The Blanket

Uri Davis And The Battle Against Israeli Apartheid

Anthony McIntyre • 8.12.02

Apartheid is an emotive term. Left political activists are sometimes accused of flinging it with abandon at states not deserving of the jibe, while those within the establishment eager to conceal inequality and discrimination try to dismiss the term as nothing other than propagandist invective lacking in all serious intellectual merit. On reflection it could be argued that apartheid of one sort or another operates throughout and across societies, as much at the micro level as at the macro. The Stormont Government for much of its existence - despite the protestations of Ruth Dudley Edwards in a recent critique of Gerry Adams - operated a type of apartheid, treating nationalists as second class citizens. In Crumlin Road Prison in the 1970s republican prisoners employed a form of apartheid against those of their comrades who were deemed to have 'broke' under interrogation in the hands of the RUC, hands that were not known for their velvet gloves. The unfortunate prisoners were herded into a section of the canteen ever after referred to as the 'back table'. Also in Long Kesh during internment there was a cage set up for those internees - Cage 8 - in which were housed those republicans who had been isolated from the main body for one reason or another.

Apartheid, like fascism, as a typology is positional rather than fixed in terms of meaning and application. Often it seems to function as a singular rhetorical mechanism or as an element in a wider discursive strategy. Either way its purpose is to gain advantage for one position over another in a field of conflict where language performs the task that is the property of shock troops on a conventional military battlefield. Given such broader or even diluted usage of meaning when the term is currently used in political discourse, those hearing it do not always view it as being put forth as a genuine form of regime classification.

And then someone like Uri Davis comes along and inserts a clear firewall between apartheid as a rhetorical device and apartheid as a practice pursued and implemented with ruthlessness by a government intent on maintaining privilege based on division and hierarchy. In his analytical framework the term 'apartheid' signifies the policies of the Israeli state as employed against Palestinians. Davis is so alert to the disadvantages that accrue from misappropriating some terms and relocating them in a different setting - he always cautions against a comparison of the Israeli state with nazism - that 'apartheid' is obviously not a term that he would pick up lightly, the nearest available stone to be hurled as part of an intellectual or discursive intifada and forgotten about as soon as it either hits or misses its target.

When the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Committee hosted a lecture by Uri Davis at the Peter Frogatt Centre in Queen’s University - 'Is there a case for a boycott of Israel?' - those in the Belfast public who were inclined to turn up were treated to a devastating critique of a state that at best can only be described in Ted Honderich’s terms as a ‘hierarchic democracy‘. Other less anodyne adjectives quickly leap to mind.

While a long time campaign activist Uri Davis, who describes himself as a Palestinian Jew, has arguably come to public prominence as a result of his book, Israel: An Apartheid State. He is a founder of the Movement Against Israeli Apartheid in Palestine and presently serves the body in the capacity of chair. Through his involvement in Fatah’s political party, he is an ‘anti-militarist’ member of the PLO who serves as an observer member of the Palestine National Council.

His outlook on life and his passionate commitment to social justice did not develop in some philosophical ivory tower stripped of any practical context. All his mother's family were victims of the Holocaust in the wake of the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia. These terrible happenings have not given way to some form of anti-humanist ideology which then proceeds to drain the considerable humanitarian reservoir from which he draws his moral strength. This can be seen in his abhorrence of attacks on Israeli civilians. ‘I do not accept revenge as a basis for political action and have no problem adding my name to the voices condemning any actions targeting civilians.’

His defence of civilian rights against those determined to kill them and his anti-militarism do not detract from his readiness to accept the legitimacy of armed struggle. The Israeli state is the ‘first party guilty of terrorist violence’, which leads him to a position of recognising ‘the right to use force in certain instances, in armed resistance, which is legal in international law. It allows armed resistance, the targeting of the opposite party in uniform.’

But the mainstay of his offensive against the Israeli state is that - similar to 'white South Africa' it is an apartheid state, remaining the only such one in the UN. Apartheid is a regime which creates legal process and acts of parliament which compel people to make criminal and racist choices over humanitarian ones. For example, in South Africa 84% of the land was for whites only. In Israel 93 % is for Jews.

