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Jimmy Carter and Apartheid

1.

Perhaps an intrepid researcher will one day go through the many Internet pages that make assertions pro and con on the question of whether Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories can properly be assessed as “apartheid.” Then we may be in a position to tell whether the first polemicist to sling the term in the context of the West Bank was a foreigner, a Palestinian, or, just possibly, an Israeli. Suffice it to say, it wasn’t Jimmy Carter, whose recent book, with its unpunctuated title Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, has been high on the best-seller lists for nearly three months despite—maybe, in part, because of—the wrath his use of the term has provoked among Israel’s supporters. Not all of them have been as restrained as Abe Foxman, the director of the Anti-Defamation League, who complains of Carter’s “bias” but avoids tossing the epithet “anti-Semite” at the president who, nearly three decades ago, brokered the Camp David accord, which did more to secure Israel’s place and legitimacy in the region than all the diplomacy that preceded or followed it.

The branding of Israel as an “apartheid state” was one of the themes of resolutions presented at the World Conference Against Racism held in Durban, South Africa, under United Nations auspices in 2001 (and one of the reasons Secretary of State Colin Powell cited for calling the American delegation home). Yet at about the same time, the term “apartheid” began to surface in discussions in what might broadly be called the Israeli peace camp as a plausible if somewhat contentious way of characterizing the occupation of the territories or the prospects of the Jewish settlements there; as a benchmark, a description of what the occupation already was or might become. Five years ago, writing in Haaretz, Israel’s most respected newspaper, Michael Ben Yair used the A-word in describing the occupation that he said began on “the seventh day” of the Six-Day War. Ben Yair, the attorney general in the governments of Yitzak Rabin and Shimon Peres in the 1990s, is no fringe figure. “Passionately desiring to keep the occupied territories,” he wrote,

we developed two judicial systems: one—progressive, liberal—in Israel; and the other—cruel, injurious—in the occupied territories. In effect, we established an apartheid regime in the occupied territories immediately following their capture.

Two years later, the political commentator and former deputy mayor of Jerusalem Meron Benvenisti used the word prospectively. Ariel Sharon’s plan to disengage from Gaza and build a security wall along—and beyond—the western frontier of the West Bank was tantamount, he argued, to making Israel “a binational state based on apartheid.” It meant, he said, “the imprisonment of some 3 million Palestinians in bantustans.”

In recent weeks, largely in response to the controversy in this country over the Carter book, the word “apartheid” has popped up in Israel’s interminable security discussion more often there than it normally does in print. Thus we find Uri Avnery, a veteran of the peace movement, detecting “a strong odor of apartheid” in a military order (since rescinded) forbidding Israeli drivers to give rides to Palestinians on the West Bank; and Shulamit Aloni, the education minister in the last Rabin cabinet, declaring on the Web site of the tabloid Yediot Ahronot that Israel “practices its own, quite violent, form of apartheid with the native Palestinian population.”1 Two clicks on the Web site of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, a small but vocal peace group, brings you to a screen headed “Campaign Against Apartheid,” proposing a “Civil Society Call to Action.” Israelis using the term “apartheid” in debates that go on mainly in Hebrew provoke a predictably hostile reaction. But that reaction in Israel is ritualized by now, not nearly as fresh in its outrage as the one the former president aroused here by using “apartheid” as a verbal battering ram in order to reopen a debate about the occupation of Palestinian lands—one that Democrats and Republicans, unlike Israelis, outdo each other in shunning.

Two uses of “apartheid” are in play when attempts are made to attach the word to Israel: the Durban usage, citing Israel as an “apartheid state”; and, more commonly, the application of the term to the occupation in the territories, which has now gone on for all but nineteen of the nearly fifty-nine years of Israel’s existence, through different phases as Jewish settlements took root and expanded on the West Bank along with the heavy military presence that guards them, supplemented now by a network of roads for the exclusive use of the settlers and the Israel Defense Forces. The settlements, roads, barriers and military presence have effectively divided the West Bank into security zones or enclaves, severely limiting Palestinian passage from one zone to the next. The crushing impact on Palestinian lives and families is clear enough. The debate on whether it amounts to “apartheid” turns on whether it’s to be seen as a legitimate and reversible response to the threat of terrorism across the border in Israel, or whether it’s meant to be as permanent as it looks.

The Durban usage, labeling Israel an “apartheid state,” is relatively easy to dismiss as propaganda. Apartheid, as developed by Afrikaner nationalists in South Africa, was both a doctrine and a huge legal apparatus. It was based on a system of racial classification and elaborated in scores of laws and hundreds of regulations that stripped the black majority of virtually all rights, including the right to enter and remain in “white areas,” deemed to be most of the land. Nothing remotely resembling the apartheid doctrine or apparatus can be found within Israel itself. It’s indisputable that Arab citizens face discrimination of various sorts but on paper at least, they have the same rights as Jewish citizens (except for what might be called an existential fact, recently underscored by a group of Arab intellectuals and activists, that the 1.3 million Arabs of Israel live in a state that implicitly relegates them to second-class status by defining itself as Jewish).2

Still, to equate Israel with white South Africa of the apartheid era amounts to saying the Jewish state has no legitimacy at all, that the 1948 partition establishing it needs to be undone in order to accommodate all Palestinians who might want to regain residence there. In essence, it’s to say what the absolutists in Hamas say in making their all-or-nothing demands: that the only real Palestine is the territory that existed before partition (just as the dwindling number of Jewish absolutists argue that the only real Israel is Greater Israel).

