Apr 2011 Journal

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Letter from Israel: Israel and the charge of apartheid

The term ‘apartheid’ is being bandied about with increasing frequency with regard to Israel.

The crime of apartheid is defined by the 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court as ‘inhumane acts of a character similar to other crimes against humanity committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.’

In other words, it is the systematic discrimination of one racial group by another, on the basis of a system of repressive laws.

Israel’s Declaration of Independence states, inter alia, ‘… we call upon the sons of the Arab people dwelling in Israel to keep the peace and to play their part in building the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its institutions, provisional and permanent.’

This would seem to indicate that the basic premise underlying Israel’s laws is that of equality and representation for the country’s Arab citizens.

Israel is a parliamentary democracy, and currently 12 of the 120 Knesset members are Arabs representing several Arab parties. The Arab citizens of Israel have full and equal democratic rights though, apart from certain groups (Beduin, Druse), they are not called up to serve in the IDF. Israeli Arabs have full and equal access to education at every level. Because many Muslim women wear a distinguishing form of headdress they can be easily identified on university campuses, shopping malls, public transport, hospitals and clinics, and in any and every public place. As Arab men are not immediately identifiable by their dress it is not so easy to spot them in public, but they are often to be found accompanying their womenfolk. Thus, discrimination in those spheres of public life cannot be said to exist.

Never in Israel’s history have facilities been labelled ‘Jews only’ or ‘Arabs only’, as was the case in the darkest days of South Africa’s apartheid regime and, even until not that long ago, in some southern states of the USA.

As my friend and colleague Ira Sharkansky has pointed out, ‘Claims of discrimination against Israeli Arabs pale in comparison to what occurs in other countries. Israeli Arabs have better health indicators than white Americans, and far better indicators than American minorities. The incomes of Israeli Arabs are closer to those of Israeli Jews than are the incomes of African Americans to those of white Americans. Israel provides instruction in Arabic to its minority, and there is no problem of Muslim women dressing according to their religious tradition. Compare those freedoms to the experience of the Kurds in Turkey, or Muslim women in France. Israeli courts act against the political activities of Arab citizens (or Members of Knesset) only in extreme cases when there are charges of incitement to violence, or aiding the enemy against the background of armed conflict.’

When it comes to Arabs living in the areas conquered by Israel during the Six Day War - i.e. Palestinians - the situation is different. Initially, no restrictions were placed on the movement of either Jews or Arabs and the two populations mixed freely. In Jerusalem this is still the case. However, as a result of Jewish settlement across the Green Line and acts of terrorism on the part of Palestinian groups, the free movement of population between them has been restricted, primarily in order to prevent death and injury being inflicted upon innocent civilians by would-be terrorists.

As far as I can understand, that does not constitute apartheid. But, as every politician knows, if you sling enough mud, some of it will stick.

Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

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