Cary Nelson argues that Amnesty International’s report, by reducing a complex, political, national question involving two victim peoples to a simplistic morality play about ‘racism’ distorts the origins of the conflict and makes a balanced and prudential approach to its resolution impossible. Amnesty, he says, are race-baiting. And by indicting Judaism itself as a racist supremacism, the organization has crossed a line into antisemitism.
Introduction: Racialising the Israeli-Palestinian conflict radically distorts our understanding of it
South African apartheid was a state organised system of racial discrimination and oppression. The minority in power perceived itself as white and represented those it oppressed as black. The majority population saw itself as black as well. Not all the groups who were victims of the South African system saw themselves the same way, but overall a black/white racial and cultural dichotomy prevailed. Apartheid was a preeminently racialised phenomenon, with skin colour the key marker of racial difference, even though skin colour is at best genetically trivial. Skin colour has also been exploited as the visible sign of additional imagined hereditary differences between groups of people. Denied skin colour as a racial marker, the Nazis never ceased looking for alternative physical evidence of racial difference. As DNA analysis has long confirmed, race is not a fundamental biological marker of human difference; race is a socially and politically invented category. Nonetheless, even as a fiction, as the South African, North American, and other examples show, the illusion of race is a powerful and malicious force in human affairs.
The Jews and Arabs of the Middle East offer no basis for racial differentiation. With half of Israeli Jews descended from populations in Arab countries, the option of differentiating Jews and Palestinians racially has long been nonexistent. Israeli Jews and Palestinians display a wide spectrum of skin colour. The parties to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have not perceived it as fundamentally racial. There is racism in Israel and substantial antisemitic racism in the Arab world, but racism has not been the defining basis of regional conflicts. That is one reason why many refuse to define Israeli practices as ‘apartheid’.
Any nationalism based on ethnic or religious difference can become racist even if it was not so originally. That becomes clear when nationalist rhetoric includes racist incitement. Zionism has never had that character. It would have been impossible to ascribe a coherent racial character either to all the Jews of the Diaspora or to the many groups that embraced antisemitism. Zionism has no single group it can oppose. Neither in its inward nor its outward perspective has Zionism been a form of racism. German nationalism by contrast acquired a racist character not long after the nation’s 1871 unification, a date that also marked the qualified arrival of Jewish emancipation. Zionism expresses the universal aspirations of the Jewish people, not the local conflicts Jews confront in different settings.
Conversely, some Arab writers faulted the pan-Arab movement for being driven by racism. And racist Arab antisemitism was intensified by Nazi propaganda. Some Israelis adopted racist attitudes toward Ethiopian Jews. Intra-Jewish prejudices between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews sometimes edged toward racism, though those prejudices have declined. And some allowed their fear of Arabs to find release in racism. But making racism definitional in Israel does a grave injustice to the Arabs and Jews who work together and to an Israeli legal system that prohibits racist practices. Israel has a complex culture with multiple lines of fracture and overlap. Reducing it to the starkly divided concept of apartheid drastically reduces opportunities for comprehension.
There have nonetheless been repeated efforts to declare Zionism a form of racism—notably with the UN’s 1975 Resolution that made that declaration definitional. It was revoked in 1991 but revived at the UN’s 2001 Durban conference on racism. But until the 2021 report from Human Rights Watch, Israeli Apartheid: ‘A Threshold Crossed’, and Amnesty International’s 2022 report, Israel’s Apartheid Against Palestinians: Cruel System of Domination and Crime Against Humanity, the racialised character of South African apartheid, including its racialised legal system, has been the ultimate barrier against classifying the dual West Bank legal system as apartheid. The UN monitoring group CERD (Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination) helped persuade the international community that apartheid should be understood as a more variable system of racially discriminatory social and political distinctions. Apartheid, it argued, should be redefined to capture its real world evolution.
