Understanding B’Tselem’s “Apartheid” Libel

Written by CAMERA’s Gilead Ini

If you’re looking for examples of spin in B’tselem’s latest anti-Israel document, in which the organization slings around the inflammatory terms “apartheid” and “Jewish supremacy,” there are plenty.

Consider, as one small example, the report’s charge that Israel has built “hundreds of communities for Jewish citizens – yet not a single one for Palestinian citizens.” The sentence was written to sound as damning as possible, which increases its shock value, but also left the authors in the uncomfortable position of having to immediately rebut their own falsehood. “The exception,” B’tselem admits in the very next sentence, “is a handful of towns and villages built to concentrate the Bedouin population.”

Image of Bedouin town
The town of Ararat an-Naqab, which Israel built for the Bedouin community.

Which is to say, Israel built “not a single” community for Palestinians, except for all the ones it did build: Rahat, Kuseife, Shaqib al-Salam, Ar’arat an-Naqab, Lakiya, Tel as-Sabi, Hura, Tirabin al-Sana, Mulada, Abu Krinat, Bir Hadaj, Qasr al-Sir, Makhul, Umm Batin. It’s Orwellian newspeak: None, but many. A lie, but with the truth appended as a throwaway-line.

This is far from the worst distortion in the document. The big lie is conveyed in the report’s title, “A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is apartheid.” But the semantic gamesmanship here is revealing. What should be straightforward, B’tselem makes a point of muddling. And so it goes throughout the report, with the result being a mess of factoids, fibs, and fraudulence meant to inflame and misinform, and which tells us more about the organization than about Israel.

The other side of the ledger – B’tselem’s comment about communities for Jews —is hardly better. It’s true that Israel has established hundreds of Jewish communities. But the reason for that isn’t nefarious, as B’tselem suggests. These towns and cities were needed to house immigrants numbering in the millions — Holocaust survivors, Middle Eastern Jews escaping persecution in Arab countries, Jews who wanted to live near their holy sites — absorbed by a country serving as a haven for Jews everywhere. It isn’t supremacy. It’s sanctuary.

B’tselem’s Anti-Zionism

This takes us to the report’s most brazen spin. B’tselem casts the very existence of a Jewish state open for Jewish immigration as evidence of “Jewish supremacy.” Israel’s mission of facilitating the entry of Jews, which is described in the country’s Declaration of Independence in the same sentence that promises equal social and political rights to all religions and races, is according to B’tselem one of the “methods the Israeli regime uses to advance Jewish supremacy.”

It reads like a bad joke. After the Holocaust, the tattered remains of the world’s Jewish population, reminded yet again of the awful repercussions of their powerlessness, and conscious of the fact that the world’s doors were closed to them (or worse) as genocide loomed, coalesced around the idea of a sovereign state where they could exist without persecution, and where Jews scattered across the world would be able to take refuge. For this — and here is the sad punchline — they’re accused of being Jewish supremacists. It would be no less absurd to insist that historically black colleges and universities, meant to provide what an oppressed community had been denied, were founded in the service of “black supremacy.”

The idea that Jews see themselves as superior, though, is an old antisemitic trope. It was recently repackaged by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, who wrote a book on Jewish Supremacism and a PhD thesis on “Zionism as a Form of Ethnic Supremacism,” and now again it’s invoked by B’tselem.

To be fair to B’tselem, the organization isn’t likely to be influenced by the likes of David Duke (even if it did once employ a Holocaust denier). Rather, its talk of “supremacy” seems meant, in part, to appropriate language from the American conversation about race, with the aim of attracting American progressives. If you hate white supremacy, B’tselem is trying to telegraph, you should hate Israel, too. It would be a vile and ahistorical charge even if it didn’t evoke an antisemitic canard.

But the repetition of “supremacy” isn’t only meant to appeal to American activists. The more important role it plays in the report is as a basis for B’tselem’s other accusation: the slur that Israel is an apartheid state. A complex geopolitical situation does not, of course, equate to apartheid. But a complex geopolitical based on racial “supremacy”? That sounds closer. B’tselem makes the link between its twin accusations explicit it its report, stating that “a regime that uses laws, practices and organized violence to cement the supremacy of one group over another is an apartheid regime.”

