Annexation Will Be the (Formal) Beginning of Apartheid and the End of Zionism

News Abroad
tags: Israel, Palestine, West Bank, Zionism, Jewish Americans

Andrew Seth Meyer is Professor of History at Brooklyn College, CUNY.

Demonstration against Israeli annexation of the West Bank, Rabin Rabin Square, Tel Aviv-Yaffo, June 6, 2020

Photo Yair Talmor, CC BY-SA 4.0




Fourteen years ago, during the height of the Iraq war, former President Jimmy Carter published a short volume on Mideast affairs, entitled Palestine: Peace not Apartheid. The book was met with broad and vehement outrage. The Anti-Defamation League ran an ad campaign accusing Carter of anti-Semitism. Ethan Bronner, writing in the New York Times Book Review on January 7, 2007, called the charge a distortion, but noted that the ADL’s “biggest complaint against the book — a legitimate one — is the word ‘apartheid’ in the title, with its false echo of the racist policies of the old South Africa.” 


Carter was not the first or the last person to raise the analogy to South African apartheid in commenting on the situation in Israel-Palestine. But the comparison has always evoked responses spanning the spectrum of denunciation to apoplectic rage from those sympathetic to Israel, especially in the American Jewish community. Apartheid South Africa was a paragon of systemic evil and flashpoint of international political activism. The very idea that Israel could merit being juxtaposed with such clear injustice has been anathema in mainstream American Jewish discourse (and in the center of American political life more generally).  


But the refusal to tolerate any comparison of Israel to apartheid South Africa elides some of the most important complexities of Zionism as both an ideal and historical movement. Like many American Jews I consider myself a Zionist, and have since a very early age. However, the plan of the Netanyahu government to annex large portions of the West Bank forces me (and will force many others) to re-examine a commitment to Zionism in the light of history and principle. 


Lost in much of the debate about Mideast affairs, especially here in the United States, is any critical perspective on what it means to call Israel a “Jewish state.” It is always controversial, for example, when someone calls the United States a “Christian nation.” Why then is the identity of Israel as a “Jewish state” seemingly so taken for granted in most precincts of American politics? 


The answer lies in American perceptions (sometimes latent) of Zionism’s content and history. For most of Israel’s secular supporters (myself included), the concept of Israel as a Jewish state has not violated scruples against ethnic nationalism or theocracy because the “Jewish” identity and mission of Israel are understood as narrowly circumscribed. Israel is not “Jewish” in compelling its citizens to adhere to any particular aspects of Jewish faith, or in granting special privileges to some citizens on the basis of Jewish ethnicity, or in fulfilling particular “national” aspirations of the Jewish people (e.g. the reconstitution of the Kingdom of David or the reconstruction of Solomon’s Temple). 

The only legitimate agenda that could define Israel as a “Jewish state,” from this mainstream liberal perspective, is to provide a safe haven for Jews against anti-Semitism. Because the horrors of the Holocaust proved that anti-Semitism is a uniquely destructive threat, it was justifiable to establish one sovereign member of the community of nations in which a majority of citizens were Jews—an identity not constructed in racial, ethnic, or religious terms, but defined narrowly as “those subject to anti-Semitism.” Such an accommodation could only be fair, however, if all of the non-Jewish citizens of this state were given the same rights and privileges as the majority.


This has been the prevailing understanding of the Zionist underpinnings of Israel’s existence among secular Americans (for Christian Zionists, who in the US are quite numerous, the picture is different), and it has generally been corroborated by Israeli leaders’ own representations of their state’s history and mission. This was because the establishment of Israeli sovereignty and the organization of its military were largely overseen by the Labor Party under the leadership of David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973), which likewise enjoyed the control of Israel’s government for almost the first three decades of the nation’s existence. 


Among the early theorists of Zionism, Labor took the doctrine of Theodor Herzl (1860-1904) as canonical.  Herzl wanted his theoretical state to protect the lives, dignity, and rights of Jews, but he scoffed at the idea that anything about his “Jewish state” should be culturally or religiously Jewish. His second Zionist writing, the novel Altneuland (“Old-New Land”), is set in a Palestinian utopia where Jews and Arabs live together in harmony and as equal citizens of a Jewish-majority state, and in which the protagonists struggle against a wicked rabbi who is trying to turn the “Jewish state” into a theocracy.


