Talking Nonsense about Apartheid: How Come Uri Avnery Knows So Little about Israel?

Taking a whole nation hostage. (Photo: File)

By Jonathan Cook – Nazareth

Yes, I know. Uri Avnery has achieved many great things as a journalist and a peace activist. He has probably done more to educate people around the world about the terrible situation in the occupied Palestinian territories, and for longer, than any other single human being. And, to boot, he’s celebrating his 90th birthday this week. So best wishes to him.

Nonetheless, it is important to challenge the many fallacious claims Avnery makes to bolster the arguments in his latest article, dismissing the growing comparisons being made between Israel and apartheid South Africa.

There is much to criticize in his weakly argued piece, based on a recent conversation with an unnamed “expert”. Avnery, like many before him, makes the mistake of thinking that, by pointing out the differences between Israel and apartheid South Africa, he proves that Israel is not an apartheid state. But this is the ultimate straw-man argument. No one claims Israel is identical to South Africa. You don’t need an expert to realize that.

When people call Israel an apartheid state, they are referring to the crime of apartheid as defined in international law. According to the 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, apartheid comprises inhumane acts “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”.

So what color the victims of apartheid are, what proportion of the population they constitute, whether the economy depends on their productive labor, whether the early Zionists were socialists, whether the Palestinians have a Nelson Mandela, and so on have precisely zero relevance to determining whether Israel is an apartheid state.

A key distinction for Avnery is between “Israel proper” and the occupied territories. In the territories, Avnery admits, there are some parallels with apartheid South Africa. But inside Israel, he thinks the comparison is outrageously unfair.  Let’s set aside the not-insignificant matter that Israel refuses to recognize its internationally defined borders; or that one of its major strategies is a colonial-style divide-and-rule policy that depends on establishing differences in rights for Palestinians under its rule as a way to better oppress them.

Avnery’s motives in highlighting this territorial distinction should be fairly clear. He believes the occupation is a crime and that it must end. But he also believes that Israel as a Jewish state should continue after the occupation ends. In fact, he sees the two matters as inextricably tied. In his view, Israel’s long-term survival as a Jewish state depends on severing it from the occupied territories.

This concurs with fairly standard liberal Zionist ideology: segregation is seen as offering protection from demographic threats posed by non-Jews to the future success of the Jewish state, and has reached its apotheosis in the building of the West Bank wall and the disengagement from Gaza. Avnery is simply one of the most humane proponents of this line of thinking.

But for this reason, as I have argued before, Avnery should be treated as an unreliable mentor and guide on matters relating to Palestinians inside Israel – the group that is hardest to deal with under a strictly segregationist approach.

Avnery is unlikely to treat criticism of “Israel proper”, such as the apartheid comparison, based on the merits of the case. He will react defensively. Admitting that Israel is an apartheid state inside its internationally recognized borders would undermine the legitimacy of his prized Jewish state. It would indicate that his life’s work of campaigning for the creation of a Palestinian state to preserve his Jewish state was misguided, and probably harmful.

The most outrageous claim Avnery makes in the article, precisely to deflect attention from the problem of a self-defined Jewish state and its relations with a large Palestinian minority, is the following:

“On the whole, the situation of the Arab minority inside Israel proper is much like that of many national minorities in Europe and elsewhere. They enjoy equality under the law, vote for parliament, are represented by very lively parties of their own, but in practice suffer discrimination in many areas. To call this apartheid would be grossly misleading.”

One does not need to concede that the comparison with apartheid is right, both in the occupied territories and inside “Israel proper” – though I do – to understand that it is, in fact, Avnery who is being grossly misleading here.

There is no sense in which Israel’s treatment of its 1.5 million Palestinian citizens is comparable, as Avnery argues, to the situation of national minorities in European states. Palestinian citizens do not simply face unofficial, informal or spontaneous discrimination. It is structural, institutionalized and systematic.

Here are a few questions Avnery or those who agree with him need to answer:

* Which European states have, like Israel, nationalized 93 per cent of their land so that one ethnic group (in Israel’s case, Jewish citizens) can exclude another ethnic group (Palestinian Arab citizens)?

* Which European states operate vetting committees, enshrined in law, in hundreds of rural communities precisely to prevent one ethnic group (Palestinian Arabs) from living in these communities?

