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The right of return and the limits of the anti-Apartheid framework

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Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) held their annual conference on November 2-4 in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan. Students from campuses throughout the U.S. and Canada participated in a tremendous weekend of organizing workshops, organizational development, political education and cultural expression. Student activists and others frequently engaged apartheid as both a description of Israeli policy against Palestinians and a node for organizing solidarity and liberation. Increased scholarly and activist use shows a radicalization of discourse. Yet this important development is not itself inherently positive as it can – though does not have to – decenter Palestinian voices from the Palestinian liberation narrative and efforts by focusing on the territory of Palestine at the expense of the geography of Palestinians.*

Activists and analysts began using apartheid as a framework to engage Zionism with some regularity in the 1970s. The early critiques of Israel’s budding alliance with Apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia gave way to critiques of Israel as an apartheid state itself. Many of these like Nathan Weinstock’s “The Impact of Zionist Colonization on Palestinian Arab Society before 1948” (Journal of Palestine Studies, 1973) and Israel Shahak’s “Israelis for Human Rights” (Journal of Palestine Studies, 1975) described Zionism’s apartheid practices in all territories it controlled and not just the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, as did Uri Davis in his 1987 book Israel: An Apartheid State. The New York Times in 1988 covered the liberal Zionist group Shalom Achshav’s (Peace Now) demonstration against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip by noting banners demanding “Stop Israeli Apartheid Now!” and also ran an ad accusing the Jewish National Fund of “enforc[ing] apartheid.” This radicalization—like most critical political economic examinations of Israeli policy—largely exited liberal discourse with the 1991 Madrid Conference and the ensuing Oslo process, beginning again in earnest only after the April 2002 Operation Defensive Shield during the al-Aqsa Intifada (for example critiques of Israeli arms exports disappeared entirely compared to several books and numerous popular and academic articles in the 1970s and 1980s). The Journal of Palestine Studies and a few other sources hosted a modestly increased use, especially after Israel’s 1989 imposition of closure policies and the 1994 end of South African apartheid.

Palestinians too deployed the framework but it was Israeli and European (including the settler states) leftists who discussed Israeli apartheid most frequently in the earlier period. Much of the Palestinian political leadership and critical research from 1967 until the 1990s came from refugees—those not in the West Bank and Gaza refugee camps nor the ‘present absentees’ with Israeli citizenship, but those who did not themselves live under Israeli apartheid. This points to both similarities and differences between Zionism in Palestine and other settler societies noted for establishing apartheid regimes.

The Northern Rhodesia (post-settler rule, Zambia), Southern Rhodesia (later Rhodesia, post settler-rule, Zimbabwe), German South-West Africa (post-settler rule, Namibia) and Apartheid South Africa settler states all engaged in removals of the indigenous populations. Northern Rhodesia, Rhodesia and South Africa tended to displace indigenous populations—the survivors of the settler invasion at any rate—to areas where they remained under settler apartheid regimes (relatively briefly and not nearly to the same extant in the case of Northern Rhodesia where the settlers had relatively marginal power vis-à-vis both the metropole and indigenous population). The Afrikaner ethnic cleansing of the Western Cape and other areas mostly did not drive the indigenous population from the area where the settler state eventually claimed sovereignty. The Zionist ethnic cleansing of Palestine did. German South-West African settlers drove out entirely significant portions of the indigenous population during the settlers’ 1904-07 genocide against Herero and Nama people. While most Hereros today remain in Namibia, a substantial population lives in Botswana where survivors of the genocide resettled after having been driven out (Hereros too have long discussed return, which some have done).

In this respect German South-West Africa more closely resembled Israel than the other settler states noted above for, like Israel, apartheid was imposed only over the population not killed over driven out.** However, unlike that case, most Palestinians do not live where Israel exercises state sovereignty (using Weber’s description of claiming a monopoly on the exercise of ‘legitimate’ violence). Rather, most live in a diaspora scattered across the globe with the majority concentrated in refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. It is these removed Palestinians—the majority of all Palestinians—that are most at risk of marginalization in apartheid discourse though even those refugees living under Israeli apartheid too run some risk of being pushed aside.

While much international engagement on Palestinian liberation in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s included refugee discourse, the 1990s witnessed a move to exclude refugees.*** This began with the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority and the arrival of many PLO leaders in the West Bank and Gaza after 1994 (though the shifting geographic discourse likely started earlier with the Intifada and the PLO’s 1988 Algiers Declaration announcing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with Jerusalem as its capital). The Palestinian liberation narrative was now centered—in media, liberal and even much radical coverage—in historic Palestine. Critiques of Israeli policy became ever more focused there, effectively leaving Palestinian refugees on the outside looking in.

