Apartheid references in Israel

The attempt to outlaw the use of the term "apartheid" in relation to Israel and its occupation has to be recognised as carrying dangers of effectively stifling debate on an issue of great importance

Richard Kuper
2 May 2017
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Two students from occupied East Jerusalem passing daily through Qalandia checkpoint to reach Birzeit University, 2014. Credit: Rich Wiles.We are faced with an increasing onslaught on criticism of Israel with attempts being made to drawn the lines ever more narrowly.  There are accusations that any singling out of Israel is antisemitic: so, for example, calling for boycott, divestment and sanctions in Israel’s case but not in others is prima facie evidence of antisemitism, as is using the word apartheid to characterise any aspect of Israeli society.

What I would like to address here is the use of the concept of ‘apartheid’ to compare South African and Israeli society, and the dangerous suppression involved in outlawing its use. Critics say the analogy is plain wrong and therefore its use can only be malign: an attempt to delegitimate, demonise and apply double standards (to use Sharansky’s 3-D test of criticism of Israel – see the discussion Is criticism of Israel antisemitic?) about what it is that goes beyond what is acceptable. Ultimately, for many of these critics, the use of the term “apartheid” is antisemitic.

Those who argue for applying the term to Israel generally acknowledge the differences in the South African case but argue that a wider definition of apartheid, enshrined in the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, UN General Assembly Resolution 3068, 30 Nov 1973, covers the Israeli case as well. Ben White’s book Israeli Apartheid: A beginner’s Guide (Pluto 2009) provides a good presentation of the argument.

There have been a host of articles of the “I grew up in South Africa, so believe me when I say: Israel is not an apartheid state” type. Equally, other important South African voices have been prominent in drawing analogies between living under the two regimes. In particular, it is experience at the checkpoints that has led South Africans to say that it is “worse than apartheid”. For in South Africa, while non-whites had to carry passes, there was generally freedom of movement in the sense that you could go anywhere unless and until you were called on to produce your pass. Control in general was by post hoc police raid, in a general search for “illegal” migrants in urban areas where they were not supposed to be. Control over movement within Palestine and between Palestine and Israel is far more rigorous and rigidly totalitarian on a daily basis than it ever was under South African apartheid.

But the attempt to exclude the use of the term is quite widespread and Israel Apartheid Week arouses intense opposition. Let Baroness Deech and Riverside Labour MP Louise Ellman, Honorary President of the JLM (Jewish Labour Movement, stand for all critics. In March 2017 Deech tweeted: “#israelapartheidweek A week of antisemitic hate, no foundation & shame on universities that host it”; the previous year Ellman declared herself  “deeply disturbed by the news that Oxford University Labour Club has decided to support Israeli Apartheid Week…”  and regarded comparisons between Israel and apartheid-era South Africa as “a grotesque smear”.

I do not want to argue the case for or against the applicability or the usefulness of the concept in relation to our understanding of Israeli society here. (The argument can be made well or badly and I would recommend the writings of Israeli academic Ran Greenstein who lives and works in South Africa for a comprehensive overview. See, for example, his two concise articles in +972 arguing a) that it is a form of apartheid; but b) different in important respects from historical apartheid in South Africa. )

Here I am more concerned about recognising that the attempt to outlaw its use carries real dangers of effectively stifling debate on an important issue – and possibly devaluing the term “antisemitism” in the process.

Reaffirming the right to criticise Israel robustly has become increasingly urgent in the light of the British government having ‘adopted’ the International Holocaust Remembrance Association definition of antisemitism in December 2016. This includes illustrative examples of what might “taking into account the overall context” be antisemitic, with no fewer than 7 or the 11 examples relating in some way to criticisms of Israel, for example “claiming that the existence 
of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor”, or “applying double standards [to Israel] by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other 
democratic nation”. Some of the dangers are spelt out in an opinion by Hugh Tomlinson QC (see “Legal opinion blasts holes in pro-Israel definition of anti-Semitism”) and by former Justice Stephen Sedley in “Defining Anti-Semitism

There is a concerted campaign to close down certain discussions and the use of terms like apartheid is increasingly likely to lead to campaigns of intimidation against universities, churches and others for daring to host discussion on these topics.