Though this Herzlian ideal delineates the “center left” of Israeli politics today, it was much more right wing, in relative terms, during the first half of the 20th century, when some of the most prominent spokespersons of Zionism were opposed to the notion of a “Jewish state” altogether. Albert Einstein (1879-1955), undoubtedly the most visible international celebrity who endorsed the Zionist cause, considered all forms of nationalism toxic and obsolete. He embraced a form of “cultural Zionism” in which Jews could develop a safe “homeland” in Palestine without need for an established state structure. Martin Buber (1878-1965), a founding faculty member of Hebrew University, and Henrietta Szold (1860-1945), the founder of Hadassah, advocated the formation of a “binational state” that would be shared by Jews and Arabs equally (and that would obviate the need of any form of “partition” or “two-state solution”). 


A key inflection point was reached in 1948. Labor had enjoyed the allegiance of a majority of Jews that established the “Yishuv” (the pre-independence Palestinian Jewish governing authority), and its military wing, the Haganah, became the backbone of the Israeli Defense Forces. Thus once partition and (Israeli) independence was achieved in the face of violent opposition, Ben-Gurion and his Labor partisans effectively had control of the Zionist agenda, and could define the project for the world at large. Leaders like Einstein were then confronted with a choice. They could either embrace Herzl’s vision of a “Jewish” state that was secular, egalitarian, and democratic, but nonetheless fully militarized and sovereign, or repudiate Zionism altogether. Einstein chose the former, and remained a staunch supporter of the new Israeli nation until his death.


We are arguably approaching another such inflection point now. The Herzlian ideal at the core of Israel’s national “persona” has been vexed since the state’s founding, but especially since 1967. Though the 20% of Israel’s population that is non-Jewish ostensibly share equal rights and privileges with their Jewish compatriots, in practical terms the efficacy of their franchise has always been limited. No non-Jewish member of the Knesset, for example, has ever held a major cabinet post. In the most recent election in which Benny Gantz’s “Blue and White” party garnered a narrow plurality of Knesset seats, his efforts to form a government were undermined by the fact that inviting the “Joint List” (a group that includes Arab political parties) to join a coalition would have caused many of his Jewish partisans and allies to mutiny. The occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank is an even greater affront to Herzlian ideals. In these territories that are under Israeli jurisdiction, Arabs are technically “stateless persons,” systemically denied the rights of fully sovereign citizenship.


Liberal secular Zionists like me, who embrace Herzl’s principles, have typically reconciled ourselves to the practical inequities of Israeli state and society by reference to geopolitics.  War and the threat of war have distorted the realization of Herzl’s vision. A just and equitable Zion has waited upon the achievement of a two-state solution. Once a fully sovereign Palestine becomes a peaceful neighbor of Israel and the Occupation ends, Israel will finally be free to function as a nation that is “Jewish,” but (more importantly) fully secular, democratic, and egalitarian (viz., one in which all citizens, Jews and non-Jews alike, enjoy the same rights, privileges, and civic power proportional to their numbers).


That hope has persistently been critiqued as a “pipe dream” by many. Whatever the case may have been in the past, the notion of some future “two-state solution” will be indefensible if and when the Netanyahu government executes its annexation plan. The logic of the annexation plan is clear: expand Israeli territory (to include land currently settled by Jews who have taken up residence in the occupied West Bank), without increasing the Arab population of Israel sufficiently so as to change the demographic balance of the electorate. 


The annexation plan would leave the Palestinian Authority in charge of isolated pockets of territory that could never, in practical terms, be cobbled together to form the socio-economic foundation of a viable state, effectively foreclosing the possibility of a two-state solution. It would render the status quo permanent in principle, relegating the Arab population of Israel-Palestine to a condition indistinguishable from apartheid. While the annexation plan might not be overtly “racist” in concept, it very deliberately dispenses power to distinct groups along ethnic lines. Arabs will be accorded different rights and powers as individuals on the basis of their residence on one or the other side of arbitrary lines that they have no hand in drawing. Since the lines will be drawn unilaterally and reviewed in the future by an authority that will be kept (by the very act of redrawing the map) in the control of a Jewish majority, all non-Jewish residents will be relegated to permanent states of second-class- or non-citizenship. That is the essential logic of apartheid.


