Monthly Archives: June 2009

Michael Letwin, Is Israel an Apartheid State? (Socialism Conference 2009)

Is Israel an Apartheid State? 
Dennis Brutus, Michael Letwin and Toufic Haddad
Socialism Conference
Chicago, June 19, 2009

Presentation of Michael Letwin:


By way of introduction, I became a radical activist in the late 1960s. From 1971-1976 was a leader of Red Tide, a revolutionary high school underground newspaper and later youth organization of the International Socialists. In 1977, I was a founding member of the ISO. From 1978-1981 I was a student and antiwar activist at UMB. Since 1985, I have been a public defender in Brooklyn. From 1990-2002, I was President of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys/UAW Local 2325. I am a co-convener of New York City Labor Against the War (NYCLAW) and a founding member of Labor for Palestine.

And during those forty years and more, I have been a supporter of the Palestinian national movement.

Changing Mood

The last six months have seen a remarkable shift in popular perceptions of Palestine. Following September 11, 2001, the U.S. government, the Israeli regime and the media were more successful than ever before in portraying Palestinian resistance as “terrorism.” At home, the Zionist Lobby had a relatively free hand in witch-hunting those who spoke out against Israeli apartheid and ethnic cleansing.

This lockstep picture first began to crack in July 2006, when Israel slaughtered thousands of people in Lebanon. But it was the Israeli massacres in Gaza, which began on December 27, 2008, that marked the greatest change. Despite the usual media disinformation, many were appalled at the high-tech slaughter of more than 1400 people — hundreds of them children; the thousands of maimed and wounded; and the utter devastation of Gaza’s infrastructure. Several writers have identified Gaza as the Palestinian Sharpeville.

In this country, the Arab-Muslim community responded to the Gaza massacre with the largest protests since the massive March 20, 2002 DC protest against the Israeli slaughter in Jenin. In New York City, for example, the Break the Siege on Gaza Coalition, led by Al Awda NY, organized several demonstrations in which thousands of people participated. Similar action was held in several other cities.

Perhaps more than ever before, the Zionist regime emerged from the Gaza Ghetto Massacre with, in its words, a serious “PR problem.” Indeed, during the massacre, “Sixty Minutes” broadcast a chilling report on Israeli settlers that ended by warning of the imminent demise of the “two-state solution.” Since the massacre, polls in the U.S. show that favorable opinion of Israel dropped, even among Jews.

One consequence of this post-Gaza “problem” for Zionism is renewed momentum behind the campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. In February, dockers in South Africa and Western Australia refused to handle Israeli cargo. In March, students in the UK occupying more than twenty universities demanded aid to students in Gaza and/or divestment from Israel; they were soon emulated by U.S. students at RIT, Hampshire and NYU. Numerous BDS activities too place elsewhere.

Conversely, efforts to break the Israeli siege of Gaza have escalated. These include Viva Palestina, a series of aid convoys led by British MP George Galloway. On July 4, the first Viva Palestina US convoy will depart NYC with the goal of delivering $10 million in medicine to Gaza.

The extent of these developments should not be overstated. The response of “mainstream” antiwar formations, such as United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) and US Labor Against the War (USLAW), was tepid, at best. The Zionist lobby is still witch-hunting academics such as William Robinson at UCSB. Yet, there are clearly greater opportunities for opponents of Israeli apartheid. This changing climate make it necessary for Palestine activists to wrestle with a variety of longstanding political issues, several of which I would like to address here.

Ultimate Goals: Two States, One State, and Binationalism

Israel’s blatant brutality, combined with the resilience of Palestinian resistance — much of it nonviolent — together with the need to rebrand increasingly unpopular U.S./Israeli wars and occupation throughout the Middle East and Central Asia, explains why Barack Obama felt it necessary to make a June 2009 speech in Cairo, the tone of which seemed to go further than prior U.S. pronouncements in recognizing Palestinian grievances. Specifically, he called for limiting Israeli settlements in the West Bank and establishing a Palestinian state — the “two-state solution.”

