Jim Crow in Jerusalem

Jim Crow in Jerusalem
(Figure 1) Robert Frank, “Trolley – New Orleans,” The Americans (1959)
(Figure 1) Robert Frank, “Trolley – New Orleans,” The Americans (1959)


“New Haven itself is a crime scene, the site of historic and continuing racism, segregation, and social inequality.”[1] So wrote a scholar of the city at the turn of the twenty-first century. This observation links America’s segregated past to its nominally desegregated present: anyone who travels from the New Haven train station to Yale University confronts the fractious legacy of racial segregation. While segregation in the United States predates 1896, the racial divide approved by the “separate but equal” ruling of the US Supreme Court (Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896) strengthened Jim Crow laws across the American South, and indirectly reinforced de facto segregation in the northern states. The racial divide was famously emblematized in a groundbreaking documentary photograph series currently held in New Haven, Robert Frank’s The Americans (1959). Four years after Rosa Parks had famously refused to cede her seat on a Montgomery bus to a white passenger, Frank captured the starkly physical engineering of public space that segregation had set in place on a New Orleans trolley (figure 1). The camera angle is evenly split between black and white, and iron bars divide each passenger from their neighbours. The riders stare at the cameraman, their countenances etched by public and private histories of grief. Ranging from defiance to desperation to denial, every face canvassed in the photographer’s gaze expresses a fraught relationship to a racially tainted American dream, adding dimensions to the axiom of geographer George Lipsitz: “race is produced by space [and] it takes places for racism to take place.”[2]

When I encountered Frank’s “Trolley – New Orleans” in the Yale University Art Museum in the middle of 2012, I was immediately brought back to September 2011. On this month, I began what was intended to be a five-year fellowship at the Jerusalem-based Van Leer Institute for Advanced Studies. I welcomed the opportunity because it gave me the chance to live across the Jerusalem border in Bethlehem. (I ended up leaving after ten months, having observed many aspects of daily life in Palestine as well as Israel that had fallen beneath the radar of the news headlines.) Commuting between Jerusalem and Bethlehem introduced me to a range of discriminatory regimes, which were both different to and similar from the Jim Crow system of the American South that I knew from US history and, more distantly for me, South African apartheid.

Although South Africa provided the immediate context, the United Nations’ fullest discussion of apartheid is deliberately designed not to target any specific state. According to UN’s International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid (1973), apartheid is “a crime against humanity” organized around “policies and practices of racial segregation and discrimination … for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons.”[3] Scholars and other observers are increasingly applying this definition to Israel.[4] In his study of how the apartheid analogy pertains to Israel/Palestine, South African scholar Daryl Glaser argues that “Israel proper more closely resembles Northern Ireland during the Protestant ascendancy, with Jews in the role of the Protestant majority and Arabs in the position of the Catholic minority, than it does apartheid South Africa.”[5] Glaser is right to discern a difference, yet the two systems depend on each other. For an American, segregation in Israel proper (as demarcated by the 1967 Green Line) evokes the de facto Jim Crow of the northern states. Meanwhile, segregationist policies in the occupied territories approach more closely to apartheid South Africa in certain respects and to de jure Jim Crow in the American South in others. This essay focuses on how these various types of segregation unravel and reconstitute themselves across the entirety of Israel/Palestine, in a regime where borders are increasingly fluid and internationally recognized borders are increasingly irrelevant to the facts on the ground. The phrase “travelling apartheid” expresses this fluidity and reflects a dimension of everyday life that often goes unremarked on both sides of the Green Line.

Israeli Jim Crow discriminates with great subtlety, and through heavy reliance on the latest technology, both within Israel proper and in the Occupied Territories.[6] Often the subtlety is so great and the bargain so lucrative that those discriminated against accept the terms of their subordination while keeping their energies in reserve for the battles they can afford to fight. Whereas apartheid prevails in the Palestinian Occupied Territories, the forms of population management that prevail in Israel itself approach more closely to de facto forms of Jim Crow. Both forms of social organization are pernicious and both stand in need of critique.

