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Israel’s Road to Apartheid and the Fate of International Law

Lawrence Davidson

Part I—The Historical Background

The first half of the 20th century was a catastrophe for most of the human race. Within the span of 50 years the world experienced World War I (1914 to 1918) and the death of roughly 20 million people. Then came the Great Depression (1929 to 1939) which all but destroyed most Western economies—ultimately, only revived by the production demands of the next disaster: World War II (1939 to 1945), which caused the deaths of some 75 million people, many of them the victims of genocide.[1]

By the end of World War II, many of the world’s leaders had been chastened. There was much concern about how the horrors of the last fifty years could be avoided in the future. In theory, the steps taken proved to be in the right direction, but in practice were, as we will see, not sustained. 

An initial step was to set up a successor organization to the defunct League of Nations. This was the United Nations, a still extant institution that, thanks to a built-in veto given to the victors of World War II, is also an all but impotent organization when it comes to enforcing international law.[2]

The next steps came in the form of international law and commitments to uphold human rights. The reasoning went like this: one of the standing pillars of civilized society is that citizens live under the rule of law. The destruction of two world wars, which attacked the very foundations of civilization, demonstrated that the rule of law should be extended to nation states—hence the drive to create international laws and regulations that would protect humanity from the abuse of state power. As Robert Jackson, the lead American prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials put it, the crimes committed during World War II were “so malignant, and so devastating that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated.”[3]

This led to the promulgation of international law describing crimes against humanity, including government-initiated or assisted policies or practices resulting in massacre, dehumanization, unjust imprisonment, extrajudicial punishments, torture, racial/ethnic persecution, and other such acts. Human rights were formalized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights2[4] set forth by the United Nations in December, 1948. The fourth Geneva Convention[5], adopted in 1950, specified the rights of civilians in wartime and under occupation. And, finally, in reference to crimes of racial/ethnic persecution, in 1976 the United Nations General Assembly declared the systematic persecution of one racial group by another (for instance, the practice of apartheid) to be a crime against humanity.[6]

Again, all of this was done in the aftermath of the genocidal behavior that went unchecked in World War II. It is important to keep in mind that this behavior was widespread. It occurred in China, in Russia, and, of course, in Europe proper in the form of the Holocaust and other criminal actions. It might be added that these 20th century crimes followed earlier similar crimes that took place sporadically during the period of European imperial expansion running from the 16th through the 19th century.

Part II—Israel Undermines International Law and Human Rights

In theory, human rights and related international laws are a major achievement. In practice, they have run up against very

short historical memories. This historical myopia has allowed for the erosion of this category of law by claims of exceptionalism on the part of the great powers and their allies, the persistence of nation state sovereignty, and ubiquitous racism. Thus, it should come as no shock that today some countries are consciously attempting to weaken, or perhaps just do away with, international law that seeks to restrain traditional sovereignty. What should come as a shock is that a leader in this endeavor is Israel, supported by the United States.[7]

The fact that Israel is among those states, perhaps the main state, attempting to do away with the laws protecting us all from crimes against humanity seems historically illogical. How can a state that loudly proclaims that its reason for being is the protection of all Jews, seek to undermine laws that were, in good part, promulgated in response to the brutal persecution of Jews? Part of the answer comes from the fact that those who established the Jewish state of Israel did not believe that law in any form could make the Jews safe from persecution—from anti-Semitism. Instead, they staked their future on the founding of a Jewish state that had sovereignty—the right of a state to control its own territory.

One can understand why the founders of Israel chose this path. The prevailing German laws, as they existed under the Weimar Republic, were easily brushed aside once the Nazis came to power in 1932. And no international dedication to human rights led to the rescue of Europe’s Jewry or other persecuted groups. So, a sovereign Jewish nation state was, at the time, the logical choice.

That sentiment pointed to an inevitable problem as international law evolved to bring nation states under the rule of law. To do so, such law had to attack the inbred flaws of the sovereign state: the prevalent group intolerances of their populations and the claim that such states have inviolable authority over its own internal affairs even to the point of tolerating apartheid and genocide.

Zionism, the theory behind the Jewish state of Israel, envisioned just such a classical state—one as Jewish as England is English. However, the Zionists, now allied with England, selected Palestine—a land full of non Jews—to lay down their sovereign claim. Once the Jewish state was established (1948), their leaders were confronted with the inevitable problem: just how to create a state for one group alone in a land where that favored group was a distinct minority? All their various options would lead to the violation of the evolving international laws.

The Zionists had three main options: (1) devising a method to get the Arab majority to move out of the country. (2) creating an unequal political and economic system that marginalized the majority, rendering them politically and economically irrelevant. (3) committing genocide. 

Both methods 1 and 2 were employed. The first led to the Nakba, the catastrophic removal of some 700,000 Palestinians, during the 1948 war that led to the creation of the State of Israel.[8] Some of these people fled the fighting, but many were forced out at gunpoint by Zionist forces. In truth, the Nakba never really came to an end as ongoing home demolitions and evictions show.[9] The attempted evictions of Palestinian families from the East Jerusalem area of Sheikh Jarrah was one of the causes of the recent uprising that saw protests in the West Bank and many segregated Arab sections of Israeli cities, as well as rocket fire from Gaza.

