Political terms, when people are unaware of what they mean, can be a topic of significant dispute. The rise of Donald Trump in the United States is a prime example of this. When the term ‘fascist’ is correctly applied, his supporters complain about liberals saying that everything they disagree with is called fascist. Unfortunately Trump supporters have a point as idiotic liberals do often describe things that aren’t fascistic with this label in order to shut people up in debates. Another such term is ‘apartheid’, an Afrikaans word which was used to describe the state-endorsed racial segregation in South Africa from 1948 to 1994. Rather than write a provocative piece about the West’s approach to Israel which could often be seen as anything from irrational to endorsing violations of international law, I shall seek to answer one simple question: is Israel an Apartheid state?
The literal translation of the term means “separateness” or “the state of being apart” and the policy’s results were the restriction of the civil rights of non-white South Africans in order to preserve the socio-economic and political power of the ruling white-minority. More specifically, non-whites were evicted from their homes, denied political rights and representation, deprived of their citizenship, and received segregated, and often inferior, public services. Another interesting aspect of this policy was that it was not new in South Africa. Although the policy was explicitly enacted under the National Party, similar policies of racial segregation had been in place when the region was first colonised by the Dutch and was continued under British rule. In many ways Apartheid was South Africa’s version of the United States’ Jim Crow laws, however unlike in the US, leading politicians didn’t support move toward equality, and thus segregation in South Africa lasted from mid-17th Century until the 1990s.
Another key point to consider is the international response to Apartheid. As the extent of the policy became known to people outside of South Africa, there were calls for boycotts of South African goods and sanctions applied by the international community. This movement resulted in many influential organisations, including the United Nations, the International Olympic Committee, the Catholic Church, and many others, condemning Apartheid. In response to the Apartheid government’s treatment of political opponents, people from around the world gathered to call on their governments to pressure the South African government to release political prisoners. This aspect of the Apartheid regime prompted a massive cultural response from artists and musicians, and led to the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute Concert in London 1988.
Opposition to Apartheid was seen as something that could unify humanity, and there was an optimism that a movement that spanned the globe to oppose racism and discrimination could have a genuine impact. The use of sanctions to ostracise the South African government from the international community and the subsequent emergence of political consciousness from ordinary people is evidence that injustice around the world can be defeated if people, irrespective of race, religion, or nationality, stand together.
Now that we have an understanding of what Apartheid actually was, we can now look to see if the modern state of Israel meets these criteria. In some cases such definitions can be used or discounted if experts in the field deem them appropriate; for example if we were talking about the classification of animals, the opinion of an evolutionary biologist would carry more weight than a dog-walker. Unfortunately no such consensus exists with this issue as for every notable political or diplomatic official that claims that Israel is an Apartheid state, there are many who argue that it is not. Indeed South African social commentators who lived through Apartheid are also split. Despite this disagreement, I do come down on one side of this dispute.
Not a week goes by without a story being reported of brutality against Palestinians. Most recently there was a case reported by Israeli human rights group B’Tselem. Two Palestinians had rushed an Israeli soldier and tried to stab him. One of the men in question, Abdel-Fattah al-Sharif, was successful in wounding the soldier and was shot by another nearby soldier. Sharif was lying on the ground injured, as he had just been shot. The other Palestinian, Ramzi al-Qasrawi, was shot dead by soldiers during the attack. This is the scene that was set by the attack, one Palestinian on the ground dead, and another wounded with four Israeli soldiers standing over them.
People in the West argue that Israel is a liberal democracy much like Germany or France, and if this were the case paramedics would have been dispatched to help the shot Palestinian and the medical care would be administered under the watch of the police. After being deemed medically fit enough to stand trial, he would do so, and justice would run its course. However this is not what happened. As Sharif was lying on the floor an Israeli soldier walked over to him and shot him in the head. Amateur footage showed that Sharif was still alive and therefore could have stood trial, but instead he was executed in the street.
These such events illustrate that there is a fundamental difference between how the police and the army treat Israelis and Palestinians. However, these kinds of incidents don’t constitute labelling Israel an Apartheid state as it could be perceived as a cultural problem rather than a political problem. For example the institutional racism present in the US criminal justice system doesn’t mean that the US is an Apartheid state as this racism is not endorsed and enforced through government policy.
The problem with explaining away such acts of violence as purely cultural is that they do not occur in isolation. This policy and rhetoric used by the Israeli government that dehumanises, disenfranchises, and discriminates against Palestinians. This is why I believe Israel to be a modern Apartheid state. Take the example of land. The Israeli government owns a lot of the land in the country and therefore can prevent non-Jews from having access to this land. Not only is this the case, but there are many restrictions that come into force if you are not registered as a resident of Israel.
If the Israeli authorities decide to categorise you as a citizen of the West Bank rather than an Israeli citizen with Palestinian heritage, you will face systematic legal discrimination, and this is especially true if you live in Jerusalem. If categorised as a West Bank citizen living in Jerusalem you have to pay substantial property taxes, which incidentally doesn’t guarantee you the right to live there, and if you refuse then you will be arrested. Because of this classification you can only register your car with Palestinian number plates, and only cars with Israeli plates can drive within Jerusalem’s city walls.
