“My son is now in Huwara,” the man said, before pointing to the security forces aiming water cannons at him. “And this is what they do to me.”
The moment seemed to highlight the cognitive dissonance that has run alongside Israel’s mammoth protest movement. For months, tens of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets in defense of their democracy, which they fear may be greatly imperiled by the far-right ruling coalition’s desire to curtail the independent powers of the country’s judiciary. But the protests have seldom dovetailed with a recognition of the other profound mark against Israeli democracy — the ongoing occupation of the West Bank and the denial to millions of Palestinians the same rights as their Israeli neighbors, including half a million Jewish settlers.
In a letter with more than a thousand signatories, a group of prominent academics in the United States and Israel pointed to this exact “elephant in the room.” The statement, which was first published online this past weekend and has been accruing hundreds of signatories daily, called out the “regime of apartheid” that prevails for Palestinians living under Israeli control. And it offers yet more evidence of a shifting discourse on Israel among even some of the Jewish state’s staunchest supporters in the United States.
“There cannot be democracy for Jews in Israel as long as Palestinians live under a regime of apartheid, as Israeli legal experts have described it,” the letter reads. In the authors’ view, it’s impossible to separate Netanyahu’s quest to extend legislative controls over the judiciary from his far-right allies’ desire to annex Palestinian lands and further erode Palestinian rights.
“The ultimate purpose of the judicial overhaul is to tighten restrictions on Gaza, deprive Palestinians of equal rights both beyond the Green Line and within it, annex more land, and ethnically cleanse all territories under Israeli rule of their Palestinian population,” the letter goes on. “The problems did not start with the current radical government: Jewish supremacism has been growing for years and was enshrined in law by the 2018 Nation State Law.”
What makes the document striking, beyond its stark language, is the hefty roster of public intellectuals lining up behind it. Those include many figures who are self-described Zionists, like acclaimed historian Benny Morris. In a Wall Street Journal column published last year, Morris questioned the accuracy of using the “apartheid” frame to interpret the conditions on the ground in Israel and the occupied territories. But his position has changed as avowedly extremist members of Netanyahu’s Cabinet like National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich openly champion racist, discriminatory policies and push for annexation.
Their rise to power, said Omer Bartov, an Israeli historian at Brown University and one of the lead promulgators of the letter, marks “a very radical shift that brought to the surface” tensions and injustices that have long run beneath Israel’s supposedly temporary — but now more than half-century-old — occupation of the West Bank. “There’s a connection between the occupation and everything it has done over the decades and this attempt by the government to change the nature of the regime of itself,” he told me.
Bartov, a preeminent scholar of the Holocaust, described the dangers posed by Netanyahu’s coalition in ominous, historical terms. “I am a historian of the 20th century and don’t make analogies lightly,” Bartov said, before discussing how European fascism took hold when once-fringe political movements managed entry into ruling governments and got their hands on the levers of power. “This is the current moment in Israel. It’s terrifying to see it happening.”
In the United States, a growing bloc of mainstream supporters of Israel are also voicing their disquiet. Last month, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote an open letter to President Biden, urging the White House to arrest the path Netanyahu embarked upon because it compromised not just Israeli democracy, but U.S. strategic interests. His colleague Nicholas Kristof interviewed two former U.S. ambassadors to Israel, who both recommended conditioning or cutting military aid to the Jewish state at a time when U.S. complaints about Israeli settlement expansion or other steps that make a future Palestinian state impossible are routinely disregarded by the Israelis.
“Aid provides the U.S. with no leverage or influence over Israeli decisions to use force; because we sit by quietly while Israel pursues policies we oppose, we are seen as ‘enablers’ of Israel’s occupation,” said Daniel Kurtzer, one of the former ambassadors. “And U.S. aid provides a multibillion-dollar cushion that allows Israel to avoid hard choices of where to spend its own money and thus allows Israel to spend more money on policies we oppose, such as settlements.”
Washington Post opinions columnist Max Boot, a longtime booster of Israel, echoed the idea of limiting aid, while calling for a reevaluation of the U.S. relationship with the country given the extremism now shaping its politics. “Israel is now an increasingly illiberal, and difficult, ally: the Hungary of the Middle East,” Boot wrote. (In his conversation with me, Bartov noted that the Hungary metaphor has its limits: “Israel is an occupying power where about half of whose population have no real rights,” he said. “That’s not the case in Hungary.”)
A slate of polls of U.S. attitudes toward Israel show a steady shift in recent years of sympathy toward Palestinians, especially among young Americans and Democratic voters. But the wider conversation on Israel has yet to impact official Washington, especially Congress, where virtually any criticism of Israel is seen as controversial and any invocation of “apartheid” in the Israeli context leads to charges of antisemitism.
“You can call me a self-hating Jew, call me an antisemite,” Bartov responds. “People use those terms to cover up the reality, either to deceive themselves or to deceive others. You have to look at what’s happening on the ground.”
That’s a similar argument now put forward by Benjamin Pogrund, a South African-born Israeli journalist and author. For years, Pogrund doggedly resisted the application of “apartheid” to Israel, especially by activists who call for the same tactics of boycotts and sanctions once deployed to pressure South Africa’s apartheid regime. Now, he sees the accuracy in the charge.
“We deny Palestinians any hope of freedom and normal lives. We believe our own propaganda that a few million people will meekly accept perpetual inferiority and oppression,” Pogrund wrote in a Haaretz column Thursday. “The government is driving Israel deeper and deeper into inhuman, cruel behavior beyond any defense. I don’t have to be religious to know that this is a shameful betrayal of Jewish morality and history.”