Thursday
Apr112013

Israeli Property Theft is Nothing New

Extracted from COUNTERPUNCH ONLINE JOURNAL - APRIL 10, 2013

Is the Custodian of Absentee Property Awaiting the Absentees?

Israeli Property Theft is Nothing New

by Dr. PAUL LARUDEE

cus·to·di·an (kəs-ˈtō-dē-ən) n.  1.  One who has charge of something: caretaker

–     The Heritage Illustrated Dictionary of the English Language, International Edition, 1973

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The office of Ronen Baruch, the current Custodian of Absentee Property for Israel, is in an ancient Arab home at 8 Yoel Salomon Street in Jerusalem. A house of this type is not unusual in this part of Jerusalem, and this one has few markings to indicate its function.  Even its mail is delivered to the main building of the Ministry of Finance in another part of the city. 

Searching the Internet will not yield this information unless you read Hebrew, and even then not much else. Much more is available about the Mossad, but perhaps only because it is bigger and more interesting.  Information about the Custodian is not necessarily secret, just possibly of little interest to journalists.  However, it has no website and does not advertise its contact information.  It is almost as if Israel would prefer that no one knows it is there.

Despite this, the office plays a pivotal role in the existence of Israel.  Most Israelis live and work on land that was once in the charge of the Custodian of Absentee Property, an office created less than two months after the Israeli state and existing to this day as part of the Ministry of Finance.

Who or what is the Custodian of Absentee Property?

To many of the indigenous nations of North America, the European notion of land ownership was strange.  The role of humans was to be custodians of the land and for the land to be the custodian of its human inhabitants.  Similarly, the rulers of Makkah and Medina have historically referred to themselves as custodians, not owners, of the holy shrines.

Thus, when Israel created the Office of the Custodian of Absentee Property in July, 1948, to take charge of property belonging to refugees that fled or were expelled, was its intention for the custodian to be a steward and trustee for the property of these refugees while they were away?  Certainly, the title of the office implicitly acknowledges that the property belongs to the absentees, not the Custodian, which land registry documents in fact confirm.

Of course, land and the structures on it – some dating back a thousand years or more – were not the only property that came into the charge of the Custodian.  Many millions of dollars of gold, jewelry, antiques, cars and other items made their way into the inventory.  However, real estate was by far the most important and valuable.  The absentee owners were almost all Palestinian Arab refugees and exiles, both rich and poor.  A few were Jews, and their property was quickly returned to them.  Not so for the rest, except a tiny fraction that were able to prove that they had not fled at all.

How much of the territory within the 1949 ceasefire line did the absentees leave behind?  Prior to the proclamation of the state of Israel on May 14, 1948, some 6% of Mandate Palestine was Jewish property (Sami Hadawi, Village statistics: 1945).  Considering that Zionist forces seized 78% of Palestine, however, the proportion within those areas would have been closer to 8%, excluding Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.  In addition, the remnant of the Palestinian Arab population that was not expelled retained some of their lands and homes, currently estimated to be less than 3% of the same areas.  Roughly half of the captured territory was state land of the government of Palestine, mostly the Naqab (Negev) desert.

It is likely that all the rest, roughly 39%, was declared absentee property, and placed under the control of the Custodian.  This figure agrees with an inventory made by the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP) of 7,069,091 dunams. If the Custodian also took charge of state lands, the total would have been 89%.  This information has not been released, but a statement by Jacob Manor, the Custodian in 1980, to journalist Robert Fisk (Pity the Nation, p. 45) indicates that the higher figure may be more accurate.

Of course, Israel had no intention of respecting the legal records of land ownership.   The Absentee Property Law of 1950 made clear that the job of the Custodian was to “release” the property in its custody to other agencies, which would use the land without regard to the registered owners.

Thus, in effect, the Custodian of Absentee Property became Israel’s largest “fence” for stolen property.  Under the powers authorized by the Absentee Property Law, the Custodian “released” the land to the Israeli state, the Development Authority and the Jewish National Fund (JNF), with the combined lands (93% of the state of Israel) under the management of the Israel Land Administration (ILA).  The ILA thus became the largest recipient of stolen property in Israel, notwithstanding the international racketeers and blood diamond traffickers that have found a safe haven there.

Curiously, however, the ILA has until recently been prohibited from offering the land for sale, but rather to lease it to users, although in 2009 plans were made to begin granting title.  This policy was promoted in the 1950s allegedly as an enlightened socialist program of collective ownership borrowed from the institution of the kibbutz.  Was it instead a means of protecting individual Israeli citizens from the accusation of receiving stolen goods?  If so, it constitutes another implicit admission that the property legally belongs to expelled Palestinians and not to either the Israeli government or its citizens.

The Absentee Property Law is in fact contrary to the Fourth Geneva Convention and the International Declaration of Human Rights, both of which were constituted less than two years earlier and to which Israel became a signatory.  This discrepancy came to light in the case of the Jerusalem residence of the Consul General of Belgium, which has been located since 1948 on absentee property known as the Villa Salameh.  In order to be in compliance with international law, Belgium elected to pay rent to the exiled Palestinian owners of the property rather than to any Israeli authority or to Israeli businessman David Sofer, who claims to have “bought” (leased) the property from the Israeli government since 2000.

Surprisingly, Israel has been one of the strongest proponents for the restoration of absentee property to its original owners or their rightful heirs.  One of the best examples of this is the HEART (Holocaust Era Asset Restitution Taskforce) Project, established in 2011 with more than $2.5 million per year funding from the Israeli government, in cooperation with the Jewish Agency for Israel.  Its purpose is to seek restitution for Jewish property seized by the Nazi government in Germany.  Other victims of the Holocaust, such as Slavs, Poles, Romanies (Gypsies), disabled persons, non-Europeans, political prisoners, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others are apparently ineligible for this service, as well victims of the 1948 Israeli ethnic cleansing project known to Palestinians as the Nakba (catastrophe).

Although the extent of past Israeli property theft is well known to students of such matters, popular awareness is lagging.  Current activists are likely to consider the more recent thefts of Bedouin property in the Naqab (Negev), confiscation of Palestinian property in Jerusalem and West Bank land seizures, house demolitions and village eradications as the major problem without taking into account the much larger scale of earlier crimes.  They might be shocked to learn, for example, that the land stolen from Palestinian owners prior to the 1949 ceasefire is equal in size to more than the total area of the West Bank and Gaza combined.

The issue is sometimes raised when defining “Arab land” in the Palestinian context.  If, for example, “Arab land” is defined only as that which was seized in the June 1967 war, it disregards the enormous amount of property that was confiscated without compensation from “absentee” Palestinian refugees and exiles in 1947-49 and soon after.

Is the Custodian of Absentee Property awaiting the return of the absentees to reclaim their property?  In a sense probably so, though not with a sense of joy.  Rather, all who are responsible for the theft of the property and for the ethnic cleansing and other crimes committed in furtherance of that theft know that a day of reckoning always greets those who think they are above the law.

Dr. Paul Larudee is a human rights advocate and one of the co-founders of the movement to break the siege of Gaza by sea.  He was deported from India on 31st December, 2012.

 

Friday
Apr052013

Worlds A-p-a-r-t

A Palestinian shepherd drives his flock past the
A Palestinian shepherd drives his flock past the "security barrier" in the village of Abu Dis divided in two by the barrier, on the edge of East Jerusalem. Photograph: Atta Hussein/AFP/Getty Images
Read the second part of Chris McGreal's report
[Nothing has changed since - Ed: 1948 LWF 2013]

Said Rhateb was born in 1972, five years after Israeli soldiers fought their way through East Jerusalem and claimed his family's dry, rock-strewn plot as part of what the Jewish state proclaimed its "eternal and indivisible capital". The bureaucrats followed in the army's footsteps, registering and measuring Israel's largest annexation of territory since its victory over the Arab armies in the 1948 war of independence. They cast an eye over the Rhateb family's village of Beit Hanina and its lands, a short drive from the biblical city on the hill, and decided the outer limits of this new Jerusalem. The Israelis drew a line on a map - a new city boundary - between Beit Hanina's lands and most of its homes. The olive groves and orchards were to be part of Jerusalem; the village was to remain in the West Bank.

The population was not so neatly divided. Arabs in the area were registered as living in the village - even those, like Rhateb's parents, whose homes were inside what was now defined as Jerusalem. In time, the Israelis gave the Rhatebs identity cards that classified them as residents of the West Bank, under military occupation. When Said Rhateb was born, he too was listed as living outside the city's boundaries. His parents thought little of it as they moved freely across the invisible line drawn by the Israelis, shopping and praying inside the walls of Jerusalem's Old City.

Four decades later, the increasingly complex world of Israel's system of classification deems Said Rhateb to be a resident of the West Bank - somewhere he has never lived - and an illegal alien for living in the home in which he was born, inside the Jerusalem boundary. Jerusalem's council forces Rhateb to pay substantial property taxes on his house but that does not give him the right to live in it, and he is periodically arrested for doing so. Rhateb's children have been thrown out of their Jerusalem school, he cannot register a car in his name - or rather he can, but only one with Palestinian number plates, which means he cannot drive it to his home because only Israeli-registered cars are allowed within Jerusalem - and he needs a pass to visit the centre of the city. The army grants him about four a year.

There is more. If Rhateb is not legally resident in his own home, then he is defined as an "absentee" who has abandoned his property. Under Israeli law, it now belongs to the state or, more particularly, its Jewish citizens. "They sent papers that said we cannot sell the land or develop it because we do not own the land. It belongs to the state," he says. "Any time they want to confiscate it, they can, because they say we are absentees even though we are living in the house. That's what forced my older brother and three sisters to live in the US. They couldn't bear the harassment."

The 'apartheid wall'
There are few places in the world where governments construct a web of nationality and residency laws designed for use by one section of the population against another. Apartheid South Africa was one. So is Israel.

Comparisons between white rule in South Africa and Israel's system of control over the Arab peoples it governs are increasingly heard. Opponents of the vast steel and concrete barrier under construction through the West Bank and Jerusalem dubbed it the "apartheid wall" because it forces communities apart and grabs land. Critics of Ariel Sharon's plan to carve up the West Bank, apportioning blobs of territory to the Palestinians, draw comparisons with South Africa's "bantustans" - the nominally independent homelands into which millions of black men and women were herded.

An Israeli human rights organisation has described segregation of West Bank roads by the military as apartheid. Arab Israeli lawyers argue anti-discrimination cases before the supreme court by drawing out similarities between some Israeli legislation and white South Africa's oppressive laws. Desmond Tutu, the former archbishop of Cape Town and chairman of South Africa's truth and reconciliation commission, visited the occupied territories three years ago and described what he found as "much like what happened to us black people in South Africa".