* Which European states have separate citizenship laws – in Israel’s case, the Law of Return (1950) and the Citizenship Law (1952) – based on ethnic belonging?

* Which European states have designed their citizenship laws, as Israel has done, to confer rights on members of an ethnic group (in Israel’s case, Jews) who are not actually yet citizens or present in the state, privileging them over a group (Palestinian Arabs) who do have citizenship and are present in the state?

* Which European states have more than 55 laws that explicitly discriminate based on which ethnic group a citizen belongs to?

* Which European states, like Israel, defer some of what should be their sovereign powers to extra-territorial bodies – in Israel’s case, to the Jewish Agency and the Jewish National Fund – whose charters obligate them to discriminate based on ethnic belonging?

* Which European states deny their citizens access to any civil institutions on personal status matters such as marriage, divorce and burial, requiring all citizens to submit to the whims and prejudices of religious leaders?

* Which European states do not recognize their own nationality, and make it possible to join the dominant national group (in Israel’s case, Jews) or to immigrate only through conversion?

Maybe Avnery can find the odd European state with one such perverse practice, or something similar. But I have no doubt he cannot find a European state that has more than one such characteristic. Israel has all of these and more; in fact, too many for me to enumerate them all.

So if Israel inside its recognized borders is nothing like European states or the United States, or any other state we usually classify as democratic, maybe Avnery or his supporters can explain exactly what kind of state Israel is like.

– Jonathan Cook is a winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). He contributed this article to Visit his website at:

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  1. Good criticism -I first read Avnery’s article on another site and was under-impressed by it. This review sums up that uncertainty very well.

  2. What a poisoned birthday greeting.

    I admire Avnery because he’s tirelessly spoken out about honesty and fairness, sided with the two sides unashamedly as he wants a better world for everyone.

    I do not quarel with Cook except for his lack of respect for an old campaigner and his tired-out views. But the creeping jewishness has infected many jews justifying their supine support of Israel. Avnery is not supine nor a supporter of genocide (or apartied). Maybe he’s got it wrong this time, but I salute him!

    • Avnery’s knowledge of South Africa is very poor. The South African situation was not nearly as brutal as that in Israel/Palestine.

      It was at worst an unfair system supposed to promote development of the uneducated African peoples that was inherited from the British.

      However, these so-called oppressed people were never bombed by the government. Blacks are far worse off today than they were under Apartheid. Today, it is a shambles teetering on the brink of total collapse: Important services in the cities, like Johannesburg, are not working. Crap in the drink-water supply etc etc.

  3. So true. I always read Uri Avnery’s articles, but something keeps nagging, for instance when from time to time he remembers his roll as a fighter in the 1948 Nakba with some pride as fighting the good fight. Makes me wonder…

  4. Recall that the “Pass Laws” in South Africa dictated where a person might reside based upon his or her race. A Xhosa married to a Zulu, for example could not legally reside with him/her.
    Of course, these laws were seldom actually enforced in S.A. as early as the early 70s, I’m told ………… unlike a recent case in Israel wherein a Palestinian woman from the West Bank married to a Palestinian (‘Israeli Arab’) was forceably taken from her husband and children in Israel in the middle of the night and ‘relocated’ to the West Bank.

  5. I lived in South Africa during the apartheid era (1952-77), and I see many similarities between the situation there then and in Israel today, e.g.:
    – Both were/are armed camps because of the way they treated non-Whites/non-Jews, and justified their excesses by their “legitimate security concerns”, but Israel will not attain security until it abandons Zionism (apartheid) and become a normal nation.
    – The Group Areas Act was used for ethnic cleansing in SA, like the Prawer Plan in Israel.
    – Kibbutzim and, in the Occupied Territories, roads and buses for Jews only is very reminiscent of apartheid.
    – The West Bank is treated like a Bantustan, only much worse.
    – Both were colonial …

  6. Avnery is an apologist for the Israeli state. At least he argues for it and yes it is a very difficult argument to win when the entity for which you argue is a blatantly simplistic and childish conceit. This ensures that most Israeli aplogists make excuses and kill by proxy and many do it gleefully in person. The situation was very much the same in SA.
    Like Aparheid SA, Israel has to go. The difference in this case is that the name of the country, Israel, cannot be kept in the way the name South Africa could.
    Israel today is a shameful conceit that has to be removed in honour of the Israel of the book. It besmirches a great name that is of importance to all mankind.

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