Drawing Fire: Investigating the Accusations of Apartheid in Israel – Robert Fine

This piece by Robert Fine, is from the latest issue of fathom. 

It is a feature of our times that certain aspects of what Israel has become – notably its occupation of Palestine and its colonial-like domination

Review by Robert Fine of Benjamin Pogrund's book

Review by Robert Fine of Benjamin Pogrund’s book

of Palestinians who live in Palestinian territory – have become for many critically minded people the central meaning of what Israel is. For those that subscribe to this way of thinking, contingent similarities between what Israel has become and the former apartheid state of South Africa have been translated into an essential identity. Certain contiguities between Israel and apartheid have shaded into what we might call the ‘apartheid analogy’ – so much so that the chain of equivalence linking Israel and apartheid has come to form a hegemonic ideology in a diversity of ‘left’, ‘liberal’ and ‘third world’ political circles.

In Nazi antisemitism ‘the Jew’ was treated as the symbolic representation of all that is rotten in the modern world. In contemporary anti-Zionism we see a related phenomenon: ‘Israel’, ‘Zionism’ and the ‘Jewish state’ are treated as symbolic representations of all that is illegitimate in the present-day international community. The apartheid analogy is based on the premise that the idea of ‘apartheid’ once fulfilled a similar symbolic function in the tail end of the colonial era. Apartheid was indeed the name of an overtly racist regime that deserved the opprobrium and isolation it received.

In the metonymic use of apartheid, Israel is not called by its own name or understood in its own right but rather through the name of something seemingly associated in meaning with it. This rhetorical device has in turn been converted through processes of slippage into the metaphoric use of ‘apartheid’ in order to designate the core being of Israel. The attempt to portray an equivalence between Israel and apartheid has been further pursued through the synecdoche in which the part – say the shooting of Palestinian demonstrators by Israeli soldiers or land seizures and attacks on ordinary Palestinian civilians by Israeli settlers – is taken for the whole and then analogised with apartheid.

The missing term in these ideologically charged slippages – to use Ernesto Laclau’s language; from contingency to essence, from contiguity to analogy, from metonymy to metaphor, from distinction to equivalence – is that of comparison. To simply say that the ‘Jewish state’ is like apartheid, or is apartheid, is no substitute for nuanced analysis that studies similarities and differences between the one and the other. Nor is it a substitute for drawing comparisons between other states (say Arab or Muslim states or indeed the British state) and apartheid, or conversely for drawing comparisons between Israel and other forms of state (say post-imperial nationalist states in interwar Europe or post-national states in contemporary Europe).

In place of comparison, a rhetorical method of choice for many is to contrast the actually existing state of Israel to an abstract idea of what the state ought to be and then to decree that it falls short. A common rhetoric these days is to say that the state ought to be cosmopolitan, ought to be universalistic, ought to be emptied of identitarian content, and that the ‘Jewish democratic state’ of Israel violates this idea. It is to say that nationalism ought to be civic without any ethnic content and that Israel and Zionism are anachronisms; archaic representations of all that obstructs the realisation of this contemporary ideal. By contrast, the comparative method would compare how well the ‘Jewish democratic state’ of Israel deals with its contradictory demands with how other states deal with theirs – be they ‘Arab’, ‘Muslim’, ‘British’ or ‘Hindu’. Apartheid was once treated as the symbolic representation of all that obstructed the ideals of decolonisation and national self-determination. The functional equivalence between such representations of Israel and apartheid lies in their power of delegitimation. Unable to create any genuine links, this ideology ends up with a form of catachresis that erroneously substitutes one term for the other.

In this rhetorical context it is timely to have a book that investigates accusations of apartheid in Israel with a certain distance and impartiality, with care and curiosity, without overwhelming ideological preconceptions. At its best this book succeeds in providing valuable empirical resources that will enable its readers to question the totalising and distorted representations of the Israel-Palestine conflict that the apartheid analogy requires. Benjamin Pogrund is an author of strong liberal credentials. In South Africa he was a well-known journalist for the Rand Daily Mail, who reported on the lives of Black people and on the sufferings apartheid caused them. He was gaoled and banned for a period of time and was a biographer of African National Congress (ANC) leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Robert Sobukwe. He has lived in Israel for over 17 years, established the Yakar Centre for Social Concern dedicated to fostering dialogue between Jews and Palestinians, and presents himself as empathising both with Israeli fears about annihilation and Palestinian cries for freedom. He defends Israel’s right to exist but is damning of the occupation of the West Bank and the expansion of settlements. On the other side, he acknowledges injustices committed in the displacement of Palestinians but is equally damning of nationalisms and fundamentalism that would expunge Israel from the map. In short, Pogrund inhabits the heartlands of a liberal Zionism that believes in dialogue, wishes to foster trust between Jews and Arabs, and with some equivocation advocates an ethos of non-violence.