Amnesty International’s report presses that agenda still further, insisting that both the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israeli culture itself are racialised on the South African model. Amnesty purports to offer a comprehensive indictment of Israeli society and the status of Palestinians while setting aside the complicating factors that should be taken into account. There are further problems with Amnesty’s conclusions that others are addressing, among them the unwarranted assertion that Israel’s practices within its recognised borders constitute apartheid, but the report’s racialising of Israel’s practices is a major aggression that needs to be addressed. Among the IHRA’s clear examples of antisemitism is ‘Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.’ Amnesty defines apartheid as ‘an institutionalised regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over another’ (5). It then introduces a slight variation: ‘A regime of systematic oppression and domination can best be understood as the systematic, prolonged and cruel discriminatory treatment by one racial group of members of another with the intention to control the second racial group.’ The next sentence tries again. Apartheid maintains ‘a regime or system of prolonged and cruel discriminatory control of one or more racial groups by another.’ As NGO Monitor points out, Amnesty relies on a weak definition of domination as the exercise of control: ‘As a legal matter, this definition is ridiculous as it would mean that any place there is a power differential between countries and/or the existence of minority groups would constitute a situation of apartheid’. Social and political control must be severe, comprehensive and racist to qualify as apartheid.
Palestinian society is now significantly differentiated. Although every Palestinian I have met on the West Bank fiercely opposes the occupation, not everyone experiences daily life as relentless domination. It is not accurate to claim, as Amnesty does, that all Palestinians live ‘in a constant state of fear and insecurity’ (15). A Palestinian in the Hebron hills lives a very different life from a wealthy entrepreneur in Ramallah. Amnesty tries to manage such contradictions by arguing that Israeli apartheid is both differentiated and unified. But evidence for its unified character proves elusive.
The report also indicts Israeli apartheid’s racial character by implication, repeating phrases from its definitions, referring to Israel’s ‘system of oppression and discrimination’ (17), its ‘regime of systematic oppression and domination’ (48), or its ‘institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination’ (30). The report condemns Israel for ‘its system of fragmentation and segregation’ (18). And it insists that Israel ‘has targeted the Palestinian population in a discriminatory manner on the basis of their racialized identity as Palestinians’ (32), that ‘the state of Israel considers and treats Palestinians as an inferior non-Jewish racial group’ (33). Indeed, Amnesty claims that since its founding Israel has taken possession of Palestinian property ‘on a racial basis’ (33). That slander is supported in part by falsely claiming Palestinian ownership, pre-1948, of state property that was controlled by the Ottoman Empire and was then included in the British Mandate. The report aims to make racism the lens through which we will view everything about Israel and its history.
Amnesty allows that ‘systems of oppression and domination will never be identical’, then disingenuously assures us they do not say that Israel’s system of oppression is ‘the same or analogous to the system of segregation, oppression and domination as perpetrated in South Africa’ (37). Of course that similarity to South Africa is precisely what the report’s rhetoric aims to demonstrate. All the report disallows is that they are identical, which would be an absurd claim in any case, given different populations, languages, cultures, history, legal systems, and developments in technology. Amnesty argues that ‘apartheid is best understood holistically as the intentional, prolonged and cruel control of one racial group by another’ (38). On that supposed holistic basis, the report contends, the Israeli and South African systems are interchangeable. Apartheid is ‘formal racial segregation and discrimination’ by ‘one racial group,’ with South Africa being the prime historical example, the one against which others are tested. Amnesty quotes from Article II of the 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid to drive the point home: ‘The term “the crime of apartheid” . . . shall include similar policies and practices of racial segregation as discrimination as practiced in southern Africa’ (47).
Amnesty adds that ‘there is no need for an expressly adopted plan to subject one racial group to oppression and domination. This plan can simply be inferred from the conduct of the perpetrators’ (51). South Africa had an elaborate set of discriminatory laws covering virtually every aspect of social and political life. Israel has nothing of the kind. As I detailed in Israel Denial: Anti-Zionism, Anti-Semitism, & The Faculty Campaign Against the Jewish State, Israel has Basic Laws and multiple court decisions guaranteeing equality within its pre-1967 borders. No matter. According to Amnesty, a racialised system can be unknown to its perpetrators, enshrined nowhere in law or policy. Perhaps it only resides in the hearts of Israel’s opponents.