This shift can be understood as the refocus from the political geography of Palestinians to the political geography of Palestine. The overwhelming majority of discourse around Israeli apartheid does so within the political geography of Palestine, irrespective of the political geography of Palestinians. That naming Israeli apartheid for what it is fits within radical discussion and organizing does not mean that it necessarily respects Palestinian narratives and voices. Indeed, it can push aside refugee narratives even within Palestine. Palestinian refugees in West Bank and Gaza Strip camps as well as ‘present absentees’ with Israeli citizenship are fixed as subjects to an apartheid regime regardless of their refugee status. Thus, apartheid is a true but partial engagement of their encounter with Zionism. Ending apartheid does not inherently mean right of return.

Israeli practices apartheid, true, but to an even larger degree it practices removal. Between 1967-1994 Israel revoked the residency status of at least 140,000 Palestinians from the West Bank and an unknown number from the Gaza Strip. This amounted to around 10% of the West Bank’s 1994 population. Israel too revoked residency for another 13,115 Palestinians with Jerusalem status, the overwhelming majority of whom had all residency status revoked with the remainder being expelled to the West Bank or Gaza Strip. These revocations are not part of an apartheid regime that seeks separation and domination. They are part of what Patrick Wolfe calls settler colonialism’s “logic of elimination.” Apartheid is just one of the ways Zionism, a specific settler colonial effort, organizes power along with military occupation and others. These more recent expulsions should be counted alongside the refugees expelled during the 1947-49 Nakba—the “ethnic cleansing of Palestine,” and the 1967 Naksa when many tens of thousands of more were driven from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. None of these people are subjects of Israeli apartheid (This is also a main flaw in the various ethnocracy/ethnic democracy examinations which look at how majoritarian states organize power to systematically dominate minority populations. Israel holds the actual majority outside the borders at gunpoint; which is to say that these critiques use a different definition of the minority population—Palestinians including refugees—than the population itself uses.).

Israel began imposing closure policies (compared to South Africa’s Pass Laws) in 1989 during the Intifada, escalated them in 1991, again in 1993, and began a general closure in 2001 during the Al-Aqsa Intifada. Israel’s closure policies and attendant checkpoint regime, along with other policies directed at Palestinians residing in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, led to a dramatic escalation in naming Israeli policies apartheid though this was, and to a significant extent remains, predominantly discussed with regards to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Mainstream and liberal discourse also began tentatively using the term, often to point out differences between Israel and South Africa (almost always the only apartheid state offered for comparison) or to note that Israel was in danger of becoming an apartheid state.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s 2006 book Palestine: Peace not Apartheid marked this radicalization of public discourse. Carter, like most making the analogy, left the refugees at arm’s length. Conservative columnist Shmuel Rosner, then with Haaretz, in his critical response to Carter’s analogy concedes that, “Arguing about Apartheid is pointless. There is enough material evidence to prove that apartheid exists in the occupied territories in one form or another. If you argue about the use of this word, you lose.” Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak in 2010 stated “As long as in this territory west of the Jordan river there is only one political entity called Israel it is going to be either non-Jewish, or non-democratic. If this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state.” Rosner and Barak’s partial approval of the term is entirely unnecessary to validate it. It does point however, to the mainstreaming once again of apartheid discourse and its limited relationship with Palestinian refugees.

Radical apartheid discourse often shares this same problem. The new documentary Roadmap to Apartheid is one example. The film, a useful, informative and compelling comparison between the South African and Israeli apartheid states, mentions only briefly the 1947-49 Nakba and does not broach right of return of refugees as part of ending apartheid nor the experience of Palestinian refugees no matter where located. All the apartheid discussion that I heard directly or heard about at the SJP national conference too mostly neglected refugees (My impressions there perhaps reflect my selection of workshops rather than the general discussion. Only one workshop description included refugees.). This was true as well about the recent Independent Jewish Voices annual gathering in Toronto (again reflecting only my impressions of a selection of sessions). The new book Beyond Occupation: Apartheid, Colonialism and International Law in the Occupied Palestinian Territories edited by Virginia Tilley (Pluto, 2012) is another addition. It’s a thorough breakdown of how Israel practices apartheid but most Palestinians are largely left out in the cold.