The second method followed in two stages for those Palestinians who would still find themselves under direct Israeli rule: (A) The so-called Palestinian Israelis, today numbering close to 2 million people or roughly 21% of the population of pre-1967 Israel. These Arabs have been given Israeli citizenship—actually second class citizenship.[10] They are segregated from Jewish Israelis by a host of discriminatory practices, among which are inferior housing, schools, and job opportunities. (B) The Palestinians who fell under Israeli control in 1967 and remain so today. These are the residents of the West Bank, Golan Heights and also the Gaza Strip, numbering roughly 5 million people. Most of these Palestinians have been denied Israeli citizenship.[11] They are under the rule of Israeli military authorities or an allied Palestinian authority under Israeli supervision. Internal travel is made difficult for them, their ability to improve or expand their infrastructure is restricted. They are encroached upon by Israeli settlements that are in fact illegal under international law and harassed by Israeli settlers. Attempts at self-defense or counterattack are seen by the Israelis as terrorist acts.

For all intents and purposes, international law and declarations of human rights were replaced by the discriminatory policies which have now been recognized as apartheid—a form of state racism that is itself recognized under international law as a crime against humanity.

Part III—The Israeli Apartheid State

There is little doubt that Israel is in fact an apartheid state and, as we will see, it is equally obvious that the United States is Israel’s biggest supporter and protector. Many investigations by the United Nations, human rights groups, reports and others have confirmed Israel’s nature. Here are some of the most recent: The HRW document was preceded by 16 March 2017 report submitted by UN Economic and Social Commission for West Asia demonstrating Israel’s apartheid nature.[12] Though the report was accurate, the UN Secretary General disavowed it under pressure from the United States and Israel. In May of 2018, a thorough examination appeared entitled Apartheid Israel, by the journalist Jonathan Cook. This was published by Americans for Middle East Understanding in their journal, The Link (April/May 2018).[13] More recently, a 21 January 2021 report by B’Tselem, Israel’s own premier human rights organization, entitled “A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is apartheid,”[14] proved particularly revealing. One should also take a look at the Israeli Apartheid Factsheet, published 12 January 2021 online, by War On Want.[15]

These allegations of apartheid have now been shown to be conclusively true by the detailed, 213 page investigatory report of Human Rights Watch (HRW)—a report that is laid out like a legal brief.[16] Here is how the report describes the apartheid nature of Israeli rule:

“Across these areas and in most aspects of life, Israeli authorities methodically privilege Jewish Israelis and discriminate against Palestinians. Laws, policies, and statements by leading Israeli officials make plain that the objective of maintaining Jewish Israeli control over demographics, political power, and land has long guided government policy. In pursuit of this goal, authorities have dispossessed, confined, forcibly separated, and subjugated Palestinians by virtue of their identity to varying degrees of intensity. In certain areas, as described in this report, these deprivations are so severe that they amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.”

This makes Israeli leaders subject to prosecution by the International Criminal Court for “institutionalized discrimination on the grounds of race or ethnicity.” And they would long ago have had to face that circumstance if it wasn’t for the protection of the United States.

Part IV—U.S. Complicity

A combination of the strong economic and political position of American Jews, the backing of millions of Christian fundamentalists, and the amorphous but real phenomenon of “Holocaust guilt” led to the consistent American support for the founding of Israel starting immediately after World War II. That support has never faltered. Even the negative, racist core of Zionism found resonance in the pervasive practice of racism that tainted U.S. history, both past and present. The  relationship with Israel required that the U.S., the self-proclaimed leader of the “Free World,” protect its ally from international law and the conventions on human rights.[17]

 For most of the past seventy odd years this service was performed by the Democratic Party. It is testimony to the hypocrisy of which Democrats were capable—the maintenance of a willful ignorance of Israel’s true nature— that they carried on with this charade for decades, only slipping now and then under Jimmy Carter and Barak Obama.

However, as soon as Donald Trump was elected president (2016), the Israeli government under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu, initiated a shift of support among the major American Jewish organizations from the Democratic Party to the Republicans. This was not only motivated by the fact that Trump promised to be the most reliably pro-Israel the U.S. has yet known. It was also based on the fact that Trump and Netanyahu had a lot in common.[18] For instance, if there was any loyalty in each man, it was not to their nations so much as to a core support group of citizens who reciprocate that loyalty with uncritical devotion. Indeed, both men, in their own way, are in the process of transforming their core of supporters into early stage fascist movements. This aim tells us that both men have little concern for the rule of law—be it domestic or international law.

We can speculate that Netanyahu recognized this character match and realized that Trump, unlike Barak Obama, would  fall right in with the need to destroy international law (for instance, the law against apartheid) in order for Israel to achieve its goals of (1) a greater Israel through conquest and (2) reserving first class citizenship for Jews only. An added bonus was that Trump quickly agreed to go along with Israel’s desire to destroy Iran.