The Israel debate

What critics fail to register is how widespread the use of the term “apartheid” has become within Israel itself, either as a description of the dire realities of today, or as a warning of where the occupation can and must lead. Much of this appears in the pages of the liberal daily newspaper Ha’aretz, where criticism of the Israeli regime is most openly expressed, but the use of the term is also found in other, sometimes surprising, places.

Here, for instance, is a very recent Ha’aretz editorial “Fear at the top in Israel”, 30 Mar 2017, in which the standfirst reads:

Netanyahu and several of his ministers seem afraid above all of their image in the mirror - of leaders of a state calling itself a democracy and practicing apartheid.

And here is the proprietor of Ha’aretz, the redoubtable and much respected Amos Schocken  arguing that “Only international pressure will end Israeli apartheid “, 22 Jan 2016:

the most basic democratic values of equality before the law for all people under Israel control, and equal rights to vote and be elected, do not exist… The nearly 50 years of Israeli apartheid… The growing delegitimization of Israel is this country’s own handiwork. Should Israel decide to end apartheid, it will return to being legitimate in every respect.

Or again, senior editor Bradley Burston, who “made aliyah” (immigrated) from Los Angeles to Israel in 1976, declared in “It’s Time to Admit It. Israeli Policy Is What It Is: Apartheid”, 17 Aug 2015): “I used to be one of those people who took issue with the label of apartheid as applied to Israel. Not anymore.” 

Back in 2011, former Israeli ambassador to South Africa 1992-94, Alon Liel, in saying that “Israel needs 'outside interference’” was arguing that “Legislation about to be voted on in the Knesset is strikingly similar to that from Apartheid South Africa.”

In March 2017, comedian Assaf Harel in his TV programme, "Good Night With Asaf Harel" [broadcast on Israeli TV Channel 10] castigated Israelis for ignoring the occupation and claimed that Israel is an apartheid state. Ha’aretz’s report was headlined “In Last Monologue, Israeli Comedy Show Host Implores Israelis to Wake Up and Smell the Apartheid [italics added]”, 3 Mar 2017.

Israel's President Reuven Rivlin has recently also got into the act with his strong opposition to the so-called “Regularization Law”, which enables Israel to expropriate private Palestinian land where settlements have been built. This law, he affirmed in a meeting in February 2017, only two days after it had been passed, could “cause Israel to look like an apartheid state”, 12 Feb 2017.

Professor Oren Yiftachel who has written extensively about Israeli society as an ethnocracy, has now sharpened his critique. In “Call Apartheid in Israel by Its Name”, 11 Feb 2016, he wrote:

Citizenship here is reminiscent of South Africa's in the past: Jews are ‘white’ citizens, Arabs in Israel have ‘colored’ (in other words, partial) citizenship; and Palestinians in the territories have ‘black’ citizenship, without political rights.

Yossi Sarid environment minister under Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, wrote a decade ago, 25 April 2008:

 [T]he white Afrikaners, too, had reasons for their segregation policy; they, too, felt threatened – a great evil was at their door, and they were frightened, out to defend themselves. Unfortunately, however, all good reasons for apartheid are bad reasons; apartheid always has a reason, and it never has a justification. And what acts like apartheid, is run like apartheid and harasses like apartheid, is not a duck—it is apartheid.

Former Israeli Attorney-General (1993–1996) Michael Ben-Yair, was already on record as saying in 2002: “In effect, we established an apartheid regime in the occupied territories immediately following their capture. That oppressive regime exists to this day.” 3 March 2002. He reaffirmed this opinion in an appeal to the EU to endorse the creation of a Palestinian state and said that “Israel has imposed an “apartheid regime” on Palestinians in the West Bank” and that “the settlement movement is a political act by a state against another people and as such is the most evil and immoral act since the end of World War II.” 23 Nov. 2014.