As far back as 1961, Hendrik Verwoerd, the South African prime minister and architect of the "grand apartheid" vision of the bantustans, saw a parallel. "The Jews took Israel from the Arabs after the Arabs had lived there for a thousand years. Israel, like South Africa, is an apartheid state," he said. It is a view that horrifies and infuriates many Israelis.

A prominent Israeli political scientist, Gerald Steinberg, responded to an invitation to appear on a panel at a Jerusalem cultural centre to debate "Is Israel the new apartheid?" by denouncing the organiser, a South African-born Jew, for even posing the question.

"As you are undoubtedly aware, the pro-Palestinian and anti-semitic campaign to demonise Israel focuses on the entirely false and abusive analogy with South Africa. Using the term 'apartheid' to apply to Israel's legitimate responses to terror and the threat of annihilation both demeans the South African experience, and is the most immoral of charges against the right of the Jewish people to self-determination," he replied.

Many Israelis recoil at the suggestion of a parallel because it stabs at the heart of how they see themselves and their country, founded after centuries of hatred, pogroms and ultimately genocide. If anything, many of Israel's Jews view themselves as having more in common with South Africa's black population than with its oppressors. Some staunch defenders of Israel's policies past and present say that even to discuss Israel in the context of apartheid is one step short of comparing the Jewish state to Nazi Germany, not least because of the Afrikaner leadership's fascist sympathies in the 1940s and the disturbing echoes of Hitler's Nuremberg laws in South Africa's racist legislation.

Yet the taboo is increasingly challenged. As Israel's justice minister, Tommy Lapid, said, Israel's defiance of international law in constructing the West Bank barrier could result in it being treated as a pariah like South Africa. Malaysia's prime minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, has called for a campaign against Israel of the kind used to pressure South Africa.

"Like the struggle against apartheid, the struggle of the Palestinian people against Israeli occupation of their country enjoys enormous support from the global community," he said. "Therefore a more concrete expression of this support by global societies to this campaign is timely and fitting."

Anglican, Presbyterian and other churches have backed sanctions against Israel. Last year, one of the UK's university teaching unions endorsed a boycott of two Israeli universities, before reversing its decision amid a torrent of criticism over the reasoning behind the move.

The Israeli government has condemned boycotts as anti-semitism and an attempt to "delegitimise" the Jewish state. It asks why only Israel, a democratic country, is singled out for sanctions. A few protests are not a bandwagon, but underpinning Israeli hostility is a fear, expressed in a secret Israeli foreign ministry report, that Israel's standing abroad could sink so low in the coming years that it might find itself on a collision course with Europe which could see Israel as isolated as the apartheid regime and with serious economic consequences.

Ariel Sharon's withdrawal of Jewish settlers from the Gaza strip last year, and the relinquishing of direct Israeli control over that territory, temporarily dampened some of the criticism. But even as the Gaza pullout was under way, Israel was entrenching its control of those parts of the West Bank it wants to retain, using the barrier to mark out an intended future border that would carve up the territory, and expanding Jewish settlements it intends to annex - a strategy that, if carried through by Sharon's successors, is likely to strengthen the comparisons with apartheid and fuel calls for sanctions.

Israelis are genuinely bewildered that anyone might see similarities between their society and the old South Africa. Where, they ask, are the signs directing "Jews" and "non-Jews" to match the "petty apartheid" of segregated buses, toilets and just about every other facility in Pretoria and Johannesburg.

There are conspicuous differences, of course. Arab Israelis have the vote, although they were prevented from forming their own political parties until the 1980s. They are mostly equal under the law and these days the Israeli courts generally protect their rights. Jews are a majority in Israel; white South Africans were a minority. And Israel spent the first decades of its existence fighting for its life.

But for some of those with a foot in both societies, the distinctions are blurred by other realities. Some Jewish South Africans and Israelis who lived with apartheid - including politicians, Holocaust survivors and men once condemned as terrorists - describe aspects of modern Israel as disturbingly reminiscent of the old South Africa. Some see the parallels in a matrix of discriminatory practices and controls, and what they describe as naked greed for land seized by the fledgling Israeli state from fleeing Arabs and later from the Palestinians for the ever expanding West Bank settlements. "Apartheid was an extension of the colonial project to dispossess people of their land," said the Jewish South African cabinet minister and former ANC guerrilla, Ronnie Kasrils, on a visit to Jerusalem. "That is exactly what has happened in Israel and the occupied territories; the use of force and the law to take the land. That is what apartheid and Israel have in common."

Others see the common ground in the scale of the suffering if not its causes. "If we take the magnitude of the injustice done to the Palestinians by the state of Israel, there is a basis for comparison with apartheid," said the former Israeli ambassador to South Africa, Alon Liel. "If we take the magnitude of suffering, we are in the same league. Of course apartheid was a very different philosophy from what we do, most of which stems from security considerations. But from the point of view of outcome, we are in the same league."

Perhaps the real question is how Israel came to be in the same league as apartheid South Africa, whether by mirroring laws and political strategies, or in the suffering caused. And how it is that the government of a people who suffered so much at the hands of discrimination and hatred came to secretly embrace a regime led by men who once stood on the docks of Cape Town and chanted: "Send back the Jews."

Torn between two struggles
In 1940, an Afrikaans-speaking Jewish boy called Arthur Goldreich was living in Pietersberg, the brutally intolerant capital of the Northern Transvaal. Goldreich was 11 and South Africa was at war with Nazi Germany.

One morning, his secondary school headmaster announced that students would be learning a foreign language, German. The implication was clear: many Afrikaners, including some of their political leaders, hoped and believed that Hitler would win the war. When Goldreich's teacher distributed the German "textbook", the Jewish boy found himself staring at a Hitler Youth magazine. He balked and wrote to the prime minister, Jan Smuts, refusing to learn German and demanding to be taught Hebrew. Goldreich got his way and was headed on a path that tore his life between two struggles; against white domination in South Africa, and for the survival of the Jewish state in Israel.

In 1948, both of Goldreich's worlds were transformed within a few days of each other. Israel declared its independence on May 14, a fortnight before the apartheid Nationalist party won South Africa's election and the men who backed Hitler came to power. Goldreich had already determined to go to Israel and fight to save it from strangulation at birth. "The reason I went was the Holocaust and the struggle against British colonialism but, of course, the Nats winning the election left me in no doubt about what I had to do," he says.

Goldreich returned to South Africa in 1954 to join his other struggle. After a few years of political agitation, he became an early member of the African National Congress's military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, led by Nelson Mandela. Goldreich wasn't known to South Africa's security police, so he was installed with his family as the tenant of Lillieslief farm in Rivonia, north of Johannesburg, where the underground leadership of the banned ANC met secretly.

Mandela wrote in his autobiography how he turned to Goldreich as one of the few in the ANC's nascent guerrilla army who knew how to fight. "In the 1940s, Arthur had fought with the Palmach, the military wing of the Jewish National Movement in Palestine. He was knowledgeable about guerrilla warfare and helped fill in many gaps in my understanding."

In July 1963, the police raided the farm and captured a slew of wanted men, including Walter Sisulu, the ANC leader, and Goldreich. Five of the 17 arrested at Rivonia were white, all of them Jewish. The captured men and Mandela, who was already in detention, were charged with sabotage and plotting violent revolution, which carried the death penalty. efore he could be tried, Goldreich broke out of a Johannesburg jail and eluded a much publicised nationwide hunt by fleeing to Swaziland disguised as a priest. Goldreich now lives in the affluent and tranquil city of Herzliya on Israel's Mediterranean coast. There was a time when he believed the young Jewish state might provide the example of a better way for the country of his birth. As it is, Goldreich sees Israel as closer to the white regime he fought against and modern South Africa as providing the model. Israeli governments, he says, ultimately proved more interested in territory than peace, and along the way Zionism mutated.

Goldreich speaks of the "bantustanism we see through a policy of occupation and separation", the "abhorrent" racism in Israeli society all the way up to cabinet ministers who advocate the forced removal of Arabs, and "the brutality and inhumanity of what is imposed on the people of the occupied territories of Palestine".

"Don't you find it horrendous that this people and this state, which only came into existence because of the defeat of fascism and nazism in Europe, and in the conflict six million Jews paid with their lives for no other reason than that they were Jews, is it not abhorrent that in this place there are people who can say these things and do these things?" he asks.

Goldreich went on to found the architecture department at Jerusalem's renowned Bezalel Academy, from where he saw architecture and planning evolve as tools for territorial expansion after the 1967 war. "I watched Jerusalem with horror and great doubt and fear for the future. There were those who said that what's happening is architecture, not politics. You can't talk about planning as an abstraction. It's called establishing facts on the ground," he says.

Beyond the green line
There was a part of Johannesburg that most residents of the apartheid-era city never saw. By the 1970s, the bulk of the black population was already forced out under the Group Areas Act, which defined living areas by race. The Sophiatown neighbourhood, once a thriving corner of black life, was bulldozed and replaced by rows of dreary bungalows for whites. But several hundred thousand black people remained in Alexandra township, close to Johannesburg's most affluent neighbourhood, Sandton. The traffic out of Alexandra was one-way. Its residents left each day to work in the mines and shops or to clean homes in Sandton. Whites rarely ventured the short drive off Louis Botha avenue into the overcrowded, often squalid, unpaved back streets of an Alexandra deprived of a decent water supply, adequate schools and refuse collection.

The contrast between West and East Jerusalem is not as stark, but the disparities between Jewish and Arab neighbourhoods are underpinned by attitudes, policies and laws similar to those used against Johannesburg's black population. Most of Jerusalem's Jews never cross the "green line" - the international border that divided the city until 1967 - and many of those that do go only as far as the Wailing Wall to pray. If more Israelis were to travel deeper into the city they claim as their indivisible capital, they would encounter a different world from their own, a place where roads crumble, rubbish is left uncollected and entire Palestinian neighbourhoods are not connected to the sewage system.

According to the Israeli human rights group, B'Tselem, Jerusalem's Jewish population, who make up about 70% of the city's 700,000 residents, are served by 1,000 public parks, 36 public swimming pools and 26 libraries. The estimated 260,000 Arabs living in the east of the city have 45 parks, no public swimming pools and two libraries. "Since the annexation of Jerusalem, the municipality has built almost no new school, public building or medical clinic for Palestinians," says a B'Tselem report. "The lion's share of investment has been dedicated to the city's Jewish areas."

