Israeli apartheid: structure, not nature

With increased attention to the systematic regime of racial oppression enacted by the State of Israel against Palestinians, this might be a good time to make a fine distinction: between systemic problems and essential, inherent, or natural ones.

Apartheid being ingrained in Israeli policy since its founding does not make it inherent and unchangeable in all Israeli people, and that's important.

Many of those defending Israeli policy equate calls to dismantle apartheid with calls to destroy the Jewish-Israeli population. Whether or not they mean to, they are naturalizing a structural issue.

Like its opponents, some defenders of Israeli apartheid recognize that its racialization, separation, dispossession, and oppression are inseparable from the State of Israel and also deeply structure Israeli society. But they are wrong to think it must be so.

To see a problem as structural means to expect it will be extremely difficult to solve. But to attribute a structural problem to nature — a people's “essence”, “the way things are”, “the only real option” — is to call it unsolvable, therefore perhaps a non-problem.

Structures of oppression are often naturalized by, or on behalf of, the oppressors. This serves to exculpate them and undermine efforts towards change. But it also implies a very dim view of the oppressors themselves. It means, in this case, not believing Jewish Israelis can be anything but oppressors — that liberating Palestinians means our destruction.

Considering how things have gone so far, it is understandable that many Jewish Israelis understand themselves this way and that many others take this view in order to “protect Jews”. It is also no surprise that some Palestinians reach the conclusion that cruelty is our nature as Israelis and/or Jews. What else has their experience demonstrated?

Yet either way, this conclusion is wrong and deplorable. And happily, there are people in both groups which resist it.

In contrast with a mere rejection of the occupation, acknowleding the systematic nature of Israeli apartheid is distressing. It means it will be hard to end. But it also bears hope, because structures inevitably do change.

With the way things have gone so far, it's can be hard to imagine a way forward less ugly than the past. But it is part of what it means to be human to be capable of terrible atrocities and also amazing achievements. And that is one reason we are responsible to do better, to dismantle oppressive structures, to identify the ways we are implicated in dehumanizing others and do everything to undo them.

If you truly believe in the humanity of Jewish Israelis, you must believe in our capacity to change beyond current structures, in our potential to be more than either helpless victims or cruel oppressors. I know we can be. Despite it all.