“Apartheid,” today's  prime stigmatic code-word for racist evil, has become a potent weapon for delegitimizing and demonizing Israel, especially since it evokes the precedent of powerful external pressure in the form of boycott and sanctions as was applied against the apartheid regime in South Africa. Hence, in the propaganda war against Israel an equation is fabricated insidiously between the present State of Israel and the former apartheid state of South Africa.

This must be exposed as a malicious slander, and utterly refuted. It is also a crass abuse of the valuable lessons that might be learned from the odious apartheid experience of South Africa. There is no objective basis whatsoever for attributing to Israel the ideology, policies and praxis that were known as apartheid in South Africa. The historical context of white-black relations which spawned apartheid differs fundamentally from that in which conflict developed between Zionist Jews and Palestinian Arabs.


The essence of Israel's conflict situation has always been a clash of nationalisms; ultimately over the question of who should have primacy in gaining national self-determination in a contested territory. By contrast, the South African conflict evolved out of a centuries-long, near absolute domination exercised by a self-defined racial minority (the whites) over an externally-defined racial majority of the population, which was denied equal civic rights, above all the primary democratic right, enjoyed exclusively by the whites, to elect and be elected to the legislature and government of the state. The Afrikaans term “apartheid” originated during the 1940s to describe an ideological conception and political program that justified, systematized, reinforced and expanded this pre-existent system of racial discrimination and separation.

What justified the utter excoriation of apartheid? From a moral point of view, it must be stressed that what was so abhorrent about apartheid as to justify sanctions and boycotts of South Africa, was neither its undemocratic nature nor the severe repression of all resistance, the likes of which could be found abundantly in many other countries plagued by severe ethnic conflict. Rather, valid world condemnation targeted two indefensible wrongs: firstly, the legalized racist basis of apartheid’s enforced inequalities; secondly the adamant refusal of the apartheid regime to cease its unilateral dictates and accept the option of negotiation. Of course, an essential condition for such negotiation was not only the willingness of the dominator to dismantle the apartheid regime but also the willingness of the dominated majority not to resort to reverse domination. When the statesmanship of both Frederik Willem de Klerk and Nelson Mandela ensured that these conditions were satisfied, condemnations of the South African state and boycotts and sanctions against it rightly ceased.

Manifestly, neither of the above-mentioned wrongs applies in the case of Israel. Israel’s democratic praxis certainly has faults and moral failings. But apartheid they are not. Any conscionable person, who has lived (as I have) in both apartheid South Africa and Israel, knows this. Only hostile prejudice or rank ignorance can explain the charge that in Israel, as in apartheid South Africa, it is skin color or any statutory race classification that determines every aspect of one's human and civic rights  from birth to death: whether one has the right to vote and be elected or not, live or work in one place or other, study in one institution or other, have one occupation or other, be treated in one hospital or other, eat in one restaurant or another, go to the theater, sit on a particular park bench or ride in a particular  bus.

As for refusal to negotiate a settlement, no Israeli government, not even the present hyper-nationalist one headed by Binyamin Netanyahu, has refused this option. Self-evidently, the boycott campaign is aimed less at ending the occupation than at ending the State of Israel itself.

There is, however, a sense in which the South African case is instructively comparable to that of Israel. It relates to the reality of Israel's decades long occupation regime over the post-war militarily occupied territory known as the West Bank, or in Jewish tradition as Judea and Samaria. No military occupation can be morally benign and this one is undeniably no exception. Manifestly, its paramount tasks are not only to administer the region but especially to protect the Jewish settler population as well as the security of Israel proper. It fosters Jewish settlement while subjecting the Palestinian majority to a wide range of administrative and legal discrimination and hardship, including the severely damaging effects of sections of the security barrier, and limitations on freedom of movement and housing development. Arbitrary military suppression of resistance is ameliorated or stemmed only by the Israeli political system's inbuilt democratic inhibitions, especially interventions by Israel's Supreme Court, and monitoring by Israeli human rights associations.

Thus it is that the everyday reality of governance, work, protest and suppression in the occupied territory looks a lot like South Africa under apartheid, especially when depicted on TV screens, mostly tendentiously and devoid of context. Yet, no matter how morally deplorable, this is not apartheid: it simply is not the same phenomenon. If one is to draw lessons, Israel's occupation regime is equally comparable to the situation in any number of other cases of post-war occupation or ethnic domination in deeply divided and conflict-ridden countries, not least of all in the Arab world.

If, however, one does choose to make South Africa the comparative model,  it is important to know that, in the course of the apartheid regime's evolvement, the strategic goal of white ethnic supremacy acquired a rationale that professed to be independent of racist premises. Its proponents were a stratum of Afrikaner intelligentsia and clergy (known at the time as verligtes, meaning "enlightened ones") who spoke of "separate development" and sought to undo the racist underpinning of apartheid policy by discarding its "petty apartheid" manifestations, such as legalized prohibition of any inter-race intimacy and racial separation of public amenities. The revised rationale was survivalist; born of the whites’ conviction that this was a zero-sum game; a case of dominate or be dominated!

The most notable measure of this "reformed apartheid" praxis was the ruthless enforcement of the homelands ("Bantustans") policy.  Only in their own homelands were voting rights to be granted to the blacks, including those domiciled in white areas. This ensured continued white supremacy. Another measure was the 1983 tri-parliamentary constitutional reform aimed at co-opting those racially classified as Coloured and Asian (Indian).  They were to have their own separate legislative assemblies, calculatedly subordinate to the purely white parliament. Eventually, when the bleak realization dawned that, apart from moral considerations, even this modified strategy was not viable, the path of negotiation was adopted, culminating in the dismantling of the entire edifice of white supremacy.

Herein alone lies the relevance of comparison with Israel, for it must be acknowledged that there is a large political and civic sector of Israel which, for reasons of fundamentalist religious faith or zero-sum survivalist strategy, is obdurately intent on perpetuating and buttressing this occupation regime as a permanent de facto annexation. This sector is assertively represented by several ultra-nationalist and national-orthodox religious parties in the present government. Theirs is manifestly a policy and vision that replicates the theory and praxis of the reformed phase of South Africa's apartheid policy,  which was adopted as a survivalist strategy but  ultimately abandoned  out of enlightened realism, if not moral compunction. Characteristically, they too cast about for spurious arrangements calculated to ensure Jewish control and privilege – for example non-sovereign cantonized autonomy, devoid of Israeli political rights, or relegation of citizenship and electoral rights to the adjacent Kingdom of Jordan. 

It is in this respect alone that use of the South African analogy to critique Israel is justified, and importantly so. Never as grist to the mill of those who labor to delegitimize and demonize Israel by falsely labeling it an apartheid state and subjecting it to sanctions and boycotts, but certainly as a warning cry lest perpetuation of the occupation regime cause Israel to replicate South African reform-phase apartheid; a strategy which proved to be not only morally reprehensible but also realistically untenable.

The writer is Professor Emeritus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, whose published works include Community and Conscience: The Jews in Apartheid South Africa.

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