Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the U.S, recently wrote an article for the LA Times criticizing the usage of the term “apartheid” to refer to Israel’s human rights violations in Gaza and the West Bank. Oren was previously involved in a serious controversy on the UC Irvine campus, when, during an invited speech, members of the Muslim Student Union at UCI and associates interrupted his talk with protests concerning these human rights violations. Oren concluded his talk with a comment about wanting to engage the population in a serious discussion of the issues. It is disappointing to see him now engage in a misleading discussion of the issues, when he has plenty of opportunities to seriously address them.
Oren begins his article with antics, normally reserved for totalitarian states, designed to silence critics of Israel’s humanitarian disaster in the occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank by associating them with military aggression and terrorism. No defense of Israeli humanitarian atrocities would be complete without reminding us of the Holocaust, of course, which he manages to do at the end of the article. He also manages some astonishing slight of mind in his discussion of the issues.
Oren says that the claim of Israel being an apartheid state is used by people seeking to destroy Israel. One could focus here on the fact that Oren begins his article by hysterically referring to the wars Israel fought with its Arab neighbors (during which the occupied territories were seized) and identifying anybody who criticizes the state as being equivalent to militarily aggressors and suicide bombers. There is no way more effective to sequester debate over these issues than by associating those who make serious criticism with murderers and terrorists, and of course, genocidal Nazis. I wasn’t aware that Amnesty International, the U.N., and other numerous human rights organizations, are in the business of the violent destruction of Israel and the Jewish people. One would have assumed that they were in the business of calling attention to human rights violations.
Instead of focusing on all of this dishonest smoke screening of the real issues, I’ll just go ahead and agree with Oren that the Israeli human rights violations against the Palestinians are not equivalent to apartheid. The truth is, they are worse.
Oren illustrates how the situation is clearly different from that of apartheid South Africa, or the deep racism of the U.S. South. Let’s follow the metaphor with the U.S. The situation is indeed different from the history of slavery and racism in the U.S. — Black people in the U.S. were explicitly brought here because they were needed to work in intolerable conditions for the economic success of plantation owners. Following the abolishment of slavery, African-Americans were still needed to work the plantations and factories, and were an integral component of U.S. society, though they had to be suppressed and controlled. Slave owners and their descendants had incentive to maintain the health and viability of workers because they needed them, and because African-Americans were embedded within the same general geographical areas, economic development benefited them as well, within limits.
The Palestinians, on the other hand, are not needed by Israel. They are in the way: a superfluous population, explicitly unwanted by the self-proclaimed Jewish state. Of course, Israel wants their land, their water, and the rest of their resources. So the apt analogy is not to the American South and African-Americans, but to the Native Americans: a history of expulsion, degradation, domination and exploitation.
One can assess this attitude through the words of Moshe Dayan, a chief military and political leader in Israel in the 50s, 60s and 70s, regarding the Palestinians: “We don’t have a solution, and you will continue living like dogs, and whoever wants will go, and will see how this procedure will work out. For now, it works out. Let’s say the truth. We want peace. If there is no peace, we will maintain military rule and we will have four to five military compounds on the mountains, and they will sit ten years under the Israeli military regime.” The current attitude of the Israeli government seems to be no different, though they are a bit more careful with their words.
In Oren’s article, one finds the phrases “annihilate Israel,” “cripple Israel through terror,” “suicide bombers,” “Israel’s enemies,” “Inquisition,” and “Holocaust.” There are far more basic words that Oren fails to mention: “settlements” and “water.” No mention is made of the fact that Israel consistently exploits the resources of Gaza and the West Bank, continues its expansionist policies in these territories, and exploits the water resources, leading to severe health and agricultural issues for the inhabitants.
His point about the separation wall garners a double take: “It is no more an apartheid wall than the fence between the United States and Mexico.” One could maintain that the fence between the U.S. and Mexico is itself an injustice and human rights issue, dividing populations that historically straddled the border and promoting racism and violence, and is not exactly a helpful comparison in this context.
Instead, I’ll make what should be obvious points. The fence between the U.S. and Mexico respects an international border, while the containment wall in the West Bank does not separate a border of Israel and a sovereign Palestinian state, because there is no Palestinian state. The wall extends into Palestinian territory, breaking up the Palestinian population and providing a secure basis for illegal Israeli settlements. The objection to the Bantustans in South Africa was that they segregated the population within the state, not that it was a border with a neighboring country, such as Botswana.
The justifications that Oren offers in defense of the walls are addressed by the U.N.’s International Court of Justine in an advisory opinion in 2004: “Israel cannot rely on a right of self-defense or on a state of necessity in order to preclude the wrongfulness of the construction of the wall”. The Court goes on to say “the construction of the wall, and its associated régime, are contrary to international law.”
About voting rights, Oren mentions that Palestinians are free to choose their own government, but that elections haven’t been held for some years. One might be curious to ask why. The last elections were held in 2006, when there was massive obstruction on the part of the Israeli government, including the detention of electoral candidates and the attempt to prevent voting inside East Jerusalem, the de facto center of Palestinian life in the West Bank. Following the election, in which Hamas won control of the government, Israel launched raids into the territories, bombing civilian infrastructure and arresting many officials and parliamentarians, supported by the U.S. Of course, there are internal difficulties in the Palestinian government that should not be overlooked, but the message is clear: Israel supports democracy for the Palestinians as long as they don’t vote the wrong way. In other words, Israel does not support democracy for the Palestinians.
If the representatives of Israel and their U.S. cheerleaders want to seriously discuss the issues, they should actually discuss the issues, rather than obscuring the facts and creating diversions by associating critics with aggression, terrorism, and genocide. Michael Oren had his opportunity to engage in a real discussion with those that oppose his viewpoint, but it is apparent that he never wanted a real discussion.
William Matchin is a Ph.D candidate in the Department of Cognitive Sciences. He can be reached at email@example.com