The Rectification of Names
Confucius, the great philosopher and social reformer of the 6th and 5th centuries BCE, set about to bring peace and harmony to China during a time of deep social unrest. One of the central principles for attaining social peace he called “The Rectification of Names.”
Much social injustice originates in the failure to name things accurately, to unmask those euphemisms used by the powerful to hide the nature and effects of injustice. Military campaigns like “Operation Just Cause” and weapons systems like “The Peace Keeper” are modern examples. In the case of Israel and Palestine, terms like “the Israel-Palestinian conflict,” “differing narratives,” “disputed territories,” “settlements,” “by-pass roads,” “Judea and Samaria,” “the Gaza war,” “martyr,” “peace talks,” “national security,” “pre-emptive strike,” “targeted assassination,” etc., sometimes serve to mystify rather than clarify reality.
A major purpose of recent initiatives to name Israeli apartheid is to name the Israeli system for what it is, to describe it accurately, and to remove the mystification of what is often called a “temporary occupation” required by national security. To rectify names is an essential step in the process of ending the occupation of Palestine by Israel and creating a just peace for Palestinians and Israelis.
“This overture feels like name-calling to me, we should not stoop to name-calling.” This was the reaction of a voting Presbyterian at a regional gathering while the body deliberated whether or not Israeli occupation should be given the name “apartheid.”
Two years earlier at the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) General Assembly meeting in Minneapolis, members of Committee 14 on Middle East Peacemaking felt the same way about the name-calling. They acknowledged the facts on the ground that constitute Israeli apartheid, but stopped short of naming it because, as one member stated, “we feel that dialogue is hampered by words like ‘apartheid.’”
Three presbyteries and one synod have passed overtures to the 2012 General Assembly this July, believing that honest dialogue requires open recognition that Israel is practicing the crime of apartheid as defined by international law.
The name-calling objection is actually a red herring to divert attention away from the nature of Israeli apartheid. We urgently need in depth dialogue between communities of Jews and Christians in the U.S., but when it comes to actually calling the occupation what it is, there is precious little authentic dialogue. For some, the overarching goal for General Assembly initiatives on Israel-Palestine is to avoid “damage [to] Jewish-PCUSA relations at the local congregational level.” (www.pfmep.org) But genuine peacemaking cannot avoid an honest discussion of this issue.
The purpose of the overtures to name Israeli apartheid is three-fold:
1) To recognize publicly that, when measured by the standards of international law as defined by the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid (1973) and the Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court (2002), Israel is practicing apartheid;
2) To raise awareness of how Israel is committing what these international codes term “crimes against humanity;” and
3) To urge church and society to take actions to help bring an end to this criminal system.
“But, Israel is not South Africa…”
We often hear the protest, “But Israel is not South Africa! The two systems cannot be compared.” There are many differences between the two systems, although the effects on the dominated group are similar.
A major difference is that South Africa publicly named its system Apartheid—the Afrikaans word for separation—while Israel tries to mask and deny the oppressive nature of its system. The denial is striking to those who confront the separation barrier that Israel has constructed to imprison West Bank Palestinians into some 70 isolated enclaves.
The 2012 Presbyterian overtures do not attempt to compare Israel with South Africa, although some who have done so say that the Israeli system is far worse than the one in South Africa. Instead, these overtures document in great detail the nature of the Israeli system as defined by the international community quite apart from what happened in South Africa.
Nonetheless, it is instructive to recognize that both Israeli human rights groups and a major South African research organization have identified three major pillars of apartheid, applicable in both the South African and the Israeli situations:
1. The state codification into law of group identities, providing preferential
treatment for the favored group and discrimination against the other
2. State segregation of the population into geographic areas based on
their identity; and
3. Security laws and policies designed to suppress any opposition to the
Setting Israel Free from ironies of Apartheid…
Since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, the contradictions implicit in the Zionist political project have unfolded into full-fledged ironies that threaten either to end the Zionist dream or turn it into a nightmare. Theodor Herzl, the founding father of modern Zionism, believed that anti-Semitism was so deeply rooted in European societies that Jews would never be fully accepted there; that only a state of their own would provide the freedom and dignity necessary for the flourishing of Jewish life. Although relatively few Jews immigrated to Palestine before the 1930s, the Holocaust turned Herzl’s conviction into a deep-seated fear for many Jews the world over.
Fear is a normal reaction to such an inexplicable evil. Some have criticized the manipulation of this fear for political advantage. Others explain the brutal policies of the Israeli occupation as the product of collective post-traumatic stress produced by the Holocaust. Still others recognize the paralyzing effect of this fear, and the need to move beyond it.
Over time, this fear has morphed into a quasi-fundamentalist political dogma. The dogma requires a Jewish state, optimally, for Jews only. In practice, since there are over 1.5 million Palestinian citizens of Israel (about 20% of the population of Israel), the dogma means two distinct people, one dominant, the other dominated; segregated from each other, and subject to different laws. Because an increase of the Arab Israeli citizenship is regarded as a “demographic threat” that could eventually overturn Jewish dominance in Israel, laws that discriminate against Palestinians become necessary. Every compromise of democratic values is justified by the necessities of national security and protecting Israel’s Jewish majority.
…from the need to sanitize history:
A fear-based narrative requires the rewriting of history to fit the dream and suppress the facts. Herzl himself recognized the role of controlling the historical narrative. In an 1895 entry in his diary, he wrote: “Both the process of expropriation and the removal of the poor (Arabs) must be carried out discretely and circumspectly.” Later, the slogan “A land without a people for a people without a land” would convey this same deception.
