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A Most Unpleasant Word

February 3, 2010 – 9:24 pm59 Comments

Photograph by Larry Stillman

By Larry Stillman

It hurts. Israel is increasingly called an apartheid state.

In this opinion piece, I wish to deal with the issue from the ‘inside’, from the perspective of an Australian Jew with an abiding connection and deep concern for the future of Israel as a democracy, and a country that has the potential to become a richly multicultural society.  I believe that Israel has lost its soul and is eroding its democratic foundation, replacing it with something that is difficult to justify as anything close to a democracy.

I distinguish between my position and that of people, including some on the left, and Palestinian nationalists who take an uncompromising ‘Israel be damned position’ and condemn Israel as an inherently exclusionary, racist state, while ignoring the racism and religious intolerance that pervades other countries in the region. I do not ignore the racism and religious intolerance in the region, but nonetheless focus on Israel because that’s my connection, and I don’t expect the other countries to be democracies.

Akiva Eldar, a writer for Haaretz (4 January 2010) argued that

“In Israel … institutional discrimination is meant to preserve the supremacy of a group of Jewish settlers over Palestinian Arabs. As far as discriminatory practices are concerned, it’s hard to find differences between white rule in South Africa and Israeli rule in the territories; for example, separate areas and separate laws for Jews and Palestinians.”

This is an opinion that is also shared by long-time civil rights activists such as Shulamit Aloni, Naomi Chazan, and others who argue that the solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict is political, but that Israel has instead developed a culture of permanent militarisation and intolerance. Of course, such opinions are rejected as ‘offensive’, both within and outside Israel, but I can only focus here on why such an opinion is regrettably, on the mark.

The case for supporting the view that Israel has gone down a dangerous supremacist path is based on a human rights perspective: should I distinguish between the values I hold dear for Australia and those that should apply to Israel as a liberal, open and non-discriminatory democracy, even as the argument goes, the state is imperilled by internal and external enemies?

Could we accept such state behaviour in Australia on the grounds of national security, and are we so sure that it would not lead to  abuse of power? And particularly, could security measures like those in Israel (including the Separation Wall, separate roads, different colour ID cards, and separation of families) be accepted as a means of benefitting one group of Australians over another (similar to the way that Israeli policy benefits settlers over Palestinians)? Could we accept ‘Aussies only suburbs’ (shades of Cronulla)? Could we accept collective punishment (Gaza) as a solution to dealing with a minority population in revolt?  Would we still be able to argue that with such laws and practices on the books,  Australia would remain an open democracy unlike non-democracies that surround it?

The fundamental issue for me is that I can’t separate my human rights values and expectations into one set for Australia and another for Israel. I also apply the same standards to other countries, particularly democracies. Consider the following scenario. It is set in Australia and I believe that it is realistic.

Australian policy towards boat people is overlayed with paranoia about security and contamination that far outweighs the real threat posed by the very small number of people who arrive here by boat. Yet we have recently built prisons for refugees and imprisoned their children. Politicians and public officials have abused power, all in our own name. Public hysteria has been whipped up (Children Overboard) and we have jailed a number of people in unclear circumstances (such as the Haneef case) on the grounds that they were terrorist sympathisers.

Frighteningly, it’s clear from a number of surveys that at least 30% of the Australian population sympathise with Tony Abbott’s views on refugees, hold deeply reactionary views on many other things, and given half the chance, they’d  bring back hanging, drawing and quartering twice a week at the MCG.  Persecution of minorities is a part of Australian culture.

Indeed I’d argue we had our own version policy of apartheid, whether by way of legislation or informal practice, for indigenous Australians that carried on until at least the 1970s, coupled with the White Australia Policy. I remember a lecture at Melbourne High in 1970 by the Secretary of the right-wing Australian Natives Association (an old civic organisation) praising the South African regime as a model for this country.  Like Israelis and their defenders who deny anything wrong can ever happen, we also have our deniers of ‘black arm band history’, including a former Prime Minister.

I want to make this claim—if Australia suffered from a severe security problem, far worse than Bali, and enough politicians and troglodytes wanted it, I have no doubt that our government would set up a similar system of social exclusion as has occurred in Israel.  Of course, it would appal me, and I hope many other people would see the evil in institutionalised exclusion as a means of enforcing national security, or religious and ethnic cohesion. It’s not something that I could defend in the name of the nation’s security or even on the grounds of defending democracy.

That’s what’s happening in Israel.

If you care about Israel as a democracy (not just in a formal legal way, but in the way that rights and resources are distributed fairly for all its population groups-which they are not), and as a positive centre for Jewish life, rather than a myopic society living on borrowed time and others’ money, the policies that have developed under the excuse of security have gone on for too long, and the unchecked abuses have gone too far.  The self-talk about ‘existential threats’, or pumping up fear of another Holocaust gets less and less sympathy as the settlers behave more and more like lawless thugs.   You need to oppose what’s happening and realised that the Zionist dream, hijacked by money, power, and crazy nationalist and religious ideologies  has become a nightmare.

Israel does have an option, and that is to stop acting as an occupier and oppressor when the excuse of security has increasingly become an excuse for real estate  and resource theft, the collapse of the rule of law, and  forced movement of populations, called by some, ‘ethnic cleansing’, all in the name of  Jewish majority.  Short of behaving like the old minority regime in South Africa, Israel will have to come to terms with the fact that in future, Jews won’t be the majority population group, and this means that over time, the country’s identity will change.  That’s perhaps the subject of another article: can Israel survive as a multicultural state?  And if such a state can live in peace, does it matter that it is no longer a Jewish state?

If you believe in Israel at all costs; not as a country with human rights and an effective democracy, but rather one based on exclusivism, religious imperatives, nationalism, and an iron fist;  then you have to accept what is happening for what it is commonly known – institutionalised separation, known in Afrikaans as Apartheid, and be prepared to live with it.

For further reading, I recommend this reasonably dispassionate piece in Wikipedia.

Larry Stillman is a member of the Australian Jewish Democratic Society Executive, but is expressing his own and not anyone else’s opinion.

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