The traveler who journeys by bus from Palestine to Israel becomes immediately immersed in contemporary apartheid, and comes to see, if only partially, how “to travel in Palestine is to be caught in a slow-moving vortex of filtering by the permit system and of funneling through the ubiquitous checkpoints, and to move among spaces with varying forms of sovereignty.”[7] There are two bus systems. The Israeli system is run by the Israeli company Egged with support, until 2015, from the French multinational corporation Veolia.[8] Ironically given its role in facilitating segregation, Egged literally means “union.” By contrast, Palestinian buses are run as private initiatives by individual bus drivers, and are not united under a single company. They are recognizable by the blue letters emblazoned on a white surface, which read in Arabic: JERUSALEM – SOUTH. The schedules for these buses are not posted for the simple reason that no schedules exist. Buses leave when they are full. The task of moving around the West Bank and from the West Bank into Israel is thereby simplified: there is no point in keeping track of time when time is so unpredictable. Simultaneously, time in the Occupied Territories is complicated: one is always bound to wait, sometimes for hours on end. The result? “The theft of time,” in the words of Israeli journalist Amira Hass.[9]

By contrast with the decentralized Palestinian bus network, Egged is organized according to a rigid timetable that is standardized across Israel and publicly available online. Every bus in the Egged fleet is painted bright green, with silver panelling and bulletproof windows. To ride a bus in Tel Aviv is to ride a bus in Jaffa is to ride a bus in Jerusalem. The rider knows what to expect, and the buses run with clockwork-like precision. Whereas Palestinian bus drivers diligently distribute the same generic paper ticket to everyone, Egged receipts are electronically generated for each new passenger. Egged’s stops are announced on digitized screens hoisted above the driver, and accompanied by a recorded Hebrew voice that prepares passengers for each stop. (Although Arabic is an official language of Israel, it is nowhere to be seen on the Egged buses.) To get off at a specific stop on a Palestinian bus, by contrast, the rider must inform the driver in advance, and one’s voice must compete with the Arabic news broadcast blaring on the radio.

Also in contrast to the Egged bus system, which abounds in clearly marked bus stops all over Israel, often with benches and glass coverings, there are no bus stops that are marked as such for the Palestinian bus system. Palestinian buses generally stop near Egged bus stops, but this is not a fixed rule. In order to know where to wait for a Palestinian bus, one must either be Palestinian or be in contact with someone who regularly travels this route. For the Palestinian bus network, even though it runs precisely parallel in many places to the Egged system, there is no infrastructure to support bus stops, schedules, or even individually generated tickets.

Another difference between the two bus systems that elucidates the two-tiered dimensions of life under Israeli rule is the demographics of its riders. The deliberate segregation of Jewish Israelis on Israeli buses and Arabs on Arab buses cannot be accounted for through socio-economic or other pragmatic explanations. For much of their routes through Jerusalem, the two buses follow parallel tracks. For someone steeped in US history, this two-track bus system looks like yet another iteration of a “separate but equal” ideology. Although, unlike in the American South, the segregation regime is devised in such a way as to generate an appearance of conformity with international law, not once during the ten months I spent crossing the Israel/Palestine border did I encounter a West Bank Palestinian on an Israeli bus or an Israeli on a bus from the West Bank, even when the Palestinian bus route was restricted to Jerusalem. Even when travelling through Jerusalem, West Bank Palestinians avoid Israeli buses as much as possible, and rely instead on Palestinian buses.

Notwithstanding the avoidance of Israeli buses by their West Bank counterparts, Israeli Palestinians comprise a sizable minority of the cohort of Egged bus drivers. Even more than physical appearance, the distance between Palestinian and Israeli Jewish was evident in their response to my questions. Whereas Israeli drivers feigned ignorance when I asked how to get to “Bethlehem,” Palestinian drivers were happy to guide me towards that West Bank city from Jerusalem. Ask one of the Israeli Egged drivers how to get to Bethlehem from Jerusalem, and he will look at you as if you were asking to go to Tokyo. The most common reaction among such drivers was to pretend that they had never heard of the West Bank.

No law requires Israelis to avoid Palestinian buses or Palestinians to avoid Israeli buses. In contrast to the segregated trolleys of the American South, Palestinians are not legally required to sit at the back of the bus. The segregation that confronts any causal visitor to Jerusalem is partly elective. As one Palestinian-American declares by way of emphasizing the complex political choices entailed in her daily commute, “I ride the bus that is strictly for Palestinians who do not have Israeli citizenship.”[10] Although in theory this Palestinian woman could board an Egged bus, she avoids them out of solidarity with her fellow Palestinians. In the absence of a legal prohibition, but amid overwhelming unofficial discrimination, the norms of traveling apartheid further entrench the racialized binaries of everyday existence in Israel/Palestine.