Anna Baltzer, Jewish-American Fulbright Scholar, itemizes and refutes major myths that still comprise the revisionist Zionist narrative:
- This is an ancient war between Jews and Muslims
- Jewish Israelis are the descendants of the biblical Israelites who were the original inhabitants of Israel/Palestine
- The Palestinian refugee problem was created when Palestinians fled on radio orders from Arab leaders to move out of the way of an attack.
- Israel is a democracy.
- The return of the Palestinian refugees would mean the displacement of Jewish Israelis, and is therefore impossible.
- Israel has no genuine partner for negotiations or peace.
- Palestinian textbooks incite hatred against the Jewish people.
- Israel only uses violence as a last resort to defend itself and to prevent terror attacks.
All of these myths involve distortions of the truth, yet mainstream US media propagate them and millions of Americans believe them.
…from the need to suppress criticism:
A sanitized history requires the suppression of criticism, especially in the U.S. I have yet to discover why the Israeli press is so much more open to diversity of opinion than the U.S. media, but there is no doubt that high on the agenda of major American Jewish organizations is the suppression of open debate on Israel and Palestine.
So frequent are the cases of censorship, intimidation, and financial threat in the U.S. that Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) created a special website, Muzzlewatch, to expose them.
As the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) has gained traction internationally, Israel and the Israel Lobby in the U.S. have elevated the strategic importance of Hasbara (information, spin, propaganda). In early 2010 the Reut Institute, an Israeli think tank with close ties to the government, unveiled a plan to “delegitimize the delegitimizers.” This document puts the ideological defense of Israel on a par with the military defense of the state. Since then the Reut Institute plan has been institutionalized in the U.S. with $6 million set aside for Hasbara. (See JTA here.) The Israel Action Network (IAN) and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) are coordinating the attacks both locally and nationally on churches engaged in BDS, focusing especially on the 2012 national meetings of the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and the Episcopal Church.
…from the threat of a shrinking democracy at home:
When fear-based security trumps all other values, the national security state begins reducing the rights and freedoms not only of those it conquers, but also of its own citizens.
From the beginning, Zionist doctrine required that democratic rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel be restricted by law. What Zionism did not anticipate was the need to restrict the democratic rights of Jewish Israelis. Recently a spate of such bills has been placed before the Israeli parliament. In January 2011 the Knesset passed a law restricting contributions to human and civil rights organizations in Israel. The U.S. office of B’Tselem, a highly respected Israeli human rights organization, declared that the Knesset investigation of rights groups mandated by this law is “reminiscent of America’s McCarthyite Past.”
…from shrinking support abroad:
The massive Israeli attacks on Gaza in December 2008/January 2009 launched a tsunami of international outrage against the Israeli occupation. In 2010, when Israeli commandoes attacked the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in international waters and killed nine people on the Turkish ship MV Mavi Marmara, Israel alienated one of its few allies in the region.
On October 31, 2011 the International Herald Tribune announced the results of a poll funded by the European Commission and conducted in all member states of the European Union. Those polled were offered a list of 15 countries and asked which country represents the greatest threat to world peace. The Europeans chose not North Korea, not Iran, not Afghanistan, but Israel.
It appears that Israel is delegitimizing itself; that in spite of Israeli Hasbara, Israeli laws, policies, and practices are the primary source of Israeli delegitimization; that in the name of security, Israel is actually undermining its own long-term security. In the increasingly integrated and interdependent modern world, xenophobia is an anachronism. It just will not work for very long.
With This Said…
Presbyterian overtures to name Israeli apartheid may evoke the charge that we are calling into question the validity of Judaism as a religion. Nothing could be further from the truth! As one Jewish friend of the Presbyterian effort has said, “There is nothing Jewish about house demolition. There is nothing Jewish about stealing other peoples’ lands, uprooting their trees, humiliating, imprisoning and killing them.” We join with many Jews who question any religious justification—be it Christian, Jewish or whatever—of an apartheid system.
Walt Davis is a Presbyterian minister, social ethicist, and professor emeritus of San Francisco Theological Seminary. He serves on the steering committee of the Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the PC(USA).
The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem disagrees. They issued a report entitled “Forbidden Roads Regime” and explained that “The regime, based on the principle of separation through discrimination, bears striking similarities to the racist apartheid regime that existed in South Africa until 1994.” South Africans from Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu on down have named the Israeli system apartheid.
Named the Hafrada Barrier—hafrada means separation in Hebrew—it consists of a 26 foot high concrete wall with periodic gun turrets in urban areas, and an electrified, razor-wired fence with electronic surveillance and a 200 ft wide exclusion zone in rural areas. Much of the barrier is constructed not on the Green Line (the 1949 Armistice line) but deep into Palestinian territory, confiscating 12% of the West Bank. When completed it will cover approximately 470 miles, twice the length of the Green Line.
See here for a talk by South African Jewish anti-apartheid activist Ronnie Kasrils, member of African National Congress, speaking in Vancouver B.C. where he explains why Israel’s apartheid is far worse than the South African apartheid.
Frances H. ReMillard, Is Israel an Apartheid State? Summary of a legal study by the Human Sciences Research Center of South Africa, Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions-USA. See here for the full study – and see also:
HSRC, Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa, Occupation, Colonialism, Apartheid? A re-assessment of Israel’s practices in the occupied Palestinian territories under international law. 2009.
[vi] See Norman Finkelstein, The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering, 2nd Edition, 2003.
“Delegitimizers,” includes all who call for non-violent resistance to the Israeli military occupation by means of economic boycott, divestment, and sanctions. For the Reut Institute and their supporters in the US, this applies to the Palestinian churches, Palestinian civil society, some Israeli human rights groups, and Jewish, Christian, Muslim and secular groups around the world who have joined the BDS movement.