Israel and Apartheid: Language matters

Jul 23, 2021

George Browning’s critique of Israel as an apartheid state is highly critical of Labor Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese’s refusal to deploy that label. Like Browning, I agree that words matter. Which is why I contest his commentary. This article highlights the background to Browning’s remarks, offers a brief analysis of the apartheid analogy, and offers a social democratic perspective about the Israel-Palestine debate.

First, some context to what Browning is reacting to.

On Tuesday 13 July, Anthony Albanese publicly spoke via Zoom to an Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) sponsored event with around 70 attendees, mainly leaders representing the Jewish communal roof bodies, related organisations, and friends. The full video can be found here.

Albanese said:

“I think that the use of terms like apartheid, not only is not appropriate for describing the Israeli political system and structure. It also I think cheapens to be frank the struggle against apartheid that occurred in South Africa led by Mandela and others. … It’s a dangerous thing where people look for simplistic terms that are ahistorical, because they are not only offensive to the people, the structures to which they are directed, they are offensive to where the terms originated as well.”

Israel, Apartheid, and why Albo is seriously wrong and seriously right


Before analysing those remarks, it is interesting that “Albo” made clear he is a long-term supporter of the rights of Palestinians to statehood, explained that he has been critical of certain Israeli policies (illegal settlements, etc.), but he said he had long opposed Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS), expressed sympathy about the existential threats that Israel has faced since its modern foundation, and said how appalled he is about the rise in antisemitism on the far right & far left.

This is no sudden change of heart by the Opposition Leader. For decades, he has both been a member of the Australia-Israel Parliamentary Friendship Group and the Australian Parliamentary Friends of Palestine. In 2011, during the New South Wales state election for Marrickville, his local bailiwick, and a seat held by his then wife, Carmel Tebbutt, the Greens bizarrely made the promotion of BDS a cornerstone of their campaign. Albo and Tebbutt called out the obsessive focus of the Greens against Israel, and they opposed BDS. The Greens were trounced in that election.

In Albo’s ECAJ Zoom call, he re-affirmed Labor’s support for a two-state resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, saying: “I have always been very concerned about those who argue, including some on the Left as well, that we can have a one-State solution. A single, secular, democratic State is in my view just a recipe for ongoing conflict.” Referring to the UN’s historic endorsement of the two-State principle, he said, “It has to be recognised why the Jewish State of Israel arose.” Those remarks show Mr Albanese is sensible. He endorsed the working definition of antisemitism adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, an organisation bringing together experts and governments on Holocaust education, remembrance, and research. The definition includes as an example “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.”

Albo nailed Labor as the foremost Australian champions of the two-state solution. He showed that there is no incompatibility in proclaiming that a true friend of Israelis can be a supporter of the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people.

But what about the apartheid label?

Surely it is simplistic, naïve, ahistorical – terms Albo used – to describe Israel with that word.

Browning has a bet each way (as the title of his article suggests). On the one hand, he says: “I applaud the courage of Mr Albanese and his colleagues in the Labor Party for making this stand and for staking a claim on the right side of history”, which is a reference to support for Palestinian statehood. But he bluntly says: “The focus of the anger lies in his refusal to accept the word Apartheid as the most apt way of describing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.”

Let us analyse the concept. “Apartheid” is an Afrikaan word that describes racial segregation and discrimination that was enforced violently by white minority governments on non-whites in South Africa from 1948 to 1994. We all know about the “whites only” restrictions. But the system was much more insidious.

Laws included the South African Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act of 1949 which banned interracial marriages. The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Amendment Act No 21 of 1968 purported to invalidate any marriage outside South Africa between a male citizen and a woman of another racial group. The Immorality and Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Amendment Act No 72 of 1985 consolidated various edicts. Unmarried sexual intercourse between Europeans and non-Europeans was illegal. The Group Areas Act of 1950 allocated blacks to one of ten designated black bantus or homelands, requiring blacks to have passports to enter South Africa.

The contrast with Israel is manifest. Arabs and Jews can and do inter-marry; freedom in sexual relations is championed. There is a vibrant, effective human rights culture. The sole legal distinction between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel is that the latter are not required to serve in the Israeli army. This spares Israel’s Arab citizens from the obligation to take up arms against other Arabs. But many do volunteer.

In Israel, 21% of the population are Arab Israelis. and they vote. Elected Arab members of parliament sit in the Knesset. Raleb Majadele, a former Israeli Labour parliamentarian, served in various Cabinets from 2004 to 2015. At the elite Technion University, 20 % of students are of Arab background. Many Arab Israelis reach eminence in the professions. For example, Salim Joubran, on the Supreme Court, 2003-2017. Over a decade ago, the then Israeli Arab District Court Judge George Karra convicted and sentenced the former President of Israel, Moshe Katsav, to jail for seven years on a rape finding. In 2017, Karra was appointed a member of the Israeli Supreme Court.

Within Israel’s boisterous democracy all shades of opinion are aired; some even warn of the danger of apartheid should the West Bank be annexed; some warn in a stentorian voice that the threshold has been crossed. But rhetoric aside, within Israel the facts on the ground speak for themselves.