Citizenship Discriminates

If you look closely at the report, though, it becomes clear that most of it focuses on the mundane reality that non-citizens don’t have the same rights as citizens, just as non-citizens of any other country don’t have the same rights as citizens. Citizenship, by definition, discriminates.

In Israel, Jewish and Arab citizens can vote in national elections. Non-citizens can’t. Jewish and Arab citizens can freely enter their country. Non-citizens are regulated. Jewish and Arab citizens have Israeli passports. Non-citizens don’t. Not exactly foundations of apartheid, although B’tselem holds them up as such.

For a visualization of just how much of the report focuses on differences between citizens and non-citizens, consider the image below. The text in blue — a majority of the report — discusses non-citizens. (The image excludes the report’s introduction and conclusion, which reiterate and frame its arguments.)

As importantly, both the portion focusing on citizens and that focusing on non-citizens are marred by egregious distortions meant to support the document’s charges.

Before examining those, though, it may be helpful to understand who, exactly, are the citizens and non-citizens mentioned in the report. After all, in apartheid South Africa, a distinction between citizens and non-citizens was conjured from thin air, based entirely on race and a doctrine of oppression. Citizenship was categorically stripped from the Black majority by the white minority, an act of disenfranchisement meant to segregate and solidify the existing system of white supremacy.

The context in Israel is vastly different, and while unique, resembles the founding of India and Pakistan, where the land was partitioned to carve out a Muslim-majority state from the Hindu-majority one. There are also similarities to Yugoslavia, which split into several states, allowing different ethnic and religious groups to steer their own course. In today’s Slovenia, for example, ethnic Slovenes make up a majority of the population. The Serb minority there has the same rights as the majority. Serbs abroad who aren’t citizens of Slovenia, though, obviously do not share the rights that come with citizenship.

Similarly, Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are not citizens of Israel.

This isn’t a profound observation. They don’t live in Israel. They weren’t meant to become part of Israel in 1947 under a United Nations plan to partition British-ruled Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. They didn’t become part of Israel in 1948, when Egypt and Jordan conquered the two territories. And they didn’t become citizens in 1967, when Israel pushed out the Egyptian and Jordanian armies but didn’t annex the territories.

In the years after 1967, as Palestinian leaders refused to negotiate with Israel and instead vowed to destroy it, they didn’t become citizens. Nor did they become Israeli citizens in the 1990s, when Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed agreements designed to give Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza self-government and move the parties toward a resolution of their conflict.

Finally, they didn’t become citizens in the decades that followed, when Palestinian leaders engaged in negotiations with Israel but turned their back on multiple peace plans that would have created an independent Palestinian state in which West Bank and Gaza Palestinians would become citizens.

Israel never annexed the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The international community doesn’t want Israel to annex the territories. And the Palestinians don’t want Israel to annex them. Indeed, the prevailing idea in the international community today is similar to that drawn up by the United Nations 70 years ago: That the two national movements between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea would be best served by having two states: a Jewish state with a Jewish majority alongside a Palestinian state with an Arab majority. It wasn’t apartheid then. And although B’tselem casts the division between Israel and the territories as evidence of Jewish supremacy, it isn’t apartheid now.

B’tselem omits this background information from the report. “We do not provide a historical review or an evaluation of the Palestinian and Jewish national movements,” they say. This might seem surprising, since B’tselem does cover relevant history in other, less-consequential reports, and since the historical context would clearly help readers weigh the group’s indictment.

But it is a convenient omission. To fully inform readers, after all, would help them understand that the political situation in the Holy Land is a result of war, peace, and comprise, and not, as B’tselem insists, Israeli “designs” and “engineering” in the service of “supremacy.”

Falsehoods and Distortions

Again, much of B’tselem’s report simply repeats that, as non-citizens, West Bank and Gaza Palestinians don’t have citizenship rights in Israel while Israelis of all ethnicities and religions — any combination of Jew, Arab, Palestinian, Muslim, Christian, Druze, Bedouin, Circassian, Samaritan, Assyrian, and so on — do.

To support its accusation of apartheid, for example, B’tselem states that “the Gaza Strip is home to about two million Palestinians, also denied political rights” (emphasis added), as if Gazans — who live outside of Israel, who are not citizens of Israel, who had elections of their own in 2005, and who voted for the antisemitic terror organization Hamas — would somehow be expected to vote in Israel’s elections. They are “denied political rights” in the same way Israelis are denied political rights in the Kingdom of Jordan, or Canadians are denied political rights in the United States. Non-citizens aren’t citizens.