Outside Jerusalem, past the many checkpoints bisecting the West Bank, the situation has recently come under stricter regulation. West Bank Palestinians who are only permitted to enter Israel for the purpose of work are now required to restrict their movements to the “Palestinian only” bus lines that were introduced in March 2013 by the Israeli company Afikim in partnership with Israel’s Ministry of Transportation. The Ministry of Transportation introduced this new legal requirement in response to settler demands for a bus system that could be used exclusively by them. Whereas the white and blue buses that circumambulate east Jerusalem are Palestinian-run, the two new bus lines that transport Palestinian workers from the checkpoints into Israeli cities are run by Israelis. As such, they correspond in this respect more closely to the classic apartheid model, whereby segregation is instituted and enforced by the ruling regime.

There are differences between the Israeli version of Jim Crow and its counterparts elsewhere in the world. The buses run by Afikim for transporting workers back to their homes in the West Bank are cheaper to ride than were their Palestinian predecessors. The introduction of this legally mandated form of segregation by the Ministry of Transportation therefore entails a decrease in the commuting cost for Palestinian workers, which is not a minor consideration given the West Bank’s (artificially) stalled economy and the scarcity of jobs. Even though the lines are often long for the Afikim buses (as shown in figure 2), still such waiting has advantages over the former system, which required Palestinian workers to face taunts and racial slurs from the settlers with whom they were compelled to share space on their journey home.

The segregated bus system is enshrined within the high-tech infrastructure that generally characterizes the occupation. Its conciliatory rhetoric positions the Israeli state as a defender and protector of Palestinians’ interests. As the leading liberal Israeli daily Haaretz states of the light rail, another controversial addition to Israel’s transportation infrastructure originally run by the French multinational company Veolia, which until 2015 was also involved in Jerusalem’s segregated bus system, “Jerusalem’s light rail has become the most salient symbol of the city’s unification under the wings of normalization and technology.”[11] As with the light rail, which makes Israeli settlements permanent by linking them to Jerusalem, the checkpoints, and the wall, so with the new bus system: the occupation is normalized through technical means. While some Israelis regard the light rail as a symbol of Jerusalem’s unification, others point to its institutionalization of new forms of discrimination. Hanna Baumann makes a compelling case for the light rail as an agent in segregation. She argues that this new mode of Jim Crow transportation was the reason why the light rail stations were destroyed by rioting Palestinians in early July 2014, following the murder of Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir by Israeli settlers.[12] East Jerusalem Palestinians, argues Baumann, “are not in fact quietly acquiescing to the ‘unification’ of the city, which they understand as the annexation of occupied land.”

Even following the introduction of the new bus lines, Israeli laws have not changed to reflect the reality of the new segregation. Transportation Minister Israel Katz insists that Palestinians are free to travel on any bus line as long as they have a permit. “Palestinians entering Israel will be able to ride on all public transportation lines,” he asserts.[13] While the reality on the ground gives the lie to his statement, it is true that Palestinians are not legally barred from boarding buses not intended for their use. However, de facto segregation is protected and there is no reliable legal mechanism to challenge it.[14] Instead of imprisoning Palestinians who violate the segregation regime, segregation is instituted through subtler means: Palestinians are incentivized to avoid buses designated for settlers. Inevitably, Palestinians are compelled to prioritize the welfare of themselves and their family over abstract appeals to resistance. When asked for his reaction to the new bus system, one Palestinian worker clarified his reasons for preferring de facto segregation. Noting that settlers regularly spat in his face when he travelled alongside them on his way home from work, he stated that he preferred the new system. The settlers “can say what they want,” this worker explained, “as long as I’m safe on the bus. I just want to put bread on the table for my children.”[15]

Although the law is vague when it comes to the Palestinian right to ride Israeli buses, some Palestinians have exposed the discriminatory dimensions of this new system by refusing to abide by the new regulations. These activists’ non-violent actions, inspired by the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955, resulted in mass arrests.[16] This example demonstrates that, even though Palestinians are not legally required to ride the buses designated for them, those who refuse to do so will be arrested and prosecuted on other legal grounds. Retribution for civil disobedience regarding Jim Crow regulations sends a clear warning signal to would-be Palestinian activists, who might otherwise be inclined to agitate for equality and social justice.


(Figure 2) Palestinian workers line up in front of an Israeli-run Palestinian only bus line, after crossing the Eyal checkpoint (Qalqiliya). Source: http://972mag.com/photos-israels-new-palestinian-only-segregated-bus-lines/67068/
(Figure 2) Palestinian workers line up in front of an Israeli-run Palestinian only bus line, after crossing the Eyal checkpoint (Qalqiliya). Source: http://972mag.com/photos-israels-new-palestinian-only-segregated-bus-lines/67068/.


