Word games and score cards are quick and easy responses to news involving Palestine and Israel, like a recent report invoking the term "apartheid". But there's a humanitarian crisis for humanists to prioritize instead.

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On February 1, 2022, Amnesty International released a report identifying the current situation in Israel and Palestine as “apartheid,” a term most commonly associated with South Africa’s political system of racial stratification until 1994. The full title goes further, calling the region’s state of affairs a “cruel system of domination and crime against humanity.”

The Jerusalem Post quickly cried out against the use of “loaded” terms to describe the situation. But absent any unloaded terms that could apply to these two ethno-religiously divided states, the immediate question was how other official representatives would react to the report’s language.

On the same day it was issued, US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides called the report “absurd” and disavowed the idea that the United States would use such terms. US Senator Bob Menendez, Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations, also stated that he was “deeply disturbed” by this “outrageous accusation [that] belies history, facts, and common sense” and which “den[ies] Israel’s right to exist through slander, misinformation, and ignor[es] that both Israelis and Palestinians are responsible for their own fates.” (Canada, which also provides military aid to Israel, issued its own opposition to the report’s findings on February 10.)

Amnesty International was not the first to apply the term to Israel. Human Rights Watch used the language of apartheid in a legal analysis issued in April 2021, which identifies the Apartheid Convention and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court as starting points for the term’s use. And Israeli rights group B’Tselem reached similar findings in January 2021 and was censored by Israel’s education minister for similar rhetoric.

Word games and ethno-religious identities

This political fixation on a word matters, because it illustrates how complex ethno-religious identities can be used to gamify an ultimately humanitarian crisis.

“Apartheid” is viewed in the Apartheid Convention, Rome Statute, and public consciousness as institutionalized oppression along racialized lines. Yet the Israeli-Palestinian crisis is more fully understood as an ethno-religious issue played out along nation-state borders. It is tethered to a wide range of generational traumas experienced by Muslim Arabs, Christian Arabs, and Jews (who have been both included in and genocidally slaughtered under paradigms of whiteness). It is also a conflict inextricably linked to notions of territorial entitlement, promises of home and statehood made by divine decree, that are scribed into all three Abrahamic faiths.

Consequently, many reactions to the Amnesty report have leaped on this question of “race” to dismiss the report as biased, false, and antisemitic. Benny Morris, writing for The Wall Street Journal, argues that the language of racism and apartheid is calculated, “a way to engage and influence readers in the U.S. and Europe, where race is a burning issue.” He further suggests that the existence of 1.9 million Arabs in the pre-1967 borders of Israel, whose “Islamist-Arab Ra’am party … is currently part of the ruling coalition,” and who are seeing more integration into various sectors of public life, is a sign that this isn’t a “race” issue, but rather one of nations.

Which… he then goes on to identify as a struggle to sustain one “Jewish” nation in a region of 23 “Arab” nations.

Confusing? Especially when “Arab” is a racialized term that contains multitudes of religious sects and ethnic divisions? Yes, very.

But that’s just it: ethno-religious identities do not fit neatly into, say, the Black and white paradigm given to us by South African apartheid. And that stark difference in context allows us to play language games in abstract, and to deflect from looking closely at affected human lives.

The humanitarian crisis

You can see this act of deflection in the aforementioned statement by Bob Menendez, when he writes on behalf of the U.S. Foreign Affairs Committee “that both Israelis and Palestinians are responsible for their own fates.” This is a dispassionately totalizing and anti-humanist statement, because it glosses over the many people in both states who are compelled to live with whatever their leaders decide to do that escalates violence, terrorizes, and oppresses.

For many Palestinian families, being “responsible for their own fates” means getting everyone out of the building when a call comes with a 20-minute warning for an impending airstrike.

For Israeli citizens who ache for a better world, being “responsible for their own fates” means building long histories of peace-seeking initiatives still ultimately foiled by state actions.

