The demon of Apartheid. Can there be another left discourse on Israel?

In France, a resolution tabled by Communist deputy Jean-Paul Lecoq to condemn “the institutionalization by the State of Israel of a regime of apartheid” was defended on Thursday May 4 in the French National Assembly, before being rejected. Bruno Karsenti reviews the text of this resolution and shows what the demon of apartheid brandished by the now hegemonic part of the French left is really for. He also shows how, while seeking to take advantage of the movement of opposition to the government that is currently taking place in Israel, the drafters of the resolution fail to understand its meaning and scope.


The draft resolution tabled by the Communist Party with the support of a large part of the left-wing representatives and rejected by the National Assembly on May 4, 2023.


Much has been said in various European countries about the current confrontation in Israel between a nationalist right wing, in which the religious camp is very influential, and a broad democratic opposition movement. These comments vary according to several factors: the greater or lesser importance of the Jewish communities, the more or less deep-rooted traditions of support or distrust of the Zionist project, the internal social and political pressures or the external relations favoured by each State. All these elements give a different colour to the reactions. And these reactions obviously vary according to the national political parties. There is no homogeneous view of Israel that brings them together and unites them. On the contrary, deep divisions are emerging within them, with currents and tendencies often clashing sharply. This is a sign that, on the issue of the Jewish State, questions are being raised about the political debate, as long as it is conducted on the surface, that it conceals much more than it expresses.

Last July, at the beginning of a very unstable period in France – with a relative majority of the governing party in the Assembly and a growing social anger that is now reaching a critical threshold – and with the change of government in Israel still to take place and not even foreseeable, the newly formed Nupes, which had just taken its place in the Chamber, presented a resolution condemning Israel as an apartheid regime and giving an official seal of approval to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The initiative came from the Communists and was supported by the LFI. The PS and the Greens did not see anything wrong with it. It had neither the expected political echo nor the expected consequences. The Parliament had to deal with other more pressing issues, on the international level with the escalation of the war in Ukraine, and on the national level with the structural reforms that the government wanted to push through at all costs.

This is no longer the case. For the same actors to take up their pilgrim’s staff and promote their cause, new conditions are being created. 

Israel, Spring 2023. Demonstration against the Netanyahu government’s judicial reform project

A second resolution was therefore tabled in these days, again by a communist, the MP Jean-Paul Lecoq. It was rejected by the parliament, only supported by the left, with all the votes of the communists, the LFI and the Greens. The Socialists, for their part, despite having voted a resolution within the party that went in a completely different direction, strangely decided not to take part in the vote. Only one of them (Jérôme Guedj, who had already expressed his disagreement in July) voted against. He was therefore the only voice of the left to vote no, Israel is not an apartheid regime. The contrast between the two texts is striking. It quickly becomes clear that the new resolution is not identical to the previous one. This time it is meant to be directly responsive to the situation. However, the aim is still the same. Israel must be called an apartheid state, unreservedly and conclusively. The most notable difference from July is that the denunciation is made in a positive framework. In order to give full meaning to the sentence pronounced, the construction of two states is advocated. Now, as a response to what is happening “over there”, one would like to be more constructive. This, however, requires a stronger condemnation of the only one of the two existing states, the state of Israel. In other words, the argument is that the more decisive downgrading of the one is the necessary condition for the uplifting of the other. Only by forbidding one to persist in its present existence can we truly work towards the other’s birth. The solution of two States established within their borders and living in peace, which was conceived several decades ago by the Oslo Accords (on which the resolution is nevertheless very discreet, since it would involve an inappropriate distribution of blame), comes necessarily at this price.

A price that is obviously easier to pay if you take the anti-Zionist line. As is well known, anti-Zionism is firmly rooted in the French left. One might argue, and rightly so, that its counterpart, namely support and interest in Zionism, was no less genuine. Moreover, for a long time it was a dividing line on the left, one of those dividing lines that condense issues, some avowedly important – Third Worldism versus socialist experimentation, anticolonialism versus the way out of a European impasse – and others much less so – the position on the Jews and their right to self-defence and political existence in our time. In any case, it should be noted that a part of the French left’s support for Israel was based on a continuous and nourished relationship between the socialist parties of each state at a time when they were still leading forces. For a variety of reasons, this is no longer the case in either of the two countries. Anti-Zionism was bound to grow from this general weakening of the Social Democrats, which today finds its expression in the orientation of the LFI-dominated Nupes. This has been the case since the beginning of the 2000s, and the trend seems unstoppable. At most, it can be slowed down, but not reversed. In this respect, the July intervention held no surprises. It simply announced the colour. That is why it was so quick and even a little hasty. It wasn’t so much a statement about the situation in the Middle East – which isn’t the issue at all – as it was a clear demonstration of internal hegemony within the left and the French political landscape. Since the presidential and legislative elections were favourable to a certain camp, it was necessary to send out signals that everyone could understand. The gesture, in short, pushed the PS down a little further than it already was. It made it feel the yoke of the “joint” adventure of the Nupes from the very beginning.

