Why American Liberals Now Call Israel An Apartheid State
When Amnesty International earlier this month joined the chorus of human rights groups accusing Israel of practicing apartheid, my mind wandered to Jimmy Carter. America’s 39th president wasn’t the first person to affix the Scarlet A to the Jewish state. Palestinian intellectuals have been doing so since at least the 1960s. But as far as I’m aware, Carter’s 2007 book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, caused the first big-league brawl over the term in the United States. I’ve been thinking about that moment, and this one, and what’s changed.
But first a note about our Zoom call, for paid subscribers, this Friday, February 18 at Noon ET. (We’ll send the link on Wednesday.) We’ll be joined by Ahmad Khalidi of the Palestinian think tank, Al Shabaka, and St. Anthony’s College, Oxford, for a conversation about the history of Palestinian nationalism. In the US, it’s far more common to hear the story of Zionism than the story of Palestinian responses to Zionism. But understanding the first without understanding the second creates huge blind shots, which warp our understanding of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. I’ll ask Ahmad about the way Palestinian intellectuals responded to Zionism’s emergence in late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, about Palestinian debates over the UN partition plan in 1947, about the birth of the PLO, about its winding road to endorsing the two-state solution, about the rise of Hamas, and about where this all leaves the Palestinian struggle today. If you’ve never heard Ahmad speak, you’re in for a treat. His depth of knowledge is remarkable and his insights are wise, humane and deep. Join us.
Back to the apartheid charge, then and now. To understand what’s changed in American discourse, it’s worth starting with what hasn’t changed. The answer: A lot. Establishment Jewish organizations, American politicians, and American conservatives have responded to the new wave of apartheid allegations in pretty much the same way they responded to Carter fifteen years ago. Back then, the Anti-Defamation League suggested that Carter was peddling antisemitism, which is pretty much what it said about Amnesty a couple of weeks ago. In 2007, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi threw Carter under the bus, which is what most members of Congress who spoke on the matter did earlier this month to Amnesty. (The number of members of Congress who accuse Israel of apartheid may no longer be zero but you can still count them on one hand.) On the American right, the response hasn’t changed either. In 2007, an article in National Review said Carter had joined the “Israel bashers.” A few days ago, an article in National Review called Amnesty’s report a “vicious attack on Israel.”
The big change has come in what you might call establishment progressive media. I’m not talking about leftist publications like The Nation, which have always stood outside the Washington consensus on Israel-Palestine. I’m talking about The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Slate, even The New York Review of Books. These are publications that help shape what a high-minded, liberal—but not radical—American should think about everything from mask mandates to Dave Chappelle. It’s here you see the dramatic change. Fifteen years ago, calling Israel an apartheid state was outside the bounds of liberal respectability. Today, it’s not. Partly that’s because Israel’s illiberalism has become harder to deny. And, partly, it’s because the nature of American liberalism has changed.
Let’s start with the first factor: the shift in Israel. Compare the 2007 American debate about apartheid to the one now and it becomes clear how devastating Benjamin Netanyahu’s decade in power has been to Israel’s reputation among American liberals. In 2007, prominent reviewers criticized Carter for not recognizing that Israeli leaders, and ordinary Israeli Jews, wanted to leave the West Bank. In The Washington Post, Jeffrey Goldberg, then a staff writer at The New Yorker, claimed that “Carter does not recognize the fact that Israel, tired of the burdens of occupation, also dearly wants to give up the bulk of its West Bank settlements.” He added that, “the people of Israel have fallen out of love with the settlers, who themselves now know that they have no future.” In The New York Review of Books, former New York Times executive editor Joseph Lelyveld suggested that by calling Israel an apartheid state, Carter was legitimizing a one state solution, a position held by only “the dwindling number of Jewish absolutists who argue that the only real Israel is Greater Israel.” In The New York Times itself, deputy foreign editor—and future Israel correspondent—Ethan Bronner acknowledged that Carter’s “chapter on the endless humiliation of daily life for the Palestinians under Israeli occupation paints a devastating and largely accurate picture.” But given “Israel’s departures from southern Lebanon and Gaza,” Bronner suggested that Carter’s depiction of endless occupation “feels like yesterday’s story.”
