Criticise the ANC, but don't white-wash Israel

Roy Isacowitz says Milton Shain failed to deal with the very real plight of the Palestinians

It’s a little disconcerting to come across a serious, well-argued article about the condition of Israel today without a single mention of the Palestinians or the occupation. That absence is so glaring, one can only assume that mentioning either or the two would have somehow played havoc with the point the author was trying to make.

Milton Shain argues (Why the ANC Deplores Israel, November 16, 2021) that Israel is a state like any other, with the same symbols, particularistic legislation and problematic minority that many states have. That being the case, he maintains, the ANC’s antipathy to the Jewish state can only be regarded as anti-Semitic, rather than, say, politically motivated.

I have tremendous respect for Milton as a scholar and, on a personal level, he has always been more than kind to me. So it’s no fun to take him to task for what I believe is a misguided effort to whitewash Israel, concomitant to having a go at the ANC.

Shain knows a lot more about the ANC and South African anti-Semitism than I do. I won’t challenge his conclusion that the ANC is anti-Semitic. What I will challenge, though, is his attempt to portray Israel as a run-of-the mill country – no different from many others – without even bothering to come to grips with the fact that is has now held the Palestinians of the occupied territories hostage for longer than formal apartheid existed in South Africa.

To back up his thesis, Shain recommends that readers consult Israel and the Family of Nations, a book by Alexander Yacobson and Amnon Rubenstein. Both authors are well-known liberal Zionists, the first a professor of history and the second a former politician and legal scholar.

Their book, like Shain’s article, is an attempt to prove Israel’s right to exist by highlighting its commonalities with other states and downplaying its dissimilarities, such as its illegal (under international law) settlements in the West Bank and the harsh military regime that governs the lives of Palestinians in the occupied territories

It’s typical of defenders of Zionism to paint things in the most garish colors, such as “right to exist”. The ideologues of Hamas and Islamic Jihad who deny Israel’s right to exist are more than offset by the Jewish fundamentalists who deny the rights of the Palestinians. For the rest, Israel’s right to exist is not in question – only its right to rule all the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River and to deny the Palestinians any semblance of sovereign existence.

Shain writes that the ANC “has always described Israel as a state founded on the basis of apartheid and has questioned the possibility of a Jewish State being democratic. This is a crude, uninformed and biased critique.”

That being the case, I guess I am also crude, uninformed and biased. To me it’s obvious that Israel was founded on the basis of ethnic preference (which today would be called apartheid.) That’s clear from the policy of “Hebrew labor” (also called “conquest of labor”), which was code for separate development; from the statements of Israel’s founding fathers – Moshe Sharett, later prime minister, in 1925: “We are not coming to a desolate land to inherit it; rather, we are coming to conquer the land from the nation that resides there”; and from a multitude of Zionist activities both before and after the founding of the state in 1948.

As for “the possibility of a Jewish state being democratic”, I don’t know about any other Jewish state, but the Jewish state is certainly lacking in the democracy department. Any Palestinian from Ramallah, Jenin or Nablus who has been deprived of any and all say in how his life is managed for well over fifty years will tell you that.

And if an Arab from the occupied territories is somehow an illegitimate commentator on democracy, how about Israel’s very own Jewish Nation-State Law, adopted in 2018? “Exercising the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people,” it says in its basic principles.

Now, I know I’m crude, biased etc., but that doesn’t sound very democratic to me, particularly in a country in which a quarter of the population – excluding those in the occupied territories – are not Jewish.

I could go on.

Israel’s Law or Return, according to which all Jews have the right to live in Israel as citizens, is not at all the same as similar laws in 1950s Germany and Turkey. In Germany and Turkey, the right applied to all Germans and all Turks; in Israel it applies only to Jews. Palestinian Israelis do not enjoy the right of return; in fact they were expressly forbidden from joining their families in Israel until a recent court judgement threw a spanner in the works. The issue is still undecided.

And then there’s Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which Shain extolls. Significantly, the declaration made no mention of the country’s borders – for the simple reason that, while David Ben Gurion was reading it out in a small hall in Tel Aviv, Israeli forces were attacking Palestinian villages all along the proposed borders to conquer more land. Israel wanted it all and it didn’t stop until it got it in June 1967.

By only writing about the Palestinian minority within Israel proper and totally ignoring the 4.5 million Palestinians (or probably more; I don’t know the latest numbers) living under the Israeli boot in the occupied territories, Milton Shain has done himself and his readers a disservice. Whatever the errors of the ANC, white-washing Israel is not the way to correct them.