January 15, 2021

Arnold Schwarzenegger meant well, but there was nonetheless something ill-judged about his borrowing the term Kristallnacht to describe events at the Capitol. The murder of a hundred Jews, the destruction of 267 of synagogues, the transportation of 30,000 Jewish men to concentration camps, the prelude to the Holocaust – it really isn’t in the same ball park. America, it isn’t always all about you. And borrowing this sort of language for domestic political purposes risks watering down the horror of the Holocaust.

A similar anxiety struck me with the recent borrowing of the term “apartheid” to describe Israel. “There is an undercurrent of disrespect directed to African people coming from the pro-Palestinian groupings, through the appropriation of our culture and lived experiences” claims South African, Vuyolwethu Mkhuseli Xulu. “The term ‘Apartheid’ has been taken from us with its true meaning being lost in translation.” He concludes: “Each people’s struggles should be addressed in their specificity and not blended with the experiences of others.” Well said.

On Tuesday, the broadly well-respected human rights organisation B’Tselem declared Israel to be an “apartheid regime”. “B’Tselem has come to this conclusion with a heavy heart and the utmost seriousness. After 32 years, it is not easy to make a paradigm shift. We live and work within Israeli society, we are an integral part of it, and we are well aware of the recoiling and revulsion that this word evokes in the public discourse,” writes B’Tselem board member, Orly Noy.

“Apartheid” used to be a taboo word that was only employed on the extreme Left, by those whose intention was to de-legitimise the very existence of Israel. And there will be those who will see the same aim at work within B’Tselem. But whether or not this is the case, it is also worth asking what is so different now, such that a body like B’Tselem has felt moved to change its language so dramatically and after over three decades of involvement in the region?

There is no doubt that the situation within the occupied territories continues to be desperate for Palestinians. “Israel may not have Jews-only benches, but it does have Jews-only roads in places like Hebron,” writes Noy. Within the occupied territories, very different laws apply to Jews and Palestinians, different rules about travel, different rules about where you can live. The occupation is a tragedy.

But the situation can be explained thus: Israel is a flourishing, fully functioning democracy for all its citizens within the Green Line, the historic internationally accepted borders of the state, plus an unfortunate occupation of the Palestinian territories — sadly needed for security reasons. Israel has a right to protect itself from external, existential threat, and occupation is a short-term — albeit overly long — pending situation waiting for a two-state peace settlement where both Israel and Palestine can exist secure within their own borders. In other words: Israel good, occupation bad. This is the story that many Israelis, especially progressive ones, have told themselves about their home. I subscribe to it myself.

But the so-called “paradigm shift” described by B’Tselem is that this explanation is now increasingly regarded as a cover story for what is, in effect, a one-state “solution” in which Israel is now the de facto government of all the land between the Mediterranean and the River Jordan, and a government that does not allow equal rights to all those who live within this extended territory. B’Tselem argues that the rules under which Palestinians live are not a temporary measure driven by the needs of security, but a permanent situation and becoming more obviously permanent every day. In effect, B’Tselem is formally calling time on the two-state solution.

I remember, several years ago, the American Palestinian political activist and businessman, Sam Bahour, explaining a conversation he had with his daughter. She admonished him for the failure of his life’s work to achieve a separate Palestinian homeland. “Never going to happen, Dad,” was the guts of her response. And she didn’t much care about what name was given to the place in which she lived or the flag that flew over her government buildings. Not interested in Palestinian nationalism, she just wanted the same access to medical care and freedom of movement as her Jewish Israeli neighbours. In other words, she wanted to transform the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a nationalist one — the two sides seeking to become self-determining national governments — into a human rights struggle within a single state. And it is in this context that a word like “apartheid” begins to have increasing purchase.

An example of the daughter’s healthcare point is now being made with respect to Covid.

Israel is leading the world at vaccinating its citizens. But “Palestinians excluded from Israeli Covid vaccine rollout as jabs go to settlers” was the Guardian’s take. And yes, the Israelis are indeed vaccinating Israeli citizens — all of them: Jews and Arabs — and not others, not those in a separate political dispensation. And this latter point really matters. If the Palestinian Territories are indeed a part of Israel, then the fact that Palestinians in places such as Nablus are not being vaccinated by the Israelis is a terrible business. But if the Palestinian territories are their own authority, then it is a rather different thing.

Yes, an occupying force does have responsibilities to those under its control. And Israel has indeed offered to help the Palestinian Authorities, whose legal responsibility it is. As one Palestinian official put it: “We are not dependent on the Israeli Defence Ministry. We have our own government and Ministry of Health, and they are making huge efforts to get the vaccine.”

Again, it all turns on the question of whether Israel is the government of all the territory or not. And most Israelis do not want a single state from the river to the sea, not least because such a state would contain an inbuilt Palestinian majority. The problem has often been put like this. An extended, greater Israel can be only two of these three things: 1, Jewish; 2, Democratic; or 3, Safe. If it chooses to be wholly multi-cultural, it can be democratic and safe. But given the demographics, this inevitably means that Israel will end up no longer being a distinctive homeland for the Jewish people. But if it wants to maintain the dominance of the Jewish population, it can only be safe if it becomes some version of an apartheid regime, imposed by force. Or it can give up on the idea of a greater Israel.

“I have a single word argument against the one-state solution”, Ari Shavit, the Israeli writer for Haaretz, explained to the Guardian editorial board, back when I was a member: “Iraq”. By which he meant that no state with such massive internal tensions between rival ethnic or religious groups could possibly survive. A one state solution would be a recipe for civil war. It would rip itself apart.

The two-state solution may not be going anywhere fast. But it is not dead because the alternative is far worse. And whatever one thinks of Benjamin Netanyahu — and I am not a fan myself — it has to be acknowledged that the recent peace deals with the UEA, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco have changed the situation in ways that would have seemed inconceivable until very recently.

“There is no solution for Israel other than a two-state solution. It does not exist,” says the incoming US President, Joe Biden. He is right. And those of us who love the place will continue to hold out the hope that others are listening — or can be made to do so. Because the real lesson of Kristallnacht is that Jews have a need, and every right, to a place of safety — the man who invaded the Capitol building wearing a shirt proclaiming “Camp Auschwitz” is a chilling reminder of that. And the place of safety is called Israel.