Israel’s Troubling Tilt Toward Apartheid

From the Archive: Though it remains risky in U.S. media and political circles to criticize Israel, there is a growing alarm even at the New York Times about the extremist trends of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox who are demanding segregation by sex, ethnicity and religious practices, as Robert Parry noted in this 2010 article.

By Robert Parry (Originally published March 19, 2010)

The United Nations General Assembly may well have been wrong in 1975 to equate Zionism with racism, since many early Israelis rejected extremist notions regarding separation of Jews from Arabs. But today a virulent form of Zionism is turning Israel in the direction of an intolerant apartheid state.

This ultra-conservative strain of Judaism is now represented at senior levels of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, especially in the Housing Ministry, which in early 2010 humiliated Vice President Joe Biden by announcing 1,600 more Jewish housing units in East Jerusalem as Biden was arriving to reaffirm U.S. solidarity with Israel.

Israel’s Housing Minister Ariel Atias

An under-reported element of the flare-up between the Obama administration and Netanyahu’s government was that Israel’s Housing Minister Ariel Atias, who sprang the announcement during Biden’s visit, is a religious fanatic whose ultra-Orthodox Judaism is about as intolerant of others as many extreme forms of Islam are.

Atias, a rising star in the religious Shas Party, has publicly called for imposing legal and physical constraints on the housing choices of Israel’s Arab population. But his demands for segregation do not stop at Arabs. He also targets secular Jews who don’t follow strict religious rules.

In July 2009, Atias told a conference of the Israel Bar Association that Israel’s Arab population must be prevented from buying homes in many parts of Israel. “I see [it] as a national duty to prevent the spread of a population that, to say the least, does not love the state of Israel,” Atias declared. “If we go on like we have until now, we will lose the Galilee. Populations that should not mix are spreading there. I don’t think that it is appropriate [for them] to live together.”

Atias also spoke favorably about relying on aggressive ultra-Orthodox Jews, known as Haredis, to keep the Arabs in line. Citing Jewish-Arab tensions that broke out in the town of Acre, Atias recounted a conversation he had with the city’s mayor about how Acre could be saved. Atias said:

“He told me ‘bring a bunch of Haredis and we’ll save the city, even if I lose my political standing.’ He told me that Arabs are living in Jewish buildings and running them out.”

In Atias’s vision for Israel, certain lands would be sold to Arabs, others to ultra-Orthodox Jews, and still others to secular Jews, creating a nation segregated along inter- and intra-religious lines. “I, as an ultra-Orthodox Jew, don’t think that religious Jews should have to live in the same neighborhood as secular couples, so as to avoid unnecessary friction,” Atias explained.

Some of that friction between the ultra-Orthodox Jews and secular Jews relates to the anger of the ultra-Orthodox Haredis against Jewish women dressing in ways that are considered immodest or against secular Jews who don’t follow strict rules against using machinery on the Sabbath.

[Reporting on these tensions this past weekend, the New York Times wrote: “The list of controversies grows weekly: Organizers of a conference last week on women’s health and Jewish law barred women from speaking from the podium, leading at least eight speakers to cancel; ultra-Orthodox men spit on an 8-year-old girl whom they deemed immodestly dressed; the chief rabbi of the air force resigned his post because the army declined to excuse ultra-Orthodox soldiers from attending events where female singers perform; protesters depicted the Jerusalem police commander as Hitler on posters because he instructed public bus lines with mixed-sex seating to drive through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods; vandals blacked out women’s faces on Jerusalem billboards.”]

These tensions are similar to those in strict Islamic states, where morality police arrest or humiliate women whose bodies are not adequately covered. Atias noted that the ultra-Orthodox Haredis “need synagogues and do not want any traffic on Shabbat. Seculars demand cultural facilities.”

Favoring His Own

Inside Israel, Atias has come under criticism for favoring his fellow ultra-Orthodox Jews in opening more new housing units to them than to secular Jews and surely to Arabs.

“There is a severe housing crisis among the young ultra-Orthodox couples, and in the general population,” Atias said, explaining his thinking. “And since some 5,000 to 6,000 religious couples get married every year, a problem arises because they require a certain kind of community life that goes along with their lifestyle.”

Commenting on Atias’s statements, some leftist members of the Knesset have deplored the racism implicit in his policies.

“Racism is spreading throughout the government, and Minister Atias is the latest to express it,” said Hadash Chairman Mohammad Barakeh. “The government and everyone in it must realize that Arabs are living in their homeland and they have no other. If there is any foreign element in the Galilee, it is not the Arabs.” [For details, see, and, July 2, 2009]

In September 2009, in announcing favorable housing decisions for his ultra-Orthodox brethren, Atias reaffirmed his goal of achieving a segregated society.

