07 June 2013

Israeli Imperialism, Palestinian Liberation, Apartheid, and Appropriation

Trigger warning: Israel, Palestine, Zionism, imperialism, racism, classism, terrorism, apartheid, South Africa, state violence.

This post is directly and unequivocally critical of the State of Israel. If that is offensive or triggering to you, you may not wish to read further. 

This post was also written after a week of training for my summer internship, so may lose coherency at some point toward the end. I'm sorry in advance if this happens. 


What do Israeli imperialism, Palestinian liberation, apartheid, and appropriation have in common?

Earlier today, I happened to see an image on Facebook displaying a message about "Israeli apartheid" in the context of discussing Israeli imperialism and Palestinian liberation.

The word "apartheid" refers to a specific state-sponsored, enacted, and enforced social policy of classism, racism, and imperialism in postcolonial South Africa wherein the privilege that white Afrikaners experienced was formally institutionalized and structured at the expense of indigenous Africans of a variety of particular ethnic groups.

The State of Israel has been responsible for many human rights atrocities through its state policies of racism and imperialism that privilege Israeli Jews (and even Israeli Arabs to some extent) at the expense of Palestinian Arabs. Israel's system of checkpoints, arbitrary mass incarceration, and state-sponsored terrorism that govern the lives of those who live in the Occupied Territories, all in the name of security for those whom the state has elected to privilege, are evidence of such interwoven oppressive systems.

Yet this is not a system of apartheid, and the use of this word to describe the brutal realities of Israeli oppression serves only to appropriate the struggle against the white Afrikaner state in South Africa as if it were the same struggle as that of the Palestinians striving for liberation from the Israeli imperialist occupation.

The conventional claims of intersectionality are often oversimplified to state that all struggles against oppression are really the same struggle. This is simply not true. Though a frequent response to accusations of ranking oppressions (otherwise known as oppression Olympics), this statement is equally flawed. While I would be hesitant to claim that the oppression any one group experiences is worse or not as bad as the oppression that any other group experiences, I would not hesitate for a moment to make the factual observation that the oppressions that different marginalized groups face are different. Queer white people do not face the same specific manifestations of oppression as Black straight people. Gay cisgender people do not face the same specific manifestations of oppression as trans* people. Disabled Christians (in a Western context) do not face the same specific manifestations of oppression as Muslim abled people. Jews pretty much everywhere in the world have experienced severe marginalization and oppression, with the exception of within the borders of the contemporary State of Israel.

If we are truly committed to translational social justice and liberation from oppressive systems, then it is imperative for us to be cognizant of the dangers of appropriation in our search for intersectional mutuality. Justice for the poor is deeply intertwined with justice for the disabled, with justice for people of color, with justice for the undocumented, with justice for those who have been queered and classed and gendered and racialized. You cannot fight for disability justice without also understanding that disabled people are disproportionately poor, that disabled people of color and disabled queers are even further subject to discrimination and disparities in healthcare and the criminal injustice system, and so on.

Similarly, I support the cause of Palestinian liberation because imperialism perpetuates oppression and destroys lives as well as the ideals of liberty, equality, and justice that so many supposedly democratic states claim (laughably) to uphold. Yet the use of the word apartheid to describe the present political status of the Palestinian people under Israeli occupation does strike me as potentially quite problematic. Firstly, it is an outright inaccurate statement. Israel is not South Africa. Palestinians are not Black or African South Africans. While the state-controlled systems enforcing racism and classism in contemporary Israel and apartheid-era South Africa undoubtedly operate in frighteningly similar ways, they are simply and factually not the same. Secondly, the use of the word apartheid to describe the Israeli state repression suggests that it is acceptable for anti-oppression and anti-imperialism activism to conflate different oppressions as if they were to same -- in other words, this usage legitimizes appropriation and weakens the impact of otherwise potentially quite powerful and liberating work. 

It would be far more accurate and precise (as well as non-appropriative) simply to refer to the current state of affairs as Israeli imperialism, or Israeli occupation of Palestine, or Palestine's occupation.


  1. My only objection - and not one I find offensive, per se - is that your criticism is, as you put it, "unequivocally" of Israel.

    I confess to not knowing which meaning of unequivocal you are using:
    1: leaving no doubt : clear, unambiguous
    2: unquestionable.

    Regardless, I believe the picture you paint is black and white of a situation that is not merely shades of grey, but full of colors, numbers, and 3 dimensional shapes.

    There are dimensions to this that do not fit into neat bi-polar (north/south) descriptions.

  2. I wanted to pause to also say that I saw this "Israeli apartheid" term used recently, and that I really didn't like it at all. I have only seen it used one time because I live under a rock. I certainly think your criticism is more important than mine, but I wanted to add mine anyway.
    Since I don't know that much about what forms of oppression have been legally enacted by Israel, and since I was reading in a place where I was unaware of the writers views on Israel and Palestine, I found the term to be extremely confusing. I know what apartheid is and what is meant by that, but I was very uncomfortable with its adaptation to the current situation. I guess I see why now. And I really just hate things that are more confusing than they need to be--your term Israel imperialism is much clearer and I feel it does a great job of reflecting the history of the conflict.

