Is Israel an apartheid state? A narrative's origins in South Africa

Can Israel really be regarded as an apartheid state in the way that South Africa was when it was ruled by the Afrikaner Nationalist Party?

 Nelson Mandela’s oldest grandson, Mandla Mandela, speaks during a protest by Palestinian supporters calling for Miss South Africa, Lalela Mswane, to withdraw from the Miss Universe pageant in Israel on November 19, 2021.  (photo credit: SIPHIWE SIBEKO/REUTERS)
Nelson Mandela’s oldest grandson, Mandla Mandela, speaks during a protest by Palestinian supporters calling for Miss South Africa, Lalela Mswane, to withdraw from the Miss Universe pageant in Israel on November 19, 2021.
(photo credit: SIPHIWE SIBEKO/REUTERS)

Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’ 

The word “apartheid,” meaning separateness, is a term derived from the Afrikaans language. It was first used in 1929; but it was in 1948, when the Afrikaner Nationalist Party won the general election in South Africa, displacing the United Party headed by General Jan Christian Smuts, that the word was used more specifically, offering the public a policy that would ensure domination of the white people over the black.

Hendrik Verwoerd, born in the Netherlands, is regarded as the architect of apartheid, the intention of which was to propagate a system of racial segregation and white supremacy

 Copies of Amnesty International’s report titled ‘Israel’s Apartheid Against Palestinians: Cruel System of Domination and Crime Against Humanity’ are seen at a press conference at the St. George Hotel in Jerusalem on February 1, 2022.  (credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS) Copies of Amnesty International’s report titled ‘Israel’s Apartheid Against Palestinians: Cruel System of Domination and Crime Against Humanity’ are seen at a press conference at the St. George Hotel in Jerusalem on February 1, 2022. (credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)

In pursuance of this, a plethora of stringent laws that determined the lives of all those living in South Africa was passed. Among these were laws that determined where individuals could reside, who they could marry, and with whom they could have sexual relations. Education for whites was controlled by the Christian National Education Act; and for the blacks, by the Bantu Education Act. 

The intention was to maintain the subservience of the black people. There were different schools for different groups, and at one stage there were 14 different education authorities. There were different voters’ rolls for different groups – whites, “coloureds” and Indians, but the blacks did not have the vote. At one stage, the Nationalists attempted to deprive Jews of the vote in South Africa, maintaining that Yiddish, written in Hebrew lettering, was not a European language.

Socio-political life in South Africa was difficult during the time of apartheid. Many people, particularly the blacks, suffered. They were not permitted to be in “white” areas except at certain times. They were obliged to carry an identity document wherever they went, which was not the case with white people. If blacks did not have their identity documents with them, they could be liable to a jail sentence. 

I remember, at a very early age, riding on a tram with my “nanny.” She had to carry her identity document and a letter of authority from my mother, and it was only with these things that we were permitted on the tram together.

People who objected to the system and who fought against it were subject to arrest, incarceration, and solitary confinement. Among anti-apartheid activists were Jews, Indians and, of course, members of the African National Congress, including Nelson Mandela who, being arrested, spent 27 years in jail on Robben Island.

Helen Suzman, a Jewish politician, constantly countered the apartheid system. She said that the only person of whom she had ever been afraid was Hendrik Verwoerd. Between 1961 and 1974, she was the only member of the Progressive Federal Party elected to Parliament. Her party subsequently merged with other parties to form the Progressive Reform Party as the official opposition.

On March 18, 1960, Robert Sobukwe, president of the Pan African Congress, called on black people to burn their identity documents and proceed on a peaceful march. As the marchers reached Sharpeville, an area outside Johannesburg, police opened fire. The marchers turned and ran, but many were hit in the back by dumdum bullets [which expand on impact]. Sixty-eight people were killed and more than 100 wounded. People left the country.

In 1966, Verwoerd, then president of South Africa, was assassinated. The position of head of state was filled by white contenders, Frederick Willem de Klerk being the last. Understanding that South Africa had to change, de Klerk released Mandela from prison and began to prepare him for the presidency.

In 1994, the first democratic elections in South Africa took place, and for the first time in history all people in South Africa were able to cast their votes. There was great jubilation, and many black people who had not learned to read or write, voted. Some stood in queues for days in order to do so.

It seemed that at last apartheid was over, but that was just wishful thinking.

In 2001, a World Conference against Racism was held at the International Convention Centre in Durban, from August 31 to September 8, under the auspices of the United Nations. Mary Robinson was appointed as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The conference covered several controversial issues, including what was regarded as the second-class citizenry issue in Palestine. A draft document equated Zionism with racism, and the US and Israel withdrew.