In one four year period of rule in Washington, Donald Trump arbitrarily pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCOPA) with Iran, one of the major diplomatic achievements of our day; moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, putting another nail in the coffin of a two state solution; and, domestically, promoted racism and bigotry thus undermining much of the progress made by the American political system since 1967. This last process actually began to realize the often made claim that the U.S. and Israel share the same values—not democratic ones, but racist values.

It would seem that egocentric personalities such as Netanyahu and Trump do not think about the long-term. Their lives are lived in the seemingly manipulatable here and now. Thus, having committed Zionist Jewry to a Republican prototype fascist, President Trump promptly lost the 2020 election to a Democrat, Joe Biden. For Netanyahu this could have represented the ultimate bad political mistake of supporting the wrong man. But it didn’t turn out that way. Biden was an old school supporter of Israel, a self-proclaimed Zionist.[19] He told us all that he would leave the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem and support Israel in its “defensive” war against Palestinian “terrorism.” The consequences can be seen in the rubble that is Gaza city after the most recent Palestinian uprising.

Part V—Conclusion

We can surmise that the last five years have revealed the potential of both the United States and Israel to transform themselves into fascist states. Both have produced fascist-style leaders and put them, at least temporarily, in power—leaders that recognized each other and worked together toward destroying international law and human rights.

The average U.S. citizen is either ignorant of or misinformed about the growing danger to both the nation and an aspect of international law that protects us all. One suspects that the the majority of Israeli Jewish citizens just do not care. And that is too bad, because it is the average citizen who will always suffer the most from the commission of crimes against humanity.

Beyond the dangers of ignorance and misinformation, there is the ongoing problem of nationalism. The laws allowing for the prosecution of those who commit crimes against humanity were instituted at a time when most nations were so mindful of the barbarism of World War II that their leaders were willing to let go of a bit of their national sovereignty to create potentially meaningful international law. Short memories and inherent group solidarity has reversed this process.

While the “left” in Israel is so weak and Zionist racism so strong, no progressive change can be envisioned even if Netanyahu were to fall from power.[20] However, there are signs of hope in the United States. In the U.S. the Republican Party has been reduced to a bastardized cult of personality—a rump element of the original organization.[21] It may do a lot of damage in the near future but it has generated a real sense of urgency among both moderates and progressive Democrats and disillusioned Republicans. Collectively they far out number the Trump devotees. 

Also, in the U.S., a new alliance is evolving between the Palestinians and “left” organizations of non-Zionist Jews, African Americans, and pro-peace campaigns of all stripes. In a demonstration for Black Lives Matter, one can readily spot signs supporting Palestinian rights.[22] While Netanyahu has all but destroyed the longstanding ploy of a truly democratic Israel, human rights for Palestinians has been merged with ongoing efforts to make the U.S. ever more democratic. As those efforts go, so may go the future of international law and human rights.


[1] https://www.diffen.com/difference/World_War_I_vs_World_War_II

[2] https://www.iapss.org/2015/03/12/the-united-nations-strengths-and-weaknesses/

[3] https://www.roberthjackson.org/speech-and-writing/opening-statement-before-the-international-military-tribunal/

[4] https://www.ohchr.org/EN/UDHR/Documents/UDHR_Translations/eng.pdf

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fourth_Geneva_Convention

[6] https://www.un.org/en/genocideprevention/documents/atrocity-crimes/Doc.10_International%20Convention%20on%20the%20Suppression%20and%20Punishment%20of%20the%20Crime%20of%20Apartheid.pdf

[7] https://www.dw.com/en/un-panel-israel-annexation-of-west-bank-violates-international-law/a-53830668

[8] https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2017/5/23/the-nakba-did-not-start-or-end-in-1948

[9] https://www.un.org/unispal/document/auto-insert-193492/

[10] https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-what-it-s-like-to-be-a-palestinian-citizen-in-israel-1.6878243

[11] https://www.amnestyusa.org/countries/israel-and-occupied-palestinian-territories/

[12] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/03/16/is-israel-an-apartheid-state-this-u-n-report-says-yes/

[13] http://www.ameu.org/The-Link/Archives/Apartheid-Israel.aspx

[14] https://www.btselem.org/publications/fulltext/202101_this_is_apartheid

[15] https://waronwant.org/news-analysis/israeli-apartheid-factsheet

[16] https://www.hrw.org/report/2021/04/27/threshold-crossed/israeli-authorities-and-crimes-apartheid-and-persecution#

[17] https://ips-dc.org/why_the_us_supports_israel/

[18] https://momentmag.com/trump-netanyahu-two-sides-coin/

[19] https://apnews.com/article/africa-middle-east-europe-israel-palestinian-conflict-business-9ae5b10886c06e70f0255b188ac1e0cc

[20] https://www.middleeasteye.net/opinion/death-israeli-left

[21] https://www.laconiadailysun.com/opinion/columns/jeff-robbins-rump-party—the-face-of-the-gop-is-not-a-pretty/article_27ac67a4-96ec-11eb-aa1a-630bb9efee4a.html

[22] https://time.com/6050422/pro-palestinian-support/