compares apartheid in Israel and South Africa, Paul R. Pillar, The National Interest, 17 Dec 2012
Defiance of law, case for one state, proof of apartheid: responses to Levy, composite posting JfJfP 11 Jul 2012
Russell Tribunal to consider whether Israel an apartheid state, MEMO, 1 Nov 2011
Degrees of separation: judging apartheid, Lev Luis Grinberg deplores Richard Goldstone’s attack on the “apartheid slander”, Tikkun, 17 Nov 2011
Israeli apartheid given a firm legal foundation, +972 and Open Democracy, JfJfP 27 Mar 2011
Are Israel and apartheid South Africa really different?Akiva Eldar, Ha’aretz, 4 Dec 2010
SA academic study finds that Israel is practicing apartheid and colonialism in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, The Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa (HSRC), JfJfP 31 May 2009
Citizenship and political integration: can we draw lessons from the rise and demise of apartheid?, Ran Greenstein, Nov 2006, originally in Hebrew


Contents of this section


a) What kind of society?

Jewish and democratic?

b) Divisions among Israeli citizens

Ashkenazi and Mizrachi
The Russians
The Falashas

Palestinian citizens of Israel

c) The Israeli Supreme Court – champion of rights?

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