Organizing against Israeli apartheid is of course not mutually exclusive with organizing for right of return of refugees. Gayatri Spivak famously asked, “Can the subaltern speak?” This we can read next to Edward Said’s call for “permission to narrate” and ask, “Can the superordinate listen?” If the superordinate can listen then we find that Palestinian narration of Israeli apartheid works alongside the Nakba and that anti-apartheid work must be part of realizing the right of return. The 2005 Palestinian civil society call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) is a key example. The call cites global anti-apartheid efforts against South Africa while centralizing Palestinian refugees as both shapers of the call and its eventual beneficiaries. The 2001 book The New Intifada: Resisting Israel’s Apartheid edited by Roane Carey centers refugees and the right of return as one of four sections. Other examples abound.

Yet the anti-apartheid efforts that are also, in effect if not intent, anti-refugee are more common than those that fight against apartheid and for right of return. The discursive radicalization can be a great step towards justice but only if we do not decenter Palestinian voices from Palestinian liberation. Anti-apartheid work must intentionally and centrally engage Palestinian refugees no matter where located not or not only vis-à-vis apartheid, but vis-à-vis removal (an aspect of settler colonialism). As ever it is Palestinian activists who can best guide these efforts. The Naksa and Nakba Day direct actions, the reestablishment of Iqrith, the BDS call and the recent refugee protests in Beirut all offer the chance to focus once again on the political geography of Palestinians instead of the political geography of Palestine through Palestinian refugee efforts to reconcile and reunite these geographies. Here anti-apartheid work can be appropriately conducted and valued as just one facet of Palestinian liberation.


* Another limit discussed by numerous others is that ending apartheid regimes doesn’t necessarily mean broad liberation (as with the South Africa’s and the Palestinian Authority’s neoliberal economic regimes) or even ending racism (as with the persistence of systemic white supremacy decades after Jim Crow in the U.S.).

** Though German South-West African settlers, unlike Zionists, never comprised anywhere near a majority in the territory they controlled. It was a minority apartheid regime rather than Israel’s majoritarian apartheid system.

*** If for no other reason than the reporters covering and activists organizing around the topic engaged (or didn’t) the Palestinian leadership and activists where they were based or active in Damascus, Beirut, Jordan and Tunis.

Jimmy Johnson
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Jimmy Johnson lives in Detroit with his books and bad habits. Get at him @aus3rn4me.

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13 Responses

  1. pabelmont
    pabelmont on December 10, 2012, 4:00 pm

    This is certainly a complex issue if so considered.

    However, another way to consider it is that Israel was established [1] somewhat with the support of various nations which felt guilt or sorrow after the Holocaust (or felt Biblical obligations) [2] by violence as with most invader states [3] after the UN had come into existence and ruled out the settlement of international disputes by warfare and [4] a brief moment before the 4 Geneva Conventions restated the laws of war, but surely while these restatements were under active post-WWII consideration. There was no suggestion in UNGA 181 that anyone in Mandatory Palestine might be expelled, quite the contrary. Apart from UNGA 181, there was no recent international nod (whetehr widespread or narrow) toward any sort of Jewish rights in Palestine save the Mandate itself, which mentioned a Jewish Home and immigration rights, but did not mention a Jewish State.

    Therefore Israel’s self-assertive terrorist expulsion of Britain and terrorist/warfare expulsion of the Palestinians who became the exiles of 1948, had no before-the-fact international support, indeed quite the contrary, and the UNGA 194 (11 Dec 1948) suggesting a right of return for peaceable-minded exiles showed that permanent exile was far from their minds. (It may be supposed that UNGA 194 imagined that there would be a small Jewish majority in pre-1967 Israel to be bolstered by Jewish immigration.)

    Therefore Israel’s refusal to readmit the exiles of 1948 is the preeminent act of apartheid — taking from a large majority of the Palestinians of pre-1967 Israel their homeland, their private lands, their homes, their neighbors and neighborhoods and small societies, and, importantly in a state said by the Mandate to be essentially ready for self governance, their political rights such as the right to vote.

    Taking up only this last point, Israel’s so-called democracy was seriously flawed from the beginning by vote-apartheid whereby the exiles of 1948 (and as late as 1950 by some accounts) were not to be allowed to vote or run for office.

    When Israelis say they wanted a Jewish state, they are undoubtedly correct. Whether they needed it is not a question I can answer. But the international community never indicated their opinion that Israel had a right to expel and deny readmittance to the 750,000 original exiles of 1948, and, indeed, by UNGA 194 ( 11 Dec 1948) — as also by adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (10 Dec 1948) convincingly showed that they did not.

    • Jimmy Johnson
      Jimmy Johnson on December 12, 2012, 12:40 am

      You’re arguing technocratic terminology. The article is not about that. The article is about discourse.

