Are comparisons of South African apartheid and Israel useful?

JON SOSKE and SEAN JACOBS reflect on the utility of comparisons between Israel and apartheid South Africa. 

The South African Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee has a habit of speaking in rhetoricals. The effect, however, is that he makes his point quite clearly. This was the case recently at the Palestine Festival of Literature, which travels through Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. Speaking on the festival’s last day, Coetzee noticed that “naturally people ask me what I see of South Africa in the present situation in Palestine.”

At first, Coetzee suggested that using the word apartheid to describe the occupation is not a productive step (“it diverts one into an inflamed semantic wrangle which cuts short the opportunities of analysis”). Coetzee then offered a definition of South African apartheid: “Apartheid was a system of enforced segregation based on race or ethnicity, put in place by an exclusive, self defined group in order to consolidate colonial conquest particular to cement its hold on the land and natural resources.” He continued, “In Jerusalem and the West Bank we see a system of …” and proceeded to read the same definition, ending to applause: “Draw your own conclusions.”

Although comparisons between Israel and South Africa stretch back to the early 1960s, the past decade has seen a growing recognition that Israel’s policies should be characterised as apartheid. The term apartheid (Afrikaans for separation or apartness) gained currency among Afrikaner racial theorists in the 1930s and became the basis of government policy with the election of the Nationalist Party in 1948, which coincides with the founding of Israel. Subsequent global campaigns and UN conventions declared apartheid a crime, and extended its meaning to contexts beyond southern Africa.

More recently, two separate debates have developed regarding the idea of Israeli apartheid. The first is a dispute about legal definitions: Do Israeli actions in the occupied territories (or, in some formulations, the Israeli state’s policy toward the Palestinian population, including refugees and Palestinian Israelis) amount to apartheid under the relevant international treaties? When the official statements of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign use the term, they are not making a direct analogy with the South African regime. They are arguing that Israeli policies should be condemned as the crime of apartheid under international law. The significance of this discussion is that the prohibition against apartheid is absolute under international law. In other words, a legal finding of apartheid would obligate the international community to end any aid that perpetuated the crime.

The second debate concerns the broader comparison between Israel and South Africa: to what extent can the histories of these two countries be juxtaposed? Do South Africa’s experiences of settler colonialism and apartheid provide insights that can sharpen our understanding of Israeli politics and society? Are there meaningful lessons from the anti-apartheid struggle – for example, from the global cultural and academic boycott – for Palestinian solidarity work? Does the South African political transition and the achievement of a democracy based on “one person, one vote,” whatever its shortcomings, offer lessons for Israel/Palestine?

On one level, the parallels are unmistakable. Apartheid South Africa and Israel both originated through a process of conquest and settlement justified largely on the grounds of religion and ethnic nationalism. Both pursued a legalised, large-scale program of displacing the earlier inhabitants from their land. Both instituted a variety of discriminatory laws based on racial or ethnic grounds. In South Africa itself, the comparison is so widely accepted (outside a small coterie of Zionists) that it is generally uncontroversial. Leading members of the antiapartheid struggle have repeatedly averred that the conditions in the West Bank and Gaza are even “worse” than apartheid.

At the same time, no historical analogy is ever exact.

Comparisons reveal differences even as they underline similarities. If South Africa emerged through a centuries-long process of European settlement and colonial warfare, the foundation of Israel in 1948 was preceded by one of the most singular atrocities in humanity’s history, the Holocaust. While the South African economy continues to rely overwhelmingly on the exploitation of African workers, early Zionists consciously sought to displace Arab labour and managed to build a far more closed, ethnically unified economy. However important South African exiles were during the apartheid period, nothing existed that approached either the scale of the Palestinian refugee population or the global Jewish diaspora, which today is increasingly divided over Israel’s claim to speak in its name.

The importance of the apartheid comparison is that it has assisted in fundamentally changing the terms of debate. Until recently, the Israeli government and its partisans, especially in the United States, have largely succeeded in depicting Israel as a besieged democracy defending its very existence against the threat of outside terrorism. Framing Israel/Palestine as an international conflict between two equivalent sides (Jews and Arabs), this narrative suggests that peace will only be achieved by guaranteeing Israel’s security and then adjudicating claims over “disputed” territory.