Take the interior ministry offices on each side of the divide. In the west, Jewish residents face a relatively short wait in an air-conditioned hall. In the east, Palestinians begin queueing in the middle of the night, or pay someone else to do so, to stand a chance of being served. Once the sun comes up, they wait for hours in the heat in front of an iron-grilled gate on the street for identity documents, or to register the birth of a child or the death of a parent. In Johannesburg, white people and black people were directed to different entrances of the home affairs ministry and afforded service - or not - according to their skin colour.

There is many a city in other parts of the world where minorities are forced into poor, underfunded neighbourhoods and treated as unwelcome outsiders. Where Israel's self- proclaimed capital differs is in policies specifically designed to keep it that way, as in apartheid Johannesburg. In Jerusalem and other parts of the occupied territories, Palestinians face a myriad of discriminatory laws and practices, from land confiscations to house demolitions, de facto pass laws and restrictions on movement. "The similarities between the situation of East Jerusalemites and black South Africans is very great in respect of their residency rights," says John Dugard, the international law professor widely regarded as the father of human rights law in South Africa and now the UN's chief human rights monitor in the occupied territories. "We had the old Group Areas Act in South Africa. East Jerusalem has territorial classification that has the same sort of consequences as race classification had in South Africa in respect of who you can marry, where you can live, where you can go to school or hospital."

Palestinians in East Jerusalem, often the city of their birth, are not considered citizens but immigrants with "permanent resident" status, which, some have found, is anything but permanent. In the old South Africa, a large part of the black population was treated not as citizens of the cities and townships they were born into but of a distant homeland many had never visited. "Israel treats Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem as immigrants, who live in their homes at the beneficence of the authorities and not by right," says B'Tselem. "The authorities maintain this policy although these Palestinians were born in Jerusalem, lived in the city and have no other home. Treating these Palestinians as foreigners who entered Israel is astonishing, since it was Israel that entered East Jerusalem in 1967."

Israel says it has offered citizenship to anyone born in Jerusalem and that few Palestinians take it up because doing so implies recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the entire city. The government says that by choosing not to become citizens, Jerusalem's Arabs subject themselves to restrictions.

After the entirety of Jerusalem was brought under Israeli rule, the Jewish state annexed about 70 sq km of Palestinian territory and incorporated it within the new municipal boundaries - sometimes taking land from villages such as Said Rhateb's, but leaving the people and their homes outside the city. Israel then wrote laws to permit the government to confiscate property wholesale with one purpose: to transfer land and homes from Arabs to Jews.

Laws of division
"Planning and urban policy, which normal cities view as this benign tool, was used as a powerful partisan tool to subordinate and control black people in Johannesburg and is still used that way against Palestinians in Jerusalem," says Scott Bollens, a University of California professor of urban planning who has studied divided cities across the globe, including Belfast, Berlin, Nicosia and Mostar. "In South Africa there was 'group areas' legislation, and then there was land use, planning tools and zoning that were used to reinforce and back up group areas. In Israel, they use a whole set of similar tools. They are very devious, in that planning is often viewed as this thing that is not part of politics. In Jerusalem, it's fundamental to their project of control, and Israeli planners and politicians have known that since day one. They've been very explicit in linking the planning tools with their political project."

At the heart of Israel's strategy is the policy adopted three decades ago of "maintaining the demographic balance" in Jerusalem. In 1972, the number of Jews in the west of the city outnumbered the Arabs in the east by nearly three to one. The government decreed that that equation should not be allowed to change, at least not in favour of the Arabs.

"The mantra of the past 37 years has been 'maintaining the demographic balance', which doesn't mean forcing Palestinians to leave," says Daniel Seidemann, a Jewish Israeli lawyer who has spent years fighting legal cases on behalf of Jerusalem's Arab residents. "It means curtailing their ability to develop by limiting construction to the already developed areas, by largely preventing development in new areas and by taking 35% [of Palestinian-owned land in greater East Jerusalem] and having a massive government incentive for [Jews] to build up that area."

The political decision to discriminate against Arabs was an open but rarely acknowledged secret. The authors of a 1992 book on Jerusalem, Separate and Unequal, laid bare the policy. The writers, two of whom were advisers to the city's mayors, said that Israeli policy since 1967 was "remorselessly" pursued with four objectives: to expand the Jewish population in the mainly Arab east of the city; to hinder growth of Arab neighbourhoods; to induce Arabs to leave; and to seal off Arab areas behind Jewish settlements.

In 1992, Jerusalem's deputy mayor, Avraham Kahila, told the city council: "The principle that guides me and the mayor is that, in the Arab neighbourhoods, the municipality has no interest or reason to get into any kind of planning process. Thus, we encourage the building of Jewish neighbourhoods in empty areas that have been expropriated by the state of Israel. But so long as the policy of the state of Israel is not to get involved in the character of existing Arab neighbourhoods, there is no reason to require plans."

The mayor at the time, Teddy Kollek, was so identified with the city that he was known as Mr Jerusalem. Talking in 1972 about East Jerusalem, Kollek's adviser on Arab affairs, Ya'akov Palmon, told the Guardian: "We take the land first and the law comes after."

At a city council meeting two decades later, Kollek was confronted by a lone councillor outraged at the evident discrimination in limiting Arab housing development. According to an Israeli newspaper report at the time, Kollek responded that the council was adhering to a policy "followed by all governments since 1967" of restricting the growth of Palestinian neighbourhoods.

By then, discrimination was so entrenched that Kollek's statement drew almost no attention, let alone criticism.

Of the 70 sq km of annexed Arab land around Jerusalem, the state expropriated more than one-third to build homes for Jews without constructing a single house for Palestinians on the confiscated land. The Jewish population of East Jerusalem had fled or been driven out in 1948. A gradual return after 1967 turned to a flood as the settlements ate into the east of the city. Today, the population of Jewish settlements in and close to East Jerusalem has grown to nearly two-thirds that of the Arab neighbourhoods.

"Houses were built for Israelis, but the lands were overwhelmingly taken from Palestinians," says Seidemann. "This was the tool by which Israel was able to consolidate its hold over East Jerusalem. This was based on the law of expropriation for public purposes, but the public bearing the brunt of this was always Palestinian and the public benefiting from this was always Israeli."

One method of preventing further construction by Arabs in the east of the city has been to declare many open areas to be "green zones" protected from building. Bollens says about 40% of East Jerusalem is designated as a green zone, but that this is really a mechanism for land transfer. "The government calls it a green zone to stop Palestinians building homes there, and then when the government wants to develop an area [as Jewish] it lifts that green zoning miraculously and it becomes a development place."

Jerusalem's mayor, Uri Lupolianski - who chaired the city's planning and zoning committee in the 1990s - declined to be interviewed in person on these issues, but responded to written questions. "We have to keep a reasonable balance between residential areas and open green zones. We've designated green zones in all parts of Jerusalem, not just the eastern one," he wrote. "We're keeping the green zones in the entire city free from construction, and we plan to keep it this way. We believe that the development of parks and green zones in eastern Jerusalem will improve the quality of life of the people living there."

During the 1990s, about 12 times as many new homes were legally built in Jewish areas as in Arab ones. Denied permission to build new homes or expand existing ones, many Palestinians build anyway and risk a demolition order. Israel's former prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, routinely defends the demolitions by arguing that any civilised society enforces planning regulations. But Israel is the only western society to deny construction permits to people on the grounds of race. Until 1992, so did South Africa.

Land confiscation
Israeli law also restricts where non-Jews may live. "Muslims and Christians are barred from buying in the Jewish quarter of the old city on the grounds of "historic patterns of life of each community having its own quarter'," says Seidemann, in a phrase eerily reminiscent of apartheid's philosophy. "But that didn't prevent the Israeli government from aggressively pursuing activities to place Jews within the Muslim quarter. The attitude is: what's mine is exclusively mine, but what's yours is mixed if we happen to target it."

Israeli law permits wholesale confiscation of property inside Israel or Jerusalem that is owned by Palestinians who live in areas defined as "enemy territory", including the West Bank, which was occupied by Jordan until it lost the war against Israel in 1967. "Any Palestinian who was at any point in 'enemy territory' after 1967, forfeits his property," says Seidemann. "But enemy territory includes the West Bank. It's a remarkable situation. Any property that was ever 'abandoned' by any Palestinian becomes state land and is then 'turned over to the Jewish people'. Any property that once belonged to a Jew is 'recovered to the Jewish people' and turned over to the settlers."

"I hate the term ethnic cleansing in the context of this," he says, "because of the connotations of rape and pillage, which this is not. But there was and is an active government effort using procedures such as this to rid targeted areas of its Palestinian residents and turn it into an exclusively or predominantly Jewish area. And I say, with regret, that the efforts have been moderately successful."

The law is not applied in reverse: Jews who go to live in West Bank settlements do not lose property they may own in Tel Aviv. Last year, Sharon's government quietly confiscated thousands of acres of Palestinian-owned lands within greater Jerusalem without compensation, after a secret cabinet decision to use a 55-year-old law on abandoned property against Arabs separated from their olive groves and farms by the West Bank barrier. Previous governments decided not to apply this law to East Jerusalem and the Sharon administration was embarrassed enough to expropriate the lands in secret before dropping the policy after an international outcry when it came to light. The Palestinians called the confiscations "legalised theft".

"What stands out for Jerusalem and Johannesburg is that it was and is such a prolonged use of planning in pursuit of a political objective," says Scott Bollens. "One distinction with South Africa is the racial identifiers and the racial rhetoric was so blatant, and it was so visible and it was so much part of apartheid South African language. But, despite the difference in rhetoric, the outcomes are very, very similar and the urban landscape Israel has created in the Jerusalem region is just as unequal, just as subjugating of the Palestinians as the 'group area' planning was in South Africa for the blacks."

In 2004, Jerusalem's council approved the first new masterplan for the city since 1959. The plan acknowledges some of the injustices and problems in East Jerusalem, provides for greater construction of homes in some Arab areas, and criticises Jewish settlement in the east of the city. But critics say that at its core is the same obsession with demography and what the plan describes as "preserving a firm Jewish majority in the city".

A former Jerusalem city councillor, Meir Margalit, says the process was flawed from the start because the steering committee of 31 people who put the plan together included only one Arab. "It is characteristic everywhere of colonial regimes which believe that the 'natives' are worthy neither of suitable representation nor of being masters of their own fate. The planning team apparently sets out from the assumption that, in any case, one is dealing with a Jewish city and therefore there is no reason to ask the opinion of anyone who does not belong to the Jewish people," he says.

'Grey racism'
"One cannot but receive an impression that behind the document lies an attempt to restrict the natural increase of the Arabs in the east of the city. With their historical experience, the planning team understands that this cannot be achieved through doing away with all the firstborn sons, but the plan assumes that by restricting the Arabs' living space, they will be compelled to leave the city and move into places in the periphery where they will be able to build without restriction."

