I read with great interest Peter Beinart’s recent New York Times op-ed “To Save Israel, Boycott the Settlements.” His thesis is straightforward: Beinart believes Israel is a democratic country being undone by the occupation of the Palestinian territories. The settlements must be opposed while allegedly democratic Israel must be supported. Efforts to support the Palestinian right of return (for refugees), he contends, undermine the possibility of a two-state solution and, thereby, end the possibility for Israel as a Jewish homeland.
It is critically important that Beinart identifies the undemocratic—indeed, colonial—nature of the settlements. It’s insufficient, but an important start. The Israeli settlements flout international law, utilizing distortions of Judeo-Christian theology and/or what are regarded as the ‘facts on the ground’ (in this case meaning that the Israelis hold the land so they are not going anywhere). By controlling another people, the Israeli occupation renders impossible any real sense of democracy for Israel.
Yet it is within Israel itself that Beinart’s argument is fundamentally based upon a set of myths, repeatedly stated and often unquestioned, but myths nevertheless. The central myth is that Israel, within the pre-1967 borders, is a democracy and that it is the Occupation perverting this otherwise just state. This misrepresents reality. For 20 percent of Israelis there is no genuine democracy. Palestinian citizens of Israel exist as second-class citizens compared with Jewish Israelis. Whether one is referencing a “racial” differential in public education, availability of land, marriage laws, employment, or discriminatory housing access, Israel within the pre-1967 borders – with some 35 discriminatory laws – comes up short on democracy.
It's like calling the pre-Civil Rights United States of America a democracy. With rampant legalized discrimination against African Americans and other people of color, and with voting skewed against the poor more generally, how could that have been a democracy? It’s also reminiscent of those who speak of ancient Athenian democracy while ignoring the fact that this “democracy” was founded on slavery. Either a system is democratic or it is not, a fact that many of us here in the USA understood in the period of Jim Crow segregation in the former Confederate states of our South.
A more recent similarity, however, is that of apartheid South Africa. The apartheid regime loved to lay claim to being Africa’s shining democracy. It possessed a working parliament, regular elections, and voting rights – except for one small matter: none of this worked for the non-white majority (so-called blacks and so-called coloreds). In the face of a rising tide of global indignation against the racist South African system, the United Nations asserted that apartheid represented a total system of racist oppression and was anathema to the modern, civilized world. The United Nations, in 1973, condemned this system but did not limit its criticism to South Africa. Instead, it expanded the criticism to describe racially oppressive regimes such as those in southern Africa at that time.
Resistance to South African apartheid took many forms. In South Africa there were military actions as well as non-violent protests. Fundamentally, the African majority made it clear that the apartheid system would no longer be tolerated. Resistance, however, was a global phenomenon and, responding to the call from democratic forces on the ground, an international movement emerged to support boycotts, divestments and sanctions as a means of pressuring and ultimately undermining the apartheid regime.
In today’s setting, while the Occupation of the Palestinian territories is the most glaring example of the system of Israeli apartheid, it’s not the only representation. The Israeli government has been toying with the further expansion of the illegal settlements in the Occupied Territories along with population transfers—read ethnic cleansing—of Palestinian citizens of Israel, particularly as voiced by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. The lack of democracy that Beinart points to in the Occupied Territories is not walled off from what has been unfolding within the Israel of the pre-1967 borders.
Beinart further undercuts his argument about Israeli democracy by never having admitted that he was wrong when he said to Jeffrey Goldberg two years ago, “I'm not asking Israel to be Utopian. I'm not asking it to allow Palestinians who were forced out (or fled) in 1948 to return to their homes. I'm not even asking it to allow full, equal citizenship to Arab Israelis, since that would require Israel no longer being a Jewish state. I'm actually pretty willing to compromise my liberalism for Israel's security and for its status as a Jewish state. What I am asking is that Israel not do things that foreclose the possibility of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, because if it is does that it will become–and I'm quoting Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak here–an ‘apartheid state.’" This reinforces the notion that he gets the non-democratic reality of the West Bank, but either doesn’t get Israel’s internal lack of democracy or simply doesn’t much care. It’s a serious flaw in Beinart’s thinking about the conflict (not to mention Goldberg’s, who doesn’t even follow up on the undemocratic statement).
Whether the resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is found in one bi-national state or two states will be a matter settled by the Israelis and the Palestinians – and, one trusts, the balancing influence of an international community that recognizes the law-breaking ways of the more powerful Israel. In fact, global opinion has increasingly moved to isolate Israel and to make clear the false democratic façade surrounding it. The campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) has been a significant instrument in that campaign. BDS delegitimizes the Israeli apartheid system and challenges the false theology and colonial mentality that has both helped to create it and reinforced it. BDS offers an opportunity for all those who support peace, justice and democracy for the Israeli and Palestinian people to enter into a struggle with one of the most profound examples of injustice currently faced, an injustice that rather than existing in isolation can ignite a firestorm if permitted to go unanswered.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is the Executive Editor of BlackCommentator.com. He is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies and the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum. He was a co-founder of both the Center for Labor Renewal and the Black Radical Congress. He is the co-author of "Solidarity Divided" (University of California Press, 2008)."