And what of the portion of the report that does focus on Israel’s Arab citizens (or as B’tselem chooses to call them, “Palestinian citizens of Israel”)? The organization charges that members of this population “do not enjoy the same rights as Jewish citizens by either law or practice – as detailed further in this paper.”

But it’s not detailed in the paper. Incredibly, B’tselem does not point to a single provision of any law that, apartheid-like, denies individual rights to Israel’s Arab citizens.

What they do instead, as they purport to describe “four major methods the Israeli regime uses to advance Jewish supremacy” is spin, distort, and manipulate readers.

Immigration

The first “method” B’tselem names is immigration. Jews “are entitled to immigrate to Israel at any time and receive Israeli citizenship,” the report laments, while “non-Jews have no right to legal status in Israeli-controlled areas. Granting status is at the almost complete discretion of officials.”

But this isn’t supremacy or apartheid. It doesn’t reflect any legal differentiation between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel. Immigration policy, after all, doesn’t deal with the rights of citizens but instead focuses on non-citizens abroad.

While the organization clearly wants readers to believe otherwise, preferential immigration policies are actually not uncommon in the world. As Alexander Yakobson and Amnon Rubinstein have explained, “It is a recognized European norm that a nation-state can maintain official ties with its ‘kin’ outside its borders and treat them preferentially in certain areas, including immigration and naturalization.” The authors name Ireland, Finland, Germany, Greece, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Croatia as other examples of countries that offer “privileged access to rights of residence and immigration for ethno-cultural kin groups.”

A notable difference between those countries and Israel is that none of their kin groups had recently endured the worst genocide in history, as the Jews did prior to Israeli independence, or mass expulsion from countries in which they had lived for centuries, as Jews did shortly afterward. And yet, with its comments on immigration, B’tselem wants to show us that Israel is guilty of “Jewish supremacy.” What it actually shows us is that B’tselem effectively denies Israel’s right to exist as a haven for Jews.

This is the grand distortion in B’tselem’s section on immigration. But as is the case throughout the report, the organization plays other linguistic games, too.

Conflating Citizens and Non-Citizens

The report claims that “Palestinian citizens of Israel or residents of East Jerusalem can easily relocate to the West Bank” but that “they risk their rights and status in doing so.”

This is false. With a sleight of hand meant to mislead, B’tselem lumps “residents of East Jerusalem” with “Palestinian citizens of Israel,” two distinct groups with two distinct sets of rights. The latter and larger group, as citizens of Israel, do not risk their “rights and status” if they relocate to the West Bank. Indeed, plenty of Arab Israelis live in predominantly Jewish parts of east Jerusalem, territory described in the report as being part of the West Bank, with no loss of rights of status.

And within this manipulation is another one. B’tselem tells readers that Arabs in east Jerusalem universally risk their rights by moving away; and elsewhere that they “do not hold Israeli passports”; and elsewhere that “they can vote in municipal elections but not for parliament”; and elsewhere that they “are defined not as citizens but as permanent residents of Israel” whose status “may be revoked at any time.” But this isn’t entirely true.

Arab residents of East Jerusalem, who held Jordanian citizenship when Israel reunified the city in 1967, were formally given the option to apply for Israeli citizenship. And despite pressure from within Arab society not to apply, a small but growing number, over 20,000, have indeed become citizens. They hold Israeli passports, they vote for parliament, and their status cannot be revoked.

In other words, B’tselem falsifies the situation of nearly two million Arab Israelis, mischaracterizes the status of tens of thousands of Jerusalemites, and neglects to tell readers about the path to citizenship for the Arab residents of Jerusalem. Why let inconvenient facts get in the way of accusations about Jewish supremacy and apartheid?

Jews, Arabs, and “Crowded Enclaves”

B’tselem also argues, in another of its four sections meant to prove Jewish supremacy, that Arab citizens of Israel are “corralled into small, crowded enclaves.” Here again, the organization dramatically misrepresents the status of Israel’s Arab citizens.