Synthesis of Marine Communications. Benedetta Cappa 1933 – 1934, wikiart

But history catches up with strategies and forces them to adjust. “Something has happened…” For once, it will be necessary to see what. For anti-Zionism, the exercise is quite unusual. It is even rather embarrassing in this case. The first sentence at the beginning of the new resolution bears a trace of this embarrassment: “The deep attachment to the existence of the State of Israel cannot prohibit any critical view of its illiberal and colonial drift”. Far from the Nelson Mandela quotation that opened the previous resolution. But we should not be pleased too much, because this opening statement, which any progressive can easily subscribe to, is completely out of step with what follows; and we quickly realise that its only interest, beyond rhetoric, is to reach the widest possible audience, taking with it all that would now be on the side of “critical view”. The resolution wants to connect with what is happening in Israel; it wants to take advantage of the current moment. But in order to do this, the “critical view” must be expanded in a way that is tantamount to a reversal of what is actually happening in Israel. It must be turned into something different from what is manifested in the streets of Israel and which is a “deep attachment” to this state, without any ambiguity.  

Because that’s exactly what we see, as soon as we really look “over there”, and we refrain for a moment from thinking about the manoeuvres that we want to carry out here. What we see is that Zionism, let’s say in its most classical historical version, has been protesting in the streets and in all sorts of places for almost two months. That it has been carrying Israeli flags, singing the national anthem, waving the text of the Declaration of Independence.

And it is doing so to counter what it sees as a serious threat to itself: A government that is planning, without succeeding for the moment, to change the basic laws in order to have greater leeway; an executive that is threatening the separation of powers, secularism, the rights of minorities (including, first and foremost, those of the Palestinians in Israel, who have civil and political rights equal to those of Jewish citizens); a policy that threatens to turn the colonisation of the territories occupied since 1967 into their annexation; the “Greater Israel” that this would create would mean that the Palestinian population living there would be reduced to a status inferior to that of the other citizens of a single state with extended borders – a state that would effectively be an apartheid state, as qualified and condemned by international law.

In short, what left-wing anti-Zionism, in its European version, sees is real Zionism, not imagined Zionism, which vigorously and implacably opposes right-wing anti-Zionism, in its Israeli version. What he is obliged to note is that this right-wing anti-Zionism, which is projecting itself into politics and is currently in the position to take action, is characteristically what he, the European anti-Zionism, keeps saying that Zionism has always been, from the very beginning and throughout the existence of Israel. 

One can understand the embarrassment on the left. That Israel is a democracy, and that this democratic form is due to its Zionist inspiration and nothing else, the present situation makes clear by the very fact of its polarisation.

Paul Klee, Vortrag über die Spirale, 1933, wikiart

In this context, it is impossible to write the same resolution as in July. But since the aim of the authors remains the same – and this aim is essentially domestic – the change of discourse cannot be a change of direction. So what then? The new resolution, again not surprisingly, after declaring its “deep attachment”, uses every possible means to express the opposite, i.e. its abhorrence and rejection. It proceeds by accumulating facts, without worrying too much about the contradictions accumulated along the way. The label of apartheid is forged against a background of confusion between situations inside and outside the state, between mixed cities inside the state and territories militarily occupied by the same state, between military administration in the latter and intercommunal tensions in the former, where civil life is based on the equality of all citizens, Jews and non-Jews alike. Not to mention the fact that these cities are sometimes administered by elected officials from Arab parties who sit in parliament. Ignoring this Israeli reality, in which the collective rights of communities are negotiated against a background of strict equality of individual rights, without distinction of origin or religion, the resolution tries as much as possible to make singular voices speak, irreducible to each other but united by the ordeal they have undergone in the face of proven injustice. Generalisation is the rule, but, above all, it is a question of overloading, through the accumulation of cases, a category which, in its legal form, is inapplicable. Not anything new compared to the long-standing procedure, more or less rationalised and coordinated by BDS? And yet it is. It is that the apartheid argument can now, in the light of what is happening on the Israeli political scene, be invested in a different way, given a new function, and this time even exempted from any discussion.

