The apartheid analogy: Lessons for Israel

While Israel's democratic constitution is certainly flawed, only hostile prejudice explains the ever-growing trend of comparing it with apartheid South Africa.

israel apartheid week 311 (photo credit: Screenshot)
israel apartheid week 311
(photo credit: Screenshot)
“Apartheid,” today's  prime stigmatic code-word for racist evil, hasbecome a potent weapon for delegitimizing and demonizing Israel,especially since it evokes the precedent of powerful external pressurein the form of boycott and sanctions as was applied against theapartheid regime in South Africa. Hence, in the propaganda war againstIsrael an equation is fabricated insidiously between the present Stateof Israel and the former apartheid state of South Africa.
This must be exposed as a malicious slander, andutterly refuted. It is also a crass abuse of the valuable lessons thatmight be learned from the odious apartheid experience of South Africa.There is no objective basis whatsoever for attributing to Israel theideology, policies and praxis that were known as apartheid in SouthAfrica. The historical context of white-black relations which spawnedapartheid differs fundamentally from that in which conflict developedbetween Zionist Jews and Palestinian Arabs.

The essence of Israel's conflict situation has always been a clash ofnationalisms; ultimately over the question of who should have primacyin gaining national self-determination in a contested territory. Bycontrast, 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 thepopulation, which was denied equal civic rights, above all the primarydemocratic right, enjoyed exclusively by the whites, to elect and beelected to the legislature and government of the state. The Afrikaansterm “apartheid” originated during the 1940s to describe an ideologicalconception and political program that justified, systematized,reinforced and expanded this pre-existent system of racialdiscrimination and separation.
What justified the utter excoriation of apartheid? From a moral pointof view, it must be stressed that what was so abhorrent about apartheidas to justify sanctions and boycotts of South Africa, was neither itsundemocratic nature nor the severe repression of all resistance, thelikes of which could be found abundantly in many other countriesplagued by severe ethnic conflict. Rather, valid world condemnationtargeted two indefensible wrongs: firstly, the legalized racist basisof apartheid’s enforced inequalities; secondly the adamant refusal ofthe apartheid regime to cease its unilateral dictates and accept theoption of negotiation. Of course, an essential condition for suchnegotiation was not only the willingness of the dominator to dismantlethe apartheid regime but also the willingness of the dominated majoritynot to resort to reverse domination. When the statesmanship of bothFrederik Willem de Klerk and Nelson Mandela ensured that theseconditions were satisfied, condemnations of the South African state andboycotts and sanctions against it rightly ceased.
Manifestly, neither of the above-mentioned wrongs applies in the caseof Israel. Israel’s democratic praxis certainly has faults and moralfailings. But apartheid they are not. Any conscionable person, who haslived (as I have) in both apartheid South Africa and Israel, knowsthis. Only hostile prejudice or rank ignorance can explain the chargethat in Israel, as in apartheid South Africa, it is skin color or anystatutory race classification that determines every aspect of one'shuman and civic rights  from birth to death: whether one has the rightto 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, betreated in one hospital or other, eat in one restaurant or another, goto the theater, sit on a particular park bench or ride in a particular bus.
As for refusal to negotiate a settlement, no Israeli government, noteven the present hyper-nationalist one headed by Binyamin Netanyahu,has refused this option. Self-evidently, the boycott campaign is aimedless at ending the occupation than at ending the State of Israelitself.
There is, however, a sense in which the South African case isinstructively comparable to that of Israel. It relates to the realityof Israel's decades long occupation regime over the post-war militarilyoccupied territory known as the West Bank, or in Jewish tradition asJudea and Samaria. No military occupation can be morally benign andthis one is undeniably no exception. Manifestly, its paramount tasksare not only to administer the region but especially to protect theJewish settler population as well as the security of Israel proper. Itfosters Jewish settlement while subjecting the Palestinian majority toa wide range of administrative and legal discrimination and hardship,including the severely damaging effects of sections of the securitybarrier, and limitations on freedom of movement and housingdevelopment. Arbitrary military suppression of resistance isameliorated or stemmed only by the Israeli political system's inbuiltdemocratic inhibitions, especially interventions by Israel's SupremeCourt, and monitoring by Israeli human rights associations.
Thus it is that the everyday reality of governance, work, protest andsuppression in the occupied territory looks a lot like South Africaunder apartheid, especially when depicted on TV screens, mostlytendentiously and devoid of context. Yet, no matter how morallydeplorable, this is not apartheid: it simply is not the samephenomenon. If one is to draw lessons, Israel's occupation regime isequally comparable to the situation in any number of other cases ofpost-war occupation or ethnic domination in deeply divided andconflict-ridden countries, not least of all in the Arab world.
If, however, one does choose to make South Africa the comparativemodel,  it is important to know that, in the course of the apartheidregime's evolvement, the strategic goal of white ethnic supremacyacquired a rationale that professed to be independent of racistpremises. Its proponents were a stratum of Afrikaner intelligentsia andclergy (known at the time as verligtes, meaning "enlightened ones") whospoke of "separate development" and sought to undo the racistunderpinning of apartheid policy by discarding its "petty apartheid"manifestations, such as legalized prohibition of any inter-raceintimacy and racial separation of public amenities. The revisedrationale was survivalist; born of the whites’ conviction that this wasa zero-sum game; a case of dominate or be dominated!
The most notable measure of this "reformed apartheid" praxis was theruthless enforcement of the homelands ("Bantustans") policy.  Only intheir own homelands were voting rights to be granted to the blacks,including those domiciled in white areas. This ensured continued whitesupremacy. Another measure was the 1983 tri-parliamentaryconstitutional reform aimed at co-opting those racially classified asColoured and Asian (Indian).  They were to have their own separatelegislative assemblies, calculatedly subordinate to the purely whiteparliament. Eventually, when the bleak realization dawned that, apartfrom moral considerations, even this modified strategy was not viable,the path of negotiation was adopted, culminating in the dismantling ofthe entire edifice of white supremacy.
Herein alone lies the relevance of comparison with Israel, for it mustbe acknowledged that there is a large political and civic sector ofIsrael which, for reasons of fundamentalist religious faith or zero-sumsurvivalist strategy, is obdurately intent on perpetuating andbuttressing this occupation regime as a permanent de facto annexation.This sector is assertively represented by several ultra-nationalist andnational-orthodox religious parties in the present government. Theirsis manifestly a policy and vision that replicates the theory and praxisof the reformed phase of South Africa's apartheid policy,  which wasadopted as a survivalist strategy but  ultimately abandoned  out ofenlightened realism, if not moral compunction. Characteristically, theytoo cast about for spurious arrangements calculated to ensure Jewishcontrol and privilege – for example non-sovereign cantonized autonomy,devoid of Israeli political rights, or relegation of citizenship andelectoral rights to the adjacent Kingdom of Jordan. 
It is in this respect alone that use of the South African analogy tocritique Israel is justified, and importantly so. Never as grist to themill of those who labor to delegitimize and demonize Israel by falselylabeling it an apartheid state and subjecting it to sanctions andboycotts, but certainly as a warning cry lest perpetuation of theoccupation regime cause Israel to replicate South African reform-phaseapartheid; a strategy which proved to be not only morally reprehensiblebut 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.