The situation is not ideal.  Discrimination, inequalities, and injustices abound.

Sadly, discrimination exists everywhere. It exists in Israel. It exists in Australia. But discrimination is not apartheid.

Double standards abound. Australia is not routinely described as an apartheid state for its historic and ongoing mistreatment of its First Nations peoples.

Consider Turkey’s treatment of the Kurds, Morocco’s brutality towards the Western Saharan people, China’s confinement of its Uyghur minority to concentration camps – none of these nations are commonly condemned for engaging in apartheid. It is only the state of Israel that is singled out for differential and discriminatory treatment in the international arena.

The deployment of the apartheid slur is a calculated insult. Its purpose is to delegitimise the nation-state of Israel.

In the past few months, a new dynamic is emerging in Israel. A former Israeli Labour Leader, Isaac Herzog, was overwhelmingly elected as President by the Knesset. The new Israeli government is very diverse, straddling left to right. Nervous anticipation marks most assessments. The government includes hardliners, ex-Likudniks, centrists, a wheelchair mobile minister, a Reform Rabbi, an openly gay minister, the Russian immigrants party, the remnants of the old Israeli Labour Party, and members of an Israeli Arab Islamic Party. It should not work in theory, but in practice, it currently holds together. A spirit of dignity pervades the new government. The mix of pro-settler ministers and liberal opponents threatens stability, however. A huge stimulus to support Arab Israeli projects, in infrastructure, schools, training, communal services, is a large focus of the new government. The Arab vote matters. Women freely vote, in contrast to the rest of the Middle East.

I see Albo’s perspective as superior to Browning’s because Albo sees virtue signalling for what it is – unhelpful at best, and likely to make complex problems more, not less, difficult to resolve. Albo articulates a vision of a peaceful settlement; he sees two states bringing mutual benefit to the citizens of both. Albo understands twisting the meaning of apartheid to Israel is wrong and destructive. It also insults those who suffered through actual apartheid.

Albo was clear on the zoom call (which is public) that the ALP wants to work towards the achievement of two states, via a negotiated settlement between Israelis and the Palestinians. Browning claims that one “racial group” reigns supreme over another in Israel. But this claim stands in contrast to the actual reality: a nation with parliamentarians and government members from at least four religions and many ethnicities.

Finally, though he hovers over the point, Browning’s rhetoric seemingly calls for either the extension of Israeli law, with all its rights and responsibilities, overall the people currently in the areas of the Palestinian Authority (i.e., annexation by Israel) or the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state (which will not happen without war and a likely enormous loss of life.) The conclusion to draw is that just as the BDS movement brought suffering to many Palestinians, with Browning’s nostrums the challenges, unintended consequences, the paradoxes, are not thought through.

Browning shows that even people of goodwill, compassion, with disdain for racism, seeking justice and dignity, can disagree. Not surprisingly, as a retired Anglican Bishop he tries to apply Christian principles to his assessment. His determination as President of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network (APAN), quoting from their website, to “harness… the passion of Australians to advocate for Australian policy to support Palestinian human rights, justice, and equality” is no mean feat. Especially considering the vile breaches of human rights in Gaza by Hamas, the PLO kleptocracy on the West Bank, and the widespread suppression of basic freedoms. Additionally, there is the problem that Palestinian schools propagandise children against the very existence of Israel, inciting hatred. The Palestinian Authority gives out payments to families of suicide bombers and terrorists arrested and detained. This highlights reasons for the lack of trust between neighbouring peoples.

I am sure many observers of the Israeli-Palestinian debate are appalled by the frequency of animus over the accuracy, selective facts, the “yes, but” arguments which seek to out trump opponents.

But it should not be all dust and confusion. Here are ten principles that I believe social democrats should apply to the region:

  1. Democracy preferred to dictatorial regimes and movements;
  2. Human rights for all, across the Middle East;
  3. Celebration of the diversity and vitality of the cultures of the Middle East;
  4. Rejection of tyranny, misogyny, homophobia, racism, and theocracy;
  5. Opposition to racism in all forms –the racism of the far-right and far-left, racism against people from Muslim majority countries and backgrounds, and against the resurgence of antisemitism;
  6. Support of the right of both the Israeli and the Palestinian peoples to self-determination through a negotiated lasting peace and a two-state solution;
  7. Defence of Israel’s moral worth and inherent right to exist as the nation-state of the Jewish people;
  8. Stand with the Palestinian people in their legitimate aspiration for a nation-state of their own;
  9. Criticism of Israel, as of any other nation-state, is legitimate. But the de-legitimisation of Israel, the demonisation of Israel, and the singling out of Israel for differential and discriminatory treatment in the international arena deserves the strongest opposition; and
  10. Solidarity with all peoples in the Middle East fighting against tyranny and oppression.

I see Albo’s explanations in his recent talk as speaking clearly in support of those principles. Language matters, as do the ideas behind the words.

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