Apartheid – An Elephant Painted Red

An open letter entitled The Elephant in the Room was launched in mid-August to “call attention to the direct link between Israel’s recent attack on the judiciary and its illegal occupation of millions of Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.” To date, it has been signed by just over 2,300 people—most of them academics (including eminent figures in Jewish history research) and personalities from Israel and the American diaspora—and has the dual characteristic of qualifying Israel as an “apartheid regime” and bringing together signatories who generally disagree with that qualification. 



An open letter entitled “The Elephant in the Room” was launched in mid-August to “draw attention to the direct link between Israel’s recent attack on the judiciary and its illegal occupation of millions of Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories”. To date, it has been signed by just over 2,500 people – most of them academics (including eminent figures in the study of Jewish history) and personalities from Israel and the American diaspora. It has the dual characteristic of qualifying Israel as an “apartheid regime” and bringing together signatories who generally disagree with that qualification. But it’s one thing to denounce the colonisation of part of the West Bank, and quite another to equate Israel politically with an ‘apartheid’ state like South Africa, the last country since Nazism to structure itself along racial lines. Even in today’s period of intense crisis in Israel, the term seems completely at odds with the Zionist project demanded by the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who have been taking to the streets every Saturday for months, Israeli flag in hand. And yet the letter was signed not only by long-time anti-Zionists who have never shown any remorse in denouncing Israel in this way, but also by liberal and left-wing Zionists, including some of our authors. Why is this?

The letter, given its title and the accompanying illustration, is intended as an echo chamber and extension of the democratic protest movement in Israel and the Diaspora, which is growing in scope and voice as the right-wing government enacts legislation that will lead it to depart from the standards of the rule of law, whether inside the country or in the occupied territories. This is indeed a strategy of rupture put on the agenda by the reactionary camp, a rupture with historical Zionism in all its diversity, as we said several times in K. It’s the Zionist project itself that is under attack, not just the liberal model of democracy. That’s why the demonstrations are in blue and white, and why the motto of the movement is the Declaration of Independence of 1948. Indeed, there can be no doubt – this is a grave hour for Israel, and support for the broad opposition movement is vital for the future. The Open Letter is firmly on this side of the argument, and serves as an appeal to everyone’s conscience.

In this respect, it is not surprising that a number of K. authors – Israeli and American – are among the signatories. What is more surprising, however, and what has naturally puzzled us, is the manner in which the appeal was launched, and the combination of Zionist and anti-Zionist voices. No doubt the gravity of the moment played a part in this. But isn’t our ability to build an effective policy, quite different from the one that is trying to impose itself, primarily determined by our ability to better distinguish between what we want and what we don’t want in the face of adversity? 

The letter, as its title suggests, clarifies. It spells out what’s on everyone’s mind – that the occupation of the territories, the unrelenting colonisation and, more generally, the treatment of Palestinians, whether as subjects of military authority in the West Bank or as Israeli citizens within the state, is at the heart of the current crisis. The situation, which has reached the point of extreme tension that we are currently experiencing, revolves around this obscure centre. If we don’t face up to it, we will just be wandering around in a void.

But the letter is meant to do more than just speak this truth. It aims to be performative, to create its own political act in relation to what remains, for the moment, in reserve within the protest itself. This is what the elephant in the room metaphor means. We can’t pretend forever not to see what we all know is at the heart of the problem – the occupation. Or rather, the occupation and all it triggers and implies, for occupier and occupied, inside and outside the Green Line. What is the name of this pernicious influence, in all its aspects, with no omission? How to convey its diffuse and ramified character, but also its coherence and inexorability, or, as we say today, its “systemic” nature, to the point of damaging Israeli policy as a whole? And from there, how do you get people to take action? The petition chose to use a term that has hitherto only been used by anti-Zionists – it seemed necessary to speak of apartheid, in reference to the former racist regime in South Africa and its condemnation under international law.

This choice is the high price that the signatories of the petition have decided to pay for their performativity. The expected result is to force democratic protest to say what it doesn’t say. And to draw from this enunciation a practical radicality that will cause Israeli politics to change course. For it has to be admitted that if the current government is what it is, it’s due to the fact that previous governments allowed the situation to fester and evil to spread.  To act, therefore, is necessarily to act retroactively, to unravel the threads that, year after year, have woven the trap from which we no longer know how to free ourselves.

In any such retroactive gesture there are always two stages: the impulse itself and the distance covered by its force, the extension we give to the retrospective reading necessary to ground the new position. In the minds of the signatories, the impulse must be as strong as possible. Otherwise, there is a danger that nothing will change. The term “apartheid” fulfils this function. It carries the maximum weight of outrage, and even when you know that the application of racial categories is fundamentally inappropriate to the case in hand, you can’t help twisting it. To see the elephant, in this case, would inevitably be to force it into the field of vision, to paint it in a colour so garish that one would never again be able to fall into blindness.

Image at the top of “The Elephant in the Room” petition

“No more silence. The time to act is now.” These are the final words of the open letter. But about what do we promise never to be silent again? And what kind of action do we intend to take? Given the unlikely coalition of signatories, it seemed to us that these questions deserve an answer, so that the protest does not descend into another form of blindness, where the word “apartheid” takes the place of genuine political reflection on the situation in the territories, and where radicalism takes the place of reasoned critique.

For to say “apartheid” is not simply to express outrage at its extreme. The term is not simply “exaggerated” to describe the situation: it contradicts it, because it places the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the terrain of racial supremacy, when in fact it is a confrontation between two political collectives fighting over territory. The advantage of using this term is undoubtedly that, without distinguishing between what is happening in the occupied territories and in Israel itself, it unites in a single voice the claims of populations with fundamentally different statuses. This makes it possible to conflate 1948 and 1967 into a single date, and thus to postpone the conditions for debate on a situation that, because it is becoming more and more complex – as the contradictory dynamics of integration and repression continue to grow in territories and sectors that are themselves differentiated – must nevertheless continue to be relentlessly analyzed.

Motivated by these questions, which are just as urgent as protesting against the current far-right government, the editors of K. asked the signatories who had written for our magazine what they thought of the word “apartheid” in the open letter they had signed: what it opens up politically, what it leaves unsaid or makes impossible to think about, and also what adopting the term implies for the relationship between Israel and the American diaspora. 

We are publishing articles by Dan Diner, Abe Silberstein, Sarah and Guy Stroumsa, and Joel Whitebook that provide answers to these and some other questions. They all have in common that they do not agree with the criticism of Israel as an “apartheid regime”, while at the same time their authors explain why they still felt the need to sign a text that explicitly formulates this criticism. 


> Read Dan Diner’s response.

> Read Abe Silberstein’s response.

> Read « Patriotic Shame» by Sarah et Guy Stroumsa.

> Read Joel Whitebook’s response.


Among the replies we received, Saul Friedländer, who signed the open letter, did not write a text in response to our questions, but authorised us to say that “[he] considers himself to be centre-left, in favour of the two-state solution, but [he] would not have agreed to sign if he’d seen Israel referred to as an ‘apartheid state”. 

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