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Israel is an apartheid state, says B'Tselem; time to ditch the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism?

View of the Palestinian Shuafat refugee camp behind Israel's apartheid wall in east Jerusalem on 3 December 2014 [Muammar Awad/Apaimages]
View of a Palestinian refugee camp behind Israel's apartheid wall in east Jerusalem on 3 December 2014 [Muammar Awad/Apaimages]

When B'Tselem described Israel as an apartheid state in a position paper last week, it did more than just dispel long held delusions about the Zionist state. In saying that Israel "promotes and perpetuates Jewish supremacy between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River," the country's largest human rights group may have rescued the possibility of open and honest discussion from those who seek to stifle free speech under the cloak of combating anti-Semitism.

Such is the goal of those advocating the adoption of the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism. B'Tselem's groundbreaking paper and an equally compelling article a few days earlier in the London Review of Books by the American writer Nathan Thrall, exposed the lie at the heart of what is in any case meant to be a "working definition".

The dispute centres around seven of the eleven illustrative examples that conflate anti-Semitism with criticism of the state of Israel. Claiming, for instance, that the existence of a state of Israel is a "racist endeavour" can get you branded as an anti-Semite. As ridiculous as this sounds, B'Tselem is thus, according to the IHRA, an anti-Semitic organisation. Though the definition has no legal standing, its adoption by political parties, civil society organisations and academic institutions will still have a chilling effect on free speech, which is why British government coercion to get universities to adopt the IHRA document has been condemned.

Opponents of the definition include the Institute of Race Relations; eminent lawyers; civil rights organisation Liberty; leading academic experts on anti-Semitism; 40 global Jewish social justice organisations; and more than 80 UK-based BAME groups. Moreover, Kenneth Stern, an author of the IHRA definition, has expressed deep concern at its use to suppress criticism of Israel on university campuses.

READ: Controversial anti-Semitism definition 'not fit for purpose', concludes new report

B'Tselem's position paper and Thrall's article, "The Separate Regimes Delusion" — which also dismisses the notion that Israel and its occupation can be separated — not only underscore problems with the IHRA and why critics are right to warn of its assault on free speech, but have also shattered long held assumptions about Israel's much vaunted democracy. The latter is one reason why the West feels obliged to protect the Zionist state despite its many human rights violations and breaches of international law.

Even prominent critics of Israel have been reluctant to break ranks and abandon the broad consensus that, while apartheid may be inflicted upon the Occupied Palestinian Territories, inside "Israel proper", there is a democratic state. This is based on the false assumption that the occupation is temporary and Palestinians will eventually be granted self-determination and statehood. It's an illusion. In the seven decades since Israel's founding in Palestine there have been only six months — during 1966-67 — when the occupation state did not place members of one specific ethnic group under military government while it confiscated their land.

Unlike Israel's soft critics, B'Tselem argues that after more than half a century, the regime and its occupation should be treated as a single entity guided by the core racist organising principle of "advancing and perpetuating the supremacy of one group – Jews – over another – Palestinians." According to the rights group, the legal bar for defining Israel as an apartheid regime has been met and that this determination was reached after considering the accumulation of policies and laws that have been devised to entrench Jewish control and privilege. B'Tselem referred to a number of official statements and policies, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's assertion in 2019 that "Israel is not a state of all its citizens" and the 2018 Nation State Law which says that "the right to exercise national self-determination [in Israel is] unique to the Jewish people", while also enshrining in law "the development of Jewish settlement as a national value."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a briefing on coronavirus developments in Israel at his office in Jerusalem, on September 13, 2020 [YOAV DUDKEVITCH/POOL/AFP via Getty Images]

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on 13 September 2020 [YOAV DUDKEVITCH/POOL/AFP/Getty Images]

While B'Tselem offered a number of examples of the ways in which Israel has installed different standards of rights based on ethnicity in all of historic Palestine, Thrall, who lives in Jerusalem and is the director of the International Crisis Group, dispels in great detail the delusion of two separate regimes. He argues that the view that Israel is a democracy rests on "a conceptual wall" between the country and the occupied territories that doesn't exist in reality. Rejecting the flawed logic, he says that "the fiction of separate regimes allows liberal Zionists to promote a politically correct two-state solution based on the pre-1967 line."