“I’ve said it in the past and I say it again: I don’t think populations can be mixed together,” Atias told Haaretz. “A Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] population needs to live in locations with other Haredim, so we don’t descend to sectarian violence, as is happening right now in Kiryat Yovel in Jerusalem. I advocate the separation of population groups as a healthy solution.”

Atias is regarded as a poorly educated politician who travels little, if at all, outside Israel. Still, he is an emerging powerbroker in the Shas Party, which represents a key element of Netanyahu’s Likud coalition. Atias, who previously was in charge of inspecting kosher meat and who has advocated censorship of the Internet, was placed second on the Shas candidate list in 2009.

In Israel, the position of Housing Minister also is very important, given the significance of settlements to the concept of a Greater Israel and to the peace process. Past housing ministers have included future prime ministers, including Ariel Sharon and Netanyahu himself.

Atias’s intolerance toward the mixing of Arabs and Jews and even Jews of different religious orientation goes a long way to explain the refusal of Netanyahu’s government to pull back on expansion of Jewish settlements into traditionally Arab lands. To do so would risk rupturing the governing coalition.

‘Anti-Semitic’ Charge

Despite this reality, any criticism of Israeli housing policies draws angry responses from right-wing Israelis and American neoconservatives. For instance, the Obama administration’s complaint about Atias’s housing decision during Biden’s visit prompted Netanyahu’s brother-in-law, Hagai Ben Artzi, to label Obama as “anti-Semitic,” adding: “it’s not that Obama doesn’t sympathize with [Netanyahu]. He doesn’t sympathize with the people of Israel.”

Netanyahu quickly distanced himself from Artzi’s comment. But American neocons also blamed Obama primarily for the housing dispute with Netanyahu’s government. The Washington Post’s neocon editorialists wrote, “It has been a little startling and a little puzzling to see Mr. Obama deliberately plunge into another public brawl with the Jewish state. The dispute’s dramatic escalation seems to have come at the direct impetus of Mr. Obama.”

On March 2, 2010, Post columnist Richard Cohen labeled as anti-Semitic pretty much anyone who objects to Israel’s discrimination against Palestinians. Israel “is not motivated by racism,” Cohen declared. “That’s more than can be said for many of its critics.”

Cohen was especially outraged by anyone who would compare the plight of Palestinians in and around Israel to South African blacks under “apartheid.” Yet, while the parallel is far from perfect, Atias’s plans for segregated neighborhoods for Arabs, for secular Jews and for ultra-Orthodox Jews does sound a lot like apartheid.

Even thoughtful Israelis have begun to grapple with the moral and political dilemma of Jewish settlers seizing Palestinian lands on the basis of Biblical mandates in which God supposedly granted all the territory to the Israelites.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, a Labor Party representative in Netanyahu’s government, has warned that the extreme Zionist vision of a Greater Israel could lead to either a single state with a Palestinian majority or special rules to limit Palestinian civil rights.

“If, and as long as between the Jordan and the sea, there is only one political entity, named Israel, it will end up being either non-Jewish or non-democratic,” Barak said at a security conference. “If the Palestinians vote in elections, it is a bi-national state, and if they don’t, it is an apartheid state.”

However, to the Post’s Cohen, you are deserving of the ugly charge of anti-Semitism if you suggest that some form of apartheid looms in Israel’s future if it continues down its current path. Cohen scolded Henry Siegman, who wrote an op-ed for The Financial Times and mentioned the word apartheid several times.

Noting that Siegman was a former executive director of the American Jewish Congress, Cohen conceded that “anti-Semitism is not the issue here.” Cohen then added, however, “anti-Semitism is not so easily dismissed with others.”

Such knee-jerk defenses of Israel by influential American neocons apparently emboldened Netanyahu and his coalition allies like Shas to believe they can do pretty much whatever they wish regardless of the desires or interests of the United States.

Other Middle East experts believe Atias and his Shas Party may be oblivious to the political repercussions in Washington. As The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg told New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, “It’s not entirely clear to me that the Shas Party knows who Joe Biden is or cares.”

Prince Saud al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, told Dowd that Israel’s ultra-conservative religious groups were “killing every option that comes out that has peace in its objective.”

Still, with U.S. neocons protecting Netanyahu’s back regardless of the reckless actions of his Shas allies, his government seems destined to plunge ever deeper into ethnic and religious segregation.

[For more on related topics, see Robert Parry’s Lost History, Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, now available in a three-book set for the discount price of only $29. For details, click here.]

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ are also available there.

7 comments for “Israel’s Troubling Tilt Toward Apartheid

  1. flat5
    January 21, 2012 at 10:16

    How to Confront the Anti-Israel Fixation of the Left . . . and the Uninformed
    by Belladonna Rogers,, January 3, 2012

    Of all the challenges I face dealing with leftists, one of the most difficult is contending with their anti-Israel bias. I realize Ron Paul has also expressed and mobilized anti-Israeli sentiments, but I, personally, don’t have to deal with them and hope I never do. How can I deal with the growing, overt liberal animus toward Israel?