Image of meadow and town
Maghar, a town in northern Israel populated by Druze, Muslim, and Christian Arabs. By מרכז להב”ה מגאר Pikiwiki Israel, CC BY 2.5, Link

In Israel, the towns and cities with the highest population density are Jewish. Seven Israeli cities, for example, have a population density of over 10,000/km2. Not one is Arab.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are 16 towns with over 5000 residents that have a population density of less than 1000/km2. Five of them are Arab. Even more striking is the distribution of the next group of low-density communities – those with a population density above 1000/km2 but below 2000/km2. Of these 41 locales, a vast majority, 29, are Arab. Overall, according to a recent study, the average population density of Jewish towns and cities in Israel is double that of Arab communities.

There are, of course, Arabs who live in densely packed areas. But B’tselem tells its audience something entirely different: that Israel’s Arabs, in general, are “corralled” into crowded enclaves. It is a lie. Because, again, the truth doesn’t do much to support the organization’s inflammatory thesis.

Admissions Committees

The section about “crowded enclaves” again misrepresents when claiming that an Israeli law allows small towns to “reject Palestinian applicants on grounds of ‘cultural incompatibility,’” which “effectively prevents Palestinian citizens from living in communities designated for Jews.”

Contrary to B’tselem’s insinuation, the admissions committee law, which applies only to communities on Israel’s periphery with 400 or fewer residents, does not allow towns to reject Arab applicants as Palestinian and ergo “culturally incompatible.” On the contrary, it explicitly forbids committees from considering “race, religion, gender, nationality, disability, personal status, age, parenthood, sexual orientation, country of origin, political-party opinion or affiliation.” B’tselem unsurprisingly conceals this fact.

The law is nonetheless controversial. What’s to stop an admissions committee from rejecting a Palestinian — or a Mizrahi Jew, homosexual, or Likud supporter — on the basis of a protected characteristic while claiming some other reason for the rejection?

The law may indeed be subject to abuse. As in other countries, discrimination does exist in Israel. But there is legal precedent on the side of Arabs and others who might be wrongfully rejected. Israel’s Supreme Court in 2011 ruled in favor of an Arab family whose application for residency was rejected by the town of Rakefet’s admissions committee, and required the town to accommodate the family. B’tselem unsurprisingly conceals this fact, too.

Controversial or not, a law that explicitly bars discrimination based on race, ethnicity and religion, and whose anti-discrimination provisions are enforced by the Supreme Court, is not proof of “apartheid.” And it does not, as B’tselem claims, “effectively prevent” Palestinians from living in small towns. As the case of Rakefet underscores, discrimination might exist, but it is also illegal, and the prohibition is enforced by Israeli courts.

And More…

The report is peppered with other distortions.

* B’tselem insists, for example, that “the West bank has been annexed in practice.” The phrase is legally meaningless and, worse yet, absurd. Israel has not claimed sovereignty over the West Bank. On the contrary, has attempted in multiple rounds of peace talks since 2000 to facilitate an Israeli withdrawal from, and Palestinian sovereignty over, most of the territory. The peace and statehood offers are another inconvenient fact concealed by B’tselem.

* Speaking about Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip, B’tselem states that Israel’s “regime” governs “the entire area and the people living in it” — a particularly strange thing to say about the Gaza Strip, which in actuality is governed by Hamas, an internationally designated terror group sworn to Israel’s destruction.

* B’tselem persists, claiming that Israel continues to control “nearly every aspect of life in Gaza” from outside. Again, it does not.  As two legal experts noted in a 2010 paper,

Israel does not and cannot appoint or dismiss local Gazan governing officials. Indeed, Israel strongly opposes the current Hamas regime in Gaza. Israel does not administer government services in Gaza. It does not have police in Gaza. It does not levy taxes in Gaza. It does not provide social services in Gaza. It has no courts in Gaza. It operates no schools in Gaza. It establishes no governing structures in Gaza and appoints no officials. Were Israel to issue orders to the government or population of Gaza, one can safely assume such orders would be ignored.

By contrast, the Palestinian Authority, first under Fatah, and then under Hamas, is fully able to exercise its authority in the Gaza Strip. Hamas has police forces, courts, and jails. It operates schools, electronic media and social services. It regulates business activities and establishes banks and maintains land registries. It levies taxes. It controls its own borders. It even imposes a dress code. In sum, it has a functioning and fully independent local civil government, buttressed by armed forces.

