Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to have driven a coach and horses through the implied claim of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism by announcing that the Zionist State belongs to the Jewish people alone. In other words, the 1.5 million Palestinian Israelis are not equal citizens, but anyone daring to call Israel an apartheid state or a racist entity is open to accusations of anti-Semitism based on the IHRA definition. Last year, universities across Europe cancelled “Israel Apartheid Week” programmes and members of political parties have even been suspended for daring to suggest that Israel’s policies bear an uncanny resemblance to apartheid, a fact which Netanyahu’s latest outburst appears to confirm.
The Israeli leader said on Sunday that his country belonged “only to the Jewish people”. This earned him a strong rebuke from some Israelis who called his views a betrayal of the Zionist State’s founding values. Indeed, its “Declaration of Independence” proclaims that Israel will “…foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace… it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” This is clearly not happening, prompting high profile show business figures such as Israeli actors Rotem Sela and Gal Gadot to take to social media to criticise Netanyahu. His fellow politicians, including President Reuvin Rivlin, also joined in the condemnation.
Netanyahu made his controversial statement in a response to Sela criticising the anti-Arab rhetoric of politicians during the current General Election campaign. “When the hell will someone in this government tell the public that Israel is a country of all its citizens,” she wrote on Instagram. The Prime Minister’s response was reported widely: Israel, he said, “is the national state, not of all its citizens, but only of the Jewish people.”
By declaring that the Palestinians in Israel are not equal citizens, Netanyahu has reinforced the view that “apartheid” is indeed an apt adjective for the Zionist State. In effect, he has destroyed the arguments used by pro-Israel lobby groups like the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Jewish Leadership Council, the UK Zionist Federation and the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM), as well as a number of British MPs, who have previously called for the government in Westminster to ban “Israel Apartheid Week” on university campuses, citing the IHRA definition.
Joan Ryan MP was chair of Labour Friends of Israel until she quit the Labour Party recently. She has previously attacked party leader Jeremy Corbyn for making what she alleged is the “totally inaccurate apartheid slur against Israel.” I asked her office for a comment about this but, at the time of writing, nothing has been forthcoming.
The Palestinians living in Israel are the survivors of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine by Zionist militias before and after Israel was created in 1948, and their descendants. They often accuse Israel of treating them as second-class citizens. Unlike millions of Palestinians living under Israel’s occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, they have some basic rights, but point out that the discrimination they face daily is entrenched within Israeli law by dozens of statutes.
Last July, for example, the Knesset (parliament) introduced the hugely controversial Jewish Nation-State Law. This legislation enshrined in law for the first time Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people” and was narrowly passed by 62 to 55 votes. Politicians from the Joint List — those parties representing 1.5 million Palestinian citizens — were thrown out of the chamber amidst furious scenes after they tore up the legislation in the chamber. Joint List chair Ayman Odeh said that the new law meant Israel “declared it does not want us here” and “that we will always be second-class citizens.”
His view was supported on Sunday by no less than Netanyahu himself who, posing next to the Israeli flag, told Rotem Sala on Instagram: “Rotem dear, an important correction: Israel is not a state of all its citizens. According to the Nation-State Law that we passed, Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, and them alone.”
Wonder Woman star Gal Gadot waded in to support Sala, whose original comments prompted a wave of abusive online comments. Gadot, who has 28.2 million followers on Instagram said: “This isn’t a matter of right or left, Jew or Arab, secular or religious. It’s a matter of dialog [sic], of discussing peace and equality and our tolerance toward one another. The responsibility for sowing hope and light for a better future for our children is ours. Rotem, sister, you are an inspiration to us all.”Supermodel Shlomit Malka-Levi also backed Sela. Posting on the Facebook page of the show Hatzinor she wrote, “The responses I’ve seen to Rotem’s post have been frightful and scary. How can it be that in 2019, in a democratic country, people have to be afraid to speak their minds? Where has freedom of expression gone? Are we still a democratic country at all? And if we indeed define ourselves as a Jewish state, what does that mean? What are Jewish values? What symbolises Jewish education more than, ‘Decency comes before the Torah,’ than ‘Love your neighbour as yourself?’ Who is supposed to understand better than us the deep ramifications of racism and baseless hatred?”
The leader of the Arab Movement for Change (Ta’al), Ahmad Tibi took to Twitter: “If a leading media personality like Rotem Sela needs courage to say that Arabs are also human beings, it testifies to the dark times we’re living in. What Netanyahu and Regev said is embarrassing. You’d be surprised to hear that Arabs are also people and citizens who want to be equal.”
Politicians in Israel know that Israel has the characteristics of an apartheid entity boasted about so openly by Netanyahu on social media. British politicians, meanwhile, continue to keep their heads in the sand and pretend that Palestinians living in Israel are not second-class citizens simply because they can vote in “the only democracy in the Middle East”. The reality of the daily struggle for their legitimate rights and equality is ignored by Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs alike.
We shouldn’t be too surprised at this, though, for British politicians have a long and shameful history of protecting apartheid regimes. There are still some in Westminster who have never been held to account for their support for white rule in South Africa and their opposition to the late Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress.
When the late Conservative Prime Minister Ted Heath took office in 1970 he promised to end the arms embargo on South Africa and resume arms deals with the apartheid government. In the following decade his successor Margaret Thatcher resisted global pressure to impose sanctions on South Africa and labelled Mandela and the ANC as “terrorists”.
Around the same time, the young David Cameron embarked on an all-expenses paid trip to South Africa courtesy of an anti-sanctions lobbying firm. Members of the Federation of Conservative Students, meanwhile, wore “Hang Nelson Mandela” badges with pride.
Last year, the British government protected Israel from accountability at the United Nations by refusing to vote for an independent investigation into the killing of 60 Palestinians in one day, 14 May, in a massacre dubbed the “Palestinian Sharpeville” after the 1960 murder of 69 black protesters by South African apartheid security forces. Sections of the British establishment and Westminster are as deeply complicit in Israel’s apartheid atrocities as they were over South Africa’s.
It is ironic that following the adoption of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, it is the Israeli Prime Minister who has stated what pro-Palestine activists have been saying for years: Israel is a racist apartheid state. No amount of sophistry can disguise the basic reality that Israel has betrayed its own Declaration of Independence and in doing so has created deadly misery for millions of Palestinians in the process. Wake up Westminster; if Netanyahu can be loud and proud about apartheid Israel, why can’t British MPs?
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.