In any case, this is the step that the new resolution intends to take. Of course, there is an initial difficulty that cannot be ignored. Doesn’t what is happening on the Israeli scene prove that apartheid is not really a current issue, because democratic society, whose vitality one salutes incidentally, is reacting to the fact that it could become so if the “illiberal drift” for which the Netanyahu era has been a breeding ground were ever to achieve its goals?  This is, in fact, the significance of the event. But there is one aspect that does not leave anti-Zionist criticism without resources, and even gives it a new impetus: It is that a criticism is gaining strength that could be interpreted as being about the state itself, if one knows how to reframe it. That is, if it is possible to show that it is a currently existing state, while the other state, the Palestinian one, is currently non-existent, what is really meant by “apartheid”. The whole of the effort of the new resolution is centred on this point. This is its specific shift. “Apartheid” means nothing more than the existence of one state and the non-existence of the other. Therefore, the essential use of the argument of the two states, which should be established simultaneously and jointly on the territory, here and now, as it should have been from the beginning. In other words, as long as there is one state, whatever it is and whatever it does, it can only be an apartheid state. And only when there are two states will apartheid finally be conjured.

As conjured up as a demon can be. With the new resolution, the French left has found a way of transforming the untraceable reality of Israeli apartheid into a demon that is still active, beyond the contexts and the historical sequence of events. The method of proof is therefore logically regressive, without any further concern for consistency. To see well means to see that, despite appearances, apartheid has always been operating, as far back as one can go. Thus we move from an apartheid that already would had been effective in the Netanyahu era, to an apartheid initiated by the rise of the Likud in the 1990s, to an apartheid opened by the 1967 occupation, Finally, an apartheid that began in 1948 – the Palestinian exodus of ’49 is therefore reduced to what it entailed in terms of expulsion and violence, and the situation of Israeli Arabs since then, that is, for three-quarters of a century, is reduced to an unchanging stagnation of domination and oppression. If this is so, it is unclear what the “deep attachment” declared at the outset means. Only denunciation remains. At no point is there any attempt to describe the historical composition of Israeli society and the more or less successful dynamics of integration of the various communities, both indigenous and more or less recent immigrants, which have led to its present form. At no point is there an examination of the resultant stratification and its specific tensions. This is because it is not a matter of interest. All that matters is the permanence of the demon and its ever-increasing influence.

Paul Klee, Geist des Gewölbes, 1933, wikiart

The argument is based on a state of affairs: it’s not institutional or legal provisions that would lead to discriminatory practices and racial segregation, but the very reality of the State, as one and only State. The other State does not exist, the State of Israel exists, and that is enough. This is the scandal with which the demon of apartheid now haunts us today, and of which its evocation serves as a constant reminder. If Israel continues to exist and the Palestinian state does not, then apartheid exists. Not legally, not politically, but existentially. It is therefore necessary, and this is the main proposal of the resolution, to call out the demon, to reaffirm it in all national and international bodies, so that the other state can come into being. Boycott is the obvious consequence. If two states are to emerge, it is necessary to deny in words and deeds that there is one of the both states. And to deny that there is on of the both is to call it, whatever it really is: an apartheid state. The disqualifier is to be attached to it whatever the signified is supposed to correspond to.

And to do this, it is necessary to take advantage of the opportune moment of an unprecedented agitation, in Israel itself, which is nothing other than a manifestation of the crisis of the state. On this point, the authors of the resolution were undoubtedly right, in spite of themselves. In transforming the Israeli street’s fear and refusal that the transition from a military to a civilian administration in the occupied territories will lead to a de facto apartheid situation, into a declaration that the present colonisation of the West Bank is tantamount to racial segregation within the existing state, it underlines with one (admittedly somewhat thick) stroke an undeniable point: Israel is currently plunged into a reflection on what it is as a state and into a collective exercise of reformulating the ideals that structure it in the wake of 1948. And in this perspective, it is colonisation that is at the centre of attention. It’s bringing the state into crisis, that’s what public opinion says, massively, by attacking the government’s most destructive intentions, starting with the shift from colonisation to annexation. The redefinition of Zionism in the conditions created by the current Israeli situation, understood in all its complexity, is on the agenda. And thus, not a rejection of itself as a state, but a renewal of the act of statehood in the present.

But this is what the new resolution proposed by Nupes fails to see, and it is a symptom of how difficult it is today to think seriously about this kind of phenomenon in Western Europe, where, whatever the political choice, it is easier to forget what it means to want and to create a State.

Suprematism. Two Dimensional Self Portrait. Kazimir Malevich 1915, wikiart

States are not empty shells, institutional constructs designed to provide a framework for any kind of public action and to guarantee the smooth running of private existences that are just plain random. They are forms that are only worthwhile if they are endowed with meaning, and this meaning is necessarily elaborated in something other than the state itself, that is, in that kind of group that modernity calls “nation”. The link between a state and its nation is thus the product of another link, primordial and in the opposite direction, between a particular nation and its own state. “My state”, says a nation that is never just any nation – this is the formula that modernity has chosen as its dominant mode of political and social existence, not without setting the ideal conditions for its correct composition, but without imposing them. Not all nations have a state, nor do they all have the vocation to have one. The Jewish people, reluctant to call itself a nation – because the term has a strong political connotation that renders problematic the nationalisation of the Jews in the host states, which is effective in the Diaspora – has experienced every hesitation to embark on this path of statehood. It did so by means of Zionism, as it was put into practice in 1948. There was nothing unambiguous about the movement, either before or after the declaration of independence that established the state. Once the state had been created, the debates on the identity of the Jews continued, on the elements that were included in this people in order to justify its ability to assert itself in this way, through a state that was certainly not just any state, and which would even prove to be very singular in relation to the examples that could be found in the Europe that was left.