  3. The problem with analogies of oppression ("Bad Thing A is like Bad Thing B") is that they shift the terms of debate from whether Bad Thing A is, in fact, a Bad Thing, to whether Bad Thing A is *exactly like* Bad Thing B. The door is opened for people to point out that there is some difference or distinction between Bad Thing A and Bad Thing B, and therefore that Bad Thing A is not really bad. That kind of analogy is always a rhetorical gamble. If it works, people will think "Bad Thing B is bad, and Bad Thing A is like Bad Thing B, therefore Bad Thing A must be bad too." But it's a great risk. As likely as not, the response will be "There's a difference between Bad Thing A and Bad Thing B, therefore Bad Thing A can't nearly be as bad as Bad Thing B, therefore these Anti-Bad-Thing-A people have no credibility, and Bad Thing A may actually be good.

    In the particular matter you cite of referring to the occupation of Palestine as "apartheid," every rhetorical effort spent debating whether this occupation is "just like" or "as bad as" South African apartheid is a rhetorical effort not spent on the question "Are the people of the Palestinian Territories being wronged by being denied full national independence?" Arguing from precedent is valid (other national groups who fought for independence and succeeded), but there's no need for the situations to be exactly identical. No two situations will be.

  4. I'm not convinced that the Palestinian situation has to be exactly like South African apartheid in every possible way before we can draw comparisons and appropriate the term. The status of the Palestinian population is fairly unique in the world today, in a way that I think is more comparable to apartheid in South Africa than just about anything else. The interior of Africa was invaded by Europeans established on the coast, just as interior Palestine was invaded by Ashkenazi (European) Jews based in Tel Aviv. Today the Palestinian territories, like the bantustans, are neither fully sovereign nor fully part of the Israeli nation. Palestinians live within the borders of Israel and are not allowed to have a state of their own, yet they are also denied all the rights of citizenship in the State of Israel. The Israeli government keeps them in a perpetual state of statelessness while dangling in front of their noses a pie-in-the-sky promise of autonomy and eventual independence that is constantly violated and can never become a reality under the current system. The Palestinian territories are places of grinding, race-based poverty, while the rest of Israel prospers. From where I'm standing, these conditions mirror those of the South African bantustans almost as exactly as can be imagined. The only significant differences are the location, the racial and religious identities of those involved, and a somewhat more overt but still completely unrealistic plan for a formally but feebly independent Palestinian state at some undetermined point in the future, occupying a hinterland that is constantly shrinking from unrestrained Israeli settlement.

    No doubt, Israel's actions are imperialistic. But "imperialism" is a very broad and ill-defined term that leftists use to refer to all sorts of stuff. When more moderate types hear it, they're often inclined to roll their eyes. If we want to convince a broader swathe of the public that Israel's policies are racist, oppressive, and just plain fucked up, it seems more effective to use a newer term that will draw specific memories of a regime that even the hardest right-winger will roundly condemn today.

  5. I find your commentary to be very interesting Lydia. But you cannot discount that the South African term "apartheid" means literally "separation".

    Furthermore, you have not linked to any South African revolutionaries who disapprove of the passage of said term into a broader social justice vocabulary.


    The above wikipedia entry reveals that the term apartheid when merely altered with the word "social", is taken to mean the placement of oppressed populations within certain confined spaces by dominating institutions and interests.

    One must recognize that in the Palestinian context as well as in the South African context, separations are occurring based on ethnic identities that are deemed subversive to dominant interests. The two systems of oppression are certainly formed based on similar parameters and forms of differentiation.

    If the term "apartheid" is useful in the struggle for anti-imperialism, South African revolutionaries may approve of its use in similar contexts outside of South Africa.

    Of course neither you nor I can comment on the co-option and appropriation of a South African word as said word is not part of our cultural heritage. But the discussion is interesting.

    If words like apartheid can assist in the formulation of a vocabulary of anti-imperialism to be applied in multiple contexts, it may very well be that South African revolutionaries approve of its flight into social justice dialogues.

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  7. I agree with the last poster that we should'nt assume how Black Afrikaans speakers want the term used. That said, I do think it's based to be careful about using a term outside its original cultural context .
    This reminds of my irritation whenever I hear someone say "the Black Holocaust" (slavery) Irish holocaust (potato famine etc) . It's not just cultural insensitivity it's also just plain linguistic laziness.

    That said, I did come across a film that look interesting comparing the 2 cultural/political/historical situations, including interviews from various factions. Unfortuanately do not recall name, will post if I find if you are interesrted. soul
    dang delete button doesn't work... broadly '


Hi! Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me. I manually approve comments, so sometimes it takes a few weeks, months, or even years to find and approve comments. This delay is normal. (Note that I also don't publish every comment, since this is my personal blog.) Unfortunately, anonymous commenting isn't available anymore since it resulted in over one million spam comments in a short period.