I’m not sure how I feel about Jimmy Carter’s new book, Peace not Apartheid, which seems a little over the top to me in some respects, although I do know that the absurd efforts to brand him an anti-Semite are all too typical not only of historic hyper-sensitivity to any criticism of Israel but of the way the arch-practitioners of political correctness dismiss as a racial, ethnic, sexual, or religious bigot anyone who says something they don’t like and can’t easily refute. Carter has caught a lot of flak for characterizing Israel’s treatment of the Palestiniansas "apartheid." I don’t know whether this usage is the most accurate description possible, but I do know that Carter is by no means the only person to employ it.
Consider this anecdote from a former Israeli cabinet memberconcerning the construction of “Jewish only” roads in Palestine:
Wonderful roads, wide roads, well-paved roads, brightly lit at night — all that on stolen land. When a Palestinian drives on such a road, his vehicle is confiscated, and he is sent on his way.
On one occasion I witnessed such an encounter between a driver and a soldier who was taking down the details before confiscating the vehicle and sending its owner away.
"Why?" I asked the soldier.
"It's an order. This is a Jews-only road," he replied. I inquired as to where was the sign indicating this fact and instructing [other] drivers not to use it.
His answer was nothing short of amazing. "It is his responsibility to know it, and besides, what do you want us to do, put up a sign here, and let some anti-Semitic reporter or journalist take a photo, so he then can show the world that apartheid exists here?”
Few scholars would dispute the distinguished historian Neil McMillen’s observation that Mississippi was once ”the heartland of American apartheid.” It may seem a bit of a stretch to suggest a connection between Mississippi under Jim Crow and Palestine under Israeli control, but as McMillen notes, ” early in the automobile age… some communities arbitrarily denied black motorist access to public streets. Many towns informally restricted parking to whites on principal thoroughfares. For a time following World War I, Jackson’s Capitol Street, portions of Greenwood, the entire city of Laurel and doubtless all or parts of many other communities were known to be open only to white motor traffic. None of these proscriptions were matters of law and they varied considerably from one place to another." As a black educator put it, ”every town had its own mores, its own unwritten restrictions… The trick was to find out from local [black] people what the ‘rules’ were.” In other words, for a black traveler in Mississippi just as for a Palestinian traveler in Palestine, it was “his responsibility to know it.”
It would be foolish, of course, to argue that life for Palestinians in contemporary Palestine is generally comparable to life for black Mississippians in the Jim Crow era. However, if apartheid is defined to include “using different legal instruments to rule over different racial groups,” there is more than ample evidence of it in both contexts. More accurately, perhaps, we might conclude that both situations suggest, as many historians of segregation in the American South have shown, the law itself is often of little import, either as an expression of the will of the powerful or as a protection against it, in a society where the dominant group is so dominant that it can demand adherence to its preferences and whims merely as a matter of custom and practice.