Margalit says that the measures used to bring this about, including restrictions on Palestinians travelling into Jerusalem and preventing women who marry men from the east of the city from moving there, amount to "grey racism".

"This, in fact, is the strength of municipal racism. It is neither brutal nor openly visible, preferring to take cover behind apparently neutral formulations. Thus it is always carefully concealed behind consensus-oriented wording, hidden beneath a thick layer of cosmetic liberal language," he says. "This is how a unique term which does not exist in the professional literature was born in our country: 'grey racism'. This is not a racism stemming from hatred of the 'other', but a 'lite racism' rooted in a Zionist ideology which strove to be democratic but, in giving priority to Jewish interests, inevitably deprived others of their rights. When there is no equality, there is bound to be discrimination, and when all those discriminated against are of the same nationality, there is no alternative but to call it what it is - 'national discrimination' - which belongs to the same family as the infamous racial discrimination."

Over the years since the 1967 occupation, Palestinian residents of Jerusalem have made it easier for the Israelis by refusing to vote in city council elections on the grounds that this would amount to recognition of Israel's claim over the entire city. Uri Lupolianski, the mayor, says that maintaining the demographic balance is no longer as crucial under the new masterplan, but he acknowledges that Arab neighbourhoods are disadvantaged. "The situation in eastern Jerusalem does leave a lot to be desired. However, during the last two years, we've taken significant measures to improve it and separate the needs of the residents from political issues," he wrote. "A new central bus station was opened, as well as the biggest Arab school in Israel. I've ordered a new plan to rebuild the roads in those neighbourhoods. Also, we've expanded the route of the light train that's currently in construction to include Arab neighbourhoods. The largest Arab cultural centre in Israel is being planned in the area.

"In the new masterplan, we have designated a wide area in eastern Jerusalem for construction for the Arab residents. There are more than 10 building plans, initiated by the municipality, currently in the works for eastern Jerusalem.

"There's no basis for comparison with South Africa. We do not separate racially between the Jews and Arabs. We do, however, acknowledge the fact that different areas are populated by different groups, and we meet the needs of all groups. We keep the building and zoning laws completely separate from any political issues."

According to the municipality's most recent annual figures, the council issued 1,695 building permits in the city in 2004. Of these, 116 went to Arab parts of East Jerusalem and, of those, 46 were to build new homes. The balance was for extensions to existing houses. In 2004, a total of 212,789 sq metres was built in all of Jerusalem; 7% was in Arab neighbourhoods. Several months ago, Israel's cabinet minister for Jerusalem, Haim Ramon, described the 33ft-high wall dissecting Arab neighbourhoods - which the government has insisted is purely a security measure with no political intent - as having the added advantage of making the city "more Jewish".

The mask of equality
Israel's one million Arab citizens are on a firmer footing. They can vote - the primary evidence, for many angered by the apartheid analogy, that Israel is not the old South Africa - at least, within Israel's recognised borders. But the Jewish state has long viewed its remaining Arab population with suspicion and hostility, and even as the enemy within, through the country's wars for survival against hostile neighbours and in the competition for land. Until 1966, Israeli Arabs lived under "military administration" which allowed detention without trial and subjected them to curfews, restrictions on jobs and where they could live, and required them to obtain passes to move around the country.

Israeli governments reserved 93% of the land - often expropriated from Arabs without compensation - for Jews through state ownership, the Jewish National Fund and the Israeli Lands Authority. In colonial and then apartheid South Africa, 87% of the land was reserved for whites. The Population Registration Act categorised South Africans according to an array of racial definitions, which, among other things, determined who would be permitted to live on the reserved land.

Israel's Population Registry Act serves a similar purpose by distinguishing between nationality and citizenship. Arabs and Jews alike can be citizens, but each is assigned a separate "nationality" marked on identity cards (either spelled out or, more recently, in a numeric code), in effect determining where they are permitted to live, access to some government welfare programmes, and how they are likely to be treated by civil servants and policemen.

Ask Israelis why it is necessary to identify a citizen as a Jew or Arab on the card and the question is generally met with incomprehension: how can it be a Jewish state if we don't know who the Jews are? The justification often follows that everyone in Israel is equal, so it does no harm. Arab Israelis will tell you differently.

Generations of Israeli schoolchildren were imbued with the idea that Arabs did not belong on the land of Israel, that they were somehow in the way. In the mid-1980s, the military was so concerned at the overt expressions of racism and anti-Arab hatred from within its ranks, sometimes cast within the context of the Holocaust, that it thought to re-emphasise "moral values".

In 1965, the government declared some lands on which Arab villages had stood for decades, or even centuries, as "non-residential". These "unrecognised" villages still exist but they are denied basic services, and subject to periodic demolitions and land confiscations.

The US state department's annual human rights report - not a document known for being hostile to Israel - concluded that there is "institutionalised legal and societal discrimination against Israel's Christian, Muslim and Druze citizens". "The government," it says, "does not provide Israeli Arabs, who constitute 20% of the population, with the same quality of education, housing, employment and social services as Jews."

Unequal education
In the 2002 budget, Israel's housing ministry spent about £14 per person in Arab communities compared with up to £1,500 per person in Jewish ones. The same year, the health ministry allocated just 1.6m shekels (£200,000) to Arab communities of its 277m-shekel (£35m) budget to develop healthcare facilities.

Five per cent of civil servants are Arabs, and a high proportion of those are hired to deal with other Arabs. The foreign and finance ministries employ fewer than a dozen Arab Israelis between them, when their combined staff totals more than 1,700 Jews. Until recently, the Bank of Israel and the state electricity company did not hire a single Arab.

Dan Meridor, a former cabinet minister in several governments and a one-time rival to Ariel Sharon for the leadership of the Likud party, blamed social factors and years of conflict - not an intent to discriminate - for the low representation of Arabs in the civil service. "I don't have the figures, but I think generally speaking it may be true. One has to check whether it relates to the level of education. If, for example, people in the government civil service are of higher education than the general public and the Arab population are generally lower in education than the general public, it may explain some of the differences," he says.

"Some jobs may be less accessible. Not officially, but in fact. Take the number of workers in, say, the electricity company that are Arabs and it is much much smaller than the proportion in the country. There's a historical reason for that. Jews fighting Arabs and Arabs fighting Jews was not only with weapons. There were two communities fighting for hegemony and power in the very broad sense of the word. This is the ethos of the Jews versus Arabs in the electricity company, on the land, in the labour market, in the building industry. Generally speaking, there has been improvement, but there is still, I think, in some areas, a lot to be done. Not on the legal basis - legally, everyone is equal - but on the opportunity basis."

Arab Israelis who fail to find employment in the civil service because of a lack of education say that this is the result of government policy. Israel maintains separate schools for Arabs and Jews on the grounds of language differences, but many Israeli Arab parents say this is a cover for systematic discrimination against their children.

Separate and unequal education systems were a central part of the apartheid regime's strategy to limit black children to a life in the mines, factories and fields. The disparities in Israel's education system are not nearly so great and the intent not so malign, but the gap is wide. The Israeli education ministry does not reveal its budget for each of the two systems, but 14 years ago a government report concluded that nearly twice as much money was allocated to each Jewish pupil as to each Arab child.

A Human Rights Watch report two years ago said the situation has not significantly changed and there remain "huge disparities in education spending" and that "discrimination against Arab children colours every aspect" of the education system. The exam pass-rate for Arab pupils is about one-third lower than that for their Jewish compatriots. In 2004, a threat by angry Arab Israeli parents in Haifa to register their children in Hebrew-language schools so shocked Jewish parents that the authorities quickly took steps to improve Arab schools there.

The suspicion with which the state still regards its Arab citizens was displayed by the recent revelation that the Shin Bet security service places Jewish teachers into Arab-language schools to monitor the activities of the other teachers. A Shin Bet official is also a member of the committee appointing teachers.

Israel's education ministry failed to respond to requests for an interview. Approached individually, a senior politician who formerly had responsibility for education and who has acknowledged that discrimination exists, and spoken against it, declined to be interviewed, saying he did not wish to criticise his former ministry.

Asked for an interview to respond to specific allegations of discrimination in the civil service, education and housing, the government replied through the deputy director general of the Israeli foreign ministry, Gideon Meir. He conceded that there had been de facto discrimination but said it was rooted in historic conflicts and suspicions, not an intent to subjugate.

"There was never an intention because if we really wanted to create apartheid we could have done it. The fact is we have never done it, there was never even a thought about discriminating," he said. "Yes, during certain years there were less funds given to the Arabs. There were also years after 1948 when the Arabs were under military control. Slowly, slowly the Arabs made their way up. The Arabs today can go into the civil service. The foreign ministry opened to Arabs only in 1989. It took time to build trust. I have in my department today a Bedouin.

"The fact is that Arabs were always members of the Knesset, even those who were delegitimising the Jewish state. They can participate. Is it enough? No, it's not enough. Can we do more? Yes, we can do more. But ask the Arabs who live in Israel if they want to be part of a Palestinian state and they say no, they prefer to remain where they are. Why?"

Sharon laws
Under Sharon's tenure as prime minister from 2001, new forms of discriminatory legislation were passed, including the now notorious Nationality and Entry into Israel Law, which bars Israelis who marry Palestinians from bringing their spouses to live in the country. The legislation applies solely to Palestinian husbands or wives. Hassan Jabareen, a lawyer and director general of Adalah, the Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, challenged the law before the supreme court. He told the judges there was a parallel with a landmark case in 1980s South Africa - the Komani case - which successfully challenged the pass laws that broke up black families by preventing spouses from joining their husbands or wives in towns.

"As a constitutional lawyer, I find myself bringing landmark cases from the apartheid era before the Israeli supreme court because comparative cases from modern and democratic countries are not that helpful. You have to bring harsh cases in order to warn the supreme court about racist laws; not discriminatory, but racist," said Jabareen. "We had a case two years ago which essentially said Arabs would receive lower child-support allowances. We compared it to laws of economic discrimination in apartheid South Africa. In the end, the Knesset scrapped the law."

Justice was also not always blind to the difference between Arab and Jew. In June 1986, 18 months before the outbreak of the first Palestinian uprising (intifada), a Tel Aviv judge drew protests for sentencing a Jewish Israeli to six months' community service for killing an Arab boy. But the present supreme court has proved more willing than its predecessors to confront discrimination. It has yet to rule on the Nationality and Entry Law, but the then Labour interior minister in the coalition government, Ophir Pines-Paz, called it "draconian and racist" and pressed parliament to amend the legislation. The Israeli parliament responded by extending the regulations. In the past few days alone, the police have arrested eight women, the Palestinian wives of Arab Israelis, in the Israeli village of Jaljulya and deported them to the occupied territories. Among women living under the threat of future deportation is the wife of an Israeli football player. MPs say the law has nothing to do with discrimination and everything to do with the security threat posed by Palestinians.

