Is Afrikaans the language of Israel?

MK Tzipi Hotolevy put forward a bill that would require East Jerusalem neighbourhoods like Ras Al’Amoud to be called by their Hebrew names on road signs and in Israel Broadcasting Authority Reports. In doing so, Hotolevy has fired another salvo in the ongoing battle for control not just of life on the ground, but also of the very language in which that life is expressed, reminding us that to impose one’s definition is also an exercise in power.

Naming is a political act.

Amongst the maelstrom of disputed definitions, the ‘apartheid analogy’ is perhaps one of the most contested labels applied to Israeli state policy in the Occupied Territory, provoking debate in national parliaments, the global media, and even the lofty towers of the United Nations. That it is contentious is not surprising, given that to accept the label is to relegate the architects of Israeli occupation to whichever circle of the Inferno the Afrikaner Nationalists are presumed burning in.

The analogy has a tortured history both inside and outside Israel. Broadly speaking, one can divide arguments for and against it into two camps, each with their own centres of gravity. Those who believe the analogy is an inaccurate distortion focus their attention on Israel proper; that is, within the undisputed body of sovereign territory. Influential academic Ian Buruma presents the classic case here, stating that, “[n]on-Jews, mostly Arab Muslims, make up 20% of the Israeli population, and they enjoy full citizen’s rights”, and therefore the analogy can be considered “intellectually lazy, morally questionable and possibly even mendacious”. Its proponents, on the other hand, fix their gaze on a different field: the hazy, blurring lines of the Occupied Territory and East Jerusalem. Although commentators like Buruma acknowledge that a degree of ‘discrimination’ exists, they dispute that this in itself constitutes apartheid, which is by definition systematic and institutionalized. What kind of discrimination, then, do Palestinians face in the Occupied Territories?

The transition from the spotless sidewalks, playgrounds and public facilities of Jewish West Jerusalem to the rubbish-strewn, pavement-less and de-developed Palestinian East is extreme. Statistically, although Palestinians account for 35% of the Jerusalem municipality, they receive a mere 7% of the development budget. In the face of a lack of new housing, caused by the official designation of most undeveloped land as ‘green belt’ and a general refusal to grant building permits, many young Palestinians are being pushed out of Jerusalem into the West Bank.

Which, in itself, creates another problem. Whilst Arab residents of Jerusalem who fell within the ’48 borders have full Israeli citizenship, those living in areas taken by Israel in ’67 were only granted ‘permanent residency’, a second-class status that provides limited rights and does not allow the holder to vote in national elections (although, it should be pointed out, they can vote in municipal ones). Israel’s ‘centre-of-life’ policy, which requires permanent residents to demonstrate that their daily life is centred on East Jerusalem, means that those who move to the West Bank in search of housing risk losing what few Israeli rights they have, such as the right to a pension and the right to work in Israel, along with their residency.

Although in theory Israeli citizens and Palestinian ‘residents’ of East Jerusalem should be subject to the same laws, in practice these legal statutes also codify a number of discriminatory practices. Palestinians who fled West Jerusalem in ’48 and were reincorporated into Israel in ’67 have no legal claim to their old homes (which were often appropriated by the state and sold to Jewish families) while comparatively Jews who fled the opposite way may reclaim property in East Jerusalem through the courts.

Legal discrimination in the Occupied Territory goes yet further. Despite the rhetoric of disengagement and ‘handing control to the Palestinian Authority’, Israeli soldiers still occupy the majority of the West Bank, maintaining a system of checkpoints that divide up and restrict the flow of people and goods between small islands of nominal PA control. Within both the areas administered by Israel and the PA, Jewish settlements continue to spring up like poison mushrooms, and whilst Palestinians who fall foul of the military within these areas are prosecuted under military law, settlers themselves can only be tried under Israeli law.

Where does this brief survey of the Palestinian situation leave the question of Apartheid? Second class citizenship for residents of East Jerusalem, differential legal codes which favour a particular ethnic group, expropriation of property, segregation and the restriction of the Palestinian’s social, political and economic potential? Sounds suspiciously like something for which there is a certain word in Afrikaans. However, although the methods are similar, there is an important difference to note between South Africa and Palestine. Whilst Apartheid was intended as permanent, Israeli policy towards the Palestinians must be understood in the context of a state that, to quote Ralf Fücks of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, “even 60 years after its birth has not found its definite design”. Israel has the potential to become many things in the future, one of which is a fully-fledged apartheid state. Permanent occupation must give end, lest this prophecy fulfil itself.

Whether one views the apartheid analogy as a faithful description of the state of Israel or an inaccurate slogan which distorts its particularities, it is clear that in the run up to September’s expected UN vote, the battle for control of the narrative is likely to intensify. We have already seen a major salvo in Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, in which he made a deliberate effort to situate the conflict within American discourses on ‘security’ and the ‘Clash of Civilisations’, which pits the forces of freedom and democracy against the irrational extremism of Islamic terror. In resisting this modern fable, in whose name so many crimes have been justified, it is important to remember that classification, too, has limits.

You can call Sheikh Jarrah Shimon Hatzadik or Silwan the City of David, but it won’t change the fact that it’s Palestinians who live there.

The Palestine Monitor
June 2, 2011

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