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Israel, Apartheid, and Intellectual Honesty
Certainly, the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is an awkward, powerful stain on both Israeli and Palestinian sides, but calling the state of affairs “apartheid” is grossly inaccurate.
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How many times have you heard people call Israel an “apartheid” state?
Certainly, the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is an awkward, powerful stain on both Israeli and Palestinian sides, but calling the state of affairs “apartheid” is nothing less than an intellectually dishonest comparison.
Still, I can kind of understand why people casually throw around one-word labels, even as misleading and inaccurate they may be. This is because making surface-level comparisons is actually a very normal part of how the human brain has evolved.
More specifically, we’re wired to use heuristics, or mental shortcuts that simplify problems and avoid cognitive overload, so we can quickly reach conclusions to complex problems.
The limbic part of our brain is responsible for this behavior, but the problem is it has no capacity for language. This is why it’s hard to put feelings into words — and why we speak in analogies a lot of the time.
Reasoning by analogy starts with an observation that two or more things are similar in some aspects, and ends with the conclusion that they’re likely similar in many (if not all) aspects as well. As a result, this irresponsibly leads to analogies which are misleading, inaccurate, overstretched, and overgeneralized.
A more effective way to reason is called “first principles thinking” — in which you break down complicated issues into fundamental truths, and then reassemble them from the bottom up. In many ways, this is the opposite of reasoning by analogy, a top-down approach that begins with comparing things which are known.
As it relates to Israel and those who accuse it of apartheid, those of us who subscribe to intellectual honesty would be wise to recall what apartheid precisely was (and what it wasn’t) in order to discern if this label is an accurate representation of Israel.
Control by a Minority White Population
South African Apartheid was characterized by an authoritarian political culture which ensured that the country was dominated politically, socially, and economically by its minority white population.
The majority of Israeli Jews are not white, nor are they of the same race. In 2005, more than 60-percent of Jews living in Israel were of Middle Eastern and North African descent, such as Afghani, Moroccan, Yemenite, Tunisian, Persian, Libyan, Kurdish, Ethiopian, Iraqi, Turkish, and Egyptian. (The percentage today is likely much higher than 60-percent.)
It is true that a mainly Ashkenazi group of Jews (those who look “white”) founded the country in 1948, even though modern Zionism goes back to the 1800s. A number of small-scale Jewish exoduses began in many Middle Eastern countries early in the 20th century, with the only substantial aliyah (immigration to Israel) coming from Yemen and Syria.
Ashkenazi Jews and Middle Eastern Jews have different “narratives” regarding their return to the Jewish homeland (and I’m generalizing for the sake of brevity). Many Ashkenazi Jews escaped violent antisemitism in Europe leading up to, during, and after the Holocaust, while many Middle Eastern Jews wanted to fulfill a nearly 2,000-year dream of returning to the Holy Land, ever since they were exiled from Jerusalem after the fall of the Second Temple in 70 CE.
Prior to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, approximately 800,000 Jews were living in lands that now make up the Arab world. Some of these Middle Eastern Jews were expelled or socially pressured to leave Arab and North African countries when the State of Israel was founded in 1948, while others arrived to the new Jewish country on their own terms.
The first large-scale exoduses took place in the late 1940s and early 1950s, primarily from Iraq, Yemen, and Libya. In these cases, more than 90-percent of the Jewish population left, despite being forced to leave their property behind. (Many European Jews were also forced to leave their assets behind.)
Between 1948 and 1951, more than a quarter-million Jews from Arab countries immigrated to Israel, accounting for 56-percent of the total immigration to the newly founded Jewish state. In total, more than 850,000 Middle Eastern Jews were expelled or evacuated from Arab and Muslim-majority countries from 1948 until the early 1980s.
To this day, Arab states have refused to pay any compensation to the hundreds of thousands of Jews who were forced to abandon their property before fleeing those countries. Hundreds of United Nations resolutions on the Middle East conflict have referred exclusively to Palestinian refugees, yet not a single one has mentioned the Jewish refugees from Arab countries.
Discrimination and Inequality
Those who were subject to discrimination and inequality in Apartheid South Africa simply wanted equal political, social, and economic rights in the same country.