  2. kalithea
    kalithea on December 10, 2012, 11:31 pm

    I agree that the refugees in the Diaspora have been completely left out of the discussion and are rarely if ever mentioned, and this is very sad because they’re the victims of a serious crime, ethnic cleansing, and experienced a grave loss of land, home and in many cases family. I hope to see more reporting on the refugees, their daily struggle, effects of being stateless and the economic hardships they suffer as refugees. We must bring the refugees out of anonymity and put them at the centre of this struggle if they are to see any justice whatsoever. PLEEEEEEASE!

  3. gingershot
    gingershot on December 11, 2012, 12:42 am

    When is the Palestinian diaspora going to be able to vote? – hopefully in the next elections.

    The top role of every Palestinian Quisling in recent years is to pretend the Diaspora doesn’t exist or anything but a symbolic or token Right of Return

  4. Eva Smagacz
    Eva Smagacz on December 11, 2012, 2:52 am

    Thank you. A very important point.

  5. Hostage
    Hostage on December 11, 2012, 3:35 am

    I don’t see why radical apartheid discourse can’t include the refugees. After all, the etymology and meaning of the term apartheid literally is “separateness,” from Dutch apart “separate” (from French àpart; see apart) + suffix -heid, cognate of English -hood, as in separate neighborhood.

    Israel’s violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the neighboring states to warehouse its unwanted minority population and the use of its laws, snipers, and minefields to keep those particular Palestinian refugees excluded from their country of origin is a graphic example of Grand Apartheid.

    The example of German South West Africa is not as apt a comparison as the one in the Union of South Africa. The situation in Israel today exactly parallels the situation when the Union of South Africa imposed a policy of apartheid and Bantustans within its own territory and in the neighboring occupied State of South West Africa/Namibia.

    The UN and its subsidiary organs still consider the right of those refugees to return to be a continuing legal obligation for Israel under the minority protection plan contained in resolution 181(II).

    • Jimmy Johnson
      Jimmy Johnson on December 12, 2012, 12:38 am

      Where do I say that anti-apartheid shouldn’t be part of liberation discourse? I say only that for it to be meaningful, it must intentionally engage with refugee repatriation and discourse to shape what ‘anti-apartheid’ means. I support 100% using anti-apartheid discourse but only if refugee narratives and voices are central.

  6. HHM
    HHM on December 11, 2012, 1:31 pm

    We strongly advocate the right of return for Palestinian refugees and their families in our community, so much so, that the so-called “progressive left” J-Street rabbi has started distributing what we refer to as the “Jewish refugees from Arab Lands myth” in a shameless effort to obstruct this advocacy. Here are some links to help others expose this sham:

    Iraqi Jews reject ‘cynical manipulation’ of their history by Israel, Zionists

    Israeli hasbara effort– ‘Justice for Jewish refugees from Arab countries’– gets pushback from Baghdadi Jews

    The Zionist Destruction of the Iraqi Jewish Community
    When the Zionist Underground Planted Bombs Outside Baghdad’s Jewish Cafes and Synagogues

    Israel’s Refugee Pawns

    Naeim Giladi, World Organization of Jews from Islamic Countries, interview,

  7. Terri Ginsberg
    Terri Ginsberg on December 11, 2012, 6:21 pm

    Indeed the U.N. definition of “apartheid” includes “ethnic cleansing” (Johnson’s /Wolfe’s “logic of elimination”). With this in mind, ending Israeli apartheid does in fact mean ending the conditions, including everything from Zionism to transnationalism, which produce Palestinian exile and diaspora and encourage indifference to the plight of refugees and opposition to their return.

    It should here be noted here that almost all Palestinians are refugees, most of them having been ethnically cleansed, i.e., driven out of their homes, towns and villages during the Nakba that Johnson in fact acknowledges. Many of these 1948 refugees and their progeny live in Israel “proper”; nearly 20% of the Israeli population are Palestinians holding Israeli passports. That is no small number. Johnson overlooks this fact, as he positions the “real” refugees beyond Israeli borders, thus implicitly affirming those borders despite their illegitimacy, in turn arbitrarily dividing the refugees under occupation or in diaspora (who Johnson believes are not subjects of apartheid) from those living inside Israel (who he understands are). Johnson does all of this, confusedly, despite articulating what seems an opposite perspective in his final paragraphs.