This highly debatable theory justifies a remarkable methodology: ‘instead of assessing separately whether or not Israel has perpetrated the international wrong and the crime against humanity in each of the territories under its control, Amnesty International has analysed the system of institutionalized discrimination against Palestinians as a whole’ (38). That means the oppressive contributions Hamas and the Palestinian Authority make to living conditions are irrelevant. Israel’s ‘system’ overrides them. The Palestinians suffering from discrimination in Lebanon are really under Israel’s thumb. Amnesty’s reasoning discounts the substantial opportunities and rights available to Arab/Palestinian citizens of Israel. The documented achievements of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens are also irrelevant. All Palestinians are subject to the ‘system’; all suffer from interrelated constraints. The fact that it is a system should be self-evident, apparently.
The rhetoric of ‘regime’ and ‘system’ thus allows Amnesty to suggest there is a coordinated strategy of repression that extends from the entire West Bank to the Gaza coast and into the Mediterranean. Moreover, Amnesty suggests that Palestinians worldwide are subject to this invisible, conspiratorial system of racial discrimination. Israel’s racist tentacles reach everywhere, ‘against Palestinian refugees and their descendants outside the territory’ (13). Revived as well by the far right, this ancient antisemitic slander resonates throughout the report. Again, there is no supporting documentation of this ‘regime’, no planning document, no guide for its implementation.
Amnesty concedes but dismisses this lack of evidence. Yet the military authorities that oversee portions of the West Bank are not administratively interchangeable with the democratically elected government of Israel proper. Amnesty’s ‘regime’ amounts to an accusatory abstraction, the inadvertent effect of the invidious racist ideology that motivates all of Israel’s practices. Yet the ‘regime’ rhetoric carries connotations of ruthless oppression. Human Rights Watch brings in the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court to enrich the model of Israeli practice with conspiratorial intent: ‘Human Rights Watch concludes that the Israeli government has demonstrated an intent to maintain the domination of Jewish Israelis over Palestinians across Israel and the OPT.’ The system, we are told, has ‘metastasized.’ Israel’s racist ideology is a disease.
Because Amnesty International’s racialising of the conflict is accusatory but undocumented it amounts to race-baiting
Amnesty overall has nothing to offer beyond the bald repetition of its unsupported claim that Israel has a thoroughly racialised society. The conflict is racial because Amnesty says it is so. So it tries a different tack. Race itself will have to be redefined. The report adopts an expansive ‘understanding of race as a social construct that encompasses issues such as ‘colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin’’ (52) a definition promoted by the UN’s CERD. But national origin, for example, should not be part of a series of independent categories that can substitute for race as historically understood; the series is additive, listing additional dimensions of race that apply in particular contexts, as when a nation has long been isolated geographically and culturally.
The French are not a race. Palestinians are not a race; they did not even cohere as a people, a cultural and political entity, until the 1960s. And Israelis are not a race, as a day spent in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv makes obvious. Nor are Jews a race. The Nazis of course thought Jews, Roma, Blacks, and the Slavic peoples were all races, indeed inferior ones, but that is one of history’s most discredited and despised beliefs. Yet Amnesty insists that Israeli apartheid consists in ‘domination by one racial group over another.’ If skin color is the primary marker of racial difference, Arabs and Israelis are indistinguishable. If Arabs and Palestinians are ‘peoples of color,’ then so are Israeli Jews descended from historic communities in Iraq and elsewhere. Some Israelis can be designated as white, just as can some Arabs, but the distinctions are at once superficial and invidious.