The stats and the score cards

Meanwhile, the United Nations offers a bleak set of bullet points for the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. 2019 data had 4.8 million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank (today, estimates are closer to 5.2 million), although 61% of the latter zone is off-limits to them. That’s well over 2,000 people per square mile even before factoring in restricted areas—already almost twice the U.S.’s highest-density state (not counting DC).

And in that territory, 2.1 million are food insecure, half of them children, while Palestinian access to water per capita falls below the UN standard (Israel controls 85% of water resources).

Then we get into the conflict-related death tolls, that hideous score card which also contributes to the gamification of human atrocity. From 2011 to 2021, the UN counts these losses as such: “3,572 Palestinians, 198 Israelis; including 806 Palestinian children and 14 Israeli children.”

It’s a brutal game to bandy about these numbers, though, because solutions are so often framed as an attempt to “even of the score” by relaxing restrictions “too quickly” and thus allowing for more people to die “on the other side.”

So, let’s not.

Let’s just sit with the terror and the trauma of it all.

The tragedy, pared down

Some 5 million human beings are tightly and often violently contained within a resource-deprived region that also often serves as the site of devastating military action, next to a region with an advanced military presence that is supported by powerful foreign nations. 

The latter’s protection is regarded by many foreign bodies as integral to the maintenance of regional democracy, to the defense against another Holocaust, and/or (in the case of some Western-Evangelical interests) to the fulfillment of ethno-religious destiny.

And members of the former region are expected to behave with impeccable calm and civility within these constraints, despite all the recent traumas, ongoing land seizures, and resource-scarcities, if they are ever to merit, as a totalized group, any easing of these restrictions.

Beyond language and identity games

When we remove the loaded terms, and put aside the question of whether what is happening here amounts to “racialized” or “ethno-religious” oppression, the humanist lens becomes clear.

At the heart of this situation is a matter of human behavior: how well we understand it, and how much we actually commit to setting public policy around it.

Because none of us does well in an endless bottleneck. No collection of human beings, restricted in mobility and resource over time, enduring wave after wave of fresh trauma under military action and asset seizure, can be expected to achieve a stable social state on its own.

And we know that, don’t we?

We know that, whether or not Israeli officials feel justified in their pre-emptive and defensive actions, the oft-touted win condition of regional “peace” is simply not feasible under the current geopolitical stressors—and for very basic and universal human reasons.

So the question becomes: do we really need to play language games with the latest regional news, just to exert more political pressure for change? Why do we allow ourselves to fall for all the score-card-based reporting around Israel and Palestine?

“Lose” conditions, and the humanist response

The answer is simple enough: we have been trained into seeing this situation as “either/or.” Whenever a new media summation of the conflict emerges, it’s “either” for the destruction of Israel “or” for its defense. Similarly, it’s “either” for the genocide of the Palestinian people, “or” for their liberation. And so your job, “either” in casual conversation “or” as an institutional representative with a hundred news outlets turned to you for instantaneous reaction, is easy. Just tell everyone if you are “for” it, or “against” it.

All of this is misleading. All of this is the game. And all of these are “lose” conditions in it.

We know that millions of people are living in a geopolitical pressure-cooker, absent the resources and agency needed to live fuller, more dynamic lives.

We also know that a significant portion of Israel’s 9.3 million are afraid they will lose all sorts of things–power, centrality, security, assets, life and limb–in any attempt to let that pressure out.

And so, although we cannot fix the conflict in a single essay, we can certainly reflect on what it means to look at this crisis as humanists. We can refuse all the linguistic media games that shroud this humanitarian nightmare in ethno-religious ideas of territorial destiny. We do not need to quantify the exact levels of racism and nationalism present here, just to act.

Muslim Arabs, Christian Arabs, Jews by birth and choice alike: all are human beings, first and foremost, not numbers on a score card.

It’s time we pushed for our cultures to invest in better policy around that fact.

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GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.