Its backers question how anyone can accuse them, as Jews at the end of a long line of persecuted generations, of racism, or in any way of resembling the old Afrikaner regime. But for years, much of South Africa's Jewish population and successive Israeli governments made their own pact with apartheid - a deal that exchanged near silence by most South African Jews on a great moral issue for acceptance, and clandestine cooperation between Israel and the Afrikaner government that drew the two countries into a hidden embrace.

Friday
Apr052013

Brothers-In-Arms: Israel's Pact With Pretoria, South Africa

South Africa's prime minister John Vorster (second from right) is feted by Israel's prime minister Yitzhak Rabin (right) and Menachem Begin (left) and Moshe Dayan during his 1976 visit to Jerusalem. Photograph: Sa'ar Ya'acov
South Africa's prime minister John Vorster (second from right) is feted by Israel's prime minister Yitzhak Rabin (right) and Menachem Begin (left) and Moshe Dayan during his 1976 visit to Jerusalem. Photograph: Sa'ar Ya'acov
Read the first part of Chris McGreal's report

Several years ago in Johannesburg I met a Jewish woman whose mother and sister were murdered in Auschwitz. After their deaths, she was forced into a gas chamber, but by some miracle that bout of killing was called off. Vera Reitzer survived the extermination camp, married soon after the war and moved to South Africa.

Reitzer joined the apartheid Nationalist party (NP) in the early 1950s, at about the time that the new prime minister, DF Malan, was introducing legislation reminiscent of Hitler's Nuremberg laws against Jews: the population registration act that classified South Africans according to race, legislation that forbade sex and marriage across the colour line and laws barring black people from many jobs.

Reitzer saw no contradiction in surviving the Holocaust only to sign up for a system that was disturbingly reminiscent in its underpinning philosophy, if not in the scale of its crimes, as the one she had outlived. She vigorously defended apartheid as a necessary bulwark against black domination and the communism that engulfed her native Yugoslavia. Reitzer let slip that she thought Africans inferior to other human beings and not entitled to be treated as equals. I asked if Hitler hadn't said the same thing about her as a Jew. She called a halt to the conversation.

Reitzer was unusual among Jewish South Africans in her open enthusiasm for apartheid and for her membership of the NP. But she was an accepted member of the Jewish community in Johannesburg, working for the Holocaust survivors association, while Jews who fought the system were frequently ostracised by their own community.

Many Israelis recoil at suggestions that their country, risen from the ashes of genocide and built on Jewish ideals, could be compared to a racist regime. Yet for years the bulk of South Africa's Jews not only failed to challenge the apartheid system but benefited and thrived under its protection, even if some of their number figured prominently in the liberation movements. In time, Israeli governments too set aside objections to a regime whose leaders had once been admirers of Adolf Hitler. Within three decades of its birth, Israel's self-proclaimed "purity of arms" - what it describes as the moral superiority of its soldiers - was secretly sacrificed as the fate of the Jewish state became so intertwined with South Africa that the Israeli security establishment came to believe the relationship saved the Jewish state.

Afrikaner anti-semitism 
Apartheid sought to segregate every aspect of life from the workplace to the bedroom, even though whites in practice were dependent on black people as a workforce and servants. Segregation evolved into "separate development" and the bantustans - the five nominally "independent" homelands where millions of black people were dumped under the rule of despots beholden to Pretoria.

When the Nationalist party government first gained power in Pretoria in 1948, the Jews of South Africa - the bulk of them descendants of refugees from 19th-century pogroms in Lithuania and Latvia - had reason to be wary. A decade before Malan became the first apartheid-era prime minister, he was leading opposition to Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany entering South Africa. In promoting legislation to block immigration, Malan told parliament in 1937: "I have been reproached that I am now discriminating against the Jews as Jews. Now let me say frankly that I admit that it is so."

South African anti-semitism had grown with the rise of Jews to prominence in the 1860s, during the Kimberly diamond rush. At the turn of the century, the Manchester Guardian's correspondent, JA Hobson, reflected a view that the Boer war was being fought in the interests of a "small group of international financiers, chiefly German in origin and Jewish in race". Fifty years later, Malan's cabinet saw similar conspiracies. Hendrik Verwoerd, editor of the virulently anti-semitic newspaper, Die Transvaler, and future author of "grand apartheid", accused Jews of controlling the economy. Before the second world war, the secret Afrikaner society, the Broederbond - which included Malan and Verwoerd as members - developed ties to the Nazis. Another Broederbond member and future prime minister, John Vorster, was interned in a prison camp by Jan Smuts's government during the war for his Nazi sympathies and ties to the Grey Shirt fascist militia.

Don Krausz, chairman of Johannesburg's Holocaust survivors association, arrived in South Africa a year after the war, having survived Hitler's camps at Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen when much of his extended family did not. "The Nationalists had a strongly anti-semitic platform before 1948. The Afrikaans press was viciously anti-Jewish, much like Der Stürmer in Germany under Hitler. The Jew felt himself very much threatened by the Afrikaner. The Afrikaner supported Hitler," he says. "My wife comes from Potchefstroom [in what was then the Transvaal]. Every Jewish shop in that town was blown up by the Grey Shirts. In the communities that were predominantly Afrikaans, the Jews were absolutely victimised. Now the same crowd comes to power in 1948. The Jew was a very frightened person. There were cabinet ministers who openly supported the Nazis."

Helen Suzman, a secular Jew, was for many years the only anti-apartheid voice in parliament. "They didn't fear there would be a Holocaust but they did fear there might be Nuremberg-style laws, the kind that prevented people practising their professions. The incoming government had made it clear that race differentiation was going to be intensified, and the Jews didn't know where they were going to fit into that," she says.

Many South African Jews were soon reassured that, while there would be Nuremberg-style laws, they would not be the victims. The apartheid regime had a demographic problem and it could not afford the luxury of isolating a section of the white population, even if it was Jewish. Within a few years many South African Jews not only came to feel secure under the new order but comfortable with it. Some found echoes of Israel's struggle in the revival of Afrikaner nationalism.

Many Afrikaners saw the Nationalist party's election victory as liberation from bitterly hated British rule. British concentration camps in South Africa may not have matched the scale or intent of Hitler's war against the Jews, but the deaths of 25,000 women and children from disease and starvation were deeply rooted in Afrikaner nationalism, in the way the memory of the Holocaust is now central to Israel's perception of itself. The white regime said that the lesson was for Afrikaners to protect their interests or face destruction.

"What the Nats were trying to do was protect the Afrikaner," says Krausz. "Especially after what was done to them in the Boer war, where the Afrikaner was reduced almost to a beggar on returning after the war, whether it was from the battlefield or some sort of concentration camp. They did it to protect the Afrikaner, his predominance after 1948, his culture."

There was also God. The Dutch Reformed Church, prising justifications for apartheid out of the Old Testament and Afrikaner history, seized on the victory over the Zulus at the battle of Blood River as confirming that the Almighty sided with the white man.

"Israelis claim that they are the chosen people, the elect of God, and find a biblical justification for their racism and Zionist exclusivity," says Ronnie Kasrils, South Africa's intelligence minister and Jewish co-author of a petition that was circulated amongst South African Jewry protesting at the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.

"This is just like the Afrikaners of apartheid South Africa, who also had the biblical notion that the land was their God-given right. Like the Zionists who claimed that Palestine in the 1940s was 'a land without people for a people without land', so the Afrikaner settlers spread the myth that there were no black people in South Africa when they first settled in the 17th century. They conquered by force of arms and terror and the provocation of a series of bloody colonial wars of conquest."

Anti-semitism lingered, but within a few years of the Nationalists assuming power in 1948, many Jewish South Africans found common purpose with the rest of the white community. "We were white and even though the Afrikaner was no friend of ours, he was still white," says Krausz. "The Jew in South Africa sided with the Afrikaners, not so much out of sympathy, but out of fear sided against the blacks. I came to this country in 1946 and all you could hear from Jews was 'the blacks this and the blacks that'. And I said to them, 'You know, I've heard exactly the same from the Nazis about you.' The laws were reminiscent of the Nuremberg laws. Separate entrances; 'Reserved for whites' here; 'Not for Jews' there."

For decades, the Zionist Federation and Jewish Board of Deputies in South Africa honoured men such as Percy Yutar, who prosecuted Nelson Mandela for sabotage and conspiracy against the state in 1963 and sent him to jail for life (in the event, he served 27 years). Yutar went on to become attorney general of the Orange Free State and then of the Transvaal. He was elected president of Johannesburg's largest orthodox synagogue. Some Jewish leaders hailed him as a "credit to the community" and a symbol of the Jews' contribution to South Africa.

"The image of the Jews was that they were following Helen Suzman," says Alon Liel, a former Israeli ambassador to Pretoria. "I think the majority didn't like what apartheid was doing to the blacks but enjoyed the fruits of the system and thought that maybe that's the only way to run a country like South Africa."

The Jewish establishment shied away from confrontation with the government. The declared policy of the Board of Deputies was "neutrality" so as not to "endanger" the Jewish population. Those Jews who saw silence as collaboration with racial oppression, and did something about it outside of the mainstream political system, were shunned.

"They were mostly disapproved of very strongly because it was felt they were putting the community in danger," says Suzman. "The Board of Deputies always said that every Jew can exercise his freedom to choose his political party but bear in mind what it is doing to the community. By and large, Jews were part of the privileged white community and that led many Jews to say, 'We will not rock the boat.'"

Common aims
Israel was openly critical of apartheid through the 1950s and 60s as it built alliances with post-colonial African governments. But most African states broke ties after the 1973 Yom Kippur war and the government in Jerusalem began to take a more benign view of the isolated regime in Pretoria. The relationship changed so profoundly that, in 1976, Israel invited the South African prime minister, John Vorster - a former Nazi sympathiser and a commander of the fascist Ossewabrandwag that sided with Hitler - to make a state visit.

Leaving unmentioned Vorster's wartime internment for supporting Germany, Israel's prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, hailed the South African premier as a force for freedom and made no mention of Vorster's past as he toured the Jerusalem memorial to the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis. At a state banquet, Rabin toasted "the ideals shared by Israel and South Africa: the hopes for justice and peaceful coexistence". Both countries, he said, faced "foreign-inspired instability and recklessness".

Vorster, whose army was then overrunning Angola, told his hosts that South Africa and Israel were victims of the enemies of western civilisation. A few months later, the South African government's yearbook characterised the two countries as confronting a single problem: "Israel and South Africa have one thing above all else in common: they are both situated in a predominantly hostile world inhabited by dark peoples."

