John Kerry’s use of the word “apartheid” before the Trilateral Commission last Friday and the brouhaha it has caused is spurring a debate we’ve never had in this country about Palestinian conditions. It’s not that enlightened a debate in the mainstream. But at least it’s beginning.
First, here is Mustafa Barghouthi talking to the Institute for Middle East Understanding yesterday on a conference call:
The difference between me and Secretary Kerry is that he is saying that if Israel does not allow a [Palestinian] state, it will become apartheid. And I am saying, it is already apartheid.
This occupation that has been there for 47 years has already transformed into a full fledged system of segregation and apartheid. And we will not accept that…
Americans can use another term, segregation. I think you know segregation more. Because that’s what you had in the United States, a system of segregation against people of African origin. But it is apartheid. And you cannot ignore– What does apartheid mean? Apartheid is a word from Afrikaaner language which means that you have two systems of laws for two people living in the same place. And that’s exactly what we have today in Palestine.
Barghouthi is a Palestinian statesman who lives in the occupied territories. You’d think that more American media would be asking people like him what they think of the occupation.
Not on Andrea Mitchell’s MSNBC show yesterday, Senator Kelly Ayotte, New Hampshire Republican, piped the talking points:
The comments are completely inappropriate by Senator Kerry, they were wrong…
Later Susan Page of USA Today told Mitchell that the apartheid analogy is just as inappropriate as the Nazi Germany analogy, and should be barred from US discourse of the conflict. But is that fair? Page is saying that alleging that Israel is guilty of a crime that other countries have also been accused of and that is in the international law books, as Barghouthi indicated, is equivalent to comparing Israel to a regime that is widely considered the greatest evil in human history. One is a legal question, the other an incendiary analogy. But that is the talking point: the apartheid claim is not a factual claim but “incendiary” and therefore illegitimate.
On Joe Scarborough’s show yesterday morning, John Heilemann began bravely:
“It’s not actually an unreasonable statement.”
But under Scarborough’s questioning, Heilemann began walking it back. There “is a risk of that happening,” Heilemann said. “Some Israeli politicians have voiced this in the past.” The risk is that “a Jewish minority” would be governing a Palestinian majority. Though Heilemann concluded, Kerry’s choice of words was “kind of intemperate and inflammatory.”
Scarborough and Heilemann suggested that apartheid has to do with a racial minority governing a racial majority. It doesn’t; from the legal definition:
For the purpose of the present Convention, the term ‘the crime of apartheid’, which shall include similar policies and practices of racial segregation and discrimination as practiced in southern Africa, shall apply to the following inhumane acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them..
If you read some of those inhumane acts, from the persecution and denial of dignity to a group, to the denial of their participation in the political, social, economic and cultural life of the country, to their arbitrary imprisonment, to the creation of ghettoes and preserves for their separation, to the denial of mixed marriages… you will find many aspects of the Israeli system of division.
The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel nailed it yesterday:
He regrets speaking the truth. Kerry Expresses Regret After Apartheid Remark http://t.co/al3gqBhfRo
— Katrina vandenHeuvel (@KatrinaNation) April 29, 2014
Andrew Sullivan makes the same point in an excellent post: “John Kerry tells the truth, therefore he must apologize” that goes from the question of Palestinian conditions to the issue of the U.S. conversation:
The state of Israel controls a large amount of neighboring territory, seized in war, in which the inhabitants are divided by ethnicity, with one group, the original inhabitants of the land or refugees from ethnic cleansing, are systematically disadvantaged compared with the other. They are penned into eight distinct areas from which they have to get through checkpoints to move around. They have no right to vote for the government that controls their lives. This arrangement has now lasted a year longer than the apartheid regime in South Africa – and, unlike John Kerry Makes Statement On Ukraine At U.S. State Department that regime, looks set to continue indefinitely. It also comprises a massive project of ethnic and social engineering in which the dominant ethnic group continues to settle the occupied territory in an attempt – forbidden by the Geneva Conventions – to change its demographic nature.
None of this is in dispute. But when an American secretary of state explains this in private he is forced to recant publicly. And that surreal kabuki dance is an almost perfect symbol of why US engagement with Israel-Palestine is, at this juncture, such an enormous waste of time. The US is barred from telling the truth, which makes a real negotiation impossible. The Israelis know that they will never be subject to real US pressure, because the US Congress stands ever-ready to do whatever Israel asks. And so the beat goes on.
In interviewing Mustafa Barghouthi, Michael Brown of IMEU pointed out the same Orwellian issue, what you can and can’t say here, when he quoted Kerry’s apology for using the word:
“While Justice Minister Livni, former Prime Ministers Barak and Ohlmert have all invoked the specter of apartheid to underscore the dangers of a unitary state for the future, it is a word best left out of the debate here at home.”
Brown said, So it’s OK for Israelis to use the word, but not for Americans. John Heilemann made the same appeal: “Some Israeli politicians have voiced this in the past.” As if our speech must be licensed by theirs?
We’ve seen this double standard for years. And the issue is Why? I say that it is revealing; it reflects the power of the lobby over the American discourse. For the lobby believes that criticism of Israel is fine if it happens among Jews who understand the need for Israel, e.g. Israelis, but it cannot be permitted in front of a diverse population in the U.S., because non-Jews often feel no affection for Israel and in fact may then call for a binational state or single democracy over there, as Truman did.