Where everyone can go together

The struggle in Israel-Palestine lacks a sense of inclusivity, like in South Africa, that aims to take over and transform the state into a democracy for all its citizens.

Pro-Palestinian protester close to the US embassy in London. Image credit Alisdare Hickson via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0.

In the last while, I have become dissatisfied with conversations about Israel/Palestine that only utilize South Africa as a starting point for apartheid and boycott-related references. Although much work has been done in comparing apartheid Israel to apartheid South Africa, and apartheid is indeed a vital concept for understanding Israeli control of Palestinians, less work has explored how South Africa can help shape our strategy for and understanding of resistance politics. This is something Ran Greenstein has invested much time in, including through his latest book, Anti-Colonial Resistance in South Africa and Israel/Palestine: Identity, Nationalism, and Race, (Routledge, 2022).

Greenstein should know. He has lived in Israel and is based in South Africa, and is an associate professor of sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. His previous books include Zionism and its Discontents: A Century of Radical Dissent in Israel/Palestine (Pluto, 2014), Genealogies of Conflict: Class, Identity and State in Palestine/Israel and South Africa (Wesleyan, 1995), and Comparative Perspectives on South Africa (Macmillan, 1998).

Along with Jeff Halper, the co-founder of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), Greenstein was a guest on a webinar I recently chaired on Israel’s attempts to further enshrine Jewish supremacy while at the same time brutally dispossessing Palestinians. Halper is the author of Decolonizing Israel, Liberating Palestine: Zionism, Settler Colonialism and the Case for One Democratic State (Pluto Books, 2022). The seminar was organized by South African Jews for a Free Palestine (SAJFP), an organization working toward a just and peaceful end to the conflict in historic Palestine. It is motivated by a sense of justice and the value of struggle to bring about democratic change and equal rights for all between the river and the sea. The SAJFP fits within a growing number of similar structures that exist and are developing throughout the world.

Greenstein’s book examines the relevance of issues such as race, class, and domination in the South Africa and Israel/Palestine contexts. As Greenstein illuminated, the point in this regard is to understand these societies on their own terms and to use comparison to revisit some of the main debates. It also helps to review some perspectives that may have been neglected or misremembered, given the focus on the immediate politically relevant realities. Importantly, their key differences have forged different kinds of resistance.

The main driver that shaped the struggle in South Africa was the forcible incorporation of indigenous people into a subordinate position in society. This and other factors resulted in the attempt to make overtures to the settler colonial population to participate in the struggle. This was a question of pragmatism and political values, in which it was largely believed that everyone was part of the liberation movement. In Palestine however, there is a “special type of colonialism,” involving the forcible exclusion of indigenous people from the social and economic structure. As such, resistance must occur from outside the boundaries of the state because Palestinians do not have the similar choice to undermine the system of domination from within.

Halper notes that in South Africa, there was a sense of inclusivity within a struggle that aimed to take over and transform the state into a democracy for all its citizens. In Palestine and Israel in contrast, Zionism has been built on exclusion from the get-go, and there is no common state or civic framework that can be transformed into a state for all its citizens. Therefore, a new state must be invented, as well as a new and common civic identity as a means for all to relate to each other.

According to Halper, the struggle toward an egalitarian future requires the use of many tactics. Aside from resistance and protest, the support of Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), and contributions at conferences, it is crucial to reflect on where the struggle is headed and to have a firmly rooted political program in place. This is what ICAHD is dedicated to. With the issue of house demolitions as a vehicle for pushing forward a political agenda, ICAHD seeks to help citizens understand not only the realities on the ground but also the framing of the situation as archetypical settler colonialism. Halper argues that this framing must be understood before recognizing that the only logical and ideal next step is decolonization.

Settler colonialism sets out an analysis, agenda, and possibilities for proceeding. Its identification, Halper argues, compels us to move away from misanalyzing the reality as a “conflict,” which renders the situation symmetrical and legitimizes the settler colonial position. Indeed, settler colonialism makes the unilateral nature of the project clear. It also communicates that no conflict resolution can transpire, rather to end the settler colonial enterprise is to dismantle the structures of control and domination. Decolonization thereafter would lead to one unitary, inclusive, civic framework.

There is urgency in this work: to connect the past not only to the present but also to the future. Framing the future is not merely a practical endeavor. It is a ballast against the current daunting reality and a source of strength for those of us seeking a future Israel/Palestine based on just, democratic principles. Toward this end, Greenstein recognized first that while many have raised the idea of incorporation of individuals into a secular, democratic state, this has not moved into a viable political program. Moreover, the conceptualization of a secular Palestine by all the main Palestinian organizations is still established within a broad-based Arab and Palestinian nationalism. The vast majority of Israeli Jews similarly regard themselves not as an ethnic, racial, or religious group, but as a national group. For both groupings, therefore, their nationalism is central to their identity, and they would accordingly be reluctant to give it up in any kind of arrangement. Hence, any solution toward liberation must recognize equality and justice for individuals as well as the collectives. A bi-national arrangement would need to be established, though this cannot involve a dominant, expansionist nationalism but one that is more cultural in nature. As Greenstein emphasized, it would not require political power as an instrument for gaining privileges but rather for protecting the interests of each community.

According to Halper, the idea of the civic state is important to constrain the nationalist impulse. This is what the One Democratic State campaign (of which Halper is also a founding member) is vying for. As he reiterated, Palestinians and Israelis should begin to build civil institutions now and engage in a project of drafting a constitution. What must be done, as the African National Congress did during the struggle to end South African apartheid, is to encourage a discussion to present concrete alternative structures that citizens can see work. Ultimately, there needs to be a concrete imagining of where everyone can go together.

Further Reading

Whose democracy?

In Israel, tens of thousands have demonstrated against the new right-wing government’s plans for judicial reform. But what of the Palestinian question? In this episode of the podcast, we discuss.

Apartheid of a special type

The Israel/Palestine system meets the definition of apartheid in international law, but presents different challenges for the campaign against it than was the case for the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.