Israel policy myth #2: Separation between Jews and Arabs is not racist

Racist attitudes against Arabs are widespread in Israel. Numerous official policies segregate and separate Jews from Palestinians, with a vastly discriminatory effect and intent. Justifications alluding to security needs, or alleging that separation is based on citizenship rather than ethnic origin, do not withstand close scrutiny.

One of the most acrimonious controversies surrounding Israeli policy concerns the accusation that it has created a system of apartheid between Jews and Palestinian in territories under its control. The issue is so sensitive, that some activists have come to refer to the term as “the A-word”.

While bickering over nomenclature is, in my opinion, an unfortunate distraction, the debate on this topic has raised an interesting question. Many of Israel’s defenders angrily reject the accusation of apartheid, claiming that even if there are certain mechanisms of separation between Jews and Palestinians, they are not motivated by racism and do not reflect a racial ideology, unlike the South African regime that was dismantled in 1994.

Obviously, contemporary Israel is different from Apartheid South Africa in too many ways to enumerate. Putting the comparisons aside, is the core argument true? Is separation between Jews and Palestinians motivated by racism or not?

Although Israeli society has not been free from ideas of a biological hierarchy among racial groups, this line of thought has largely been marginal. However, arguments of “cultural” inferiority have gained much more currency. Orientalism – the view of an undefined “East” as lethargic and static in comparison to the West’s dynamism – has been a central feature of Jewish Israeli thought in regards to the Arab Middle East. It has also affected views of Sephardic Jews – those who immigrated to Israel from Middle Eastern countries.

Outright racism against Palestinians and Arabs is quite common and widespread in Israel, and it goes beyond animosity generated by the century-long conflict between the two groups. Three-quarters of Israeli Jewish high school students believe that Arabs are not cultured, uneducated, unclean and violent. 69 percent believe they are not smart. Sadly, these beliefs are at least tolerated by the Israeli Jewish establishment. Racist comments by public officials may be condemned by prominent figures, but the racists remain on the state payroll.

These attitudes have not resulted in separate lunch counters or water fountains. As Israel’s defenders rightly point out, Jews and Palestinians study together in universities and travel on the same buses. Those types of racist segregation, which existed in South Africa and in the Jim Crow American south, do not exist here, for the most part; and that is, obviously, a good thing, though I would not boast about it.

Nonetheless, Palestinians and Jews in the territories under Israel’s control live largely separate lives, this separation is maintained through official polices, it is invariably discriminatory towards Palestinians (usually grossly so) and in many cases, feeble excuses notwithstanding, their motivation and intent is clearly racist.

The bedrock of this separation is residential. Vast amounts of Israel’s territory are effectively demarcated for Jews only, often on lands expropriated from Palestinians. The residential segregation naturally creates segregation in many other fields, such as education and infrastructure.

When this happens inside Israel’s international borders, the excuse is the need to maintain the internal coherence of small, tight-knit communities [Hebrew]. When it happens in the West Bank, it is justified on security grounds. Both explanations disregard the fact that these policies do not even bother with the semblance of separate but equal. On the contrary, the inequality they enshrine and extend is simply staggering.

Perhaps even more egregious is the legal segregation between Jews and Arabs. Inside the green line (Israel’s boundary before the annexation of the West Bank and Gaza), Palestinian citizens are specifically forbidden from living with spouses who come from the other side of the line. But the real outrage is what happens in the Occupied Territories themselves.

There, two legal systems apply on a largely ethnic basis. If a Palestinian and a Jew commit the exact same offence, in the exact same location, they would be tried in different courts and under different laws. The Palestinian will have less due process rights and face more severe penalties, of course. Sometimes, the same action that would be a crime for a Palestinian would not be so for a Jew. Civil law is no less discriminatory.

Defenders of Israeli policy would argue that this is discrimination on the basis of citizenship, rather than ethnic origin. After all, a Palestinian who is also an Israeli citizen would still be subject to the same laws as a Jewish citizen. Yet, since virtually all the settlers who live in the West Bank are Jewish, this is a largely theoretical point. Moreover, it cannot explain the vastly discriminatory effect of this system.

On a deeper level, this system breaks a basic legal principle, which is the application of the same law in the same territory. Inside the Green Line, Israeli citizens and foreign ones are judged by the same law. The unusual and complex dual system which exists in the West Bank was laboriously designed to allow draconian measures to be applied against Palestinians, while protecting Jewish settlers from the same measures. No security need could explain this discriminatory separation. It is therefore racist in both intent and effect.

The same point applies for the system of separate roads in the West Bank, or the way the route of the separation wall has been designed. While these measures do reflect genuine security concerns, their implementation is clearly racist. Alternative security measures, which would have inconvenienced settlers or other Jewish citizens, have regularly been discarded, in favor of policies which are often catastrophic for Palestinian communities.

This is a very sensitive and painful issue for Jews, who have suffered from racism perhaps more than any other nation, and still face prejudice and discrimination today. The tendency to deny and reject these claims is very natural. But it will not make these realities go away; it can only make them worse.

Unfortunately, racist policies are applied to other non-Jewish groups (and even some Jewish ones – which I will get to when I discuss myth #10: “All Jews are encouraged to immigrate to Israel”). My next post in this series will deal with myth #3: “In response to a flood of illegal immigrants, the government is working to reduce the number of work migrants.”

Read more in this series:

<< Previous

Israel policy myth #1: security is our first concern


Israel policy myth #3: trying to stem a flood of migrants


All previous posts in Top 10 Israeli Policy Myths:

Introducing: Top ten myths about Israeli policy

Myth #1: Security is our first concern

Myth #2: Separation between Jews and Arabs is not racist