Given the brutalization of Gaza, where bombs are rained down on hospitals, houses bulldozed, and there is no electricity supply during most of the day, and nonviolent protesters are shot simply for expressing their views, a Jim Crow bus system hardly appears like the most lethal aspect of everyday life. Even if the harm caused by such traveling apartheid appears moderate in the short term, the two-tiered bus system illustrates how the occupation affects all Israelis and Palestinians, including those who reside in Jerusalem or in parts of Israel not formally under occupation. Both de facto and legally mandated segregation damage any prospects of future peace. If Israelis and Palestinians travelled in the same buses every day as they navigated the Occupied Territories, then the geography of occupation would interfere more forcefully and effectively with the apartheid imagination.

Given a non-segregated bus system, the separation wall, which the Israeli state insists is the only surefire way of bringing Palestinian violence to an end, would lose its alibi. The advantages of abolishing traveling apartheid are practical as well as ethical. Even terrorists who believe that the cause of Palestinian liberation is advanced by killing Israeli civilians would be hard pressed to justify Palestinian casualties. If Palestinians and Israelis travelled on the same buses on a daily basis, then the everyday reality of co-existence would prevail over the ideology of apartheid. Would-be profiteers from antagonisms generated by this conflict would find it increasingly difficult to define their other as their enemy. Such peace poses a greater threat to the current Israeli regime, which thrives on fear, than do the most blatant acts of terrorism.

Solidarity against travelling apartheid would also constitute a united front against ethnocratic thinking on all sides. If Israeli and Palestinian passengers rode the same buses together, rather than being siphoned into buses according to their ethnicities, if the buses that now run parallel to each other on the very same roads were merged into a single transportation network, then the battle lines of the occupation would have to be redrawn. Recent events, such as the violent transfer of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, have exposed the pretense of the so-called two-state solution. The Jim Crow bus system is a physical manifestation of the segregated reality that a two-state solution would consolidate if erected along actually-existing borders. Under present conditions, a two-state solution would entail an endorsement of apartheid. Now that the pretense of the two-state ideal has been exposed, the Jim Crow bus system makes even more visible the need for a single state wherein Israelis and Palestinians live together with equal rights, under the same rule of law.

For nearly a century, from 1876 to 1965, Jim Crow was the status quo, legally mandated in the southern United States and tacitly followed in parts of the northern states. Israel, founded in 1948, is still younger than the entire length of the Jim Crow era. The full panoply of discriminatory regulations that segregate Palestinians from Israelis today are of even more recent vintage. While the Israeli apartheid system is still evolving, the unfolding of this process before our very eyes, at this very minute, as we write, speak, and fail to act, intensifies the urgency of protesting against it.

While acknowledging the relevance of the apartheid analogy, Palestinian philosopher Raef Zreik argues that “the defining feature of the Palestinian case, in contrast to that of the South African blacks, is fragmentation; the Palestinian experience has so many different facets that it is impossible to subsume them all under a single term like Apartheid.”[17] Zreik acutely diagnoses the limitations of rights discourse for theorizing about, and acting within, Israel/Palestine, in the absence of a single framework agreed on by both sides. Such a framework is the key element missing from the situation of Israel/Palestine, and what was present in the case of South African apartheid. In the US context too, as Zreik notes, “one might have conceived of blacks … as having been excluded, because there was a totality (the American people) of which they were presumably a part, but from which they were in fact excluded.”[18] Such a totality has yet to be generated in the case of Israel/Palestine. There is no actually existing universalist framework to which the apartheid geography of Israel/Palestine can be opposed, and no precedent for a joint Israeli/Palestinian state to which both advocates and opponents can refer. And yet such a framework is necessary, if only as a conceptual possibility, to index the distance between Israel’s state-building project and international legal and ethical norms. What does not yet exist, must be invented, no matter matter how much imagination and courage is needed. We need a vision of what our coexistence should look like, no matter how impossible it seems.

While every historical comparison risks obscuring key differences, Palestinian and Israeli civil rights advocates can learn from the strategies South Africans and African-Americans have developed for resisting travelling apartheid, for pinning it down and dismantling it.[19] Will these lessons in anti-colonial and anti-racist resistance from other times and places enable the political configuration signified by the impossible copula “Israel/Palestine” to overcome its segregated present? That will be determined in part by those who ride the bus, from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, and elsewhere throughout Occupied Palestine, every day.


[1] Elizabeth Chin, Purchasing Power: Black Kids and American Consumer Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 183.

[2] George Lipsitz, How Racism Takes Place (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011), 5.

[3] “International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. Adopted by the

General Assembly of the United Nations on 30 November 1973,” Available at: https://treaties.un.org/doc/publication/unts/volume%201015/volume-1015-i-14861-english.pdf.

