By Elena Muglia
In 1955, two thousand police officers used Sten guns and rifles to forcefully expel 60,000 black inhabitants from Sophiatown, South Africa, under the 1950 Group Areas Act assigning racial groups to different urban areas. In 1948, 750,000 Palestinians were similarly displaced from redefined Israeli land after the 1947-49 Palestine War.
In 1948, 80% of the Arab population left, fled, or was expelled from Israel. To this day, the Israeli government prevents Palestinian refugees who fled in 1948 from returning. These incidents unquestionably parallel each other—however, only one was labeled ‘apartheid’.
Only now has the term ‘apartheid’ re-surfaced in Western political discourse to describe the treatment of Palestinians in Israel.
Palestinians have used this term for years, but it took a May 2021 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report for the label to reach Western media. B’Tselem, an Israeli non-governmental organization working towards documenting human rights violations in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), was the first NGO to label the situation in Israel as ‘apartheid’ in January 2021.
The 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) defines apartheid as a crime against humanity committed to maintaining “an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group.”
It is on this basis that HRW defines Israel’s actions as ‘apartheid’ and calls for an ICC investigation of Israel’s “systemic discrimination.” In February 2022, Amnesty International followed HRW’s precedent and published a report reaching the same conclusion.
The HRW report notes that “a stated aim of the Israeli government is to ensure that Jewish Israelis maintain domination across Israel and the OPT,” using the Knesset’s 2018 constitutional bill labeling Israel as the “nation-state of the Jewish people” as evidence.
Although based in the U.S., the HRW’s report is unlikely to sway the U.S. government. The United States has been an immovable patron of the Israeli state. Since World War II, the U.S. has granted more total aid to Israel than to any other state. Over 77% of this aid has been in the form of military assistance.
As a rare devout U.S. ally in the Middle East, Israel’s status as a regional hegemon is crucial for U.S. economic and geopolitical interests in the region, making the two states’ goals heavily interrelated.
This historic alliance has been tested by destabilization of the Israel-Palestine territory since the May 2021 evictions in Sheikh Jarrah, an occupied Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem.
The Palestinian evictions inundated social media, with a myriad of stories and hashtags on Instagram displaying videos, pictures, and infographics on the ongoing conflict. One video displayed an Israeli settler claiming, “if I don’t steal [your home] someone else will.”
Police riot control countered these protests, which escalated into a military conflict wherein Israeli airstrikes targeted the Gaza Strip, and Hamas, a Palestinian nationalist terrorist organization, sent rockets into Israel. 242 Palestinians and 12 Israelis were killed. The UN estimated that 94 buildings were destroyed in Gaza alone, including 53 schools and six hospitals. After 11 days of fighting, a ceasefire was brokered on May 21, 2021.
In the face of Israel’s war crimes, Westerners were forced to reckon with the country’s past illegal actions.
After the Sheikh Jarrah evictions, “people who just wanted to give the Israeli government the benefit of the doubt could no longer do so,” said Morriah Kaplan, the Managing Director of the Jewish anti-occupation organization IfNotNow.
The evictions provided undeniable proof of the historical state-sanctioned annexation of Palestinian territories. Liberal Zionists, who were already critical of the 15-year rule of far-right Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, were further disillusioned by the government’s actions.
There are various pro-Palestine movements currently operating in the U.S., including the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions movement, IfNotNow, and Jewish Voice for Peace. In the wake of the Sheikh Jarrah evictions and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, the Free Palestine movement gained new life.
Morriah Kaplan explained how this was a decisive moment for many American Jews. According to her, George Floyd’s murder on May 25, 2021, “primed folks to understand state violence better.” Kaplan adds that BLM equipped people with a “greater power analysis” of conflict, allowing them to go beyond the “both ‘side-ism’ that has characterized the conversation about Israel-Palestine.”
Black-Palestinian solidarity has roots in the 1960s Civil Rights movement. Malcolm X planted the seed as one of the first American activists to speak up for the Arab cause. This support has transcended generations.
Nowadays, BLM supporters also draw parallels between their movement’s anti-racist, anti-colonial pleas and those of the Free Palestine movement. American Jews likewise observe the analogous nature of the two struggles, with a July 2o21 Jewish Electorate Institute survey showing that 34% of voting American Jews agree that “Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is similar to racism in the United States.”
This growing awareness within the broader American public was epitomized in May 2021, when thousands of pro-Palestinian protesters of every ethnicity swarmed the country’s streets from Los Angeles and Chicago to Washington D.C. and New York City.
The nexus of these forces—the Sheikh Jarrah evictions, the resulting military conflict, and BLM—cultivated fertile ground for publishing the HRW and Amnesty International’s critical reports.
Together, these reports detail historical and contemporary cases of discrimination against Arabs within Israel and the OPT, as well as the lack of equality under law, the blockade of the Gaza Strip, and the de facto annexation of parts of the West Bank. The reports also highlight Israel’s continuous expansion of Jewish settlements, the forcible relocation of Palestinians, and extrajudicial killings. The reports conclude that the situation is consistent with an ‘apartheid state’.
Unsurprisingly, these reports faced sharp criticism on multiple fronts. The organizations were quickly portrayed as manufacturing the truth and as fundamentally anti-semitic. On January 31, 2o22, Israeli Foreign Affair minister Yair Lapid called the Amnesty report anti-semitic before it had even been published, arguing that “Israel is not perfect, but it is a democracy committed to international law and open to scrutiny.”
Despite a lack of bipartisan consensus in the U.S. Congress, most politicians were still able to unite in denouncing the reports. The U.S. State Department asserted that it “rejects the view that Israel’s actions constitute apartheid.” Spokesperson Ned Price assured in a press conference that the United States has its “own rigorous standards and processes for making determinations on potential human rights abuses.”
Regardless of this backlash, the NGOs’ reports capitalized on a pre-existing pro-Palestinian fervor. The youth, including young American Jews, constitute the majority of this support. The same 2021 survey by the Jewish Electorate Institute found that 25% of voting Jewish Americans agreed that “Israel is an apartheid state,” while 22% agreed that “Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians.”
Ari Patinkin, a college volunteer for Chabad, a Jewish Orthodox organization aiming to provide safe spaces for Judaism on American university campuses, has witnessed this shift of political opinions on the Israeli State: “There is a change of heart within the youth of the Jewish community here, but also within the U.S., there is more anti-Israel behavior,” says Patinkin, attributing this shift to a “generational disconnection” from the conception of Israel.
What Patinkin noticed is no anomaly. The traditional Zionist narrative that the Israeli state is inextricable from Judaism is slowly changing. This was evidenced on April 2, 2022, when the Tzedek Congregation in Chicago became the first synagogue to label itself ‘Anti-Zionist.’
Although the American public has displayed increasing support for the Palestinian cause, a February 2022 Gallup survey indicates that 55% continue to support Israelis, while 26% support Palestinians, and 18% have “no preference”.
Nevertheless, this shift in perspective is likely to have a profound impact on the U.S.’ geopolitical soft power. According to leading political scientist Joseph Nye from the Harvard Kennedy School, a large part of a state’s ‘soft power’ derives from its civil society and its actions towards humanitarian injustices.
Following Nye, the changing international and national narratives around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will force the United States to look at itself in its cracked mirror and realize the gravity of unconditionally supporting an apartheid state.