Parallel to the conference, an NGO Forum was held in Durban at a different venue. It had a program of its own and produced a declaration that contained harsh language relating to Israel that the conference had voted against. The anti-Israel declaration was rejected by Robinson, sparking anger from the Palestinians.

The NGO Forum described Israel as a “racist, apartheid state” that was guilty of racist crimes, including war crimes, acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing. It was clear that the description of Israel as an apartheid state was made with the intention of causing and encouraging divestment and a boycott of the country. Several NGOs, such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights, dissociated themselves from the language of the declaration that dealt with Israel and Jews in such a negative fashion.

A person of significance at the NGO Forum was academic and human rights activist Uri Davis, Israeli born and brought up as a Jew. Interested in politics and human rights, he was recruited by Fatah. He converted to Islam, and now lives with his third (Muslim) wife in Sakhnin, a Palestinian community in northern Israel. He is a member of the Revolutionary Council in Ramallah and presses for BDS, maintaining that since 1948 Israel has acted in violation of UN Security Council and General Assembly regulations and has practiced apartheid cruelty against the Palestinian people. When he arrived at the NGO forum, he was at first enthusiastically welcomed by young Jewish delegates. However, he soon linked up with the Arab and Jewish ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionist Neturei Karta delegates, all of whom were intent on destroying Israel. Davis, in his teachings and in his writings, refers specifically to Israel as an “apartheid state.” 

Omar Barghouti, a prominent human rights activist and co-founder of BDS, vehemently opposes a Jewish state in any part of Palestine, claiming at every opportunity that Israel has no right to exist. 

As’ad Abukhalil, a California State University professor of political science, BDS leader and activist, states: “The real aim of BDS is to bring down the State of Israel, and that should be stated as an unambiguous goal.” 

The Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem published a report on January 12, 2021, titled “A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is apartheid.”

On February 1, 2022, Amnesty International released a comprehensive report claiming that Israel is engaged in apartheid against the Palestinians and is thereby committing a crime against humanity. “Our report reveals the true extent of Israel’s apartheid regime. Whether they live in Gaza, East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank, or Israel itself, Palestinians are treated as an inferior racial group and systematically deprived of their rights. We found that Israel’s cruel policies of segregation, dispossession and exclusion across all territories under its control clearly amount to apartheid,” said Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s secretary general.

“Our report reveals the true extent of Israel’s apartheid regime. Whether they live in Gaza, East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank, or Israel itself, Palestinians are treated as an inferior racial group and systematically deprived of their rights. We found that Israel’s cruel policies of segregation, dispossession and exclusion across all territories under its control clearly amount to apartheid.”

Agnès Callamard

The question arises: Can Israel really be regarded as an apartheid state in the way that South Africa was when it was ruled by the Afrikaner Nationalist Party?

In answering this question, one turns to the views of black South African parliamentarian Kenneth Meshoe, president of the African Christian Democratic Party who, on regular visits to Israel, expressed his admiration for the Jewish state and explained why it was inaccurate to call it an apartheid state. Meshoe and his daughter, Olga Meshoe-Washington. are well-known and eloquent advocates for Israel, battling the narrative supported by the BDS movement that the Jewish state is an apartheid regime. Meshoe asserts that such a view is wrong, inaccurate and malicious.

Having lived through the apartheid years in South Africa, Meshoe, who is now 68, said: “Those who know what real apartheid is, as I do, know that there is nothing in Israel that looks like apartheid. Calling it such is an empty political statement that does not hold any truth. In Israel, you see people of different colors, backgrounds and religions interacting with each other every day. The BDS movement is a real pain. It is not a democratic movement but a movement of intimidation.”

“Those who know what real apartheid is, as I do, know that there is nothing in Israel that looks like apartheid. Calling it such is an empty political statement that does not hold any truth. In Israel, you see people of different colors, backgrounds and religions interacting with each other every day. The BDS movement is a real pain. It is not a democratic movement but a movement of intimidation.”

Kenneth Meshoe

Humpty Dumpty was right. We are the masters of our language – language is not our master. Those who seek to be masters use the word “apartheid” in a way that suits their malicious and underhand purposes. They have decided that the word means what they choose it to mean – neither more nor less. 

It is their way of trying to undermine the State of Israel, a pernicious form of modern antisemitism, and it is time to combat their disingenuous, immoral and intellectually dishonest campaign. 

How to best accomplish this is, however, another question.  ■