Vorster's visit laid the ground for a collaboration that transformed the Israel-South Africa axis into a leading weapons developer and a force in the international arms trade. Liel, who headed the Israeli foreign ministry's South Africa desk in the 80s, says that the Israeli security establishment came to believe that the Jewish state may not have survived without the relationship with the Afrikaners.

"We created the South African arms industry," says Liel. "They assisted us to develop all kinds of technology because they had a lot of money. When we were developing things together we usually gave the know-how and they gave the money. After 1976, there was a love affair between the security establishments of the two countries and their armies.

"We were involved in Angola as consultants to the [South African] army. You had Israeli officers there cooperating with the army. The link was very intimate."

Alongside the state-owned factories turning out materiel for South Africa was Kibbutz Beit Alfa, which developed a profitable industry selling anti-riot vehicles for use against protesters in the black townships.

Going nuclear
The biggest secret of all was the nuclear one. Israel provided expertise and technology that was central to South Africa's development of its nuclear bombs. Israel was embarrassed enough about its close association with a political movement rooted in racial ideology to keep the military collaboration hidden.

"All that I'm telling you was completely secret," says Liel. "The knowledge of it was extremely limited to a small number of people outside the security establishment. But it so happened that many of our prime ministers were part of it, so if you take people such as [Shimon] Peres or Rabin, certainly they knew about it because they were part of the security establishment.

"At the UN we kept saying: we are against apartheid, as Jewish people who suffered from the Holocaust this is intolerable. But our security establishment kept cooperating."

So did many politicians. Israeli cities found twins in South Africa, and Israel was alone among western nations in allowing the black homeland of Bophuthatswana to open an "embassy".

By the 1980s, Israel and South Africa echoed each other in justifying the domination of other peoples. Both said that their own peoples faced annihilation from external forces - in South Africa by black African governments and communism; in Israel, by Arab states and Islam. But each eventually faced popular uprisings - Soweto in 1976, the Palestinian intifada in 1987 - that were internal, spontaneous and radically altered the nature of the conflicts.

"There are things we South Africans recognise in the Palestinian struggle for national self-determination and human rights," says Kasrils. "The repressed are demonised as terrorists to justify ever-greater violations of their rights. We have the absurdity that the victims are blamed for the violence meted out against them. Both apartheid and Israel are prime examples of terrorist states blaming the victims."

There are important differences. Israel faced three wars of survival, and the armed struggle in South Africa never evolved to the murderous tactics or scale of killing adopted by Palestinian groups over recent years. But, from the 1980s, the overwhelming superiority of Israeli military power, the diminishing threat from its neighbours and the shift of the conflict to Palestinian streets eroded the sympathy that Israel once commanded abroad.

White South Africa and Israel painted themselves as enclaves of democratic civilisation on the front line in defending western values, yet both governments often demanded to be judged by the standards of the neighbours they claimed to be protecting the free world from.

"The whites [in South Africa] always saw their fate in a way related to the fate of the Israelis because the Israelis were a white minority surrounded by 200 million fanatic Muslims assisted by communism," says Liel. "Also, there was this analysis that said Israel is a civilised western island in the midst of these 200 million barbaric Arabs and it's the same as the Afrikaners; five million Afrikaners surrounded by hundreds of millions of blacks who are also assisted by communism."

When Israel finally began to back away from the apartheid regime as international pressure on the Afrikaner government grew, Liel says Israel's security establishment balked. "When we came to the crossroads in '86-'87, in which the foreign ministry said we have to switch from white to black, the security establishment said, 'You're crazy, it's suicidal.' They were saying we wouldn't have military and aviation industries unless we had had South Africa as our main client from the mid-1970s; they saved Israel. By the way, it's probably true," he says.

Forgetting the past
Shimon Peres was defence minister at the time of Vorster's visit to Jerusalem and twice served as prime minister during the 1980s when Israel drew closest to the apartheid government. He shies away from questions about the morality of ties to the white regime. "I never think back. Since I cannot change the past, why should I deal with it?" he says.

Pressed about whether he ever had doubts about backing a government that was the antithesis of what Israel said it stood for, Peres says his country was struggling for survival. "Every decision is not between two perfect situations. Every choice is between two imperfect alternatives. At that time the movement of black South Africa was with Arafat against us. Actually, we didn't have much of a choice. But we never stopped denouncing apartheid. We never agreed with it."

And a man like Vorster? "I wouldn't put him on the list of the greatest leaders of our time," says Peres.

The deputy director general of Israel's foreign ministry, Gideon Meir, says that while he had no detailed knowledge of Israel's relationship with the apartheid government, it was driven by a sole consideration. "Our main problem is security. There is no other country in the world whose very existence is being threatened. This is since the inception of the state of Israel to this very day. Everything is an outcome of the geopolitics of Israel."

When apartheid collapsed, the South African Jewish establishment that once honoured Percy Yutar - the prosecutor who jailed Mandela - now rushed to embrace Jews who were at the forefront of the anti-apartheid struggle, such as Joe Slovo, Ronnie Kasrils and Ruth First.

"I received these awards from international Zionist organisations claiming that it was my Judaic roots that had driven me," says Suzman. "When I said I didn't have a Jewish upbringing and that I went to a convent which didn't influence me either, they said it was not actively but instinctively."

For Kasrils, the embrace was short-lived. "They spent years denouncing me for 'endangering the Jews' and then suddenly they pretend they've been at my side all through the struggle. It didn't last long. As soon as I started criticising what Israel is doing in Palestine they dropped me again," he said.

Nowadays, the language of the anti-apartheid struggle has found favour with the Jewish establishment as a means of defending Israel. South Africa's chief rabbi, Warren Goldstein, has called Zionism the "national liberation movement of the Jewish people" and invoked the terminology of Pretoria's policies to uplift "previously disadvantaged" black people. "Israel is an affirmative-action state set up to protect Jews from genocide. We are previously disadvantaged and we can't rely on the goodwill of the world," he said. Rabbi Goldstein declined several requests for an interview.

In 2004, Ronnie Kasrils visited the Palestinian territories to assess the effect of Israel's assault on the West Bank two years earlier in response to a wave of suicide bombings that killed hundreds of people. "This is much worse than apartheid," he said. "The Israeli measures, the brutality, make apartheid look like a picnic. We never had jets attacking our townships. We never had sieges that lasted month after month. We never had tanks destroying houses. We had armoured vehicles and police using small arms to shoot people but not on this scale."

Petition of conscience
More than 200 South African Jews signed a petition that Kasrils co-authored with another Jewish veteran of the anti-apartheid struggle, Max Ozinsky, denouncing Israel's treatment of the Palestinians and drawing a parallel with apartheid. The document, called A Declaration of Conscience, prompted a furious debate within the community. Arthur Goldreich - one of Mandela's early comrades-in-arms who also fought for Israel's independence - was among those who signed but he attached an addendum recognising the impact of the suicide bombings on how Israelis view the Palestinians.

Kasrils acknowledges the effect of the bombers but says that Israel's "apartheid strategy" was under way long before the suicide attacks began. He notes the resemblance of the occupied territories to South Africa's patchwork of homelands - the bantustans - that were intended to divest the country of much of its black population while keeping the best of their land.

Today, about six million Israelis live on 85% of the area that was Palestine under the British mandate. Nearly 3.5 million Palestinians are confined to the remaining 15%, with their towns and cities penned between Israel's ever-expanding settlement blocks and behind a network of segregated roads, security barriers and military installations.

You might say that Israel and the old South Africa were caught out by history. The world of 1948 into which the Jewish state was born and the Afrikaners came to power cared little about the "dark peoples" who stood in the way of grand visions. Neither government was doing very much that others - including British colonists - had not done before them.

And if Israel was fighting for its life and forcing Arabs out of their homes at the same time, who in the west was going to judge the Jews after what they had endured?

But colonialism crumbled in Africa and Israel grew strong, and the world became less accepting of the justifications in Pretoria and Jerusalem. South Africa's white leadership eventually accepted another way. Israel now stands at a critical moment in its history.

With Ariel Sharon in a coma, it is unlikely that we will ever know how far he intended to carry his "unilateral disengagement" strategy after the withdrawal from Gaza and a part of the West Bank. Like FW de Klerk, who initiated the dismantling of apartheid, Sharon might have found he had set in motion forces he could not contain - forces that would have led to a deal acceptable to the Palestinians.

But to the Palestinians, Sharon appeared intent on carrying through a modified version of his longstanding plan to rid Israel of responsibility for as many Arabs as possible while keeping as much of their land as he could.

While Tony Blair was praising the Israeli prime minister for his political "courage" in leaving Gaza in August last year, Sharon was expropriating more land in the West Bank than Israel surrendered in Gaza, building thousands of new homes in Jewish settlements, and accelerating construction of the 400-plus miles of concrete and barbed wire barrier that few doubt is intended as a border.

Palestinians said that whatever emasculated "state" emerged - granted only "aspects of sovereignty" with limited control over its borders, finances and foreign policy - would be disturbingly reminiscent of South Africa's defunct bantustans.

Take the roads. Israel is rapidly constructing a parallel network of roads in the West Bank for Palestinians who are barred from using many existing routes. B'Tselem, the Israeli human rights group, describes the system as bearing "clear similarities to the racist apartheid regime that existed in South Africa".

The army, which describes roads from which Palestinians are forbidden as "sterile", says the policy is driven solely by security considerations. But it is evident that the West Bank road system is a tool, along with the 400-plus miles of barrier, in entrenching the settlement blocks and carving up territory. "The road regime is not by legislation," said Goldreich. "It's by political decision and military orders. When I look at all of those maps and I look at the roads, it's like Alice in Wonderland. There are roads that Israelis can go on and roads Palestinians can go on, and roads Israelis and Palestinians can go on." The roads, the checkpoints, the fence - all "by edict. I look at it and ask, what is the thinking behind this?"

Three years ago, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported the former Italian prime minister, Massimo D'Alema, as telling dinner guests at a Jerusalem hotel that, on a visit to Rome a few years earlier, Sharon had told him that the bantustan model was the most appropriate solution to the conflict with the Palestinians. When one of the guests suggested to D'Alema that he was interpreting, not repeating, Sharon's words, the former prime minister said not. "No, sir, that is not interpretation. That is a precise quotation of your prime minister," he said. With Sharon out of politics, his successor Ehud Olmert has pledged himself to carrying through the vision of carving out Israel's final borders deep inside the West Bank and retaining all of Jerusalem for the Jewish state.

