B’Tselem, apartheid, and correcting the ethical grammar on Israel/Palestine

B’Tselem, apartheid, and correcting the ethical grammar on Israel/Palestine January 25, 2021

B’Tselem’s new report describing all of Israel and the Palestinian Occupied Territories as a single ‘apartheid’ regime will have widespread and long-term implications. Not only does it change the acceptable vocabulary on Israel/Palestine, it also alters the ethical grammar which has created and sustained an injustice now in its eighth decade. How we speak and what we can say will shape the future politics of this conflict and change the ethical framework through which solutions are found and implemented. In short, language matters.

The use of the word ‘apartheid’ will challenge Jewish intuitional thinking around the world (whether those institutions publically acknowledged it or not) and cause dilemmas across the entire spectrum of Zionist support (Jewish and non-Jewish) from hawks to liberals to progressives.

It also has the potential to shift global media reporting on Israel; undermine the adoption of the contentious IHRA definition of antisemitism; and give the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) a welcome boost of legitimacy.

As a side note, let me direct you to a new 27-page list of global articles and resources on why the IHRA definition of antisemitism is so problematic and unhelpful. It’s been compiled by Lara Friedman at the Foundation for Middle East Peace and, along with B’Tselem’s report, ought to stop the adoption of the IHRA dead in its divisive tracks. The Union of Jewish Students in the UK, along with university vice chancellors and the Secretary of State for Education, would do well to flick through it.

Correcting our ethical grammar

What B’Tselem has done is recognise the power of language and its importance in creating the moral universe in which we live.

Here’s the key sentence, laden with ethically explosive implications:

“In the entire area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, the Israeli regime implements laws, practices and state violence designed to cement the supremacy of one group – Jews – over another – Palestinians.”

In the NGO’s view, it’s time to “call this by its proper name” under international law: Apartheid.

No longer is the NGO, which began its work in 1989, prepared to differentiate between Israel and the Occupied Territories and so perpetuate a political framing that says ‘occupation is wrong’ but Israel is fundamentally ‘good’. By changing its language and correcting our ethical grammar, B’Tselem removes Israel from the family of respectable, freedom-loving democracies.

The change in words and ethical grammar means Israel can no longer present itself as having ‘temporary security issues’ caused by ‘land disputes’. The new grammar makes clear that we are looking at long-term institutional immorality; human rights abuses caused by a state’s constitution; and on-going, legalised discrimination founded on the denial of another people’s national self-determination.

There’s no doubt that B’Tselem understood the global ramifications and the gravity of its new language and grammar. Its director, Hagai El Ad, in a Guardian opinion piece, made clear that the objectives of the change in language are intended to help everyone to confront the truth for the sake of genuine reconciliation:

“Calling things by their proper name – apartheid – is not a moment of despair: rather, it is a moment of moral clarity, a step on a long walk inspired by hope. See the reality for what it is, name it without flinching – and help bring about the realisation of a just future.”

But surely, this is nothing new?

Of course B’Tselem has hardly said anything especially novel or ground-breaking in its statement. While welcoming B’Tselem’s move, the Palestinian human rights group Al Haq, which was founded in 1979, ten years before B’Tselem, reminds us that Palestinians have been submitting evidence to global forums, including the United Nations, about Israeli apartheid for more than ten years.

And in March 2017, the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) issued its report on Israeli Practices towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid. Its conclusions were well-founded and well-argued. Although that did not stop the subsequent uproar from the Trump and Netanyahu administrations, on the day of its publication.

It may seem galling, even racist, that only when Jews say something about Palestinian oppression does it appear to count for anything. Something similar took place last summer when the American political commentator and favourite of left wing American Zionists, Peter Beinart, published his article renouncing his support for the two-state solution and arguing for some form of single democratic state. Again, it wasn’t novel. But it was Peter Beinart. And that matters, just as it matters when B’Tselem use the word ‘apartheid’.