It’s only when one speaks of the lesser “Palestine”—meaning, as Jimmy Carter says he does, the territories that would participate in the full-fledged two-state solution that’s supposed to be the aim of Western diplomacy—that “apartheid” begins to shape up as a charge more troubling than an epithet, as a loose analogy that carries some weight. That’s how Carter defends his use of the term. He says his title—which can be read either as an accusation or a plea—refers only to the occupied territories, not democratic Israel. What’s remarkable is how little he has to say about the analogy he sees between the bygone white regime in South Africa and the occupation of the West Bank as it still exists (and as it existed in Gaza before the withdrawal of the settlements in 2005).3 Despite the explosive force of his use of the word in his title, Carter alludes to apartheid only glancingly in his text, touching on the subject in just four paragraphs in the entire book, adding up to barely a couple of pages. The case is so self-evident, he seems to feel, that it needn’t be made. The one qualification he offers is itself off the mark. “The driving purpose for the forced separation of the two peoples is unlike that in South Africa—not racism,” the former president writes, “but the acquisition of land.”

Obviously, apartheid had plenty to do with racism but land was also at the heart of the South African struggle. This was the case even before the word “apartheid” gained currency at the time of the victory of the National Party in the 1948 elections, which ushered in an era of rule by Afrikaner nationalists that was to last for nearly half a century. (A coinage, “apartheid” meant more than separation; “separatehood,” with the same suffix as “brotherhood,” would be a possible translation if there were such a concept or word in English.) Apartheid rapidly evolved from a slogan into an ideology, one that had more ambitious goals than crude old-style segregation or supremacy. Basically it offered a promise that white South Africa could endure as a sovereign political entity for all time under Afrikaner leadership without sacrificing Christian values. That opened the door to a slew of oppressive laws and experiments in social engineering. Under the Group Areas Act, for instance, more than two million blacks and other nonwhites were forcibly moved from what were sometimes called “black spots” in areas designated as “white” to remote settlements and tribal reserves that were rebranded as “homelands.” In the process, their lands and homes were confiscated. Finally the denizens of the homelands were told they were citizens of sovereign states, that they were no longer South Africans.4 All this was in service of apartheid’s grand design.

With adjustments for the large differences in population size and land mass, it might be argued that land confiscation on the West Bank approaches the scale of these apartheid-era expropriations in South Africa. Jimmy Carter is well aware of the pattern of land confiscation there; he quotes Meron Benvenisti at length on the subject. But since he thinks apartheid in South Africa was all about race and not about land, he fails to see that it’s precisely in their systematic and stealthy grabbing of Arab land that the Israeli authorities and settlers most closely emulate the South African ancien régime. What could have been his most incisive argument in support of his provoking use of the A-word turns up in the pages of his book as little more than an aside.

There are other similarities of which Carter seems to be unaware. For instance, one of the features of apartheid in its last years as constant bureaucratic tinkering rendered the model steadily more complicated was its tendency to spin off various levels of legal status for black South Africans who were otherwise indistinguishable: some had permission (falling short of an inalienable right) to live as well as work in urban areas designated as “white”; others, called “commuters,” could work in these areas but not reside in them; still others could work and live there in single-sex hostels but not bring their families; a large residue had no permits to enter the so-called “white” areas (which were, in fact, nearly always majority black).

  1. 1

    Ms. Aloni’s article appeared in translation on Salon.com.

  2. 2

    For an effective answer to the charge that Israel is an “apartheid state,” see “Apartheid? Israel Is a Democracy in Which Arabs Vote,” an article by Benjamin Pogrund, a crusading anti-apartheid journalist from South Africa who now lives in Jerusalem, where he is involved in efforts aimed at recon-ciliation between religious Jews and Muslims. The article first appeared in Focus, a publication of the Helen Suzman Foundation in Johannesburg and now available on the foundation’s Web site. Pogrund also decries the application of the term to the occupation on the West Bank, calling it “a lazy label.” See The New York Times, February 8, 2007, for a dispatch on “The Future Vision of Palestinian Arabs in Israel,” the statement by Arab intellectuals and activists.

  3. 3

    Israel maintains that its occupation of Gaza ended with its unilateral withdrawal of troops and settlements, though it makes frequent military incursions in response to rocket attacks from the territory. Human Rights Watch argues that Israel “continues to have obligations as an occupying power in Gaza because of its almost complete control over Gaza’s borders, sea and air space, tax revenue, utilities, and the internal economy of Gaza.”

  4. 4

    This aspect of what was called “grand apartheid” is echoed in the plan of Avigdor Lieberman, now a deputy prime minister, to forcibly “transfer” Arab citizens of Israel to Palestinian jurisdiction unless they pass a loyalty test.

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