My point in recounting these responses is not to make Goldberg, Lelyveld, and Bronner look foolish. Anyone who took a microscope to my writing in 2007 about Israel-Palestine—or virtually anything else—would find numerous assertions that subsequent events have proved wrong. My point is that these highly regarded journalists were reflecting the mainstream American liberal opinion of their time. There were more radical critics—especially Palestinians—who challenged the notion that Ehud Barak’s peace proposal in 2000, Ehud Olmert’s in 2007, and Ariel Sharon’s 2005 disengagement from Gaza, proved that Israel wanted to leave the West Bank. But in the mainstream American media in 2007, they were largely off stage.
Fifteen years later, after more than a decade of Netanyahu, who advertised his disdain for Palestinian statehood, and close to a year of Naftali Bennett, who once led Israel’s main settler organization and promoted annexation of the West Bank, mainstream American liberals no longer claim that Israel yearns to end the occupation. The 2018 passage of the Nation-State Law, which downgraded the status of Arabic and declared that only Jews have the right to national self-determination, also drew liberals’ attention to structural discrimination inside Israel proper. In his review of Carter’s book, Michael Kinsley, the founder of Slate, called the apartheid charge “moronic,” “foolish,” and “unfair” because Palestinians inside Israel’s original boundaries “are citizens with the right to vote and so on.” And so on. Kinsley deemed Carter’s charge so ludicrous that he didn’t even need to spell out his objections. After the 2018 Nation-State law, and Netanyahu’s 2015 warning that “Arab voters are coming out in droves,” and Avigdor Lieberman’s suggestion that Israel redraw its boundary to exile some Palestinian citizens from the country, a prominent liberal writer would likely not be as nonchalant today.
But you can’t explain the shift over the last fifteen years merely by examining changes in Israel. There’s also been a change here. Americans find Israel’s illiberalism more glaring because of the changing nature of liberalism in the United States. In 2007, the writers who scrutinized Carter’s book in the Times, Post, Slate, New Republic and New York Review of Books were all Jews. As far as I can tell, not a single national publication gave the book to a Palestinian, or even Arab or Muslim, writer to review. Last year, by contrast, the Post alone published at least four op-eds authored or co-authored by Palestinians, which endorsed the apartheid charge. The Palestinian author Tareq Baconi penned a long essay in The New York Review of Books that took Israel’s status as an apartheid state as its premise. It’s title: “What Apartheid Means for Israel.” In Slate, a Muslim American writer, Ayman Ismail, quoted a Palestinian journalist, Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, who noted with satisfaction that “eight years ago, when I was working at The New York Times and PBS and other places, I would have to have arguments about using the word occupy…Now, we’re using terms like apartheid.”
As I’ve written before, this change stems in large measure from the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements, which have forced a reckoning in mainstream liberal media about questions of representation. It’s now harder to exclude Palestinians from conversations about whether Israel practices apartheid for the same reason it’s harder to exclude Black Americans from conversations about whether American policing is racist or women from conversations about restrictions on abortion.
But American liberalism’s shift has not been merely demographic; it has also been ideological. Over the last fifteen years, American liberalism’s center of gravity has moved substantially to the left. To grasp how much things have changed, flip through Barack Obama’s 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, which at the time made liberals swoon. In it, the young Illinois senator declares, “I believe in the free market, competition, and entrepreneurship, and think no small number of government programs don’t work as advertised” and “I reject a politics that is based solely on racial identity, gender identity, sexual orientation, or victimhood generally. I think that much of what ails the inner city involves a breakdown in culture that will not be cured by money alone.” Obama adds that, “Reagan’s central insight—that the liberal welfare state had grown complacent and overly bureaucratic, with Democratic policy makers more obsessed with slicing the economic pie than with growing the pie—contained a good deal of truth” and boasts about having co-sponsored legislation that “made it significantly more difficult for employers to hire workers here illegally.”
