I thought some readers might be interested in an exchange of views, involving myself, on the subject of whether it is accurate and/or politically useful to describe Israel as an ‘apartheid’ state. What is particularly significant is not so much the content of the debate – most of which covers well-trodden ground – but the fact that it appeared in the Morning Star, a publication which has hitherto presented the ‘fact’ of Israeli ‘apartheid’ as a given, and never (to the best of my knowledge) carried any debate on the question on its letters page, or anywhere else. Regulars will be aware that the Morning Star is not my favourite publication, but it is to their credit that they published my first letter on the subject and also then gave me the right of reply to two critical responses. My letters were edited, though not in such a way as to misrepresent my views, and I presume the two critical replies may well have been as well. I reproduce them all exactly as printed, apart from a couple of minor corrections to spelling and grammar.
Because the Morning Star revamped its website in September, no record of the editorial that gave rise to my first letter remains there, and I have not kept a copy. I have been able to track down the opening lines from elsewhere on the web, and these should give you a flavour of what sparked it all off in the first place. I took a conscious decision to restrict my response to the question of ‘apartheid’ and not comment on the rights and/or wrongs of the BBC’s “censorship”:
More Zionist Bias at Beeb
BBC4 is screening a Nigel Kennedy concert this evening in which he speaks up for Palestinian rights, but the national broadcaster has decided to censor his remarks.
The August 8 Proms concert featured Kennedy and the Palestine Strings, a group of young Palestinian musicians from the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music.
The violinist paid tribute to his fellow musicians, telling the audience: “it’s a bit facile to say it, but we all know from the experience of this night of music making that giving equality and getting rid of apartheid gives a beautiful chance for things to happen.”
His comments were carried live on BBC Radio 3, but a pro-zionist campaign campaign of pressure has led to … (from MS Editorial, August 23)
JD: 1st letter:
Your editorial More Zionist Bias at Beeb (M Star August 23) is mistaken. Nigel Kennedy’s concern for the Palestinians is laudable but his use of the term “apartheid” to describe Israel is highly contentious.
“Apartheid” was not simply a term of abuse, but had a definite class content.
It was a peculiar system in which a white caste, intertwined with the capitalist ruling class, denied the black majority elementary rights in order to enforce their super-exploitation.
The answer was a single state with equal rights for all. For democrats there could be no question of national or collective rights for the whites as distinct from individual equal rights after the overthrow of apartheid.
The Israelis are not a narrow caste and Israel is not an apartheid state but a nation – one that denies rights to the Palestinians but a nation nonetheless.
Iraq, Iran and Turkey are not “apartheid states” because they oppress the Kurds and Russia is not an “apartheid state” because of its occupation of Chechnya.
Israel is a national entity not simply a settler-caste. Within Israel the great majority of the working class is ethnically “Jewish” and their view matters.
They do not have the right to oppress Palestinians but they do have the right to their own national identity.
That is why in Palestine, unlike in South Africa, the best immediate settlement is two states.
Arab citizens of Israel face discrimination in many areas of life. But the situation more resembles the discrimination faced by ethnic minority people in Britain or the US than it does apartheid South Africa.
Some techniques used by Israel against the Palestinians resemble those used by the apartheid-era South African regime but the social and political realities are fundamentally dissimilar.
Recognising that should not lessen our hostility to oppression of the Palestinians. But to call it “apartheid” is politically illiterate, alienates many Jewish people and serves no useful purpose in building solidarity with the Palestinians — JIM DENHAM Birmingham
Letter from Stephen Smith
I was puzzled by Jim Denham’s assertion (M Star August 30) that the term “apartheid” wasn’t appropriate to describe Israel.
Given that it means “separate development” in Afrikaans, it is a good fit for a state which segregates citizens in every conceivable way on the basis of their ethnic origin.
Apartheid did indeed have a class dimension but even a cursory glance at the extreme poverty experienced predominantly by Palestinian Arabs signposts economic disadvantage based on ethnic origin as a feature of Israeli and Palestinian life.
Jim describes Israel’s “ethnically Jewish” working class yet inexplicitly excludes non-Jewish working people in Israel, largely working class Arabs denied the same rights and status as other Israeli workers.
If that isn’t apartheid, I’m not sure what is.
Desmond Tutu noted in 2002 that this situation “reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa…the humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like us when young white police officers prevented us from moving about.
“Many South Africans are beginning to recognise the parallels to what we went through.”
Far from being “politically illiterate,” both Nigel Kennedy and the Morning Star’s editorial (M Star August 23) hit the mark.
It is the bitterest of ironies that a nation forged in response to the greatest crime against humanity is one of the perpetrators of the very ethnic division and hatred standing in the way of the peace, justice, prosperity and equality that could resolve this conflict. — STEPHEN SMITH Witney
Letter from John Nicholson
I presume you published the letter from the Alliance for Workers Liberty (M Star August 30) in support of the Israeli state in order to provoke responses.
That may be permissible in journalistic terms.
However it is not a good justification for a left newspaper to give any coverage at all to these views.
If anything what the Israeli state is perpetrating on the Palestinian people is worse that apartheid — Palestinian refugees who have no right of return to their homes in villages which Israel demolished. Palestinians living within Israel with substantially fewer social, economic and political rights than their Jewish neighbours, and Palestinians in Gaza who are contained within what is effectively a very concentrated concentration camp, in increasingly severe deprivation and subject regularly to annihilation from Israel’s bombs.
And meanwhile our government — and the EU — gives support to Israel, not least by contracting with the appalling G4S which is integrally involved in the Israeli prisons and detention centres where Palestinians, including children, are illegally held and ill-treated. — JOHN NICHOLSON Manchester
JD: 2nd letter
Since neither Stephen Smith nor John Nicholson (M Star September 3 and 7-8, respectively) address the central point of my first letter (M Star August 30) about Israel and apartheid, let me spell it out.
Israel was given its character by Zionists’ refusal to use Arab labour. Whatever we think of that, it was the opposite of the form of exploitation on which apartheid South Africa was built.
As a result, in Israel there is a large, powerful Jewish working class and the Histadrut trade union that organises Jewish and Arab workers.
In apartheid there was no major white working class, just a tiny and massively privileged labour aristocracy.
The Israeli Jewish workers’ movement must be crucial in the fight for a just solution to the Israel/Palestine tragedy in a way that was simply not the case with white workers in South Africa.
Socialists should support Palestinian and Jewish activists in fighting for workers’ rights, democracy, secularism and the right of all peoples to self-determination.
In the immediate term that means the struggle for two states. I’m afraid that many of the people who insist on describing Israel as an “apartheid state” don’t really want that. — JIM DENHAM Birmingham