Amnesty's Israel report
The power of words

Apartheid! Anti-Semitism! Why the row about definitions is shifting the focus away from the issue at hand. Commentary by Daniel Marwecki on the debate about Amnesty International's Israel report

If it says apartheid on the cover, there must be anti-Semitism inside. This, at least, is how critics of Amnesty International's recent report on Israel see it. In this 278-page report, which was published at the start of the month, Amnesty International documents the systematic discrimination to which the Palestinians are subjected. Amnesty International's verdict is that Israel is guilty of apartheid.

The Israeli government dismissed the report as anti-Semitic. Germany's foreign ministry, the Federal Foreign Office, did not embrace the report either. While the Federal Foreign Office did not say that the report was per se anti-Semitic, its spokesperson Christopher Burger said that it rejected "expressions like apartheid or a one-sided focusing of criticism on Israel".

The Federal Foreign Office put the report in the context of rising anti-Semitism in Europe. Burger made the point that those who fight for human rights are responsible for making sure that they do not "involuntarily encourage" this anti-Semitism. As usual, the German-Israeli Society (DIG) went two steps further and called on Amnesty International to return its Nobel Peace Prize.

Responding to the accusation of apartheid with the accusation of anti-Semitism shifts the focus away from the issue at hand. Those already convinced that the A word is anti-Semitic have a ready excuse not to concern themselves with the very real suffering of Palestinian people. This is demonstrated by tweets published by the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, which describes the Amnesty International report as an anti-Semitic attack on Israel without making any reference whatsoever to the conditions outlined in the report.

It is similarly obvious from the columns of prominent German blogger and journalist Sascha Lobo, who now considers Amnesty International to be an "anti-Semitic organisation" without quoting a single sentence from the report.

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid on a visit to Egypt (photo: Nariman El-Mofty/AP Photo/picture-alliance)
Israel's Foreign Minister Yair Lapid rejected Amnesty International's accusations: Amnesty is a "radical organisation that reproduces propaganda without serious examination". It cites lies circulated by terrorists, he said. "Israel is not perfect – but it is a democracy, committed to international law, open to scrutiny, with a free press and a strong supreme court." Lapid also criticised Amnesty for not calling Syria, Iran, or "murderous regimes" in Latin America and Africa apartheid states. In the report, Amnesty International outlines what it sees as Israel's "system of oppression and domination" against Palestinians, both in Israel itself and in the Palestinian territories and other countries. This includes the confiscation of Palestinian land, unlawful killings and drastic restrictions on movement

"Apartheid is there to be overcome"

But what applies to one camp, applies equally to the other too. Those who slap the label "apartheid" on Israel are shutting themselves off from Israel's lively and complex civil society. You don't talk to people who perpetrate apartheid. You would have to be pretty far to the left on the Israeli spectrum to subscribe to Amnesty International's report, in particular because it removes the distinction between the Occupied Territories and Israel within its 1948 borders.

Those who accuse Israel of apartheid are doing more than just provoking, they are turning the state into a pariah. As Leah Frehse, Middle East correspondent for the German weekly broadsheet Die Zeit, aptly comments: apartheid is there to be overcome.

It is not, therefore, surprising that Israelis who reject the occupation policy, but do not want to give up their state, reject the Amnesty International report. After all, who would knowingly want to live in an apartheid state and benefit from it?

The row over what words are used to describe the facts is replacing any discussion of the facts themselves – in Germany in particular. Amnesty International's report is above all a description of a known situation: different legal systems for Israelis and for Palestinians living under occupation, military violence, the blockade of the Gaza Strip.

It shouldn't really come as a surprise that critical observers come up with the word apartheid for such a political structure. Whether it is justified or not is really a moot point and one that distracts attention from the much more important question, namely how the situation on the ground can be tangibly improved. After all, even German critics of Amnesty International should be able to agree that the current situation is untenable.

Daniel Marwecki

© 2022

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

Daniel Marwecki is a political scientist and historian. He currently works at the University of Hong Kong. He holds a PhD from SOAS University of London and previously worked in Jerusalem. His book "Germany and Israel. White Washing and State Building" on the history of German-Israeli relations was published by Hurst in 2020.


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