* Elsewhere, B’tselem excludes Gaza from its claim of Israeli control, stating that “Jewish citizens live as though the entire area were a single space (excluding the Gaza Strip).” And yet this, too, is false. Jewish Israelis are barred from entering Palestinian-ruled sections of the West Bank, let alone buying a home in West Bank cities like Jenin, Ramallah, or Nablus.

* B’tselem states that “all settlements are closed military zones that Palestinians are forbidden from entering without a permit,” and in its next sentence, that “Israel has established more than 280 settlements in the West Bank (East Jerusalem included).” But per B’tselem’s own definitions in the report, this is doubly false. What B’tselem describes as settlements in east Jerusalem are not, in fact, closed military zones. And settlements in general are not closed to those B’tselem describes as Palestinians citizens of Israel.

* B’tselem insists that “Israel denies Palestinians political rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of association.” It also states that “Palestinians in the Occupied Territories … are not allowed to demonstrate.” In fact, Israeli Jews and Arabs alike share the same rights to free speech and free association. And Israel neither grants nor denies such rights to the vast majority of Palestinians in the territories, who answer to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Redefining Apartheid to Remove the Jewish State

Apartheid is clearly defined in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court as meaning inhumane acts — atrocities like murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, illegal imprisonment, torture, and rape — that are committed in order to maintain a regime of systematic oppression and domination “by one racial group over any other racial group.”

The B’tselem report does not, and cannot, document any such thing. Instead, the organization points to Israel’s role as a refuge for Jews, its immigration policy, the large number of towns built to house Jewish immigrants, the (generally low) population density of Arab towns, the fact that Israel hasn’t annexed the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the fact that the residents of these territories aren’t treated as citizens, the provisions of an interim peace agreement signed by Israel and the Palestinians, and a basket of distortions and outright falsehoods, pretending that these amount to supremacy and apartheid. (B’tselem goes so far as to protest that the separation between Israel and the West Bank and Gaza “thwarts … resistance” — a term that in practice has meant suicide bombing targeting Jewish civilians.)

It is absurd and libelous.

Even B’tselem inadvertently admits that its report fails to meet the definition of apartheid. While the Rome Statute refers to crimes to further oppression “by one racial group over any other racial group,” B’tselem, in a passage admitting fundamental differences between apartheid South Africa and the Jewish state, says race isn’t involved: “The division in South Africa was based on race and skin color, while in Israel it is based on nationality and ethnicity,” the organization states.

As noted above, most of the B’tselem report indeed refers to divisions based on nationality. This isn’t apartheid. It is the nature of citizenship.

And as also noted above, Israel doesn’t divide based on ethnicity. It is, rather, a multi-ethnic country in which all citizens have the same individual rights. Arabs vote in Israel’s election. They are represented in its parliament, have been government ministers, represent the country as diplomats. They are Supreme Court justices. They serve in the Israeli army and hold senior positions. They work as doctors side-by-side with Jews, earn college degrees alongside Jews, recreate alongside Jews, and live alongside Jews.

Israel can be a messy place geopolitically. Due to a history of rejection by its neighbors and wars driven by that rejection, the country’s borders haven’t been finalized. And in the absence of finalized borders, it has built settlements in the West Bank. But it has also repeatedly offered to dismantle settlements, withdraw from almost all of the West Bank, and draw borders that separate it and a Palestinian state.

Not that B’tselem seems particularly concerned with a Palestinian state. As underscored by its protest over Israel’s immigration policy and its suggestion that this reflects “Jewish supremacy,” the organization has effectively come out as an opponent of a Jewish state. The report’s title might echo David Duke’s far-right rhetoric about “Jewish supremacism,” but the content is more a revival of a propaganda campaign from the other political extreme — the Soviet campaign to cast Zionism as racism.

The problem with B’tselem’s report, then, isn’t only the flagrant misinformation. (Unfortunately, that’s not a new phenomenon. To skew public opinion, the organization has staged footage, and has repeatedly mischaracterized Palestinians killed while attacking Israel, or killed by other Palestinians, as noncombatants killed by Israel.) It is also the immorality of the organization’s cause, which has shifted from advocating for human rights to undermining the legitimacy of the Jewish state by treating Zionism as racism.

American civil rights hero Bayard Rustin has explained that “Zionism is not racism, but the legitimate expression of the Jewish people’s self determination.” Those who want to protect that self-determination must forcefully reject B’tselem’s new focus.

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