So is it apartheid?
Stepping into modern Israel, anyone who experienced the old South Africa would see few immediately visible comparisons. There are no signs segregating Jews and non-Jews. Yet, as in white South Africa then and now, there is a world of discrimination and oppression that most Israelis choose not to see.

Israeli soldiers routinely humiliate and harass Palestinians at checkpoints and settlers paint hate-filled slogans on the walls of Arab houses in Hebron. The police stop citizens who appear to be Arabs on West Jerusalem streets to demand their identity cards as a matter of routine.

Some Jewish communities refuse to allow Arabs in their midst on the grounds of cultural differences. One Jewish settlement mayor tried to require Arabs who entered to wear a tag that identified them as Palestinians. In the 1990s, rightwingers menaced shopkeepers into sacking Arab workers. Those who complied were given signs declaring their shops Arab-free. Sometimes the hatred is explained away as religious discrimination, but the chants at the football matches go "Death to Arabs" not "Death to Muslims".

The Israeli press largely ignores the routine of occupation despite the fearless reporting of some journalists on the disturbing number of children who die under Israeli guns (more than 650 since the second intifada broke out in September 2000, of which a quarter were younger than 12 years old); the abuse of Palestinians by settlers, and the humiliations meted out at the checkpoints.

The eight-metre-high wall driven through Jerusalem is almost invisible to residents of the Jewish west of the city. Because of the geography, most of the city's Jews do not see the concrete mammoth dividing streets and families, and the demolished homes - just as most of South Africa's whites steered clear of the townships and were blind to what was being done in their name.

Shortly after arriving in Jerusalem, I was invited for dinner at the home of a liberal Israeli family. The guests included an American magazine publisher, a prominent historian and political activists. The conversation turned to the Palestinians and degenerated into a discussion of how they do not "deserve" a state. The intifada and suicide bombings were seen to justify 37 years of occupation and offset whatever crimes Israel may have committed against the Arabs under its rule.

It was all very reminiscent of conversations in South Africa, and indeed the popular Israeli view of Palestinians is not so far from how many white South Africans thought about black people. Opinion polls show that large numbers of Israelis regard Arabs as "dirty", "primitive", as not valuing human life and as violent.

Sharon recruited into his government men who openly called for wholesale ethnic cleansing that would more than match apartheid's forced removals. Among them was the tourism minister, Rehavam Ze'evi, who advocated the "transfer" of Arabs out of Israel and the occupied territories. Even the Israeli press called him a racist. Ze'evi was shot dead in 2001 by Palestinians who said his policies made him a legitimate target.

But Ze'evi's views did not die with him. An influential member of the Likud central committee, Uzi Cohen, said Israel and its western allies should demand that a part of Jordan be carved off as a Palestinian state and that Arabs in the occupied territories should be given 20 years to "leave voluntarily". "In case they don't leave, plans would have to be drawn up to expel them by force," Cohen told Israel radio. "Many people support the idea but few are willing to speak about it publicly." Cohen is among 70 Israeli MPs who have backed a bill to establish a national memorial day for Ze'evi and an institute to perpetuate his ideas.

In 2001, Sharon appointed Uzi Landau as his security minister, a position from which he openly advocated that Palestinians should be forced to move to Jordan because they were in the way of Israeli expansion in the West Bank. "For many of us, it's as though they [the Palestinians] are encroaching on our very right to be there [in the occupied territories]," he said.

Sharon rarely objected to the expression of such views, and when he did it was not because they were racist or immoral. The prime minister told Likud party members who pressed him to expel Palestinians that he could not do so because the "international situation wouldn't be conducive".

"We've always had the fanatics talking of greater Israel," says Krausz, the Holocaust survivor in Johannesburg. "There are blokes who say it says in the Bible this land is ours, God gave it to us. It's fascism."

Colonial dispossession
Yossi Sarid, a leftwing Israeli MP, said of a cabinet minister who agitated for the forced removal of Arabs: "His remarks are reminiscent of other people and other lands which ultimately led to the annihilation of millions of Jews." They are also reminiscent of comments by PW Botha, who went on to become South Africa's president. Speaking to parliament in 1964 as minister for coloured affairs, he said: "I am one of those who believe that there is no permanent home for even a section of the Bantu in the white area of South Africa and the destiny of South Africa depends on this essential point. If the principle of permanent residence for the black man in the area of the white is accepted then it is the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it in this country."

There was a time when large numbers of Israelis agreed with Ze'evi and Cohen, but over the past decade they have come to support the creation of a Palestinian state as a means of ridding themselves of responsibility from the bulk of Arabs. Separation. Apartheid.

But South African apartheid was more than just separation. "Apartheid was all about land," says John Dugard, the South African lawyer and UN human rights monitor. "Apartheid was about keeping the best parts of the country for the whites and sending the blacks to the least habitable, least desirable parts of the country. And one sees that all the time here [in the occupied territories], particularly with the wall, now, which is really a land grab. One sees Palestinians dispossessed of their homes by bulldozers. One can draw certain parallels with respect to South Africa that, during the heyday of apartheid, population relocation did result in destruction of property, but not on the same scale as the devastation in Gaza in particular, [or in] the West Bank."

Arthur Goldreich resists the temptation to use the comparison. "It is a viable, even attractive, analogy. I have in the past been very reluctant, and still am, to make the analogy because I think it's too convenient. I think there are striking similarities in all forms of racist discrimination," he says.

"I think to describe, let us say, the bantustanism which we see through a policy of occupation and separation: they all have their own words and their own implications and it is not necessary to go outside to find them."

Kasrils agrees. "Yes, there are enormous parallels with apartheid, but the problem with making comparisons is it actually distracts from the Palestinian context," he says. "We have to look for another definition. What struck me is dispossession, colonial dispossession. Most colonial dispossession took place over centuries through settlers and forced removals. In South Africa, that was a 300-year process. Here, it's taken place in 50 years; 1948, 1967 and the present in terms of the heightened nature of militarism in the West Bank and Gaza leading to the wall, which I don't see as a wall of security but a wall of dispossession."

Hirsh Goodman emigrated to Israel three decades ago after his national service in the South African army. His son moved to South Africa after completing his conscription in the Israeli military. "The army sent him to the occupied territories and he said he would never forgive this country for what it made him do," says Goodman, a security analyst at Tel Aviv university. He says Israel has a lot to answer for but to call it apartheid goes too far. "If Israel retains the [occupied] territories it ceases to be a democracy, and in that sense it is apartheid because it differentiates between two classes of people and separates and creates two sets of laws which is what apartheid did. It creates two standards of education, health, of dispensing funds. But you can't call Israel an apartheid state when 76% of the people want an agreement with the Palestinians. Yes, there's discrimination against the Arabs, the Ethiopians and others, but it's not a racist society. There's colonialism, but there's not apartheid. I feel very strongly about apartheid. I hate the term being abused."

Daniel Seidemann, the Israeli lawyer who is fighting Jerusalem's residency and planning laws, says that he used to reject the apartheid parallel out of hand but finds it harder to do so nowadays. "My gut reaction: 'Oh, no! Our side? My goodness, no!' I think there's a good deal to be said for that reaction to the extent that apartheid was rooted in a racial ideology which clearly fed social realities, fed the political system, fed the system of economic subjugation. As a Jew, to concede the predominance of a racial world view of subjugating Palestinians is difficult to accept," he says. "But, unfortunately, the fact of the absence of a racial ideology is not sufficient because the realities that have emerged in some ways are clearly reminiscent of some of the important trappings of an apartheid regime."

So perhaps the better question is how Israel came to a point where comparisons with apartheid could even be contemplated. Is it a victim of circumstances, forced into oppression by its need to survive? Or was the hunger for land so central to the Zionist project that domination was the inevitable result?

Krausz worked in Israel for several years soon after the birth of the state. "I recognised the conflict in trying to take land that the Palestinians had lived on for centuries. I realise the 1948 war of independence wasn't a right-and-wrong situation: a lot of Arabs not only fled voluntarily but were also encouraged to do so. What they would have done if there hadn't been a war, I don't know," he says.

"I know that where I drilled for oil was the site of an Arab village. Being South African, I used to go and visit family and friends on a kibbutz that was started by South Africans, including my cousin. I used to go roaming about the countryside there and I went through one abandoned and blown up Arab village after another."

States of fear
In Israel, at least until the late 1970s, the threat from its Arab neighbours was all too real. But fear also played a role among white South Africans, who watched with growing horror, and then terror, the tide of empire receding and black rule sweeping Africa. The accounts of white women raped in newly independent Congo and, years later, the scenes of whites fleeing Angola, Mozambique and Rhodesia, were used by South Africa to terrify its white citizens into accepting increasingly oppressive measures against black people. Nevertheless, the fear among whites was real. They, like Israelis, saw themselves as in a struggle for their very existence.

Israel's critics say that as the threats to the Jewish state receded it came more and more to resemble the apartheid model - particularly in its use of land and residency laws - until the similarities outweighed the differences. Liel says that was never the intent.

"The existential problems of Israel were real," he says. "Of the injustice we did, we're always ashamed. We always tried to behave democratically. Of course, on the private level there was a lot of discrimination - a lot, a lot. By the government also. But it was not a philosophy that was built on racism. A lot of it was security-oriented."

Goldreich disagrees. "It's a gross distortion. I'm surprised at Liel. In 1967, in the six day war, in this climate of euphoria - by intent, not by will of God or accident - the Israeli government occupied the territories of the West Bank and Gaza with a captive Palestinian population obviously in order to extend the area of Israel and to push the borders more distant from where they were," he says.

"I and others like me, active after the six day war on public platforms, tried desperately to convince audiences throughout this country that peace agreements between Israel and Palestine [offer] greater security than occupation of territory and settlements. But the government wanted territory more than it wanted security.

"I am certain that it was in the minds of many in the leadership of this country that what we needed to do was make this place Arab-free. Mandela said to me once at Rivonia, 'You know, they want to make us unpeople, not seen.'"

But, as ordinary Israelis discovered, such a system cannot survive unchallenged. Apartheid collapsed in part because South African society was exhausted by its demands and the myth of victimhood among whites fell away. Israel has not got there yet. Many Israelis still think they are the primary victims of the occupation.

For Seidemann, the crucial issue is not how the apartheid system worked but how it began to disintegrate. "It unravelled because it couldn't be done. Apartheid drained so much energy from South African society that this was one of the compelling reasons beyond the economic sanctions and pressures that convinced De Klerk that this was not sustainable. This is what is coming to Israel."

Or perhaps the conflict will evolve into something worse; something that will produce parallels even more shocking than that with apartheid.

Arnon Soffer has spent years advising the government on the "demographic threat" posed by the Arabs. The Haifa university geographer paints a bleak vision of how he sees the Gaza strip a generation after Israel's withdrawal.