In his book he appraised matters as follows:

In the case of Israel, Zionist apartheid is applied under the categories of 'Jew' versus 'non-Jew'. Of the almost three million non-Jewish Palestinian Arabs who are today entitled, under the constitutional stipulations of the 1947 UN Partition Plan, to Israeli citizenship, less than 25 per cent (approximately 700,000 persons) are Israeli citizens. Under the Absentee Property Law (1950), the state of Israel has similarly denationalized 75 per cent of its non-Jewish Palestinian Arab inhabitants (over two million persons classified as 'absentees'). However, having classified them as 'absentees' in the eyes of the law, it has thereby not only defined them as aliens in their own homeland, but has cast them outside legal existence altogether.

The argument that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East is 'a travesty'. He contends that for those victimised by Israel apartheid the effects are much worse than the victims of the phenomenon in South Africa, in particular in the areas of land and water. But because petty apartheid does not exist - segregated buses and park benches - this helps disguise the essence of Israeli apartheid and allows Israeli propagandists to deny that their government oversees the institutionalisation of an apartheid regime.

Not content to only write about such matters he has thrown his weight behind the international boycott campaign against Israel aimed at forcing it to abide by more than 80 UN resolutions. He argues forcefully for economic sanctions against and financial disinvestment from Israel and for the instruments of international law to be used ‘to limit the capacity of the government of Israel to inflict illegal acts.’ His hopes for the future are sustained by the ‘enormous encouragement’ arising from what he sees as the success of the anti-apartheid campaign in South Africa and ‘the achievement of the indigenous peoples of South Africa led by the ANC.’

On the issue of US support for the Israeli state he believes this can be traced to a US perception of Israel as a strategic asset and one which it is determined to maintain through massive financial and military backing. Such an approach he describes as ‘extremely destructive.’ At the present juncture, the matter is exacerbated by the likelihood of war on Iraq. This war will provide the necessary cover for Israel as it sets about completing the unfinished business of 1947-48. Already, under the slogan ’Jordan is Palestine - Transfer’, a practice of ethnic cleansing is in place which aims at expunging the Palestinians from their homeland. Consequently, there is a situation of ‘great urgency‘. He fears a repeat of the Sabra and Shatila massacre and feels that the presence of journalists and international volunteers may act as a foil to this. An indication of just how potentially limiting on Israeli activity such presence can actually be was the deliberate attempt made to target and intimidate Caoimhe Butterly and her colleagues. In the view of Uri Davis, the Israeli state does not want witnesses to the atrocities it has in mind for areas like Jenin and the West Bank.

Listening to the views expressed by this remarkable man in the relative safety of the Peter Frogatt Centre, the two words that came to mind were ‘moral courage.’ To still live in Israel and hold the views that he does cannot be easy. The only aspect of the evening that I was sceptical about was his understating of the hostility that he must surely face as a consequence of his views. A combination of modesty and a desire to see the spotlight of public concern maintained squarely on the Palestinians rather than himself perhaps explains this. A brave man with strong views, his testimony allows those of us not in his shoes to see what ‘courageous and imaginative’ - a term overused to the point of vacuity in our own conflict - really means.





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It is better to be defeated on principle than to win on lies.
- Arthur Calwell
Index: Current Articles

8 December 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


The British State Murder of Pearse Jordan
Anthony McIntyre


The Falls And Shankill March As One
Davy Carlin


Alternatives to the GFA?
Paul Fitzsimmons


Ted Honderich: A Philosopher in the Trenches
Paul de Rooji


Uri Davis and the Battle Against Israeli Apartheid
Anthony McIntyre


Palestinian Children In The Night
Sam Bahour


Solitary Confinement Kills
Devrimci Halk Kurtulus Cephesi


6 December 2002


Questioning the Prison System in the North
Liam O Ruairc


Britain's New Moral Authority to Shoot Republicans
Anthony McIntyre


Teething Troubles
Henry McDonald


Setting The Record Straight

Billy Mitchell


Herr Henry Struts Again
Anthony McIntyre


Even the Taxi Drivers Say It: "Likud has Failed"
Uri Avnery


The Letters page has been updated.




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