    In the larger, human geographical context that Johnson rightly insists must be considered if Palestinian refugees are to attain genuine justice, Palestinians are in fact subject to apartheid on an international scale. While undeniably conditioned by the ethnic cleansing that is the core of Zionist ideology, this “Grand Apartheid” (as Hostage calls it in her comment above) should not be disavowed with respect to any Palestinian, not least those residing in Palestine/Israel, a region that encompasses not only Israel “proper” but the OPTs, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. It is an academic (and rather superficial) argument to claim that Palestinians in the OPTs are not subject to apartheid because they are not a minority subject to domination but instead a majority living under the gun (so, in fact, were Blacks living in South African apartheid Bantustans), or that the movement of those same Palestinians has more often been subject to closure, especially since Oslo, than limited restriction (after all, undocumented Palestinian labor from the OPTs, like undocumented Mexican labor in the US, remains a significant part of the Israeli economy, despite and perhaps because of official attempts to curtail it; the multiple problems of Israeli guest-worker programs involving African and East Asian migrants who were intended to supplant Palestinian workers have ironically made Palestinian labor more rather than less desirable to Israels).

    Palestinians living outside Palestine/Israel are also subject to varied degrees of apartheid, for prime example those confined to refugee camps in Lebanon, who have also suffered ethnic cleansing in those particular conditions (e.g., Sabra and Shatila). One might also consider the police surveillance and informal scrutiny of Palestinians residing in Western countries an albeit unofficial form of apartheid, in that it categorically separates Palestinians from others in whose midst they are living even though its application is covert and goes generally unrecognized.

    Moreover, insofar as all Palestinians living outside Palestine/Israel are subject to restrictions on their return home, they are all subject to Israeli apartheid. Saying this does not trivialize the concept of apartheid, as some critics might argue, but rather clarifies the extent of its applicability by Israel and the Zionist project that supports Israeli hegemony on global scale.

    In short, the academic separation of “apartheid” and “ethnic cleansing” is an intellectual error. While the two concepts are distinct, they are irrevocably interrelated in the Palestinian-Israeli situation and must be theorized together if a genuine and lasting peace is to be reached.

    • Jimmy Johnson
      Jimmy Johnson on December 12, 2012, 12:36 am

      @Terri Ginsburg – Your argument doesn’t engage anything I wrote in a meaningful way and misrepresents parts what I wrote. Are you arguing that Palestinian refugees – no matter where located – are meaningfully included in activist or public discourse? Are you arguing that there has not been a discursive shift from the political geography of Palestinians to the political geography of Palestine? Are you arguing that in most anti-apartheid discourse that Palestinian refugees are included? If you’re not arguing any of these points then whatever details you want to assert about the UN definition of apartheid are irrelevant to the article which is about anti-apartheid discourse, not the UN convention or other technocratic regimes (which are hardly liberatory). Further, apartheid is just one way that settler colonialism organizes power and as such, ending apartheid does not inherently mean reenfranchisement. Look at states which technically ended apartheid regimes (South Africa, US, Zimbabwe, etc.) but where disenfranchisement and dispossession of those targeted by said regimes substantively continues.

      • gamal
        gamal on December 12, 2012, 8:42 pm

        “Look at states which technically ended apartheid regimes (South Africa, US, Zimbabwe, etc.) but where disenfranchisement and dispossession of those targeted by said regimes substantively continues.”

        exactly and look at the treatment of Mugabe, after the British agreed to fund (Lancaster house agreement) a land redistribution program and then reneged, sanctions and demonization, when Zimbabawe attempted to address the legacy of dispossession, Mugabe deserves the mantle of secular saint far more than Mandela and yet in the west he is a stock Demon and African Kleptocrat, his democratically elected government is a dictatorship, say the worshipers of the house of Saud and the Jordanian Hashemites.

  8. kalithea
    kalithea on December 11, 2012, 6:44 pm

    Apartheid is a crime of discrimination i.e. racism whereby one group is favored over another on many legal and societal levels. Israel’s right of return is the ultimate form of discrimination and a tool of the Apartheid system because Jews who never even lived in Israel i.e. Palestine are encouraged and supported in their immigration to Israel, while Palestinians and the offspring of Palestinians who lived in Palestine for years and who were the victims of an outrageous crime, ethnic cleansing, are forbidden from returning. This racist law allows for Israelis to maintain a majority and unfair advantage from whence all other discriminatory laws and forms of oppression against Palestinians emanate.

  9. jack dresser
    jack dresser on December 11, 2012, 6:47 pm

    In an interview by Philp Weiss with Jonathan Cook, Cook makes little distinction between pre- and post-1967 (, explaining that Israel simply repositioned its structure of martial law from the “present absentee” population to the new acquisitions. We call our own organization “Al-Nakba Awareness Project” ( for precisely that reason, to contextualize the present – with which Americans are much more aware – into its historical origins and the international laws that have long been violated, ignored and unenforced, especially the right of return against which Israeli hasbara and desperate creation of “facts on the ground” have been directed. But I would like to see the non-collaborating Palestinian diaspora become much more assertive.

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