After categorising Israelis and Palestinians racially, Amnesty tells us that ‘any attempt at racial categorization is distasteful and complicated’ (72). The report asserts that Israel itself treats ‘Jewish Israelis and Palestinians as separate racial groups’ (72) but just declaring that to be the case does not make it so. The separate West Bank legal systems for Israelis and Palestinians merit severe criticism, but the fact of their existence does not make them racial. Amnesty adds the contestable claim that ‘Jewish Israelis and Palestinians constitute racial groups for the purposes of customary international law’ (74). The report quotes passages from the Apartheid Convention that indict ‘any legislative measures and other measures calculated to prevent a racial group or groups from participation in the political, social, economic and cultural life of the country’ (93, 259) and the ‘arbitrary arrest and illegal imprisonment of the members of a racial group’ (240), but it fails to prove why differences either in Israel proper or the West Bank are racialised. Nonetheless, the report can deplore such purported practices as Israel’s ‘racialised policing of protests’ (110).
Having adjusted its definition, Amnesty applauds this ‘more subjective understanding of race’ (53) and adds to its formula to make it applicable to the West Bank: ‘The war crime of apartheid will thus, among other things, be committed where an occupying power establishes and maintains a system or regime of oppression and domination of the occupied population as a racial group with the purpose of benefitting its nationals as a racial group’ (59).
Because Amnesty’s racialising of the conflict is accusatory but undocumented it amounts to race-baiting. Instead of increasing our understanding of the conflict, it imposes a particular moral frame around Israeli government practices. The aim is to racialise our whole understanding of the conflict. Human Rights Watch cemented the racialising frame by applying it to its introduction and conclusions. But Amnesty’s relentless repetition of the racism accusation crosses a threshold. As the report concludes after a number of case studies, ‘these laws, policies and practices are blatantly discriminatory on the basis of membership of racial groups’ (218). This accusation turns all Israeli policies affecting Palestinians into crimes against humanity. Moreover, for some contemporary constituencies the accusation of racism no longer needs to be proven. It automatically places an accusation outside rational analysis.
It is not just South Africa but also the Nazis that Amnesty alludes to when it ‘concludes that the State of Israel considers and treats Palestinians as an inferior non-Jewish racial group’ (266), ‘a group with particular attributes that is different from other non-Jewish groups’ (14), and ‘has targeted the Palestinian population as a whole on the basis of their non-Jewish identity and national status’ (267), their ‘racialised non-Jewish, Arab status’ (14, 73). This formulation goes beyond indicting Israel to indict Judaism itself for a nonexistent racist inclination to see itself as superior to other religious and national groups. It is one of the ways the Amnesty report crosses a line into antisemitism.
By racialising everything Amnesty and HRW make it impossible for us to see plain the unresolved national conflict that stands between the two peoples and peace
The Human Rights Watch report mentions ‘identity’ as an alternative to race as a defining category, but never develops the option, though identity is a vastly less incriminating category than race. Restricting a Palestinian’s movement because he or she is a member of a Hamas terror cell is rather different from doing so because of his or her race.
Demographics is one case where ‘identity’ might facilitate more rational analysis of Israeli policies. Israel needs to maintain a strong Jewish identity in order to sustain a Jewish state. But a modest relaxation of family unification policies would allow Palestinian couples to live together in Israel proper, rather than have one member in Israel and another on the West Bank, without presenting a demographic threat. But claiming that the present policy aims to maintain racial supremacy removes it from rational modification. As a defining category, identity includes citizenship, which unites Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel. Treating Israeli concerns with demographics as racist criminalises the realistic need to consider how the electorate is constituted. Israel’s Arab or Palestinian citizens contribute a great deal to Israeli society and substantially enrich the country’s cultural diversity. Interactions between Jews and Arabs within Israel challenge Israeli democracy in productive ways and give both groups experience relevant to relationships with Arab countries. The need to maintain the demographic balance does not entail racism. It simply recognises what is essential to sustaining the national aspirations of the Jewish people and a home for those Jews throughout the world who are imperiled by antisemitism.
It was thus not racist for Israel to abandon Gaza because of demography. Predictably, Amnesty still considers Gaza to be occupied territory, insisting that ‘Israel’s system of institutionalized segregation and discrimination against Palestinians, as a racial group’ applies to ‘all areas under its control,’ including Gaza (267). For Amnesty, the naval blockade of Gaza is part of the apartheid regime. Since the blockade is consequently a crime against humanity, Amnesty demands that it simply be lifted (275). As I argue in Peace and Faith: Christian Churches and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, the blockade should be moderated, not eliminated. Restrictions on exports from Gaza should be lifted, as they do not pose the same security risks as imports. The fishing limit off the Mediterranean coast should be extended in line with the Oslo Accords, and it should not be reduced as a punitive measure.