Drawing Fire is at its most illuminating when it provides its readers with the information and argument that helps us understand the current conflict and the injustices to ordinary people that accompany it. One set of insights I draw from this book concerns the Palestinians. Their undoubted victimhood has sometimes been the unintended consequence of existential wars between the Jewish state and its neighbouring Arab states, in which it is difficult to lay the blame on one side or the other. They have suffered and continue to suffer not only from injustices committed by the Israeli state and sections of Israeli society but also from injustices committed by Arab states and sections of Arab societies. They have had a deeply equivocal experience of the policies and practices of their own political leaderships and for that matter of international organisations such as United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). They are not a homogeneous collectivity defined by victimhood, but are, rather, in some cases relatively integrated in society, while in others locked into a dull, timeless stasis of separation, confinement and exclusion. They do not speak with a single voice but express a wide variety of political opinions and aspirations, some of which are nihilistic and antisemitic but equally some of which that are looking for an acceptable two-state solution to the conflict. They can be compared with but are not in an analogous position to Blacks in South Africa who were subjected as non-citizens and exploited as servile labourers as a matter of conscious state policy.

However, the most disturbing aspect of this book is that, in spite of the author’s own best intentions, he is clearly worried that the occupation and settlement of Palestine is leading toward a situation in which the apartheid analogy looks more persuasive. The growth of a militant and loud anti-Arab racism within both the Israeli polity and society is a product of occupation that does not justify the apartheid analogy but may feed it if we are not careful. There is plenty to chew on in this worthy book.

Robert Fine

Professor Emertus, Warwick University

This piece by Robert Fine, is from the latest issue of fathom. 

Dec 21, 2012 Robert Fine. Sociologically speaking, I have been a bit of a fly-by-night. Instead of devoting 40 years of my life to the study of One Thing, I have …
engageonline.wordpress.com/…/robert-fine-on-doing-the-sociology-of- antisemitism/
Oct 5, 2010 Author: Robert Fine is Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick. He is co-convenor of the European Sociological Network on Racism …
engageonline.wordpress.com/…/robert-fine-fighting-with-phantoms-a- contribution-to-the-debate-on-antisemitism-in-europe/
Karl Marx and the Radical Critique of Anti-Semitism – Robert Fine. Let us explode the myth that Karl Marx was in some sense anti-Semitic in his critique of …
Oct 8, 2010 Robert Fine appeals to his colleagues in South Africa, arguing against the academic boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Archbishop …
engageonline.wordpress.com/…/robert-fine-responds-to-desmond-tutus-call- for-a-boycott-of-israel-in-the-south-african-mail-guardian/
Mar 21, 2014 Robert Fine. by international law”. Robert Fine speaking in opposition to this motion. Leeds University, March 2014. This is not the first time I …
https://engageonline.wordpress.com/…/robert-fine-debates-the-boycotters-in- leeds/
Oct 28, 2010 The participants in this debate have been Desmond Tutu, Robert Fine, Neve Gordon, David Hirsh, Ran Greenstein, Uri Avnery, David Newman …
engageonline.wordpress.com/…/robert-fine-on-the-singling-out-of-israel-for- boycott/
Feb 1, 2010 Robert Fine, UCU member and Professor of Sociology, University of Warwick. Thanks to the UCU executive for organising this series of …

engageonline.wordpress.com/…/robert-fines-talk-to-the-ucu-meeting-legacy- of-hope-anti-semitism-the-holocaust-and-resistance-yesterday-and-t…

Mar 21, 2006 The Lobby: Mearsheimer and Walt’s conspiracy theory – Robert Fine John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt (LRB 23 March 2006) demonstrate …

3 Responses to “Drawing Fire: Investigating the Accusations of Apartheid in Israel – Robert Fine”

  1. Neil Says:

    The discussion you present seems intended not so much to explore Benjamin Pogrund’s book but to justify his politics. His politics do not make his arguments and evidence correct or incorrect.

    As mentioned in the review, “‘Israel’, ‘Zionism’ and the ‘Jewish state’ are treated as symbolic representations of all that is illegitimate in the present-day international community.” Perhaps to help make that case, the apartheid slur is employed. Such an interpretation of apartheid, Israel, Zionism and the Jewish state accordingly places the use of those terms within the analysis of Judaism and Jews described in David Nirenberg’s truly seminal book, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition. As Nirenberg notes in a letter he wrote about his book: “within what we sometimes call the Western tradition, ‘Judaism’ became a basic concept with which people tried to make sense of their world, and the overcoming of ‘Judaism’ became one of their basic ideals.”

    Hence, a serious study of use of apartheid with reference to Israel would, instead of focusing on Israel, focus on how apartheid is used by Israel’s opponents. What does it tell us about those who make such argument? Why use language that could, as they use it, also describe the UK or France or Germany? Is the use of apartheid by Israel’s critiques made to understood Israel or merely to smear Israel?

    I am at a loss as to why people take the apartheid allegation, as made about Israel, on its own terms instead as a means to understand the ideology and psychology and pathologies of Israel’s enemies.

  2. Yehuda Erdman Says:

    I am bewildered by all the fine nuances in Robert Fine’s review. It is necessary to cut through to the essence. One needs to regularly visit Israel? Palestine and see for oneself if “apartheid” is indeed taking place. In my view yes and no. The Jews and Arabs want to live separate lives because their cultures are totally different. However to discriminate on the grounds of ethnicity is barred by the declaration of independence of 1948. If it creeps in to Israeli life it must be resisted strongly through the law.

  3. sometimesantisocialalwaysantifascist Says:

    So anti-arab racism is wrong as far as it ‘feeds the apartheid analogy’? In other words the main reason why it is wrong is because it gives critics of Israel ammunition not because it is wrong in itself?


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