    Chagrined in Chicago

    Dear Chagrined,

    Much of the malicious and inaccurate criticism of Israel stems from two sources: ignorance and anti-Semitism.

    If the criticism is based on the first, you can counteract it with facts. Here are four of the principal, hostile myths about Israel and the facts to rebut them.

    (1) Israel is a foreign implant, a Western outpost, alien to the Middle East.

    To the contrary, Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people, who were living there for centuries before Christianity or Islam began. Jews have lived in what is now Israel continuously for more than two millennia.

    (2) Israel has imperial ambitions and seeks to expand its territory and dominate others.

    When it was established by a vote of the United Nations in 1948, Israel accepted the borders that the UN drew. The year it was founded, the surrounding Arab countries, however, all attacked Israel in an effort to destroy it. Israel ended the war with more territory than it had had at the beginning. In 1967, Arab aggression led to another war of self-defense in which Israel captured more territory. The Israeli government immediately offered to return the territory in exchange for peace. In 1979-82 it did return territory to Egypt as part of a peace treaty brokered by the United States.

    It has conducted negotiations with Syria to the north, and the Palestine Liberation Organization to the west, for the same purpose, but neither of them has been willing to make peace with Israel. For that reason the Golan Heights, to the north, and the West Bank of the Jordan River, to the west, have remained under Israeli control. At no time has Israel sought to enlarge its territory by attacking others in an “imperial” effort. Its boundaries have changed only as a result of wars initiated against Israel by its Arab neighbors.

    (3) Israel is not a democracy.

    The status of the Arabs living in the West Bank is the subject of negotiations, as discussed above. As for the rest of Israel, it is a Western-style parliamentary democracy in which full civil and political rights, including the right to vote, extend to all of its citizens, including its almost one million Arabs citizens, both Christian and Muslim, and to all women. (Full American-style rights are not available to the citizens of any Arab country.) Arabs have been elected to, and serve in, the Israeli legislature, the Knesset.

    (4) Israel and its friends manipulate American foreign policy.

    This is the canard of the vicious polemic written by Professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. They charged that Israel and its friends were responsible for the American war in Iraq, which the two professors opposed.

    The president, vice president, secretaries of state, and defense and national security advisor of the George W. Bush administration (none of whom is Jewish), who made the decision to go to war, were not, of course, manipulated by anyone, nor was the United States Congress, which supported the decision.

    Indeed, Israeli government officials privately counseled their American counterparts against the Iraq war, believing that Iran posed the greater threat.

    When Anti-Semitic Bigotry Is at the Root of Anti-Israeli Sentiment

    As for anti-Semitic bigotry as a source of anti-Israeli sentiment – a subject on which Eliot A. Cohen has written brilliantly — here are some telltale signs that this ancient hatred is the underlying cause of the animus against the modern Jewish state:

    (1) When people refuse to accept the validity of the facts presented above.

    (2) When the critic demonizes Israel and Jews, assigning to them responsibility for things with which they have no connection (e.g., “banking domination of the world,” referring to “Rothschild Zionists,” and asserting that Jews “always profit from war” despite the fact that if anyone “profits,” it is defense contractors whose ranks are not “dominated” by Jews).

    (3) When they use a double standard, criticizing Israel for actions they never question in other countries (e.g., when they attack Israel for self-defense, while ignoring rocket attacks from Gaza aimed at Israeli civilians, or ship-borne “peace brigades” from Turkey, with armed men on board ready to kill Israeli officers patrolling Israeli waters).

    Bigotry is, unfortunately, rampant among Israel’s Arab neighbors, in part thanks to the bombardment of printed pamphlets of anti-Semitic propaganda and short-wave radio broadcasts in Arab lands by the Nazis during World War II. Since then, anti-Israeli hostility has been encouraged by the incompetent, oppressive authoritarian dictators who seek to deflect the anger of those they govern away from themselves.

    Anti-Semitism is also making a vigorous comeback in its ancestral home of Europe, where for more than a millennium it was comfortably ensconced, reaching its apex in the Holocaust.

    The current wave of virulent European anti-Semitism has caused an exodus to Israel from Sweden, France, the UK, The Netherlands, Germany and Austria, and other countries by Jews whose families have lived in Europe and the UK for centuries.

    The main cause? Criminal assaults on Jews by the fast-growing young Muslim populations. The governments in these countries are scandalously lax in protecting their Jewish citizens.

