Over 45 years ago the international community, acting through the United Nations General Assembly, adopted a landmark resolution which determined that “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.”
In 1991, in response to massive US pressure in a newly-unipolar world, the General Assembly shamefully renounced Resolution 3379 of 1975.
In the decades since, as denunciations of Israel’s systematic institutional racism have multiplied, there has been a concerted campaign by Israel and its apologists to delegitimize and demonize such critics with the toxic smear of anti-Semitism.
In recent years many Western governments and institutions have gone so far as to formally adopt the utterly absurd definition of anti-Semitism promoted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance ((HRA). Such measures had nothing to do with the struggle against racism, and are simply part of a pre-meditated campaign to further delegitimize, and where possible criminalize, denunciations of Israeli practices and associated acts of solidarity with the Palestinian people. As a result, we today live in a Kafkaesque world where the fastest-growing population of anti-Semites consists of anti-Zionist Jews.
It is primarily in this context that Human Rights Watch (HRW) crossing the Rubicon and concurring that Israel is a racist state is a significant event.
I don’t want to be misunderstood on this point: the research that went into this report is massive and hugely impressive. Combined with the persistence of Omar Shakir and his colleagues in the Middle East division of HRW, the result is a genuinely outstanding document that is required reading, and that deserves to be widely read and disseminated. But at the end of the day, it remains an addition to a substantial body of scholarly and political literature that is decades old.
The report’s main significance, I would therefore argue, lies in the identity of the organization that published it.
It is one thing to accuse Arab Renaissance for Democracy & Development (ARDD) of anti-Semitism, but quite another to level the same charge at HRW. Accusing ARDD of anti-Semitism will for many people who don’t know better raise questions about the organization, its personnel, and agenda. Accusing HRW of anti-Semitism, by contrast, will for most people expose the political depravity of the accuser and the hollowness of the accusation.
The claim that Israel is a racist state has, after all, been promoted by IHRA as a textbook example of anti-Semitism, on a par with Holocaust denial and the blood libel. It’s the kind of thing that happens when you invite the governments of Austria, Australia, Hungary, Poland, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Israel, among other luminaries in the struggle against racism, to participate in the formulation of a definition of anti-Semitism.
Yet the HRW report A Threshold Crossed clearly demonstrates, once again, that systematic institutional racism has been integral to the Israeli state from its very foundation. If the statement that Israel is ruled by a Jewish supremacist regime is no more controversial than the observation that Rhodesia was ruled by a white minority regime, where does that leave the commissars, apparatchiks, and accomplices of the self-proclaimed International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance?
In other words, the main contribution of HRW and its report has been to legitimize discussion of Israeli racism in polite company, and to delegitimize the inter-governmental campaign to silence critics of Israel. More specifically, it provides us with important opportunities to make Israel’s structural racism a routine and central component of any discussion or debate about the situation in Palestine. It remains up to us to properly utilise these openings.
Given that the information and analysis in this report has been available to Human Rights Watch for many years, it is a pity this report was not produced earlier. It would, for example, have been useful to deploy the mainstream prestige of Human Rights Watch, and for that matter of its Israeli counterpart B’Tselem, when Israel first raised its ideological demand, unprecedented in diplomatic practice but nevertheless fully supported by the United States and increasingly by Europe as well, that the Palestinians must not only recognise the state of Israel, but recognise it as a Jewish state.
I raise this point because A Threshold Crossed makes clear once again that you cannot have a Jewish state in Palestine without ethnic cleansing, without the ongoing dispossession of an entire people, without what the HRW report terms the crimes of apartheid and persecution. Next time an American or European official begins blathering about the importance of Arab recognition of Israel as a Jewish state for peace and co-existence in the Middle East, give them a copy of A Threshold Crossed. It is a hefty document, so resist the temptation to serve it to their forehead.
It would of course be naive and unrealistic to expect a single report to have significant political impact, particularly given the number of footnotes it contains and the current state of literacy among political elites. But it can be effectively deployed to expand political space and bolster key analytical perspectives. As such it is not without influence.
Similarly, this report can be used to make it more difficult for the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague to continue dragging its feet with respect to its investigation of the Situation in Palestine, or for it to conclude that Israeli officials and officers have nothing to answer for. A Threshold Crossed can thus also play a role in the growing global campaign to call time on Israeli impunity and to replace this with international accountability. That said, Having neither Western nor regional governments will curtail their military and intelligence assistance to Israel, as recommended by HRW, unless placed under sufficient pressure to do so.
There is a reason this report came out in 2021 and not in 2001 or 2011. The world is changing. Despite the systematic campaign to silence Palestinian voices and stifle discussion of Israeli realities, Western public opinion is increasingly receptive to accurate information and serious analysis about the situation in Palestine. In part this reflects a growing understanding, particularly among young people, that while race is an artificial concept, racism is all too real and needs to be confronted and eradicated. In part this reflects popular revulsion with Trump, Netanyahu, and the extraordinary vulgarity of their policies. And in part this reflects the willingness of sections of the liberal establishment to get with the program.
The significance of A Threshold Crossed thus operates at multiple dimensions. The report itself provides opportunities to more systematically expose the institutional racism that lies at the heart of the Israeli state. The broader political context that produced the report provides opportunities to turn the tide.
As a final comment, the report recommends that Palestinians should adopt a rights-based rather than solutions-based agenda in order to achieve Palestinian objectives.
To the extent that A Threshold Crossed is making the point that diplomacy has consistently served as a fig leaf to further dispossess the Palestinian people and violate their rights, and provided diplomatic cover to Israel’s accomplices for their complicity with its policies, the recommendation is a sound one. Yet rights cannot be achieved in a political vacuum. Just as economic development, or democracy, or good governance cannot be achieved under occupation, so too individual and collective rights cannot be attained in the absence of national liberation.
Although the HRW report does not suggest that Palestinians put aside their quest for self-determination, I would nevertheless argue that it remains vital for Palestinians to put forward a credible political vision, and no less importantly to formulate a credible strategy to achieve it. Not at the expense of addressing realities on the ground as has been the case during the Oslo period, but by fully integrating the daily struggle against death by a thousand cuts into the struggle to achieve the inalienable right to national self-determination.
[The above comments were delivered at a webinar entitled Israeli Apartheid Exposed organized by ARDD on 15 June 2021.]