When Jews change their minds

Dismissing the significance of Jewish/Israeli voices reaching long held Palestinian conclusions, is to miss the reason why the language and grammar of Israel/Palestine is the way it is in the first place.

Since 1948, there’s been acceptance in the West of the Israeli narrative of national Jewish liberation and rebirth, made all the more necessary following the murder of a third of the global Jewish population during the Holocaust. The Jewish State, with its built-in bias towards its Jewish citizens, is seen as a valid, righteous, and essential response to Jewish and world history. This has become the grammar and the language we use to understand the conflict with the Palestinians. Indeed, the very word ‘conflict’ is itself an expression of that ethical grammar which distorts and suppresses additional and counter narratives.

So when Jews, or Jewish/Israeli organisations of significance, step up and challenge the grammar and the narrative, it matters because it reshapes the ethical universe which Jewish dominated thinking created in the first place. Whether it’s fair or not, Beinart and B’Tselem will play an out-sized role in creating long-term change because a Jewish constructed grammar, which was never fit for purpose, is best dismantled by Jews themselves.

The Jewish response in the UK

 The Board of Deputies of British Jews, the most significant player in Jewish affairs in the UK, has said nothing about B’Tselem’s new report. That’s hardly surprising. Drawing attention to it will not help it maintain its policing of permissible comment on Israel/Palestine. Recently, the Board has been focusing its attention on lobbying MPs and the UK government on the genocide being committed against the Muslim Uyghurs in China. This is to be greatly welcomed. It’s exactly the kind of work the Board should be doing.

However, it also shows the limits of the Board’s political and moral empathy. You don’t have to equate the Palestinians to the Uyghurs, or either group to what happened to Jews in the Holocaust to recognise that very serious crimes are being committed here and now, based on ethnic/religious/national discrimination, sanctioned and carried out in the name of the Jewish State of Israel. But when it comes to Israel/Palestine, the Board prefers (at best) to look the other way.

B’Tselem’s report, which you can be sure has been closely studied by the Board’s officers and elected members, presents a legitimate Jewish/Israeli led challenge to the presentation of Israel as righteous victims forever battling against irrational hatred. Last year’s fence-sitting on the threat of West Bank annexation was embarrassing to observe and a new low in the Board’s history. Now it has an even greater challenge to its already fragile moral authority. How the Board attempts to push back on political accusations of Israeli apartheid will be interesting to watch.  For now, it’s trapped in the old ethical grammar.

Meanwhile, where does this leave the formal leadership of the Jewish community and its disastrous love-affair with the IHRA definition of antisemitism? It’s already a document which creates conflict and suppresses free speech. But what happens when an Israeli NGO has effectively described the State of Israel as a racist endeavor? The new language of truth and moral clarity should tell us to feed the IHRA document through the shredder.

B’Tselem is causing trouble for the liberal and radical wings of Zionism too. Yachad, a liberal Zionist lobby group with a similar position to J-Street in the USA, has defended B’Tselem’s right to express its opinions but without endorsing them. But B’Tselem’s reporting on human rights abuses on the West Bank is an important and trusted source of information for Yachad and its supporters. Where does the NGO’s apartheid stance now leave that relationship?

The more radical Na’amod describes itself as ‘Jews Against the Occupation’ and, unlike Yachad, maintains an ambiguous position on Zionism itself, no doubt keen to attract a wide spectrum of disaffected Jews. Will B’Tselem succeed in moving the centre of gravity to a more fundamental criticism of the structure and constitution of the Jewish State which goes beyond a narrow definition of Israel’s ills.

Proper names

Thanks to B’Tselem, organisations which look to display a progressive and even radical outlook and agenda now appear tame, their analysis weak, their courage lacking.

B’Tselem has changed the language and corrected our ethical grammar. Calling things by their proper name should not be dangerous, or frightening. But it does turn out to be revolutionary. And precisely what’s required to move everyone forward.





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