Of course, Obama’s speech overflowed with absurdity and hypocrisy: the assertion that the Nazi holocaust in Europe somehow excuses ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians; the pretense of U.S. “evenhandedness,” when, as in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is U.S. aircraft, white phosphorous, bombs and bullets that kill and maim on behalf of the occupiers; omission of the fact that Israel receives this support in consideration of its role as outpost and watchdog for U.S. domination of the Middle East; preaching nonviolence to an oppressed people when, as Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out, “the world’s greatest purveyor of violence is my own government”;  claiming to support “democracy,” while backing the corrupt, unelected Quisling regime in Vichy Palestine and refusing to recognize the democratically-elected Hamas government in Gaza; and the obvious fact that the U.S. could end the settlements tomorrow by just threatening to cut-off U.S. aid to Israel.

But even leftwing commentators often ignore the most fundamental problem with Obama’s pronouncements on Palestine: that, even if implemented, two-states would not — and could not — achieve justice for Palestinians as a whole, or for even any branch: those in the “Occupied Palestinian Territories,” those in ’48 Palestine (“Israel” within the Green Line), or those in Diaspora.

While the BDS movement does not take an explicit position on how many states should exist in historic Palestine, the Palestinian Call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions of July 9, 2005 articulates the minimum terms for “the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination,” including:

1. Ending [the Israeli] occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall;

2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and

3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.

First and most obviously, implantation of half a million Zionist settlers has undermined any prospect of a contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Second, even if the settlers were uprooted, any “Palestinian state” would be a non-contiguous Bantustan consisting, at most, of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. Under any scenario, this would remain a defenseless Vichy Palestine, ruled by the Quisling Palestinian Authority.

Third, maintaining 78% of historic Palestine as a “Jewish state” would be possible only if Palestinians — who already make up 20% of the population in 1948 Palestine (AKA “Israel”) — accept permanent inequality and/or expulsion. To survive on the basis of such ongoing ethnic cleansing and apartheid, the “Jewish state” would, by necessity, remain a highly-militarized outpost and watchdog for U.S. imperialism.

Fourth, recognition of a “Jewish state” means surrender of the Palestinian Right to Return to areas within 1948 Palestine, in which 70% of the Palestinian population was ethnically cleansed during and since the Nakba. For example, where did Gazans come from, why did they leave, and why can’ t they return?

This ugly reality is only confirmed by Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech of June 15, which lays out Zionist terms for a “Palestinian state.” But it is no less true of Obama’s “two-state” vision.

In other words, continued existence of any “Jewish state” in Palestine would only further institutionalize and perpetuate ethnic cleansing and apartheid against the indigenous Palestinians. It is inherently inconsistent with Palestinian national self-determination and democratic rights.

It is for these reasons that a growing number of both Palestinian activists and Jewish anti-Zionists have embraced the call for one secular democratic state throughout historic Palestine. For only such a state offers true self-determination for Palestinians: an end to military occupation, the right of return, and equal rights.

The OSS should not be confused with a “binational” state, an anti-democratic concept first formulated in the 1930s by “left wing” Zionists of the Hashomer Hatzair, and apparently advocated by Israeli Marxist Moshe Machover. In this context, binationalism would mean that, regardless relative population size, Jews *as a group* would have equal weight to the indigenous Palestinian population, and the right to a separate, apartheid state. This, in turn, is based on the false premise that all Jews, like all Palestinians, constitute a distinct oppressed “people” or “nation.”

Whatever legitimacy the idea of Jews as an oppressed nationality might or might not have had in Eastern Europe prior to the Nazi Holocaust, it is clearly inapplicable elsewhere. As recently documented by Israeli historian Shlomo Sand, there is no evidence for the existence of a Jewish “nation” expelled from ancient Palestine. The myth of Jewish “peoplehood” was born in the late 19th century to justify the Zionist colonization of Palestine. And since that time, the relationship of most Jews to Palestine is not as the oppressed, but as oppressors in a colonial settler-state. Thus, Jewish and Palestinian workers in historic Palestine share no more of a common class interest than did white and Black workers during South African apartheid.