Racial discrimination and inequality against Blacks in South Africa dates back to the beginning of large-scale European colonization of the country. The Dutch East India Company’s established a trading post in the Cape of Good Hope in 1652, which eventually expanded into the Dutch Cape Colony.
The company began the Khoikhoi-Dutch Wars, in which it displaced the local Khoikhoi people, replaced them with farms worked by white settlers, and imported black slaves from across the Dutch Empire.
Now, as it relates to Israel, following the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, and the massacre of Jews in the area, some one million Jews either died of starvation, were killed, or were sold into slavery. A minority presence of Jews has existed in Jerusalem since then, leading up to modern Zionism, which took serious form in the 1800s.
When Jews started arriving to Palestine in the late 1800s, many of them purchased land. Petah Tikva was founded in 1878 by ultra-Orthodox Jewish pioneers who bought properties from two Christian businessmen.
And in 1882, Haim Amzaleg purchased 835 acres of land from Mustafa Abdallah ali Dajan — in what is today Rishon LeZion, an Israeli city south of Tel Aviv — which created “a convenient launching pad for early land purchase initiatives which shaped the pattern of Jewish settlement until the beginning of the British Mandate.”
In 1947, the United Nations offered the Partition Plan for Palestine, recommending that the British Mandate of Palestine be split into two states, one Arab and one Jewish, as well as the City of Jerusalem as part of an international zone.
The UN resolution was greeted with overwhelming joy in Jewish communities, and widespread outrage across the Arab world. In Palestine, violence erupted almost immediately, feeding into a spiral of reprisals and counter-reprisals. The British refrained from intervening as tensions boiled over into a low-level conflict that quickly escalated into a full-scale civil war.
On May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion declared the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) to be known as the State of Israel, a few hours before the termination of the British Mandate. At midnight on May 15, 1948, the British Mandate was officially terminated, and the State of Israel came into being.
Iraq, Egypt, Transjordan, and Syria invaded the newborn state several hours later. Once the invasion began, most Arabs remaining in Palestine left for neighboring countries. Surprisingly, the Palestinians chose to flee to safety in other Arab states, still confident of being able to return, rather than acting as a strategically valuable “fifth column” that would fight the Jews from within the country.
A leading Palestinian nationalist of the time, Musa Alami, revealed the attitude of the fleeing Arabs:
“The Arabs of Palestine left their homes, were scattered, and lost everything. But there remained one solid hope: The Arab armies were on the eve of their entry into Palestine to save the country and return things to their normal course, punish the aggressor, and throw oppressive Zionism with its dreams and dangers into the sea.”
“On May 14, 1948, crowds of Arabs stood by the roads leading to the frontiers of Palestine, enthusiastically welcoming the advancing armies. Days and weeks passed, sufficient to accomplish the sacred mission, but the Arab armies did not save the country.”
“They did nothing but let slip from their hands Acre, Sarafand, Lydda, Ramleh, Nazareth, most of the south, and the rest of the north. Then hope fled.”
As the fighting spread into areas that had previously remained quiet, the Arabs began to realize the possibility of defeat, and the flight of the Arabs increased: More than 300,000 departed after May 15th, leaving approximately 160,000 Arabs in the State of Israel.
A plethora of evidence exists, demonstrating that Palestinian Arabs were encouraged by other Arabs to leave their homes in order to make way for the invading Arab armies.
The Economist, a frequent critic of the Zionists, reported on October 2, 1948: “Of the 62,000 Arabs who formerly lived in Haifa, not more than 5,000 or 6,000 remained. Various factors influenced their decision to seek safety in flight. There is but little doubt that the most potent of the factors were the announcements made over the air by the Higher Arab Executive, urging the Arabs to quit. It was clearly intimated that those Arabs who remained in Haifa and accepted Jewish protection would be regarded as renegades.”
Time magazine’s report of the battle for Haifa on May 3, 1948 was similar: “The mass evacuation, prompted partly by fear, partly by orders of Arab leaders, left the Arab quarter of Haifa a ghost city. By withdrawing Arab workers their leaders hoped to paralyze Haifa.”
