Foreign Policy Watch

Geopolitical musings through a progressive lens …by Matt Eckel and Jeb Koogler

Ethnic Hierarchies: Differences in Degree vs. Kind

I’m annoyed with Benjamin Netanyahu. He’s taken an irritating and inexplicably-popular American phrase about ducks and moved it into meme territory. It’s only a matter of time before some nostalgic guy with time on his hands spins up an “all your nuclear duck are belong to us” clip. But I digress.

There’s a back-and-forth over at the Daily Beast about the appropriateness and usefulness of the term “apartheid” when it comes to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. The debate takes a number of directions, some productive and some not. For what it’s worth, after three generations of occupation, Beinart’s foundational reliance on the distinction between Green Line Israel and the Occupied Territories is pretty weak sauce. Hussein Ibish does better when he focuses on the patently unjust and immoral reality that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have endured for decades, semantic issues aside. That said, the popularization (and attempted codification) of the term “apartheid” does raise some interesting and relevant questions about how far states can go in codifying ethnic citizenship.

From one perspective, there is a continuum between the fairly benign jus sanguinis citizenship regime of Ireland and the reprehensible apartheid state of pre-Mandela South Africa. Both, after all, confer formally-institutionalized privilege based on ethno-racial background. That said, nobody with any sense would conflate the two, analytically or morally. One is a relatively common expression of the principle of self-determination as channeled through the sovereign nation-state.* The other was a system of domination that stripped an entire population of its basic political and human rights. Somewhere between those two poles lies a line separating acceptable (or at least tolerable) ethnic hierarchies from those that blatantly codify naked oppression. I’ve never seen a precise standard, since every concept involved remains contested (Beinart, for example, argues that the Rome Statute’s definition of apartheid doesn’t apply to Israel because “Jews and Palestinians are not racial groups” – a bit more research might have helped clarify things). Of necessity, a bit of a Potter Stewart test must be involved. Japan’s famously-restrictive citizenship laws skirt the line in my view; people whose families have lived in a country for generations really should have citizenship rights. The United States’s policy (deliberate or not) of maintaining an underclass of undocumented and thus exploitable immigrants also hovers near the boundary. Some cases, though, brook no serious argument: Rhodesia, Apartheid South Africa, Jim Crow USA and, yes, post-1967 Israel. Whether the communal hierarchies these regimes codify are “equivalent” isn’t the point. Every country, and every communal conflict, has nuances that preclude cookie-cutter analyses and decontextualized policy interventions. The question to ask is whether a given regime of ethnic recognition substantially restricts the inalienable human and political rights of a significant number of people. Israel may not be alone in constructing such a regime, but it is no less culpable for its company.

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*It’s possible to find similar policies outside formally-recognized independent states as well. Quebec, for example, retains its own immigration authority. As a college student there I couldn’t apply for a visa from the Canadian government until I’d been granted one by the province.

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