A singular state, unique in the sense of qualitative and numerical uniqueness, had become that of the Israelis, the majority of whom were Jews and the minority Christians and Muslims, all of whom were equal and respected in their rights. In short, the choice was that of a democratic state with a Jewish majority, because it was endowed with a Jewish meaning – the way in which this meaning was fulfilled and determined remained subject to debate, even conflict, especially between religious and secularists. But as for the superior law, i.e. the fundamental laws shaping the state, everyone deferred to the secular, religiously neutral state of law that had been carried into exile.

Proun. El Lissitzky 1925, wikiart

So where does that leave the binational issue that the French left has decided to take up again? It has become an axis of Zionism in its recent evolution. It became so because of the concerted choice between Israelis and Palestinians in 1993. But it has become so because the Palestinians have committed themselves to a process of statehood, a process that the international partners, including Israel, have committed themselves to supporting – not, of course, to building, since building depends, in its form and meaning, on the political will of the Palestinians as a people or as a nation. For them, too, it is a question of will, of knowing what they want when they want it. For any nation, this will is never a necessity. But if there is that will, it is strongly binding. The nation is obliged to look at itself in order to know who it is and how it wants to live and organise itself, according to what kind of law, what internal and external policy. In this case, what emerged from the Oslo Accords was the projection of a democratic and secular Palestinian state, with a strong cultural identity that had been strengthened by the suffering, a source of intense debate that remained largely unresolved, and a commitment to a peaceful foreign policy towards its neighbours, starting with Israel.

This is what is at stake with the rise of the reactionary religious camp. This is what classical historical Zionism is reaffirming against in putting itself in a position to rethink its foundations in this time of crisis.

None of this has happened, for reasons that would require an objective analysis of the history of Israeli and Palestinian politics over the last twenty or thirty years. This is something that is almost never done. It is acknowledged that the Oslo Accords are long gone, but at the same time the urgency of returning to them is reiterated, and therefore the call for a two-state solution. 

And at the same time they forget that two states have never been an emergency solution, are not an emergency solution and cannot be an emergency solution. The only real emergency is to return to the process whereby an existing state commits itself to the emergence of a non-existent state, while the nation of that currently non-existent state acts upon itself so that it can exist. Unless you have no attachment to the state of Israel, unless you want its destruction, and unless you don’t care about the real fate of the Palestinians (even though you claim to care about them), this is the urgency that must be considered. And it’s this urgency that we can achieve if the self-analysis of the current Israeli protest movement, in its truly Zionist aspect, is carried out in a consistent manner.

The French left, which is at the forefront of the May and July resolutions, is not aware of what we have just described. In this way, it remains faithful to the French version of left-wing anti-Zionism and is completely removed from the voices that could still be heard when the Socialist Party had its full place in the French political landscape. It invokes the demon of apartheid in order to pursue, with its ancient and still vivid vindictiveness, a state it hates. When it speaks of the Palestinian state, or of two states, it doesn’t care about the assumptions it makes, because its concern is with something else. It is to clearly outline the Franco-centric position, where what really matters is that Israel should not exist at all.

Malevitch, white on white, 1918, wikiart

It was quite different at the time, when the Jewish inspiration of the main authors of the Declaration of ’48, within the framework of a living socialism, found obvious echoes in this political camp, all the more so because, in the very tradition of French socialism, there were fermentations pushing in the same direction: that of a form of social democracy based on an extended network of cooperatives and collective forms of existence and production, such as the Jewish state was then effectively trying to create. 

Out of date? No doubt. But there are two kinds of past. There is the one that is evoked with nostalgia, in the deploration of the present situation. And there is the past that reappears in the present as the very thing that allows us to understand it, to remove the screens that block our view and to follow the new trend that it implies. With regard to the Israeli situation, this is the challenge facing the French left today: to remember and reactivate an attitude that has been obscured by its decline, in order to grasp better what is happening and the perspectives that are emerging. In recalling a certain past, therefore, we are only reconnecting with the motivation that it testifies to in its eminently contemporary form. And we affirm that it should be recalled by those who today still claim to have a voice in the deafening concert of the Left, when in a single movement it is bent on wielding demons and devoting all its energy to ensuring that, above all, nothing progresses in Palestine and Israel.

Bruno Karsenti

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