INCREASINGLY, Jewish and Israeli critics of Israel’s policies in the occupied territories are using the term “apartheid” to describe them. In January 2021, the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem issued a statement which declared that the Israeli government was an “apartheid regime.” It stated that, “A regime that uses laws, practices and organized violence to establish and maintain the supremacy of one group over another is an apartheid regime.”
B’Tselem argues that the Israeli regime “of apartheid” rests on four pillars: citizenship, land, freedom of movement and political participation. Virtually any person of Jewish ancestry anywhere in the world can claim Israeli citizenship; immigration to Israel is all but impossible for Palestinians, and only a minority of Palestinians—about 1.6 million out of seven million—-who live on land controlled by Israel are citizens of Israel and even their rights are limited compared with their nearly seven million Jewish counterparts.
This report has been largely ignored in the media and by mainstream American Jewish organizations. One who paid close attention was Rabbi Brian Walt, the founder and rabbi emeritus of Congregation Mishkan Shalom, an activist congregation in Philadelphia. He was the founding executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America and is a member of the Rabbinical Council of Jewish Voice for Peace. Rabbi Walt grew up in South Africa and knows a great deal about apartheid.
In an article published on Feb. 17 in Truthout, Rabbi Walt recalls, “When I first heard that B’Tselem was saying matter-of-factly that Israel and the lands it occupies constitute an apartheid system, I immediately flashed back to 2008, to the moment when the truth became clear to me when I led a Rabbis for Human Rights-North America (T’ruah) trip to Israel and the occupied West Bank. When we arrived in Hebron, Michael Manikin, a leader with the Israeli human rights group Breaking the Silence, gestured to Shuhada Street, the street our group was about to walk down, and told us it was a ‘sterile street’—a street forbidden to Palestinians. Only Jews and other tourists were permitted to walk down the street.”
Rabbi Walt remembers that, “I was horrified. My heart beat fast as tears rolled down my face. As a child growing up in apartheid South Africa, I was intimately familiar with separate beaches, buses, cabs, entrances to post offices and public benches with ‘whites only’ signs. But even in Apartheid South Africa, there were no ‘sterile streets’ that only white people could walk on. In South Africa, as a student at the University of Cape Town, I had fought against apartheid. I worked on issues of economic justice for domestic workers and founded and edited a Jewish student newspaper dedicated to ending apartheid. Throughout my anti-apartheid activism, Israel was always an essential part of my Jewish identity. I was a committed progressive Zionist. Creating a just, democratic Israel that reflected the highest moral values of Judaism was—and remains—a core commitment.”
Over decades, Rabbi Walt engaged in political activism on the West Bank with groups such as the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and encountered disturbing realities. He witnessed the demolition of Palestinian homes, the expropriation of Palestinian land for Jewish settlements, olive orchards uprooted by settlers, and Palestinians uprooted from homes in Jerusalem that they had owned for generations.
“Those experiences were so shocking,” notes Walt, “that, if I hadn’t seen them with my own eyes, I would never have believed they were true. These experiences reminded me of very similar injustices that I had seen in South Africa…At that moment in Hebron, I felt a new determination to name what I saw as apartheid. We, the Jewish people, must tell the truth. We can no longer cover up the shocking systemic discrimination and oppression of the Palestinians by the State of Israel—a state that relies on our support and acts in our names and in the name of our tradition.”
More and more Israelis have been using the term “apartheid” to describe their country’s occupation. Professor David Shulman of the Hebrew University notes that, “No matter how we look at it, unless our minds have been poisoned by the ideologies of the religious right, the occupation is a crime. It is first of all based on the permanent disenfranchisement of a huge population…In the end, it is the ongoing moral failure of the country as a whole that is most consequential, most dangerous, most unacceptable. This failure weighs…heavily on our humanity. We are, so we claim, the children of the prophets. Once, they say, we were slaves in Egypt. We know all that can be known about slavery, suffering, prejudice, ghettos, hate, expulsion, exile. I find it astonishing that we, of all people, have reinvented apartheid in the West Bank.
Alan C Brownfeld is a syndicated columnist and associate editor of the Lincoln Review, a journal published by the Lincoln Institute for Research and Education, and editor of Issues, the quarterly journal of the American Council for Judaism.This is an edited version from The Washington Report