In order to visit the centre of the city, the city where you live, you need to have a permit which is approved by the army. If you are not deemed ‘legally resident’ in your home, because you have not successfully jumped through all of the hoops set by the Israeli government, you are deemed to be an ‘absentee’ who has abandoned the property. If the authorities decide that you are an ‘absentee’, Israeli law says that the land now belongs to the government, which as I said above will mean that it will most likely be reserved for a Jewish citizen.
Now let’s look at Apartheid South Africa. The Group Areas Act of 1950 divided urban areas into ‘group areas’ within which land ownership was explicitly restricted to certain ethnic groups. The effect of this policy was that whites were given the best land, both in terms of value and fertility for agriculture, and non-whites were given the worst land. Classification of people based on ethnicity was a hallmark of the regime and every aspect of life was influence by this classification. Just as in Israel you face many legal obstacles if you are categorised as a citizen of the West Bank, if you were categorised as non-white in South Africa, everyday life was made much more difficult.
In urban areas blacks in South Africa were herded like cattle in townships, which as shanty towns by another name. Non-whites in more rural areas were often forced to live in territories established exclusively for non-whites in inhospitable areas of the country; these areas were called Bantustans. Bantustans didn’t just put all non-whites together. They separated out different ethnic groups so that each area was as ethnically homogeneous as possible. Social commentators have argued that the Gaza Strip is such an entity because of this ethnic dimension and also because of the blockade that has been in place for a number of years.
The final thing I wanted to look at was the rhetoric used by Israeli politicians. Obviously rhetoric is the not the same as systematic discrimination but the comments I’ve chosen to focus on are so inflammatory that it’s hard not to take them seriously. In March 2015 the Israeli Foreign Minister called for the brutal execution of Israeli Arabs that are considered disloyal: “those who are against us, there’s nothing to be done- we need to pick up an axe and cut off his head. Otherwise we won’t survive here”. Again let’s be fair, one comment doesn’t constitute an Apartheid mentality, so let’s look at some others.
In 2014 Ayelet Shaked, a senior figure in the far-right Jewish Home party, quoted Uri Elitzur, a leader of the settler movement and former speech-writer for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On Facebook Shaked quoted an extract from a piece by Elitzur which included the passage: “the entire Palestinian people is the enemy…it includes its elderly and its women, its cities and its villages, its property and its infrastructure”. The piece she quoted also endorses the killing Palestinian mothers in order to prevent the birth of “little snakes”. Shaked aligned herself with these comments repeatedly and, according to the UN’s own definition, these comments endorse a genocide of Palestinians. These comments were made in 2014, and in 2015 Shaked became the Israeli Justice Minister. That’s correct, the current Israeli Justice Minister is on the record of supporting ethnic cleansing.
The last comment I want to look at is those made in 2013 by then Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett. Bennett was reported as saying that “if you catch terrorists, you simply have to kill them” which goes against the principles of innocent until proven guilty, trial by jury, and equality before the law. Upon hearing these comments National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror responded that “this is not legal” but Bennett then said that “I have killed lots of Arabs in my time- and there is no problem with that”. If Bennett is exaggerating then he has dehumanised Palestinians so much that he has no moral qualms with killing them, and if he is being serious then he is literally confessing to be a racially-motivated serial killer. After the 2015 Knesset elections Bennett became the Minister for Education.
People often decry that politicians should apologise for every comment or should resign after being too callous with their remarks, and sometimes this is an overreaction, but in the cases above I don’t think that resignations would be too much to ask. Not only are all three of these politicians currently in the Israeli government, but Shaked and Bennett made their comments before an election and after being re-elected were given Cabinet posts by Benjamin Netanyahu. Clearly there is political dimension to the persecution of Palestinians.
After the Second World War many of the migrants to Israel that were Jewish didn’t interpret Zionism to mean establishing a state to put Jews in a privileged socio-economic and/or political position. Indeed many didn’t want to establish a ‘Jewish State’, in so far as institutionalising Judaism as a state religion and repressing non-Jews, but wanted to establish a ‘state for Jews’ which would simply mean a land where Jews could practice their religion freely.
Israel doesn’t have to be an Apartheid state in order to exist, but at the moment I can’t honestly say that it isn’t one. Debates will continue about whether a one-state confederation or a two-state solution is better for establishing peace, however the West cannot sit by and support a government that is systematically persecuting a religious and ethnic minority. The BDS movement has been successful in drawing attention to the plight of Palestinians and there is nothing inherently anti-Semitic about supporting this movement.
Economic sanctions against oppressive governments are a standard part of international relations, and promoting them against Israel doesn’t make you an anti-Semite. We all want Israelis to live in peace, but this shouldn’t be facilitated by a government that discriminates, dehumanises, and persecutes another ethnic group. It’s now up to us to stand with the masses of people around the world, including many Jews, in condemning Netanyahu’s government for its rhetoric and its racist policies.