Thus, while the Palestinian national movement has long agreed to one democratic state with minority rights, it has always rejected a “binational” state as anti-democratic, just as Black South Africans never agreed to national self-determination and separation for the Boers. For the same reasons, Jews living in other countries have no special right to settle in Palestine.

In light of the BDS campaign’s goals, and the speeches by Obama and Netanyahu, “two states” will become increasingly discredited as another front for apartheid and ethnic cleansing. Its main Palestinian proponent, the Abbas regime, has already been largely exposed as a US/Israeli puppet. And notwithstanding continued support for two states from Noam Chomsky and others, one-state is increasingly the default position amongst Jewish leftists.

Answering those (like Chomsky or Avneri) who argue that one state is “unrealistic” because Jewish Israelis “will never agree,” journalist Jonathan Cook rightly points out that the Zionist state will never “agree” to any type of “solution.” It is also important to remember that the fall of South African apartheid only looked inevitable in hindsight. Our job is to support those Palestinians who are unwilling to accept anything less than justice.

Labor and the BDS Movement

Since 1920s, labor officialdom has been a key supporter of Zionism. But labor also has the potential to play a very different role. In the wake of Gaza, BDS has been reaffirmed or newly endorsed by numerous labor bodies, including the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), UNISON (UK), Transport and General Workers’ Union (UK), Canadian Union of Postal Workers, Canadian Union of Public Employees-Ontario, six Norwegian trade unions, Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Scottish Trades Union Congress, and Intersindical Alternativa de Catallunya. The strongest response was made by the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union in Durban, and the Western Australia Branch of the Maritime Union of Australia, both of which refused to handle Israeli cargo.

This has generated a Labor-Zionist backlash from Stuart Appelbaum, who heads the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) and the Jewish Labor Committee (JLC).

The JLC smears BDS supporters with accusations of “anti-Semitism,” just as the Israel Lobby routinely attacks Archbishop Desmond Tutu and numerous other critics of Israeli apartheid — many of whom are Jewish.

This is standard JLC operating procedure. For decades, it has served as “progressive” mouthpiece for the Histadrut, the Zionist labor federation that has spearheaded — and whitewashed — apartheid, dispossession and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians since the 1920s. Meanwhile, U.S. labor leaders have plowed at least $5 billion of our union pension funds and retirement plans into State of Israel Bonds.

In 2007, Appelbaum and the JLC recruited top AFL-CIO and Change to Win officials to sign a statement condemning British unions for supporting the BDS campaign. Now, to deflect international outrage over Gaza, they have launched “Trade Unions Linking Israel and Palestine (TULIP),” a benign-sounding name for a project whose sole purpose is to target labor BDS supporters.

Their shameful complicity with Israeli apartheid echoes “AFL-CIA” support for U.S. war and dictatorship in Vietnam, Latin America, Gulf War I, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Palestine and the Antiwar Movement

In January 2004, Arab-Muslim activists issued an open letter demanding full inclusion of the Palestinian struggle — including the right to return — in the antiwar movement. Palestine has been taken seriously by ANSWER, the Campus Antiwar Network, the Troops Out Now Coalition, and others. But much of the antiwar movement, including UFPJ and USLAW, remain relatively deliberately clueless about Palestine.

Under pressure from the Arab-Muslim community and parts of the left, UFPJ has finally felt compelled to say something about Palestine, an example of which was its June 10, 2007 event in D.C. But it the issue completely segregated its opposition to the Iraq war, and was virtually MIA during the Gaza massacres. It defines the “Israeli occupation” solely in terms of the 1967 occupation, while ignoring the overall Zionist occupation of Palestine launched by the Nakba and creation of the Israeli apartheid state in 1948.

In contrast, it is critical for the antiwar movement to build strong relationships with the grassroots Arab-Muslim community, including GUPS, Palestine Popular Conference, and Awda-NY.