The recent Human Rights Watch report “A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution” is a valuable piece of scholarship: 213 pages of carefully worded, heavily footnoted evidence martialed in sober, and deliberately uninflammatory, prose. Unfortunately, it won’t make a damn bit of difference.
The “apartheid” debate in—and about—Israel has been simmering for decades. Though anti-Zionists have long insisted on the term’s accuracy, it has slowly gained credence inside Israel as well and has been deployed by an Israeli attorney general, a deputy mayor of Jerusalem, and two former Israeli prime ministers, among others—but almost always as a warning about the consequences of the occupation rather than as a description of current reality. The last time the term caused a stir in the United States was in 2006, when former president Jimmy Carter published a book titled Palestine Peace, Not Apartheid. Following angry attacks by Israel’s partisans in the media, Carter retracted his usage of the term and issued an “Al Het,” which is a prayer Jews usually say on Yom Kippur, to atone for their sins and ask God for forgiveness. He added, “We must not permit criticisms for improvement to stigmatize Israel.”
Well, Israel has not improved in this regard. It has gotten worse. Without formally annexing the West Bank, successive Israeli governments have been purposely erasing the pre-1948 border and the occupied West Bank. At the same time, its governments passed a succession of laws designed to let the 24 percent of the population that do not identify as Jewish know that they are second-class citizens. Extremists arguing for Arab expulsion have been gaining in popularity and recently earned sufficient support to be elected to parliament, with the implicit support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The HRW report follows on a lengthy legal brief issued in July 2020 by the Israeli human rights organization Yesh Din that concluded that Israeli authorities were committing “the crime against humanity of apartheid” in the West Bank. This past January, B’Tselem, Israel’s largest human rights organization, expanded this argument by applying the term to what it called Israel’s “regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.” These reports received little attention in the mainstream media and even less in Congress. They were also successfully ignored by those Jewish publications that identify with the “pro-Israel” position and almost all Jewish professional organizations.
Immediate reactions to the HRW report, however, flew fast and furious; almost all appeared to have been written as if on preprogrammed computer keyboards. The Israeli Foreign Ministry called the report “fictional…preposterous and false.” The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations attacked what it called “the disgraceful report,” which, in its view “attempts to demonize, delegitimize, and apply double standards to the State of Israel.” The American Jewish Committee found its arguments to be “baseless and sometimes border on antisemitism.” Alone among self-described “pro-Israel” organizations, J Street took a nuanced position, defending HRW against scurrilous attacks without endorsing its conclusions.
Palestinians and their supporters celebrated its publication. The Nation published an article by Kaleem Hawa arguing that it “lends strength to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement.” Hawa invoked the example of the “the global effort to support the South African people in their fight to end apartheid: a campaign of moral, political, and economic boycott.” Like all such invocations, however, this is an example of the triumph of hope over experience. Leaving aside the myriad differences between the Israeli and South African versions of apartheid——such as the fact that you will find no “Jews only” signs on Israel’s beaches or restaurants, and that skin color is the not the determinative factor in how a person is necessarily treated or what legal rights and protections he or she may enjoy—the movement has so far failed spectacularly to demonstrate any positive policy influence whatsoever. While BDS has enjoyed some popularity on college campuses and among leftist organizations and publications since its founding in 2005, it has caused no discernible damage to the Israeli economy (and, according to two sympathetic Brookings Institute scholars, is unlikely ever to do so). This is, to put it mildly, nothing like the experience of the movement that ended apartheid in South Africa.
The Palestinian cause, moreover, has been rapidly receding in relative importance to the rest of the world. What remains of the Israeli peace movement played little or no role in Israel’s recent spate of elections, which were successively dominated by ever more right-wing parties. Arab governments are increasingly cozying up to Israel, both openly in the case of the Gulf States and Morocco and surreptitiously in many others, owing to the more immediate threat they discern from Iran, together with bribes—often in the form of generous arms sales—from the US government. While more and more Democrats have sought to distance themselves from Israel, in part because of Netanyahu’s open embrace of the Republican Party, President Biden won election with a promise not to condition US aid to Israel in any way. An AIPAC-promoted bill to ensure that this remains the case recently received 330 cosponsors in the House; an alternative bill, seeking to prevent the money from being spent in support of apartheid-entrenching causes, received only six. The State Department has rejected the conclusions of the HRW report and has made it clear that there will be no meaningful pressure on Israel to change its ways under the Biden administration. The Palestinians remain hopelessly divided themselves, with a government in the West Bank that is viewed as corrupt and increasingly illegitimate—President Mahmoud Abbas recently canceled what would have been its first election since 2006, while the Palestinian Legislative Council has not met since 2009—and Gaza is run by an organization, Hamas, that much of the world equates with terrorism. Even attempting to restart peace talks is considered a waste of time by almost all concerned.
Still, thanks to HRW et al., the question is no longer whether the word “apartheid” applies to Israel but what if anything remotely realizable can be done about it. Nowhere, perhaps, does Antonio Gramsci’s observation, “Indifference operates with great power on history. [It] operates passively, but it operates,” apply so accurately as with Israel/Palestine.