Former President Jimmy Carter’s new book, which slaps the “apartheid” label on Israel, comes out this week. Before the book hit the stands though, members of his own party rushed to distance themselves from his allegations. While the label makes supporters of Israel uncomfortable, there is ample evidence that Israel practices institutionalized discrimination against its non-Jewish citizens. Israel, in fact, goes further than South Africa. While whites in South Africa sought to control non-whites, Israel has since its establishment pursued various means of getting rid of its non-Jewish population altogether.
The addition of Avigdor Lieberman’s party to Israel’s ruling coalition - and the appointment of Lieberman himself as Minister in charge of “Strategic Threats to Israel” - has also occasioned some discomfort among Israel’s most earnest supporters. But Lieberman’s ascent to deputy Prime Minister should give pause to those who so vigorously chided Carter for using the term “apartheid” to describe Israeli policies.
We are told that Lieberman is unhelpful; that he is the wrong partner for the current Prime Minister; that he is unlikely to facilitate peace with the Palestinians; that he is unrestrained and irresponsible - and even (according to the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz) that he is a strategic threat himself.
This consensus is not a reaction to Lieberman’s insalubrious background - though former nightclub bouncers rarely rise to national office in any country - but rather to the fact that he is willing to dispense with diplomatic niceties and to express Israel’s ambitions in their crudest and most unapologetic form.
Lieberman wants an Israel free of the land’s indigenous population.
His party’s declared aim is to eject Israel’s Palestinian minority - now approaching a quarter of the population - and to annex the parts of the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem with heavy Jewish settler populations.
The irony here, of course, is that Lieberman was born not in Israel but in a remote province of the former Soviet Union. He moved to Israel as an adult.
Because he is Jewish, he was eligible for instant citizenship under Israel’s law of return.
But it was evidently not enough for Lieberman that, as a Russian-speaking immigrant fresh off the plane, he was instantaneously granted rights and privileges denied to Palestinians born in the very country to which he had just moved (not to mention those expelled during the creation of Israel in 1948). The very presence of an indigenous non-Jewish population in Israel was, in effect, unacceptable to him.
So he wants the non-Jews out. And he says so bluntly.
It is Lieberman’s blunt racism — rather than the policies he stands for — that makes Israel’s advocates, particularly the liberal ones, feel so uncomfortable.
For the only significant differences between Lieberman and other mainstream Israeli politicians are matters of style rather than substance.
All Israeli politicians are committed to preserving Israel’s Jewishness. They have to be. It’s the law.
As the state of the Jewish people, Israel is, after all, the only country in the world that expressly claims not to be the state of its actual citizens (who include a million non-Jews), let alone that of the people whom it actually governs (half of whom are Palestinian Arabs).
Most of Israel’s land, for example, is the property not of the Israeli people, but of Jewish people everywhere. As non-Jews, Palestinian citizens of Israel are barred from access to state land, even though the land used to be Palestinian.
Israel’s newly revised nationality law, similarly, prohibits Palestinian citizens of Israel from marrying Palestinians from the occupied territories and living with their spouses in Israel. The same law does not apply to Jewish Israelis who marry Jewish settlers living in the occupied territories. Interestingly, similar legislation had been proposed in South Africa at the peak of Apartheid, only to be rejected by that country’s supreme court. Israel’s nationality law, however, was endorsed by Israel’s High Court just this year.
There is nothing new in all this, however. The simple fact of the matter is that non-Jews have always been, at best, an impediment to Israel’s Jewishness.
This is why, when Palestinian citizens of Israel demand that their state become the state of all its citizens, they are denounced for imperiling the Jewish nature of the state. It’s also why Israel repeatedly demanded the renunciation of the Palestine National Charter as a prelude to negotiations with the PLO. The longstanding Palestinian call for a democratic and secular state - a state for both Arabs and Jews - has always been regarded as a direct threat to Israel’s Jewishness.
To citizens of the advanced Western democracies, the concept of a democratic and secular state - a state of all its citizens - seems elementary. To Israel, however, it is anathema.
The only thing that distinguishes Avigdor Lieberman from run of the mill politics in Israel is that he is willing to take Israel’s vision of itself to its logical conclusion. Rather than tolerating non-Jews as second or third class citizens, he wants them out altogether.
The issue, then, is not that Lieberman is more racist than other Israeli politicians. It is, rather, that he shamelessly utters what most of his peers dare not say aloud.
Saree Makdisi is a professor of English and Comparative Literature at UCLA and a frequent commentator on the Middle East.