Israel, apartheid, and the Hasbara machine

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Ran Greenstein responds to the recently published pieces by Richard Goldstone and Benjamin Pogrund which reject the analogy of Israel and apartheid.

JNews Blog

Thursday, 3 November, 2011

London, UK

It is not common for the Hasbara machine, disseminating Israeli state propaganda, to be exposed in such a way. As if by coincidence, two expatriate South African Jews, with a bit of a liberal reputation, came out of retirement to produce almost identical pieces for the press, rejecting the analogy between Israel and apartheid. That both have chosen to do that at the same time, using the same arguments and examples, raises an obvious suspicion that they speak from an identical script which looks as if it was produced by officials in the Israeli Ministry against Delegitimisation.

Of the two, Richard Goldstone is far more famous and has received more critical attention. His colleague, Benjamin Pogrund, is not well known, but has a much longer history in the campaign to block critical examination of the Israeli state. It is precisely because the two are not totally averse to criticism of specific Israeli policies, that they seem able to perform the task of defending the Israeli state and its foundational practices.

It is easy to dismiss these articles as crass apologetics, but it is also instructive to examine what they do and do not say, to understand the way Hasbara aims to shape the debate about Israel/Palestine. Here are the standard moves:

First, they assert that Israel is a democracy in which Palestinians can vote and otherwise enjoy full equality. Second, they assert that the 1967 occupation is a temporary aberration, to be sorted out through negotiations. Two fallback arguments follow: if Palestinian citizens do not quite enjoy full equality it is regrettable, but nothing unusual: since many other states are ethnic or religious in nature, why single out the 'Jewish state', asks Pogrund. And, if the occupation has been 'temporary' for such a long time that it seems permanent (after all, 80% of the population in the country never knew any other reality), it is due to legitimate security reasons.

What is wrong with these assertions? A lot. They are worthy of attention more because of what they disguise than what they reveal: first, a note on method. We normally rely on the words and feelings of people who are subject to actual or alleged discriminatory treatment. To be blunt, Palestinians in Israel are the sole authority regarding their own experiences; South African Jews are not. If we wish to find out what it means to be Palestinian citizens in Israel, why not ask them directly? Indeed, a wealth of documentary material detailing conditions of massive formal and informal discrimination in the fields of land (especially), labour, housing, education, social services and so on, has been produced by research, human rights ,and legal advocacy organisations representing this group (numerous examples can be found at www.mossawacenter.org and www.adalah.org/eng). Goldstone and Pogrund make no use of this material. Instead, they reproduce official talking points, long debunked by social science research conducted by Israelis and Palestinians alike.

But what about the right to vote? Indeed it exists, though has come increasingly under attack. It is crucial to realise that it can be exercised only by about 20% of the Palestinians who used to live in the areas that became Israel in 1948, and who became citizens. The other 80%, those who became refugees and their descendants, enjoy no such right. Other Palestinians, who live under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, similarly have no say in the way their lives are governed by Israel. The majority of them cannot even visit the country, and none of them can reclaim citizenship.

The group of 4-5 million Palestinian refugees in the Diaspora is completely absent from the discussion. If pressed, Goldstone and Pogrund might argue that refugees are not citizens and therefore cannot claim rights in the country. This would beg the question of how these people became and remain excluded in that way, although they and their ancestors were born in the country? Meanwhile, any Jew who wishes to can become an Israeli citizen with immediate effect, without having to have ever set foot there. If this is not a form of apartheid-like exclusion, what is?

Having ignored the existence of refugees, Goldstone and Pogrund proceed conveniently to forget other components of the situation. Take settlers. Who? Good question. In their version of reality, the 1967 occupation is a temporary security measure that would end with successful negotiations. That the 'peace process' has served to entrench Israeli control over the territories, and has resulted in hundreds of settlements and hundreds of thousands of settlers, products of hundred billion US dollars in investment, is not something of which they seem aware. Goldstone, for example, tells us that the 'security fence', AKA the 'apartheid wall', aims to prevent terrorist attacks. If so, why is it not built on the Green Line, to separate Israel from the territories? Why is it constructed to include maximum land and settlers but exclude as many of the local as possible? Why does investment in settlements, roads, housing and infrastructure continue, making negotiations (over the ever-shrinking remaining land) increasingly meaningless? How long can this situation be regarded as 'temporary', when it has lasted longer than apartheid did, and shows no signs of coming to an end? On the contrary, it continues to expand and shape not only what is happening in the territories but also in Israel 'proper', thus making the distinction between the two irrelevant.

A final point in this limited space: is Israel merely one ethnic state among others, as Pogrund argues? Let us ask: which other state was founded on the massive exclusion of its indigenous people to clear the way for immigrants, an exclusion forcibly maintained to this day? In which other state is such exclusion being buttressed daily by new laws, regulations, speeches, government policies, parliamentary commissions of enquiry, and educational and media campaigns? Which other state constantly seeks new ways to bolster its ethnic nature at the expense of its indigenous people, and restrict their political, social (and – where possible – physical) presence? Which other state is a 'demographic state’ in a similar manner? If the label 'apartheid' is not suitable, what alternative do Goldstone and Pogrund have to offer?

Ran Greenstein is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand Johannesburg, South Africa. He has written extensively on the genealogies of the conflicts in Palestine/Israel and South Africa.

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