Israel is an apartheid state, or so a growing number of critics proclaim. Indeed, with South African apartheid done away with, Israel is apparently the only other state practicing apartheid worth mentioning. 46 of the top 50 results from a Google search for the phrase "apartheid state" are discussing modern Israel, not South African history10. The international divestment campaign against Israel for its alleged apartheid mobilizes more social awareness and concern than the one against Sudan for genocide. Apartheid is of course well deserving of divestments, boycotts, and anything else that brings it to an end, but the true magnitude of the crime should not be cheapened by recklessy hurling the accusation.
After the accusation that Israel is a state practicing apartheid comes the ubiquitous rationale behind the charge - Israel is today like South Africa was then. The mantra that Israel resembles (or is worse than) South African apartheid continues to be parroted by the majority of critics and should therefore be clearly addressed. We need to understand what South African apartheid was, the extent to which it was implemented and enforced, and how it victimized on a daily basis those who had it imposed upon them. Only then can we determine if Israel is on its way to becoming an apartheid state, or as many claim, has already become one.
South Africa's Total Segregation
The white apartheid government was a minority ruling over a far greater majority of indigenous black Africans and other non-whites. They started off as colonialists and traders who took the land through force of superior arms and offered little to nothing in terms of compensation to the natives. The apartheid National Party that began in 1948 was the final chapter to the story of unilateral South African conquest first by the Dutch and then the British. It was never recognized as a legitimate government by the international community.
Perhaps the most striking feature of South African apartheid is the ability to follow the institutionalized racism tangibly with legal codes, acts, and ordinances. There was never a need to consider the National Party's racism in abstract terms based on perceived injustice, and seeing the oppression did not depend on subscribing to a particular ideology. It was objective racism clearly seen from any side where racial segregation and oppression was both the means and the end. To illustrate:
These examples only begin to scratch the surface of how engrained the total supremacy of whites over all non-whites was in the government of South Africa. There are many more. The following link archives hundreds of acts that supported the white domination over native Africans and other non-whites in South Africa: Apartheid Legislation.
The net effect of these numerous discriminatory ordinances was total segregation and belligerent oppression of the non-white races by the white. Non-whites could not hold government positions, could not serve in the military, and could not vote. Blacks lived in different neighborhoods, attended different schools, went to different hospitals, ate at different restaurants, rode different buses, shopped at different stores, swam at different pools and beach areas, picnicked at different parks, read at different libraries, worshipped at different churches, attended different entertainment venues, and played on different playgrounds. They were ultimately rounded up from their already segregated neighborhoods into the infamous Bantustans.
Further study of South Africa's history is of course required to fully appreciate the crime of apartheid, but enough has been touched on to make a general comparison.
"Resembling" South African Apartheid Since 1993
Accusations that Israel is an apartheid state began, with some earlier exceptions, about the same time as South African apartheid was collapsing. For example,
Note that these comparisons were not popular in 1976 when the UN provided a universal definition of apartheid that could be applied to any state practicing it, but only after South African apartheid was done away with. The reason, I believe, is simple; a side-by-side comparison between Israel and a functional South African apartheid regime would have been seen as asinine by any casual observer. Any racial injustices going on in Israel would have been overshadowed by daily events in South Africa and the campaign would not have gained the social traction it enjoys today.
The idea that Israel, a country affording its minority groups full rights in governmental and civil sectors, resembled what was happening in South Africa would have been mocked and rightly so. Only after the "poster state" for apartheid has passed into the history books does a comparison between the two stand a chance of being taken seriously.
Right out of the gate there are two structural differences between South African apartheid and the state of Israel:
These facts do not take much effort to point out, but their significance should not be taken for granted. Indeed, these two differences alone are enough to distance Israel from South Africa's apartheid so much that the very analogy begins to lose meaning. But we need not stop here for there are many other differences, each one of which advances any discussion between South African apartheid and Israel toward an exercise in contrast rather than comparison.
Israeli Arabs can hold government positions, serve in the military (although not required like most Jews), and vote. Israeli Arabs are not relegated to Arab-only neighborhoods or kept out of Jew-only neighborhoods. Arabs are allowed to attend schools with Jews, get treated at the same hospitals as Jews by Arab or Jewish doctors, eat at the same diners and restaurants, ride the same buses, shop at the same stores and malls.
Israeli Arabs can swim at the same pools and beaches, picnic at the same parks, read at the same libraries, worship at the same churches, attend the same entertainment venues, and play on the same playgrounds. There are no Bantustans waiting for Israeli Arabs. They have freedom of movement throughout the country and have the freedom of assembly. Arabic is one of the country's official languages.
In short, Israel's Arabs enjoy all the freedoms that were denied to South Africa's blacks while suffering none of the enforced segregation policies imposed upon them. Those who make claims that Israel resembles South African apartheid are forced to pervert reality on two fronts; first belittling the South African experience while simultaneously falsifying Arab disenfranchisement in Israel. Despite the substantial departure Israel has clearly taken from South African apartheid, we will nonetheless review the most popular examples that illustrate why, in the opinions of the critics giving them, Israel resembles an apartheid state.
1 Robertson, Ian, and Phillip Whitten. Race and Politics in South Africa. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1978. 146.
2 Cottrell, Robert C. South Africa: A State of Apartheid. Arbitrary borders. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2005. 102
3 Cottrell, Robert C. South Africa: A State of Apartheid. Arbitrary borders. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2005. 26
4 South African Democracy Education Trust. The Road to Democracy in South Africa. Cape Town: Zebra Press, 2004. 354
5 Cottrell, Robert C. South Africa: A State of Apartheid. Arbitrary borders. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2005. 86-87
6 Christopher, A. J. The Atlas of Apartheid. London: Routledge, 1994. 143
7 Christopher, A. J. The Atlas of Apartheid. London: Routledge, 1994. 103
8 Africana Encyclopedia. Apartheid, Social and Political Policy of Racial Segregation and Discrimination Enforced by White Minority Governments in South Africa from 1948 to 1994
9 Cottrell, Robert C. South Africa: A State of Apartheid. Arbitrary borders. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2005. 103
10 Google search for "apartheid state" run on March 24, 2009
11 Kadalie, Rhoda and Bertelsmann, Julia I. Franchising "Apartheid": Why South Africans Push the Analogy. March 2008.
12 Farsakh, Leila. “Israel: An Apartheid State?” Le Monde Diplomatique, November 2003
13 "Apartheid Wall," Stop the Wall
14 Ferguson, Sue. "Tear Down that Wall!" THIS Magazine. September-October 2007.