Book review: “Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide”

In a burst of uncharacteristic honesty, the then Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert asserted in 2007 that “[m]ore and more Palestinians … want to change the essence of the conflict from an Algerian paradigm to a South African one … That is, of course, a much cleaner struggle, a much more popular struggle - and ultimately a much more powerful one. For us, it would mean the end of the Jewish state.”

The apartheid paradigm here fearfully evoked by Olmert has crept slowly but surely into mainstream political discourse on the Palestine issue, but is still avoided by many who are otherwise supportive of the Palestinian cause.

This is because the paradigm seems to offer a hostage to fortune: it is too easy for Israel’s apologists to rebut it by instancing the many systemic differences between Israel and apartheid South Africa.

What has often been overlooked is that the UN General Assembly’s International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid (November 1973) extended the term to “similar policies and practices of racial segregation and discrimination as practiced in southern Africa” while defining the crime in more general terms as “inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them.” Israel’s practices need not be compared with those of apartheid South Africa — which they often resemble — but evaluated on their own terms in the light of the Convention.

The UN itself contributed to the occultation of the Convention’s relevance by omitting it from its 2002 “Compilation of International Instruments,” apparently on the mistaken belief that with the end of South Africa’s apartheid regime it had become obsolete.

In 1987 the Israeli academic Uri Davis published Israel: An Apartheid State, following it in 2004 with Apartheid Israel: Possibilities for the Struggle Within. In 2001 he founded the Movement Against Israeli Apartheid in Palestine (MAIAP). These hints were taken up by organizations like the Stop the Wall Campaign, which consistently proposed the apartheid paradigm as something more than a mere analogy with South Africa.

The “A-word” made a dramatic entry on the world stage with the publication in 2006 of former US President Jimmy Carter’s Palestine Peace not Apartheid which, however, used the term rather diffusely and fallaciously exempted “sovereign” Israel (as distinct from the West Bank and Gaza Strip occupied in 1967) from its application. Nonetheless, the term had entered the mainstream and now seems likely to stay there.

In this context, Ben White’s new book fulfills a consolidating role, drawing together the various strands of the apartheid debate within a number of different contexts. In his introduction White cites the UN Convention’s definition of apartheid and highlights a number of the “inhuman acts” that it cites, while underlining the differences as well as the similarities between the cases of Israel and South Africa.

While respecting White’s reluctance to over-elaborate, it might have been worthwhile to extend this chapter a little by, for example, stressing Uri Davis’ repeated emphasis that apartheid is in essence “the regulation of racism in law,” and not merely a catalogue of inhuman acts.

The first part of the book accurately traces the entire history of “the conflict” from 1897 (the first Zionist Congress) to the present in a mere 28 pages, a breathtaking achievement indeed. White is uncompromising and surely correct in seeing the apartheid paradigm at work from the foundation of Israel in 1948, and in diagnosing its premises in the utterances and machinations of the likes of Herzl (founder of political Zionism) and Ben-Gurion (Zionist “pioneer” and the first Israeli Prime Minister).

Part II characterizes the specificities of Israeli apartheid under 17 headings from “Israel a state for some of its citizens” through “The occupation” and “The separation wall” (apartheid, of course, being the Afrikaans word for separation) to “The fragmentation of Palestine.” White reminds us that “around half of the entire Palestinian population as a whole are not ruled by Israel at all: they are the refugees and their descendants who were denationalized, expelled and forcibly kept out of their homeland by the first, dramatic acts of Israeli apartheid.”

Part III is entitled, self-explanatorily, “Towards Inclusion and Peace — Resisting Israeli Apartheid.” White focuses first on organizations on the ground in Israel/Palestine — Adalah (the Legal Centre for Minority Rights in Israel), ADRID (Association for the Defense of the Rights of the Internally Displaced), ICAHD (Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions), Popular Committees Against the Wall (particularly those in the Palestinian villages of Budrus and Bilin), and Zochrot (“remembrance” in Hebrew), “an organization made up of Israelis concerned with raising awareness of the Nakba amongst their own people” (Nakba, Arabic for “catastrophe,” is the name Palestinians give to their forced expulsion from their homeland in 1947-48).

Next he turns to “International Solidarity,” concentrating on activities rather than organizations: boycotts, divestment, sanctions (three strategies often grouped together as BDS), protest and education, support for grassroots Palestinian and Israeli groups, and trips to the region, whether of a “fact-finding” or more committed nature.

In pondering “a different kind of future,” White stresses that there is no point in “trying to ‘undo’ things that cannot be undone.” He castigates rhetoric about a “two-state solution” or demands that Palestinians should “compromise,” as if the solution could by-pass the dissolution of Israeli apartheid. It is only by “guaranteeing the collective and individual rights of all the peoples of Palestine/Israel, that the people of the region can realize the kind of peaceful tomorrow previous generations have been denied.”

White concludes with an invaluable list of “frequently asked questions” plus their answers, and a useful glossary.

For all those engaged in the “cleaner struggle” against Israeli apartheid that Ehud Olmert so dreads, this little book is an invaluable tool. For those who simply wish to brush up rapidly on the facts of the Israel/Palestine issue, it is equally invaluable.

Raymond Deane is a composer and political activist (

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