Moreover, the “non-racist” character of this new apartheid “Greater Israel” would be dubious at best. Because Herzl’s vision is so central to the current historical self-image of Israeli society, Benjamin Netanyahu has been forced to give lip service to that ideal, calling Herzl “our modern Moses” in various venues. But, as is made clear from his published remarks, Netanyahu’s own principles are much more shaped by the ideas of Vladimir (“Ze’ev”) Jabotinsky (1880-1940), Herzl’s critic and a vehement opponent of Labor Zionism. Jabotinsky’s followers formed the Likud Party that Netanyahu leads (Netanyahu’s father, the historian Benzion Netanyahu, was a pall-bearer at Jabotinsky’s funeral). 


At a speech given in memoriam to Jabotinsky last year, Netanyahu said, “We are constantly defending ourselves…This is the iron wall.” The last phrase alluded overtly to a famous essay by Jabotinsky, in which he laid out the basic principles of his “Revisionist Zionism”:


“Voluntary reconciliation between the Palestinian Arabs and us is absolutely out of the question, whether now or in a foreseeable future…Our colonization should either stop or continue against the will of the native population. And this is why it may continue and develop only under the protection of a force independent of the local population- an iron wall, through which the local population cannot break (“On the Iron Wall [1923],” quoted from: Kaplan and Penslar eds., The Origins of Israel, 1882-1948, pp. 258-262).”


Jabotinsky viewed Zionism as a colonial project constructed in explicitly racial terms, pitting the “Jewish race” against the Arabs in the same way that the “British race” set itself to dominate India or Nigeria. Netanyahu would no doubt disavow the overtly racist principles of Jabotinsky’s ideology, but his invocation of an “iron wall through which the local population cannot break” is grotesque. The annexation plan is an extension of Jabotinsky’s vision of a Greater Israel that would include not only the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, but parts of Lebanon and Jordan. The idea that Jewish sovereignty could be extended so expansively without some form of ethnic cleansing (a goal Jabotinsky himself repeatedly denied) or apartheid is absurd. Netanyahu’s plan may not be as ambitious as Jabotinsky’s as a matter of degree, but in kind it is likewise apartheid.


In the same way that “cultural Zionists” like Einstein were forced to choose between an embrace of Herzlian Zionism and a repudiation of Zionism altogether in 1948, practical realities in the wake of implementation of the Netanyahu annexation plan will confront the majority of today’s Zionists with a stark choice. Once annexation is formalized, all Israeli appeals to the legacy and principles of Theodor Herzl will be reduced to empty window dressing. A post-annexation Israel will, for all intents and purposes, embody the illiberal Revisionist Zionism of Ze’ev Jabotinsky. 


Any conscientious individual who cherishes liberal ideals and opposes apartheid will, at that point, be forced to repudiate Zionism. This, of course, does not entail abandoning the people of Israel (both Jews and non-Jews) or rejecting solidarity with the larger Jewish community. One may still cherish the goals for which Zionism was founded (the dignity, welfare, and security of the Jewish people) while acknowledging that those goals can no longer be achieved through Zionist means. 


If “Zionism” survives in any form after annexation, it will much more closely resemble that of Martin Buber and Henrietta Szold than that of Theodor Herzl and David Ben-Gurion. Once a two-state solution and the preservation of a “Jewish state” is no longer possible, the only just and practical outcome will be the unification of (pre-1967) Israel with the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip into a single sovereign nation in which all residents enjoy the privileges of birthright citizenship. What form and name such a nation would take, and what policies it would embrace (e.g. which communities, Jewish and/or Arab, would enjoy a “right of return”) are not knowable in advance. But what is certain is that such a state would serve both the cause of basic fairness and the interests of the international Jewish community better than the illiberal Zionist project upon which Benjamin Netanyahu seems determined to embark.

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