Benny Morris, a historian who documented instances where Palestinian Arabs were expelled, also found that Arab leaders encouraged their brethren to leave. The Arab National Committee in Jerusalem, following the March 8, 1948, instructions of the Arab Higher Committee, ordered women, children and the elderly in various parts of Jerusalem to leave their homes, saying: “Any opposition to this order is an obstacle to the holy war and will hamper the operations of the fighters in these districts.”
Who gave such orders? Leaders like Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Said, who declared: “We will smash the country with our guns and obliterate every place the Jews seek shelter in. The Arabs should conduct their wives and children to safe areas until the fighting has died down.”
The Secretary of the Arab League Office in London, Edward Atiyah, wrote in his book, The Arabs: “This wholesale exodus was due partly to the belief of the Arabs, encouraged by the boastings of an unrealistic Arabic press and the irresponsible utterances of some of the Arab leaders that it could be only a matter of weeks before the Jews were defeated by the armies of the Arab States and the Palestinian Arabs enabled to re-enter and retake possession of their country.”
In his memoirs, Haled al Azm, the Syrian Prime Minister in 1948, also admitted the Arab role in persuading the refugees to leave, writing: “Since 1948 we have been demanding the return of the refugees to their homes. But we ourselves are the ones who encouraged them to leave. Only a few months separated our call to them to leave and our appeal to the United Nations to resolve on their return.”
Even Jordan’s King Abdullah, writing in his memoirs, blamed Palestinian leaders for the refugee problem:
“The tragedy of Palestinian Arabs was most of their leaders had paralyzed them with false and unsubstantiated promises that they were not alone; that 80 million Arabs and 400 million Muslims would instantly and miraculously come to their rescue.”
“The Arab armies entered Palestine to protect the Palestinians from the Zionist tyranny,” Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmud Abbas said, “but instead, they abandoned them, forced them to emigrate and to leave their homeland, and threw them into prisons similar to the ghettos in which the Jews used to live.”
In other words, the Palestinian refugee problem was a direct consequence of the war that the Palestinian Arabs — and surrounding Arab states — had launched. As a result of Israel’s victory, the state took control the area that the UN had proposed for a Jewish state, as well as some 60-percent of the area proposed for a Palestinian state.
Around 700,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes in the area that became Israel, and they became Palestinian refugees in what they refer to as the Nakba (“Catastrophe”).
There are consequences for attacking another country, such as loss of land, refugees, and reparations. To expect the Jews to accept the UN’s Partition Plan for Palestine, only to be invaded by four countries, and then not take precautionary measures following the invasion is nothing short of foolish.
Even then, the Israelis consistently sought a solution to the refugee problem. Israel’s position was expressed by its first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, on August 1, 1948:
“When the Arab states are ready to conclude a peace treaty with Israel, this question will come up for constructive solution as part of the general settlement, and with due regard to our counter-claims in respect of the destruction of Jewish life and property, the long-term interest of the Jewish and Arab populations, the stability of the State of Israel, and the durability of the basis of peace between it and its neighbors, the actual position and fate of the Jewish communities in the Arab countries, the responsibilities of the Arab governments for their war of aggression and their liability for reparation, will all be relevant in the question whether, to what extent, and under what conditions, the former Arab residents of the territory of Israel should be allowed to return.”
The implied danger of repatriation did not prevent Israel from allowing some refugees to return and take back a substantial number as a condition for signing a peace treaty.
In 1949, Israel offered to allow families that had been separated during the war to return, to release refugee accounts frozen in Israeli banks (eventually released in 1953), to pay compensation for abandoned lands, and to repatriate 100,000 refugees.
The Arabs rejected all the Israeli compromises and were unwilling to take any action that might be construed as recognition of Israel. They made repatriation a precondition for negotiations, something Israel rejected. The result was the confinement of the refugees in camps.
“The Palestinian demand for the ‘right of return’ is totally unrealistic and would have to be solved by means of financial compensation and resettlement in Arab countries,” said Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Jordan was the only Arab country to welcome the Palestinians and grant them citizenship. (To this day, Jordan is the only Arab country where Palestinians as a group can become citizens). Jordanian King Abdullah considered the Palestinian Arabs and Jordanians one people. By 1950, he annexed the West Bank and forbade the use of the term Palestine in official documents.