"When 2.5 million people live in a closed-off Gaza, it's going to be a human catastrophe. Those people will become even bigger animals than they are today, with the aid of an insane fundamentalist Islam. The pressure at the border will be awful. It's going to be a terrible war. So, if we want to remain alive, we will have to kill and kill and kill. All day, every day," he told the Jerusalem Post.

"If we don't kill, we will cease to exist. The only thing that concerns me is how to ensure that the boys and men who are going to have to do the killing will be able to return home to their families and be normal human beings."

Thursday
Mar142013

MARCH 9, 2013, 7:30 PM

On Questioning the Jewish State

I was raised in a religious Jewish environment, and though we were not strongly Zionist, I always took it to be self-evident that “Israel has a right to exist.” Now anyone who has debated the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will have encountered this phrase often. Defenders of Israeli policies routinely accuse Israel’s critics of denying her right to exist, while the critics (outside of a small group on the left, where I now find myself) bend over backward to insist that, despite their criticisms, of course they affirm it. The general mainstream consensus seems to be that to deny Israel’s right to exist is a clear indication of anti-Semitism (a charge Jews like myself are not immune to), and therefore not an option for people of conscience.

Over the years I came to question this consensus and to see that the general fealty to it has seriously constrained open debate on the issue, one of vital importance not just to the people directly involved — Israelis and Palestinians — but to the conduct of our own foreign policy and, more important, to the safety of the world at large. My view is that one really ought to question Israel’s right to exist and that doing so does not manifest anti-Semitism. The first step in questioning the principle, however, is to figure out what it means.

One problem with talking about this question calmly and rationally is that the phrase “right to exist” sounds awfully close to “right to life,” so denying Israel its right to exist sounds awfully close to permitting the extermination of its people. In light of the history of Jewish persecution, and the fact that Israel was created immediately after and largely as a consequence of the Holocaust, it isn’t surprising that the phrase “Israel’s right to exist” should have this emotional impact. But as even those who insist on the principle will admit, they aren’t claiming merely the impermissibility of exterminating Israelis. So what is this “right” that many uphold as so basic that to question it reflects anti-Semitism and yet is one that I claim ought to be questioned?

The key to the interpretation is found in the crucial four words that are often tacked on to the phrase “Israel’s right to exist” — namely, “… as a Jewish state.” As I understand it, the principle that Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state has three parts: first, that Jews, as a collective, constitute a people in the sense that they possess a right to self-determination; second, that a people’s right to self-determination entails the right to erect a state of their own, a state that is their particular people’s state; and finally, that for the Jewish people the geographical area of the former Mandatory Palestine, their ancestral homeland, is the proper place for them to exercise this right to self-determination.

The claim then is that anyone who denies Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state is guilty of anti-Semitism because they are refusing to grant Jews the same rights as other peoples possess. If indeed this were true, if Jews were being singled out in the way many allege, I would agree that it manifests anti-Jewish bias. But the charge that denying Jews a right to a Jewish state amounts to treating the Jewish people differently from other peoples cannot be sustained.

To begin, since the principle has three parts, it follows that it can be challenged in (at least) three different ways: either deny that Jews constitute “a people” in the relevant sense, deny that the right to self-determination really involves what advocates of the principle claim it does, or deny that Jews have the requisite claim on the geographical area in question.

In fact, I think there is a basis to challenge all three, but for present purposes I will focus on the question of whether a people’s right to self-determination entails their right to a state of their own, and set aside whether Jews count as a people and whether Jews have a claim on that particular land. I do so partly for reasons of space, but mainly because these questions have largely (though not completely) lost their importance.

The fact is that today millions of Jews live in Israel and, ancestral homeland or not, this is their home now. As for whether Jews constitute a people, this is a vexed question given the lack of consensus in general about what it takes for any particular group of people to count as “a people.” The notion of “a people” can be interpreted in different ways, with different consequences for the rights that they possess. My point is that even if we grant Jews their peoplehood and their right to live in that land, there is still no consequent right to a Jewish state.

However, I do think that it’s worth noting the historical irony in insisting that it is anti-Semitic to deny that Jews constitute a people. The 18th and 19th centuries were the period of Jewish “emancipation” in Western Europe, when the ghetto walls were torn down and Jews were granted the full rights of citizenship in the states within which they resided. The anti-Semitic forces in those days, those opposing emancipation, were associated not with denying Jewish peoplehood but with emphatically insisting on it! The idea was that since Jews constituted a nation of their own, they could not be loyal citizens of any European state. The liberals who strongly opposed anti-Semitism insisted that Jews could both practice their religion and uphold their cultural traditions while maintaining full citizenship in the various nation-states in which they resided.

But, as I said, let’s grant that Jews are a people. Well, if they are, and if with the status of a people comes the right to self-determination, why wouldn’t they have a right to live under a Jewish state in their homeland? The simple answer is because many non-Jews (rightfully) live there too. But this needs unpacking.

First, it’s important to note, as mentioned above, that the term “a people” can be used in different ways, and sometimes they get confused. In particular, there is a distinction to be made between a people in the ethnic sense and a people in the civic sense. Though there is no general consensus on this, a group counts as a people in the ethnic sense by virtue of common language, common culture, common history and attachment to a common territory. One can easily see why Jews, scattered across the globe, speaking many different languages and defined largely by religion, present a difficult case. But, as I said above, for my purposes it doesn’t really matter, and I will just assume the Jewish people qualify.

The other sense is the civic one, which applies to a people by virtue of their common citizenship in a nation-state or, alternatively, by virtue of their common residence within relatively defined geographic borders. So whereas there is both an ethnic and a civic sense to be made of the term “French people,” the term “Jewish people” has only an ethnic sense. This can easily be seen by noting that the Jewish people is not the same group as the Israeli people. About 20 percent of Israeli citizens are non-Jewish Palestinians, while the vast majority of the Jewish people are not citizens of Israel and do not live within any particular geographic area. “Israeli people,” on the other hand, has only a civic sense. (Of course often the term “Israelis” is used as if it applies only to Jewish Israelis, but this is part of the problem. More on this below.)

So, when we consider whether or not a people has a right to a state of their own, are we speaking of a people in the ethnic sense or the civic one? I contend that insofar as the principle that all peoples have the right to self-determination entails the right to a state of their own, it can apply to peoples only in the civic sense.

After all, what is it for a people to have a state “of their own”? Here’s a rough characterization: the formal institutions and legal framework of the state serves to express, encourage and favor that people’s identity. The distinctive position of that people would be manifested in a number of ways, from the largely symbolic to the more substantive: for example, it would be reflected in the name of the state, the nature of its flag and other symbols, its national holidays, its education system, its immigration rules, the extent to which membership in the people in question is a factor in official planning, how resources are distributed, etc. If the people being favored in this way are just the state’s citizens, it is not a problem. (Of course those who are supercosmopolitan, denying any legitimacy to the borders of nation-states, will disagree. But they aren’t a party to this debate.)

But if the people who “own” the state in question are an ethnic sub-group of the citizenry, even if the vast majority, it constitutes a serious problem indeed, and this is precisely the situation of Israel as the Jewish state. Far from being a natural expression of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination, it is in fact a violation of the right to self-determination of its non-Jewish (mainly Palestinian) citizens. It is a violation of a people’s right to self-determination to exclude them — whether by virtue of their ethnic membership, or for any other reason — from full political participation in the state under whose sovereignty they fall. Of course Jews have a right to self-determination in this sense as well — this is what emancipation was all about. But so do non-Jewish peoples living in the same state.

Any state that “belongs” to one ethnic group within it violates the core democratic principle of equality, and the self-determination rights of the non-members of that group.

If the institutions of a state favor one ethnic group among its citizenry in this way, then only the members of that group will feel themselves fully a part of the life of the state. True equality, therefore, is only realizable in a state that is based on civic peoplehood. As formulated by both Jewish- and Palestinian-Israeli activists on this issue, a truly democratic state that fully respects the self-determination rights of everyone under its sovereignty must be a “state of all its citizens.”

This fundamental point exposes the fallacy behind the common analogy, drawn by defenders of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, between Israel’s right to be Jewish and France’s right to be French. The appropriate analogy would instead be between France’s right to be French (in the civic sense) and Israel’s right to be Israeli.

I conclude, then, that the very idea of a Jewish state is undemocratic, a violation of the self-determination rights of its non-Jewish citizens, and therefore morally problematic. But the harm doesn’t stop with the inherently undemocratic character of the state. For if an ethnic national state is established in a territory that contains a significant number of non-members of that ethnic group, it will inevitably face resistance from the land’s other inhabitants. This will force the ethnic nation controlling the state to resort to further undemocratic means to maintain their hegemony. Three strategies to deal with resistance are common: expulsion, occupation and institutional marginalization. Interestingly, all three strategies have been employed by the Zionist movement: expulsion in 1948 (and, to a lesser extent, in 1967), occupation of the territories conquered in 1967 and institution of a complex web of laws that prevent Israel’s Palestinian citizens from mounting an internal challenge to the Jewish character of the state. (The recent outrage in Israel over a proposed exclusion of ultra-Orthodox parties from the governing coalition, for example, failed to note that no Arab political party has ever been invited to join the government.) In other words, the wrong of ethnic hegemony within the state leads to the further wrong of repression against the Other within its midst.

There is an unavoidable conflict between being a Jewish state and a democratic state. I want to emphasize that there’s nothing anti-Semitic in pointing this out, and it’s time the question was discussed openly on its merits, without the charge of anti-Semitism hovering in the background.

Joseph Levine is a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he teaches and writes on philosophy of mind, metaphysics and political philosophy. He is the author of “Purple Haze: The Puzzle of Consciousness.”

Saturday
Feb232013

Two Giants

Facilitate Global: 10th April 2013 Evening Dinner

Keynote speakers: Professor Ilan Pappe and Miko Peled

Personal Journeys: the global impact of Israel's dissenting voices

Facilitate Global is proud to announce that we will be hosting two prominent Israeli speakers who have challenged Israel's narrative, militarised society and racist policies from within, consistently inspiring ever more generations of activists to believe in justice and peace between Israel and Palestine and indeed the whole of the Middle East.

Professor Ilan Pappe and Miko Peled join Facilitate Global in an evening of activism, awareness-raising and debate on the key issues of the Israeli Palestine question. The two eminent speakers will share their vivid personal journeys from nascent ideological conditioning to an all embracing humanism, reflecting on the impact that challenging dominant ideologies can have politically, socially and personally.

Join us then for evening dinner in the company of these two extraordinary men. Places limited. To book please email info@facilitateglobal.org

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