Both Israel and Egypt have a humanitarian responsibility to limit the blockade’s negative impact on Gaza’s population. That includes providing the naval oversight to prevent weapons smuggling through an expanded fishing region. But stigmatizing the blockade as a racist crime against humanity is both counter-productive and dangerous. If imports to Gaza were unrestricted, Iran would provide Hamas with more offensive weapons. Hamas would eventually use them, and the result would be more Israeli casualties, followed by a more aggressive Israeli response producing more Palestinian casualties. Does Amnesty not see this? Amnesty’s self-righteous moral stance makes it easier to ignore the consequences of its recommendations. Amnesty’s ‘solutions’ amount to expressions of anti-Zionism. Amnesty elevates Israel’s flawed policy to a crime against humanity, which provokes demands that the policy be reversed and the blockade be abandoned, rather than modified.
The Israeli NGO B’Tselem also issued a report in 2021, A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is apartheid. It rejected the race-based slander in which Amnesty indulges: ‘The division in South Africa was based on race and skin colour, while in Israel it is based on nationality and ethnicity.’ B’Tselem does not believe Israel’s ‘goal of Jewish supremacy’ is race-based either. It found no objective reason to claim racial segregation and oppression in Israel. B’Tselem redefines apartheid to include inequality on other grounds. But the substitution of ‘Jewish supremacy’ for ‘white supremacy’ imbues Judaism with racist connotations, even if B’Tselem aimed to replace racist with political domination. ‘Supremacy’ suggests both an essential belief in superiority and a commitment to maintain it indefinitely.
Because Amnesty racialises the conflict, the solutions it suggests would end Israel’s existence as a Jewish state, so are useless for encouraging compromise and achieving peace
Amnesty mounts a pretense of evenhandedness by pointing out that, while Israel bombed targets in Gaza during the recent wars, Hamas was simultaneously rocketing Israeli cities (27). ‘Israel launched military offensives against Gaza while Palestinian armed groups fired rockets from the territory into Israel’ (42). Thus Amnesty chooses not to admit that the rockets from Gaza came first, thus triggering Israel’s response in self-defence. The solution to the humanitarian crisis is actually rather straightforward—demilitarisation of Gaza. If offensive weapons were removed from Gaza, its infrastructural needs could be met. International funding for desalinisation, sewage plants, and electricity generation could be found if the repeated wars with Israel ended. More land could be opened for agriculture. Donors are not eager to rebuild infrastructure every few years. Demilitarisation would also enable development of a tourist industry along the Mediterranean coast, Gaza’s greatest area of economic potential. Given the Hamas charter’s categorical antisemitism, a ceasefire is not likely to suffice. Nor will prosecuting Israel in the International Criminal Court, an Amnesty goal, relieve Israel’s responsibility to protect its citizens from rocket attacks. The report devotes substantial space to Gaza without displaying any realism about how to solve the problems it lists. As Shany Mor succinctly put it in Fathom, the apartheid accusation declares that Israel ‘is guilty of not just committing a grievous crime but of being a grievous crime.’ One cannot easily reform an existential state of being. Best retire the criminal to the dustbin of history. That eliminationist, antisemitic agenda has always been fundamental to the apartheid accusation, and the Amnesty report reinforces it.
Because both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch are focused on demonising Israel, they cannot bring themselves to offer workable solutions. It’s one thing, for example, for BDS to insist that six million Palestinians around the world have a right to return to Israel proper. After all, BDS is about symbolic politics, about virtue signaling, not practical recommendations. It’s another thing for HRW and AI to insist that an open principle of return be instituted, with Palestinians ‘returning’ to an Israel they have never seen and rendering the Jewish state illegitimate. Contrary to what the Amnesty report wants us to believe, the Palestinian ‘right of return’ has no formal legal status. Descendants of Palestinian refugees who choose to do so could instead become citizens of a West Bank Palestinian state.