It’s impossible to imagine a Democratic presidential candidate writing these sentences today. That’s largely because the last decade has witnessed a surge of leftist activism not seen since the 1960s. The 2008 financial crisis led many young Americans to question capitalism. Their activism powered the 2011 Occupy movement and then elevated Bernie Sanders from an obscure, fringe senator (The New York Times put its story about his 2016 presidential announcement on page 21) to the cusp of the Democratic nomination. Today, the organization Democratic Socialists of America boasts close to twenty times as many members as it did a decade ago. And what the financial crisis did to liberal views about capitalism, the murder of George Floyd did to liberal views about racism. In 2011, about one in three Democrats told pollsters that “Black Americans have gotten less than they deserved.” By 2020, the figure was three in four.
This shift, sometimes dubbed the “great awokening,” has changed American journalism. It means that liberal publications like The New Yorker, Slate, and The New Republic are far closer ideologically to leftist publications like The Nation than they were fifteen years ago. You can see that ideological shift by comparing the people who reviewed Carter’s book to the people who write about Israel for those same publications today. Kinsley, who reviewed Carter’s book for Slate, was perhaps American journalism’s most famous “neo-liberal,” defined by David Brooks as writers who “tended to be hawkish on foreign policy, positive about capitalism, reformist when it came to the welfare state, and urbane but not militant on feminism and other social issues.” At publications like Slate today, “neo-liberal” is a term of abuse. Jeffrey Goldberg, who reviewed Carter’s book for The Washington Post, was a well-known liberal hawk (as was I, sadly)—another term prominent American liberals once wore proudly that has become an epithet as liberalism has moved left. In 2007, The New Republic (TNR)—my old magazine—both embodied a centrist brand of liberalism that still enjoyed influence in the Democratic Party, and vehemently defended Israel. Today, that centrism is long gone, and so is the magazine’s Zionist identity. Last May, an article in TNR declared that “decades of apartheid have impoverished Palestinian communities”—as if Israel’s apartheid status was self-evident.
Another way of charting liberalism’s ideological shift is by looking at the fortunes of Alan Dershowitz. Dershowitz’s views about Israel and apartheid haven’t changed. In 2007, he trashed Carter’s book. Late last year, he branded the late Bishop Desmond Tutu “the most influential antisemite of our time” for Tutu’s analogies between Israel and apartheid South Africa. What has changed is Dershowitz’s reputation among American liberals. When Obama was president, he invited Dershowitz to the White House. It’s inconceivable that Joe Biden would do that today. It’s not Dershowitz’s views about Israel that have him a pariah in liberal circles; it’s mostly his views about Donald Trump. But his pariah status means that in liberal circles his views about Israel no longer carry weight.
It’s unlikely that the Israeli government and its American supporters can reverse this trend. There’s little prospect of an Israeli government that genuinely tries to create a Palestinian state, if one is even still possible. And given that Americans who came of age after the financial crisis, and Americans of color, play a larger and larger role in defining American liberalism, it’s hard to foresee a return to the more centrist liberalism that existed a decade and a half ago.
My guess is that Israel’s defenders will gradually write off liberal media and instead try to insulate Congress from its ideological influence. That strategy could work. The growing support for Palestinian rights in the liberal press does mirror a shift among grassroots Democrats. But given how undemocratic America’s political system is, shifts in public opinion don’t necessarily translate into shifts in public policy. Just look at gun control, which vast majorities of Americans want yet Congress won’t pass. As Republicans make America’s government even less responsive to public opinion—by gerrymandering House districts, employing the filibuster, making it easier for billionaires to secretly spend vast sums of money on campaigns and making it harder for Black people to vote—translating pro-Palestinian popular sentiment into pro-Palestinian public policy may grow even harder.
Over the last fifteen years, American liberals have grown more cognizant of how undemocratic Israel’s control over Palestinians is. But I fear that America’s own drift away from democracy may leave them less able to do much about it.
Speaking of liberals and the left, I recently came across this dazzling 1982 essay on the 1960s by one of my heroes, Irving Howe.
In The New York Review of Books, I wrote about why a deal over Ukraine would benefit Taiwan.
A funny and moving reflection on the multiple Palestinian exiles by Sayed Kashua.
Mohammed El-Kurd asks writers to recount their stories of censorship over Israel-Palestine and gets some remarkable replies.
See you on Friday,