Lieberman: Vocalizing Israel's Apartheid Reality
*Saree Makdisi, /The Electronic Intifada,/ 15 November 2006
*Former President Jimmy Carter's new book, which slaps the "apartheid"
label on Israel, comes out this week. Before the book hit the stands
though, members of his own party rushed to distance themselves from his
allegations. While the label makes supporters of Israel uncomfortable,
there is ample evidence that Israel practices institutionalized
discrimination against its non-Jewish citizens. Israel, in fact, goes
further than South Africa. While whites in South Africa sought to
control non-whites, Israel has since its establishment pursued various
means of getting rid of its non-Jewish population altogether.
The addition of Avigdor Lieberman's party to Israel's ruling coalition u
and the appointment of Lieberman himself as Minister in charge of
"Strategic Threats to Israel" u has also occasioned some discomfort
among Israel's most earnest supporters. But Lieberman's ascent to deputy
Prime Minister should give pause to those who so vigorously chided
Carter for using the term "apartheid" to describe Israeli policies.
We are told that Lieberman is unhelpful; that he is the wrong partner
for the current Prime Minister; that he is unlikely to facilitate peace
with the Palestinians; that he is unrestrained and irresponsible u and
even (according to the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz) that he is a
strategic threat himself.
This consensus is not a reaction to Lieberman's insalubrious background
u though former nightclub bouncers rarely rise to national office in any
country u but rather to the fact that he is willing to dispense with
diplomatic niceties and to express Israel's ambitions in their crudest
and most unapologetic form.
Lieberman wants an Israel free of the land's indigenous population.
His party's declared aim is to eject Israel's Palestinian minority u now
approaching a quarter of the population u and to annex the parts of the
occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem with heavy Jewish settler
The irony here, of course, is that Lieberman was born not in Israel but
in a remote province of the former Soviet Union. He moved to Israel as
Because he is Jewish, he was eligible for instant citizenship under
Israel's law of return.
But it was evidently not enough for Lieberman that, as a
Russian-speaking immigrant fresh off the plane, he was instantaneously
granted rights and privileges denied to Palestinians born in the very
country to which he had just moved (not to mention those expelled during
the creation of Israel in 1948). The very presence of an indigenous
non-Jewish population in Israel was, in effect, unacceptable to him.
So he wants the non-Jews out. And he says so bluntly.
It is Lieberman's blunt racism -- rather than the policies he stands for
-- that makes Israel's advocates, particularly the liberal ones, feel so
For the only significant differences between Lieberman and other
mainstream Israeli politicians are matters of style rather than substance.
All Israeli politicians are committed to preserving Israel's Jewishness.
They have to be. It's the law.
As the state of the Jewish people, Israel is, after all, the only
country in the world that expressly claims not to be the state of its
actual citizens (who include a million non-Jews), let alone that of the
people whom it actually governs (half of whom are Palestinian Arabs).
Most of Israel's land, for example, is the property not of the Israeli
people, but of Jewish people everywhere. As non-Jews, Palestinian
citizens of Israel are barred from access to state land, even though the
land used to be Palestinian.
Israel's newly revised nationality law, similarly, prohibits Palestinian
citizens of Israel from marrying Palestinians from the occupied
territories and living with their spouses in Israel. The same law does
not apply to Jewish Israelis who marry Jewish settlers living in the
occupied territories. Interestingly, similar legislation had been
proposed in South Africa at the peak of Apartheid, only to be rejected
by that country's supreme court. Israel's nationality law, however, was
endorsed by Israel's High Court just this year.
There is nothing new in all this, however. The simple fact of the matter
is that non-Jews have always been, at best, an impediment to Israel's
This is why, when Palestinian citizens of Israel demand that their state
become the state of all its citizens, they are denounced for imperiling
the Jewish nature of the state. It's also why Israel repeatedly demanded
the renunciation of the Palestine National Charter as a prelude to
negotiations with the PLO. The longstanding Palestinian call for a
democratic and secular state u a state for both Arabs and Jews u has
always been regarded as a direct threat to Israel's Jewishness.
To citizens of the advanced Western democracies, the concept of a
democratic and secular state u a state of all its citizens u seems
elementary. To Israel, however, it is anathema.
The only thing that distinguishes Avigdor Lieberman from run of the mill
politics in Israel is that he is willing to take Israel's vision of
itself to its logical conclusion. Rather than tolerating non-Jews as
second or third class citizens, he wants them out altogether.
The issue, then, is not that Lieberman is more racist than other Israeli
politicians. It is, rather, that he shamelessly utters what most of his
peers dare not say aloud.
/Saree Makdisi is a professor of English and Comparative Literature at
UCLA and a frequent commentator on the Middle East. /
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