READ: Controversial anti-Semitism definition undermines free speech, warn lawyers and judges

Acknowledging that it is not difficult to make the case that Israel's actions in the West Bank amount to apartheid, Thrall offers striking examples while arguing that this label should be extended to the state itself, not just the occupied territories. For example, since the 1980s, Palestinian citizens of Israel have been the only group that could be brought to trial before military courts; of the public land that Israel has designated for any kind of use, 99.76 per cent of land went to Jewish settlements; Israelis travel freely across Israel and its West Bank settlements which no Palestinian can do; the Israeli Knesset passes legislation applying specifically to the occupied West Bank. Dismissing the idea that the occupied territory constitutes a separate regime he insists that, "Israel's absorption of the West Bank is a joint undertaking of every branch of government – legislative, executive and judicial."

The conclusion of B'Tselem's "This is Apartheid" paper and Thrall's "separate regime delusion" is one and the same: it is impossible to speak any longer about "apartheid in the territories." It's impossible to separate the occupied Palestinian territories just as much as it's impossible to consider the occupation as temporary.

Both have triggered a serious debate amongst critics who are normally averse to calling Israel an apartheid state. A Guardian editorial, for example, asked if Israeli apartheid is "prophecy or description". It conceded reluctantly that "Palestinians – unlike Israeli Jews – live under a fragmented mosaic of laws, often discriminatory, and public authorities which seem indifferent to their plight." Rather than offering a decisive conclusion that Israel is indeed an apartheid state, the British paper, which has a number of senior employees who are at best soft critics of the ongoing military occupation, merely left its readers with the question, "What if there is only, in reality, one regime between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, rather than one political power that controls the territory in which there are distinct regimes?"

Others were more honest about their conversion. Explaining why he was persuaded that the entire area from the "river to the sea" should be described as an apartheid regime, Professor Norman Finkelstein clarified that, "The basis of this conclusion was simple and straightforward." The defining feature of an occupation under international law, he argued, is that it is temporary and that if it is not temporary, it constitutes an illegal annexation. He admitted "that after more than a half-century of Israeli 'occupation,' and after repeated declarations by the Israeli government that it didn't intend to withdraw from the [occupied Palestinian territories] in conformity with international law, the only reasonable inference was that the [territories] had been de facto annexed, regardless of the formal legal label Israel attached to them." Thus, concluded Finkelstein, "from the river to the sea", Israel is a single entity.

In theory, the debate about Israeli apartheid sparked off by B'Tselem's paper should mean that it will be harder to label critics of Israel as anti-Semites for arguing that it is a racist state. The report not only debunks the absurd examples cited by the IHRA as instances of anti-Jewish racism, but also raises awkward questions for the likes of Britain's Labour Party which have adopted the working definition without pausing to think about the reality of the occupation. Will Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, having adopted the IHRA blindly, it seems, feel compelled to expel members of the party who express the views of Israel's most prominent human rights group? Will universities be forced to censure students who promote the idea that Israel is an apartheid state if the efforts of the Conservative government to force academic institutions to adopt the discredited definition are successful?

While we wait for an answer to these questions, it seems obvious that those who have adopted the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism have done so under a set of illusions. Israel is not a democracy in the accepted sense; it has neither any intention nor desire to end the occupation; and the two-state "solution" and "peace process" are a fiction which buy the state more time to expand its illegal colonial-settlements.

If such people are serious about helping the 12 million people living in historic Palestine who are locked in a seemingly never-ending conflict, they need to start being honest with themselves and everyone else. As the executive director of B'Tselem says, "Calling things by their proper name – apartheid – is not a moment of despair: rather, it is a moment of moral clarity, a step on a long walk inspired by hope. See the reality for what it is, name it without flinching – and help bring about the realisation of a just future."

It's time to ditch the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. There can be no doubt, surely, that it is the right thing to do.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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