[4] See Andy Clarno, Neoliberal Apartheid: Palestine/Israel and South Africa after 1994 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017) and Apartheid Israel: the politics of an analogy, edited by Jon Soske and Sean Jacobs (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015), and Robert Wintemute, “Israel-Palestine Through the Lens of Racial Discrimination Law: Is the South African Apartheid Analogy Accurate, and What if the European Convention Applied?” King’s Law Journal 28.1 (2017): 89-129.

[5] Daryl Glaser, “Zionism and Apartheid: a moral comparison,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 26.3 (2003): 413.

[6] Helga Tawil-Souri has written extensively about the technological aspects of the occupation in works such as “Digital Occupation: Gaza’s High-Tech Enclosure,” Journal of Palestine Studies 41.2 (2012): 27-43 and “The Hi-Tech Occupation of Palestine,” in State Power 2.0: Authoritarian Entrenchment and Political Engagement Worldwide, eds. Philip Howard and Muzammil Hussain (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013), 57-68.

[7] Julie Peteet, Space and Mobility in Palestine (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), 69-70.

[8] According to the company’s press release, “Veolia closes the sale of its activities in Israel,” (available at https://www.veolia.com/en/veolia-group/media/press-releases/veolia-closes-sale-its-activities-israel) it ceased doing business in Israel in 2015. Veolia’s links to the Israeli transport system are discussed in Cherine Hussein, The Re-Emergence of the Single State Solution in Palestine/Israel: Countering an Illusion (Abingdon: Routledge, 2015), 162-163.

[9] Amira Hass, “Israel’s Closure Policy: An Ineffective Strategy of Containment,” Journal of Palestine Studies 31.3 (2002): 5-20.

[10] Tasneem Turk, “Letter from Tasneem,” in Kenneth Ring, ed. Letters from Palestine: Palestinians Speak Out about Their Lives, Their Country, and the Power of Nonviolence (Tucson: Wheatmark, 2010), 75.

[11] Nir Hasson, “Unraveling the murder that’s shaking Jerusalem: The facts so far,” Haaretz (July 4, 2014). Emphasis added.

[12] Hanna Baumann, “The heavy presence of Jerusalem Light Rail: why Palestinian protesters attacked the tracks,” OpenDemocracy (July 6, 2014).

[13] Itamar Fleishman, “Separate but Equal Bus Lines?” Yedioth Ahronoth (March 4, 2013).

[14] See Robert Mackey, “Israelis Divided Over Separate Bus Lines for Arabs and Jews in Occupied West Bank,” New York Times (March 4, 2013).

[15] Joel Greenberg, “Israeli buses for Palestinians spark accusations of segregation,” Washington Post (March 5, 2013).

[16] For this movement, see Maryam S. Griffin, “Freedom Rides in Palestine: racial segregation and grassroots politics on the bus,” Race & Class 56.4 (2015): 73–84, and Mark Levine, “Freedom riders on the move in Palestine,” Al-Jazeera (April 9, 2014).

[17] Raef Zreik, “Palestine, Apartheid, and the Rights Discourse,” Journal of Palestine Studies 36:1 (2004): 71.

[18] Zreik, “Palestine, Apartheid, and the Rights Discourse,” 70.

[19] Some of these strategies are catalogued in Keith P. Feldman, A Shadow over Palestine: The Imperial Life of Race in America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017).







Rebecca Ruth Gould

About Rebecca Ruth Gould

Rebecca Ruth Gould is the author of Writers and Rebels: The Literature of Insurgency in the Caucasus (Yale University Press, 2016), which was awarded the University of Southern California Book Prize in Literary and Cultural Studies and the best book award by the Association for Women in Slavic Studies. Her writings on Palestine have appeared in Social Text and World Policy Journal, and she is co-author (with Malaka Shwaikh) of the forthcoming Prison Hunger Strikes as Civil Resistance: Global Strategies for Political Resistance (International Center on Nonviolent Conflict Research Monograph Series)

Rebecca Ruth Gould is the author of Writers and Rebels: The Literature of Insurgency in the Caucasus (Yale University Press, 2016), which was awarded the University of Southern California Book Prize in Literary and Cultural Studies and the best book award by the Association for Women in Slavic Studies. Her writings on Palestine have appeared in Social Text and World Policy Journal, and she is co-author (with Malaka Shwaikh) of the forthcoming Prison Hunger Strikes as Civil Resistance: Global Strategies for Political Resistance (International Center on Nonviolent Conflict Research Monograph Series)

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