Shulami Aloni, Minister of Education under Yitzhak Rabin, wrote an article in Yediot Ahronoth, English translation, 10 Jan 2007, called “Indeed there is Apartheid in Israel”:

[She elaborated] Jewish self-righteousness is taken for granted among ourselves to such an extent that we fail to see what’s right in front of our eyes. It’s simply inconceivable that the ultimate victims, the Jews, can carry out evil deeds. Nevertheless, the state of Israel practises its own, quite violent, form of Apartheid with the native Palestinian population. The US Jewish Establishment’s onslaught on former President Jimmy Carter is based on him daring to tell the truth which is known to all: through its army, the government of Israel practises a brutal form of Apartheid in the territory it occupies.

Respected NGO B’tselem, The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, has long used the concept of apartheid in its various reports.

Back in its definitive Land Grab study in 2002 of Israeli settlement practices, it concluded:

Israel has created in the Occupied Territories a regime of separation based on discrimination, applying two separate systems of law in the same area and basing the rights of individuals on their nationality. This regime is the only one of its kind in the world, and is reminiscent of distasteful regimes from the past, such as the Apartheid regime in South Africa.

Subsequent reports have only accumulated evidence that strengthens that conclusion.

Danny Rubinstein, a columnist for Ha’aretz likened Israel to apartheid South Africa during a United Nations conference at the European Parliament in Brussels on 30 August 2007. A UN report records his saying that “Israel today was an apartheid State with four different Palestinian groups: those in Gaza, East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Israeli Palestinians, each of which had a different status.”

Here is yet another Ha’aretz editorial in October 2014, following the ruling by Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon barring Palestinian workers from using Israeli public transport. Under the heading “Welcome aboard Israel’s apartheid bus” 27 October 2014, he wrote:

The minister’s decision reeks of apartheid, typical of the Israeli occupation regime in the territories. One of the most blatant symbols of the regime of racial separation in South Africa was the separate bus lines for whites and blacks. Now, Ya’alon has implemented the same policy in the occupied territories. In so doing, he justifies the claims of those who brand Israel internationally as an apartheid state.

In yet another example, Professor Daniel Blatman of the Hebrew University, writing in “Heading Toward an Israeli Apartheid State”, 4 Apr 2011, drew the connection between what was happening in the occupied territories and what was happening in green-line Israel:

Israeli racism, whose natural 'hothouse' is the colonialist project in the territories, has long since spilled over into Israeli society and has been legitimized in the series of laws recently passed in the Knesset.


[And further] I believe… the aim of this legislation is the gradual establishment of an apartheid state in Israel, and the future separation on a racial basis of Jews and non-Jews.

To round out this brief survey of an ongoing historic debate, I would like to cite two former Prime Ministers of Israel, both issuing dire warnings as to where Israel was headed should it not end the occupation of the Palestinian territories.

First Yitzhak Rabin’s warning of the dangers of apartheid in a previously unpublicised 1976 interview, reported in the Times of Israel, 25 Sep 2015, warning of the danger of apartheid:

 “In a previously unpublicized recording of a 1976 interview, Israel’s fifth prime minister Yitzhak Rabin can be heard calling the still-nascent West Bank settlement movement “comparable to a cancer,” and warning that Israel risked becoming an “apartheid” state if it annexed and absorbed the West Bank’s Arab population.”

And finally, David Ben-Gurion himself. The renowned Israeli journalist Hirsh Goodman, who had left South Africa for Israel because of the former’s antisemitism and racism, after marching victoriously through the Sinai as a paratrooper in the Six-Day War, recalls in his memoirs Let Me Create a Paradise, hearing David Ben-Gurion on the radio warning that Israel must rid itself of its Arab territories lest it “become an Apartheid state”….

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