Although demographic figures indicated ample room for settlement existed in Syria, Damascus refused to consider accepting any refugees, except those who might refuse repatriation. Syria also declined to resettle 85,000 refugees between 1952 and 1954, though it had been offered international funds to pay for the project.
Iraq was also expected to accept a large number of refugees, but proved unwilling. And Lebanon insisted it had no room for the Palestinians. In 1950, the UN tried to resettle 150,000 refugees from Gaza in Libya, but was rebuffed by Egypt.
After the 1948 war, Egypt controlled the Gaza Strip and its more than 200,000 inhabitants, but refused to allow the Palestinians into Egypt or permit them to move elsewhere. Egypt’s handling of Palestinians in Gaza was so awful, Saudi Arabian radio compared Egypt’s regime in Gaza to Hitler’s rule in occupied Europe during World War II.
“The Arab States do not want to solve the refugee problem,” Sir Alexander Galloway, a United Nations executive, said in 1952. “They want to keep it as an open sore, as an affront to the United Nations and as a weapon against Israel. Arab leaders don’t give a damn whether the refugees live or die.”
Little has changed in more recent years. Arab governments have frequently offered jobs, housing, land, and other benefits to Arabs and non-Arabs, excluding Palestinians. For example, Saudi Arabia chose not to use unemployed Palestinian refugees to alleviate its labor shortage in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Instead, thousands of South Koreans and other Asians were recruited to fill jobs.
The situation grew even worse in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War. Kuwait, which employed large numbers of Palestinians but denied them citizenship, expelled more than 300,000 of them.
South African apartheid sparked significant internal resistance. The government responded to a series of popular uprisings and protests with police brutality, which in turn increased local support for peaceful protests, passive resistance, and armed insurrection.
Israel has also seen its fair share of “internal resistance” — both from Arabs in Israel and from Palestinians under the so-called “Israeli occupation.”
The difference is what inspires this resistance, and what it aims to achieve. In South Africa, those who were subject to discrimination and inequality simply wanted equal political, social, and economic rights in the same country, while Israeli Arabs already have equal political, social, and economic rights in Israel. My educated guess for why Israeli Arabs have demonstrated internal resistance is because they simply do not want to live in a Jewish state, to which my response is simple: Leave.
With regard to Palestinians under so-called “Israeli occupation,” it’s unclear what they want, and their varying leadership dating back to the 1960s has, to put it kindly, been a dumpster fire.
Many Palestinians openly called for the destruction of the State of Israel, or to “free Palestine from the river to the sea” — a more poetic way of expressing their desired destruction of the Jewish state.
Many people think the Palestinians simply want their own state — and maybe they do — but they’ve had multiple opportunities to establish a Palestinian state alongside a Jewish one (Israel). Palestinians do not have a state today not because of Israel, but because of themselves (and their so-called “partners” in the region).
With each of these opportunities, they haven’t just effectively declined; they’ve opted for indiscriminate violence against Israelis instead, prompting Israel to build more checkpoints, walls, and security infrastructure to further protect its citizens, just like any respectable country would do.
What also makes the Palestinians different from the victims of South African apartheid is who “backs” them. Outside of themselves, it seems there were not other actors — such as another African country, for example — encouraging and helping victims of South African apartheid achieve aims beyond equal political, social, and economic rights (such as aims to overtake or overthrow South Africa, for example).
We know the Palestinians have sadly been used as a pawn by other Arab countries and factions, each with their own geopolitical interests and agendas, which often come at the expense of Palestinian self-sovereignty, security, justice, and human rights. First it was countries like Egypt and Lebanon, then Iraq. Now, it’s the Iranian regime and its unrelenting pursuit of regional hegemony.
There is also Hamas, which “governs” the Gaza Strip, even though most of its top leaders don’t live there. Instead, they enjoy lavish lifestyles in places like Qatar and Turkey, while many Palestinians in Gaza live on less than $1 a day. What’s more, Hamas is said to generate some $700 million in so-called revenues each year, making it the third-richest terrorist organization in the world, behind the Taliban and Hezbollah.
But, please, continue calling Israel an “apartheid” state, why don’t you?