    There’s one place, however, where criticism of Israeli isn’t fueled by anti-Semitism, and that’s Israel, whose boisterous democracy regularly generates debate and criticism so robust that they can make relations between American Democrats and Republicans seem positively chummy by comparison.

    Unlike anti-Israeli sentiment based on ignorance of history, though, you don’t stand a chance of persuading bigots by using facts, logic, or reasoning, because their attitudes are irrational, deep-seated, and often unconscious.

    Education may help with the factually-ignorant. With the deep-seated anti-Semite, nothing will succeed.

    When you encounter such a person, I recommend minimizing contact—indeed, if you can, cutting off contact entirely.

    Life is too short to subject yourself to an unrepentant bigot, no matter how charming or attractive he or she may appear to be in other respects. I’m with Moses Seixas and George Washington on this: “Give bigotry no sanction.” None.

  2. Riddel
    January 19, 2012 at 14:53

    Israel has killed more people through acts of terrorism than people Israel labels as terrorist.

  3. chmoore
    January 16, 2012 at 18:10

    “Israel ‘is not motivated by racism,’ Cohen declared.”

    Here all this time I thought that many top issues RE Israel had to do with things like neighborhood settlements and residential rocket attacks between opposing racial/cultural/ancestral groups.

    What a relief that Cohen has cleared up this confusion for us all.

    How mis-guided and anti-semite of me to not realize that people were actually just fighting against themselves; and that the proposed partitioning of neighborhoods would just be based on everyone’s mutual desire to have a little privacy.

    Come to think of it, maybe there is an aspect of people fighting against themselves?

  4. flat5
    January 16, 2012 at 15:47

    usual antisemitic bullshit

  5. F. G. Sanford
    January 16, 2012 at 13:23

    Is it true that the Knesset just passed a law making it illegal to compare Israel to the Nazis? Maybe I was just having a bad dream about Beebe, Zippy and Viggy. But they remind me an awful lot of Addie, Hermie and Gerbie. Reminding isn’t the same as comparing, is it?

    • Jacqueline O'Connor
      January 19, 2012 at 14:08

      The USA should distance itself from Israel, a puny little state of less than 8 million people (and not all of them Jews) causing much of the unrest in the Middle East. If American Jews want to support Israel’s policies of discrimination and segregation, let them. Better yet, go live in Israel and experience it first hand. For Americans, we should kiss Israel good bye publicall because they do not share our values and never have. Sympathy after WWII led to this knee jerk reaction supporting the creation of Israel, but I wish we’d declined that “honor”.

  6. knowbuddhau
    January 16, 2012 at 12:47

    Behold the Power of Myth: to bring into being the world stage on which we’re playing our notorious parts. And yet it is fashionable to use “”myth” as merely an intellectual’s synonym for “lie.” WTFIUWT?

    We won’t solve our titanic problems by accepting the reduction of all earthly life to APA-style psychologisms. Not until we lift our eyes to the next higher level of analysis will we see the true powers in play.

    So what’s a myth, anyway? A myth is a metaphor. OK, what’s a metaphor? As the name implies, a metaphor is a vessel for going from ignorance to understanding. As such, they can be used as life rafts, for ferrying people to the Yonder Shore with grace and dignity all along the way; or as burlap sacks for drowning unwanted kittens. It all depends on the intentions of the myth-makers.

    What are the intentions of the ultra-Orthodox? Just like the rest of humanuity: To bring into being a world stage on which they may play in accordance with their vision of how the world is supposed to be composed and to function. Sadly, their insistence on their own exclusive sanctity allows them to treat the rest of us as just god-forsaken dirt people, made expressly for their exploitation.

    They believe life is a holy war of all against themselves, who just happen to be the only beings of interest to the highest power in the universe, a belief they share with fundamentalist Christians and Muslims. None of them is unique in the belief that they alone are unique. Ain’t that something?

    People who believe life is a holy war of all against themselves make bad neighbors. They’re always going to be convinced that the devil is behind every setback. They’re always going to see the Other as a threat.

    The problem they all have with non-believers is our mere existence. There’s nothing we can do to overcome the primordial presumption of their exclusive holiness and our perpetual perfidy.

    My point is that the Power of Myth isn’t just a set of DVDs given away by PBS stations during fund drives. The Power of Myth is a very real political power. Who can forget that mythical, not factual, WMD jacked our entire nation to an illegal war in Iraq? Who fails to see that myths about Iran’s non-existent nukes now threaten to do it all over again?

    As one who has studied it for some time now, I feel as if I’m living in the era before it was understood how the brain is involved in our awareness of the world itself. It’s like talking to people who just don’t see how the world is brought into being.

    We have to look at a people’s myths, if we want to understand them and the world they believe themselves to be living in. Just pointing out what appear to be absurdities, when viewed from an APA-style perspective, isn’t getting us any closer to a full and lasting peace.

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