Amos Oz, one of Israel’s pre-eminent authors and left-wing personalities, famously described the Israel-Palestine conundrum as a tragic clash between ‘right and right’; two equally legitimate, yet conflicting, claims to statehood in historic Palestine. However, across British campuses, in cyber-space and other outlets of clichéd, recycled slogans, the Israel-Palestine conflict has become an ironic dichotomy of ‘wrong and wrong’; a battle of misleading hyperbolae between two over-lapping half-truths. Israel is either tarred as an ‘apartheid state’, or is proclaimed a discrimination-free liberal democracy. This is an inevitable by-product of the unhelpful bifurcation of the debate between those who are ‘pro-Israel’ or ‘pro-Palestine’, picking sides and uncritically defending them as one would do with their favourite sports team.
Israel is neither a latter-day Satan, nor a contemporary Saint. Deeming Israel an ‘apartheid state’ results in the Hasbara (pro-Israel) lobby rolling out of the same, tired (but correct) statistics to prove this is not the case, whilst inadvertently concealing prescient institutional discrimination. Debate is reduced to a ‘with us or against us’ mentality, as both sides sweep glaring injustices under the comforting rug of gratuitous sloganeering. In short, claiming that Israel is an apartheid state, or a perfect democracy is not only boring and superannuated, it is downright dangerous and reductionist.
Israel proper (excluding the West Bank and Gaza) contains 1.3 million Arab citizens, who supposedly enjoy full legal citizenry rights and privileges expected of a liberal-democratic state. Arab Israelis stand for office, freely criticise Israel’s government, organise in trade unions and generally are endowed a higher degree of freedom than their brethren in the Middle-East. The Knesset, Israel’s legislature, contains fourteen Arab representatives, in all of the major parties, alongside extra-parliamentary pressure groups and civil rights associations. Regurgitated and tired these statistics may be, a cursory glance at them demonstrates that Israel is not an apartheid state in the South African mould.
However, to only note this side of the narrative ignores the endemic discrimination and racism faced by Israel’s Arab minority. Though Arabs represent nearly 12% of the Knesset, they compose 20% of Israel’s population, a clear democratic deficit. Unlike South Africa, racism in Israel is not constitutionally enshrined and instead is mainly comprised of a tacit, ‘wink and nudge’ basis. For instance, employers are barred from practicing racial discrimination, so they sometimes make a successful application conditional upon military service, something most of Israel’s Arabs understandably opt out of. The underhand, non-legally enforced nature of the prevalent racist trends does not make it acceptable, but it is not apartheid, either.
Crucially, deeming Israel an ‘apartheid state’ glosses over the different struggles faced by Israeli Arabs, Jerusalemite Arabs and West Bank Arabs. West Bank Arabs are subject to severe curtailment of freedom of speech and assembly, seen through the prism of an occupied people, rather than Israeli citizens. Because Israel never annexed the West Bank, liberal-democratic Israeli state law is superseded by inevitably harsher military law. In contrast, Jerusalemites, despite living in annexed ‘Israeli’ Jerusalem, are subject to a civil-rights grey area; conveniently labelled ‘permanent residents’ instead of Israeli citizens, given basic rights but denied a say in Israel’s legislative process. Israel lacks consistent policies for its Arab subjects, but even in the West Bank, Israel’s haphazard equivocation between carrot and the stick is hardly indicative of full-blown apartheid.
Hence, simply labelling oneself as uncritically ‘pro-Israel’ or ‘pro-Palestine’ ignores the multi-faceted and convoluted nature of the conflict. Slurs of ‘apartheid state’ countered by Israel’s position as a ‘liberal democracy’ are both deeply reactionary and not truly objective. Israel may well be a liberal democracy, but unlike other liberal states it is entangled in the uncomfortable realities of unjustly governing a future neighbour’s land, facilitating racism against Israeli Arabs, radicalisation within that community and repressive measures against West Bank Palestinians. The Israeli-Arab conflict will never be solved by false dichotomies and debates regarding two non-existent norms, nor can it be reduced to them. Instead, these narratives stymie legitimate debate, ignoring genuine institutional racism and potential for practical convergence between the two camps.