Greetings! This month’s edition addresses the recent Amnesty International report accusing the state of Israel of carrying out the crime of apartheid against Palestinians. But first, here are some news stories from the last month that are worth reading.
First, an exposé on climate scientists who are at the end of their collective rope. Politicians and corporate leaders routinely ignore the unparalleled threat of global warming, and scientists are understandably asking whether producing more evidence will make a difference.
(Source: Rebecca Conway, NYT)
Second, a proposal for a vacant home tax in the Bay Area. The goal of the tax is to impose costs on keeping homes vacant, so owners (e.g. second home owners) will have an incentive to make them available for rent.
Third, a criticism of the EU proposal to criminalize hate speech. The author points to evidence that suppressing hate speech can lead to a “backlash effect”, whereby suppression of speech generates more support for the suppressed views. [WSJ paywalled: ask me for access]
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —
Essay: Amnesty’s Apartheid Report
The term ‘apartheid’ evokes brutal memories of South Africa prior to its democratization in 1994. In 1963, Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd voiced the idea animating apartheid: “We want to make South Africa White… Keeping it White can only mean one thing, namely White domination, not leadership, not guidance, but control, supremacy.”
In other words, apartheid means social and political domination based on race. In terms of international law, the ‘crime of apartheid’ is constituted by human rights abuses “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.” (Rome Statute; 7.2(h)) The crime of apartheid is a crime against humanity.
So, when the human rights group Amnesty International released an extensive report on February 1st accusing Israel of committing the crime of apartheid, it was not just name-calling. It was accusing Israel of violating international law – of committing crimes against humanity.
Unsurprisingly, the report drew a lot of attention, as well as the familiar claims of antisemitism. Amnesty International is known world-wide for its human rights work, and its report signals the growing willingness of mainstream political discourse to recognize the human rights abuses committed by the Israeli state. It is worth pointing out, though, that its accusation is not new – far from it.
Joseph Massad, a professor at Columbia University, notes that:
By the 1980s, except for white European and American liberal and conservative racists committed to Jewish settler-colonialism, the apartheid analogy was everywhere. After the fall of apartheid in South Africa in 1994, anti-apartheid leaders, from Nelson Mandela to Desmond Tutu, expressed horror at Israeli policies, and several African National Congress visitors to Israeli-occupied Palestine described Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as “worse than apartheid”.
The outrage directed at the Amnesty report, therefore, is not due to the novelty of the accusation but the prominence of the group making the accusation. Amnesty’s report extensively documents the various ways in which Israeli policies satisfy the definition of apartheid: (1) human rights abuses carried out with (2) intent to maintain (3) a race-based (4) system of domination. We can better grasp each of these aspects of the report by appreciating the larger context of the establishment of the state of Israel and the occupation of Palestinian land.
The land now referred to as Israel-Palestine used to be controlled by the Ottoman Empire until it was conquered by the British during World War I. This land then became known as the British ‘mandate’, and England facilitated immigration of Jews to the mandate in order to support the ambitions of European Zionists. The policy of controlled immigration was supervised by the British for over two decades after the War. The Amnesty report reminds us that:
“In 1948, before Israel was established, Palestinians comprised around 70% of the population of Palestine…and owned about 90% of the privately owned land. Jews, many of whom had emigrated from Europe, comprised around 30% of the population and they and Jewish institutions owned about 6.5% of the land.”
This demographic information is exceedingly important to keep in mind, because it helps explain the long term policies of the state of Israel. In order to dominate the territory of Israel-Palestine, Israel has worked to shift the demography of the territory since 1948.
Amnesty uses this as a basis for establishing the second factor in the crime of apartheid – intent. The report aims to establish “Israel’s intent to oppress and dominate all Palestinians by establishing its hegemony across Israel and the [Occupied Palestinian Territories], including through means of demography, and maximizing resources for the benefit of its jewish population at the expense of Palestinians.”
The two major research undertakings of the report are to document the human rights abuses carried out by the state of Israel and to show the system of oppression these help support. The specific human rights abuses listed include forcible transfer, administrative detention, torture, unlawful killing and serious injuries, as well as denial of basic rights and freedoms. The system of oppression is characterized by an attempt to fragment Palestinian held land and restrict the ability of Palestinians to move and associate freely. It is this system that prevents Palestinians from moving toward a unified state of their own, ensuring that they remain a powerless class of people within Israel and the Occupied Territories.
Given the extensive documentation of these crimes, not to mention their combined status as crimes against humanity in the form of apartheid, one would expect universal condemnation from the so-called liberal world order that prizes human rights. But this is not what we find. The United States, for example, does the opposite of condemn Israel’s crimes – it provides over $3 billion dollars a year to the Israeli state, primarily for military purposes.
Are there signs of a change, though? Harvard professor Stephen Walt gladly reports that finally some brave public intellectuals are beginning to “pierce the veil of ignorance” about Israel. This comment, however, papers over the fact that this veil of ignorance has been entirely self-imposed by foreign policy commentators. Decades ago, intellectuals like Edward Said and Noam Chomsky extensively criticized Israeli crimes and US support for these crimes, but the world of expert commentary simply chose to ignore these out of touch academics. Now, it is no longer possible to ignore the voices denouncing Israel’s apartheid regime – so elite opinion has to change, lest US support for Israel reflect poorly on its own vocal commitments to human rights.