My friend John showed up in South Jerusalem. Long ago and far away, John and I slouched in the back of high school classes together in Los Angeles, mumbling snidely about what was being left out of American history (women, blacks, slaughter of Indians, lynch mobs, poor folk…). Eventually I went into mumbling snidely as a profession. John, by contrast, is gainfully employed in high-tech, working for an Israeli firm that kindly brought him for a visit to the home office.
In late afternoon we walked out to the promenade. Some Palestinian kids were playing soccer on a stretch of lawn despite the ferocious heat. In front of us was the Old City and the Dome of the Rock. On the east, I pointed out to John, was the high concrete wall dividing the Palestinian side of Jerusalem from the Palestinian towns of the West Bank.
“So,” John asked me, “is there anything parallel to Israel’s control of the West Bank? What do you think of Jimmy Carter calling it apartheid? Is it like Jim Crow?” (I don’t claim this is a precise quote; it was Shabbat afternoon, when I don’t write.) But that’s the gist.
I don’t know if there’s any precise parallel to a military occupation that’s lasted 41 years, I told him. Everyone looks for parallels in history and politics, trying to judge an unfamiliar situation on the basis of a familiar one, or a morally ambiguous condition on the basis of a morally clear one. But history isn’t like medicine, in which 100 million cases can be classified as one disease. In history, there are two few cases, each one too idiosyncratic. Every unhappy nation is unhappy in its own way, to misquote Tolstoy.
If, nonetheless, one looks for a category, what is happening in the West Bank resembles colonialism more than apartheid. It is closer to Algeria than South Africa, though there are flaws in the Algerian parallel as well. Apartheid applied to the entire territory under the rule of the old South African regime; it was explicitly based on the construct of “race” and had no other purpose but to divide the races.
Even if the Green Line, the pre-1967 boundary, does not appear on official Israel maps, it exists as a legal and administrative boundary. Inside sovereign Israel, pre-1967 Israel for practical purposes, there’s a democracy, even if flawed. Palestinian citizens of Israel face discrimination, but they are voting citizens. The multiparty system insures that their votes can’t be gerrymandered away. They have more reasons than I’d like to list here for being dissatisfied – and are sometimes able to use an imperfect political and legal system to press for change.
The West Bank, on the other hand, isn’t legally part of Israel. Legally, for 41 years, it has been under military rule, temporary in apparent perpetuity. It was originally acquired in Israel in 1967 in something close to a fit of absence of mind – a defensive war, planned at the last minute, in which the goals shifted from hour to hour and the troops advanced further than anyone expected in advance. Palestinians live under military rule, and in some areas with the limited home rule of the Palestinian Authority.
But Israeli citizens who have settled there, with government support, as if Israel will control the territory forever, have the rights of Israeli citizens and then some. The two-tier legal system has been there virtually from the start. In a secret memo written in 1968, urging expanded settlement, then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan acknowledged that “settlement in administered territory, as we know, contravenes international agreements,” dismissed that as a problem, and went on to worry about the legal status of settlers. He didn’t want them subject to local law. He got his way. (Much more on this in my book, The Accidental Empire.)
He did want economic “integration” of the West Bank and Israel, which meant Palestinians would work for Israelis. He expected Palestinians to be appreciative. In a cabinet debate, he proposed German rule of Togo as a positive model. Dayan’s opponents explicitly warned from the summer of 1967 onward that permanent Israeli rule of the West Bank would be colonialism and would be denounced as such internationally. They lost the political argument. Shlomo Gazit, who in the late 1960s and early 1970s was the military officer working directly under Dayan in administering the West Bank, wrote three decades later:
At the end of the sixties, the world was already watching the end of the era of colonialism, and precisely then Israel found itself marching in the opposite direction.
But colonialism is also imprecise. On one hand, France could leave Algeria without fearing that Algerians would claim France as their own and keep up the war. Domestic support for leaving the West Bank would be much higher in Israel if we could abandon our Algeria as easily. Israelis on the moderate left would be much more comfortable at labeling the occupation as “colonialism” if Palestinians and their supporters did not apply the same term to pre-1967 Israel, as if Jews were just Frenchman who’d come here to build plantations, with no historical tie to the land.
On the other hand, as I once explained in the American Prospect, Ariel Sharon’s plans for Palestinian “autonomy” in fragmented enclaves, and later for “statehood” in those same enclaves, was influenced by South Africa’s grand apartheid, with its fictitiously independent bantustans.
In general, I don’t like the use of “apartheid” as a term, because it delegitimizes Israel as such, and not just the occupation. It also ignores the original cause of the occupation, a war of defense. But as long as the occupation continues, and settlement grows, and the possibility of withdrawal and a two-state agreement grows dimmer, the use of the word will grow. The insult exaggerates but is not utterly imaginary.
I’m not trying to reproduce word for word what I told John as we looked out over the wall-divided landscape of Jerusalem. This is more or less the idea. At the end I suggested one more weak parallel. He’d brought me a book about the Lincoln-Douglas debates. In those awful days of American history, many Americans were willing to allow the moral blight of slavery to continue lest civil war erupt. Today many Israelis would rather accept the occupation than face armed conflict with the settlers. Their fear is justified, yet the blight cannot continue. One of our deepest challenges is to find a way to leave without fratricide. It will take more than one quiet Shabbat afternoon with a friend to figure out a solution to that problem.