Israel is not a racist state, but that is also because Israel is not the West Bank

Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s visit to the U.S. this week was an opportunity to showcase the U.S.-Israel relationship, which remains strong and important to both sides even if the past six months have been marked more by disagreements than displays of comity. Herzog’s meeting with President Biden, his address to Congress, and his making the Jewish community rounds in New York were intended to signal that all is well while serving as an extended pep rally for pro-Israel politicians and voters who have not had much to celebrate during the tenure of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s current government. Yet whether measured by the policy disagreements between Washington and Jerusalem or by the discourse on Israel coming from different sides in the U.S., the amount of churn around Israel is impossible to ignore or to paper over, irrespective of how many standing ovations were given in Congress and how long a red carpet was laid out for Israel’s ceremonial—and constitutionally powerless—head of state.

President Herzog, President Biden, and Michal Herzog in Jerusalem, July 14, 2022

The most obvious sign of this during a week that was intended to be a celebration of Israel and the U.S.-Israel partnership was the uproar over Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal’s remark that “Israel is a racist state,” made in the course of defending her colleague Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky from demonstrators who were chanting that same phrase at her. Jayapal received immediate brushbacks from the House Democratic leadership, other Democratic members of Congress, and obviously from Republicans, and attempted to walk back her comments the next day. The response to Jayapal continued throughout the week, with a statement from 43 of her Democratic colleagues decrying the description of Israel as racist and extolling the quality of Israel’s democracy, and a House resolution opposed by only nine members declaring that Israel is neither a racist nor an apartheid state.

Jayapal’s contention of Israel as racist—not its ministers, some of whom are indeed racist, and not its policies, some of which are also racist in effect if not intent, but the state itself—was an unfair charge, as Jayapal admitted with her backtrack. It was also an own goal, since if Jayapal’s intent was to draw attention to undemocratic Israeli policies or actions, instead it resulted in a flood of paeans to Israeli democracy at a time when Israeli democracy is under a dark cloud. Rather than keeping the focus on legitimate criticisms of Israeli actions in the West Bank, Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, and the Israeli government’s attempts to eviscerate the few systemic checks on executive power, the conversation has now turned in a way that lets the Israeli government off the hook for all of those things as people rush to defend it from a charge that is over the top. It is tough to envision a better pressure release valve for Netanyahu’s problems in Washington than painting Israel in broad strokes as a racist enterprise.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal in Berlin, 2017

Yet while Jayapal may have unwittingly provided Netanyahu with a short-term reprieve, a group of senators is unwittingly doing its best to make it more difficult for him and every future Israeli prime minister to bat down the charge of Israeli state racism. In response to the Biden administration’s restoration of a decades-long policy—overturned by the Trump administration in October 2020—not to fund scientific and technological projects in cooperation with Israeli institutions across the Green Line, 14 senators penned a letter describing the longstanding policy as an antisemitic boycott of Israel that undermines U.S.-Israel relations. While this may seem unconnected to the Jayapal incident, the two are in reality deeply linked.

The best argument against the charge that Israel is an apartheid or a racist state is that Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is inextricably linked to distinctions that Israel itself makes between different territories under its control. The difference between a Palestinian living in Abu Ghosh versus a Palestinian living in Abu Dis is that one of these places is inside Israel while one of them is not, and thus the Palestinian living in the former is an Israeli citizen while a Palestinian living in the latter is under Israeli occupation. This does not let Israel off the hook for occupying the West Bank, and it particularly does not let Israel off the hook for not doing very much in recent years to find a way out of its occupation, but it makes the treatment of West Bank Palestinians primarily a problem of politics rather than racism (even as racism against Palestinians absolutely exists) and a struggle between competing and unreconciled nationalisms. The argument that treating one area under Israel’s control differently than another area under Israel’s control is a discriminatory boycott doesn’t create a problem for the Biden administration; it creates a problem for Israel.

Abu Ghosh, Israel

Even setting aside the Palestinian component, Israel treats the West Bank differently than Israel-proper with regard to its own citizens, acknowledging that the Green Line creates a distinction that must be respected. The reason that so much of the settlement movement wants Israel to extend sovereignty to Area C, where all of Israel’s settlements are located, is because without doing so, Israelis living in the West Bank are treated differently than other Israelis by their own government. The process for building new homes and constructing new roads is different for Israelis living in the West Bank than it is for Israelis living in Israel. An “emergency regulation” must be extended every five years to ensure that Israeli settlers live under Israeli law rather than under military law, that they have access to Israeli health insurance, that they are under the jurisdiction of the Israeli police, that their children can be in the population registry, and even that the government can collect taxes from them. Israeli prime ministers—including Netanyahu himself—have signed scientific cooperation agreements that exclude all Israeli entities over the Green Line. Arguing that it is out of bounds, let alone antisemitic, to differentiate between Israeli territory that everyone recognizes as Israel and territory under Israel’s control that even the Israeli right-wing describes as disputed is belied by Israel’s own policies and behavior.

When Jayapal called Israel a racist state, the response was an avalanche of criticism. The quickest and most enduring way to ensure a different outcome going forward is to forcibly erase whatever remains of the Green Line, also forcibly erasing any legitimate reason not to grant stateless West Bank Palestinians full citizenship in the process. Israel is not a racist state, but that is because Israel and the West Bank are not one and the same. Mandating that the second proposition be overturned inevitably leads to the first one being overturned too, which should be on the minds of those who view Jayapal’s words as harmful to Israel’s standing but do not view the senators’ position on the Green Line in a similar way.