It is yet another fantasy for AI to demand ‘dismantling all Israeli settlements’ (274) and for HRW to insist that Israel dismantle all ‘existing settlements, and bring Israeli citizens inhabiting settlements in the West Bank . . . back within internationally recognised borders.’ No rational observer imagines that the settlement blocs near the green line would be abandoned as part of an agreement. Why make a demand that is not only impossible but absurd? Many of us urge that settlements deeper into the West Bank be dismantled, but the 200,000 settlers near the armistice line aren’t going anywhere.
Human Rights Watch demands that the Palestinian Authority ‘cease all security coordination with the Israeli army that contributes to facilitating the crimes of apartheid and persecution in the OPT.’ But both reports define apartheid so broadly, finding it embedded in all Israeli West Bank practices, that this demand could only be satisfied by eliminating all security coordination with Israel. Both Israel and the PA have acknowledged that their cooperation has prevented numerous terrorist assaults. This ‘recommendation’ would again produce more victims of violence.
By reducing the conflict to a battle between good and evil, the apartheid accusation encourages absolutist demands that block progress toward solutions that would enable both peoples to achieve reasonable forms of political self-determination. It places valid complaints about Israeli policy in a racialised context that justify Israel’s elimination. The report’s apartheid accusation implicates the BDS movement demand that any interchanges between Israelis and Palestinians must be conditioned on Israel admitting responsibility for establishing an unethical national regime. Indeed, Amnesty explicitly allies itself with BDS: ‘Dismantling Israel’s apartheid was central to the call from Palestinian civil society that established the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement’ (37). The Amnesty/BDS apartheid slander makes Israeli ethical surrender a precondition for peace negotiations, one Israelis will never accept. Labeling the Israeli government an apartheid regime discredits any basis for negotiation, since an unreservedly racist state is fundamentally evil and must be dissolved and replaced. Should Palestinians agree to concessions with an evil regime? Should they even talk with it? Can anything an apartheid regime says or agrees to be trusted short of unconditional surrender? Are modest negotiated steps that improve the quality of Palestinians’ lives desirable? Or do such steps compromise acknowledgment of apartheid’s core reality? Amnesty piously reminds us that ‘any attempt at racial categorization is distasteful and complicated’ (72), despite the fact that it has mounted exactly such a categorization and done so in a simplified fashion that evokes race-baiting. Amnesty’s 300-page report, which will be increasingly cited in both BDS and other anti-Zionist campaigns, is a step backward from the road to peace and justice.
 For an analysis of the definition of apartheid and its status in international law see Joshua Kern and Anne Herzberg, ‘False Knowledge as Power: Deconstructing Definitions of Apartheid that Delegitimise the Jewish State’ NGO Monitor (December 2021), https://ngo-monitor.org/pdf/NGOMonitor_ApartheidReport_2021.pdf. For an analysis of the recurring accusation of Israeli apartheid, see Alan Johnson, ‘The Apartheid Smear’ BICOM (2014), https://www.bicom.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/BICOM_Apartheid-Smear_FINAL.pdf. ISGAP has established a page summarizing responses of the Amnesty report: https://isgap.org/post/2022/02/isgap-rejects-amnestys-report-on-israel/. My thanks to Fathom for its suggestions in response to an earlier draft of this paper.
 As the Amnesty report points out, ‘the term “black” was used, both within South Africa and within the international community in its response to the crimes committed in South Africa, to refer to all those groups that suffered the oppression of apartheid (defined broadly and including so-called “Asian”, “coloured” and “native” people”’ (52).
 CERD is charged with monitoring compliance with the UN’s International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1969).
 Richard Landes in ‘Projecting Malice, the Classic Antisemitic Trope: Amnesty International’s Apartheid Report’ places the Amnesty report in a tradition extending from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, https://isgap.org/post/2022/02/isgap-rejects-amnestys-report-on-israel/.