Along these lines, Israeli governments have contended that their actions in the occupied territories – including the land seizures, mass arrests, settlements, checkpoints, and the Separation Wall – are defensive measures driven by military necessity. Israel cannot reasonably be accused of apartheid, the argument continues, because the West Bank and Gaza lie outside of Israel proper. Conflating the state’s actions with defence of its Jewish population, this entire mode of debate sets up any criticism of Israel’s policies as being in and of itself “anti-Semitic.”
In challenging this account, the comparison with South Africa returns the discussion to Israel’s colonial origins and the settler project of consolidating a nation-state through the expulsion of Palestinians. By emphasising the strategic aims of current Israeli policies (the fragmentation and annexation of Palestinian territory), the comparison underlines that resistance does not somehow come from “outside,” but is the inevitable and justified response to occupation and forced displacement.

The apartheid analogy also illuminates the circularity of Israel’s security argument: since occupation generates resistance, there can be no resolution to the “conflict” short of Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied territories and the dismantling of its colonising infrastructure. It highlights the mendacity of the Israeli government’s pretense of negotiating for “peace” while attempting to construct a permanent regime of military control. After almost five decades of occupation, it is truly cynical to claim immunity from the charge of apartheid on the basis of a territorial separation that the Israeli government, military, and supreme court, have actively worked to undermine.

Perhaps most important, the apartheid analogy has helped to insert the staggering human costs of the occupation at the centre of global attention. In place of the Palestinian “terrorist,” the world is increasingly confronted with images of Israeli bulldozers destroying houses and olive trees, Israeli soldiers harassing and humiliating civilians at checkpoints, and the Israeli army’s indiscriminate shelling of civilians in Gaza. This shift is taking place not only in North America and Europe but also, tentatively and on a much smaller scale, within Israel itself.

In response, apologists for Israel’s policies have attempted to relocate the comparison. When measured against the civil rights records of other Middle Eastern countries, they respond, the Palestinian minority within Israel enjoys significant rights. Palestinian Israelis vote, participate in national elections through legal political parties, and sit in the Knesset—all things that would have been unthinkable for black South Africans under apartheid. When forces like the Islamic State are perpetrating systematic atrocities against minorities in Iraq and Syria, they pose, why are pro-Palestinian activists focusing on so narrowly on Israel, the “only democracy” in the region?

It is tempting to respond that this vindication tries to have it both ways by asserting that Israel upholds (if imperfectly) the standards of liberal democracy while measuring its record against regimes that are universally condemned for their disregard of basic human rights. But there is another motivation at work. South Africa’s apartheid government also accused its critics of selectivity by invoking the record of governments such as Idi Amin’s Uganda. In doing so, it represented the white settler colony as an island of civilisation surrounded by “primitive” societies unprepared for Western democracy. Its defenders could therefore imply that segregationist institutions and repressive actions, while perhaps regrettable, were necessary given the regional threats that the country faced.

When Israel’s apologists recycle this style of argument today, they are trafficking in similar forms of racism. Today, it is “terrorism,” “radical Islam,” or “Arab anti-Semitism.” The problem here is not that fundamentalism and popular anti-Semitism don’t exist. Of course they do. The basic hypocrisy of this position is that the Israeli state (not unlike South Africa during the Cold War) has supported corrupt, antidemocratic regimes in the face of popular movements that might challenge the regional status quo by presenting a radical alternative to both Islamism and military rule. The realpolitik is, in the abstract, understandable: a popularly elected government in Egypt or Jordan might well be less friendly to Israeli interests than the existing, US-backed strongmen. Nevertheless, Israel’s direct subvention of these regimes undercuts the image of a lone protagonist struggling to uphold democracy in a region hostile to human rights.

The attempt to shift the comparison from Israel/South Africa to Israel/Syria or Israel/Iran deserves scrutiny on two other levels. The first concerns the argument that the BDS campaign singles out Israel unfairly by failing to call for a boycott of Syria and Lebanon as well—countries that have long histories of marginalising Palestinians and denying civil rights to refugees. Why then, critics ask, focus solely on Israel and not on these countries as well? This particular strategy of comparison conflates cause and effect. As many historians now acknowledge, the origin of the Palestinian refugee crisis was the policy of expulsion or “transfer” pursued by Zionist forces in 1947–48. The continued existence of almost three million refugees in surrounding countries is the direct result of the fact that Palestinian claims to land and citizenship within the borders of post-1948 Israel have not been resolved. It is deliberately misleading to equate the underlying cause of the problem (the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and the denial of their right to return) and its immediate consequences (the existence of disenfranchised refugees across the region and their treatment by Arab governments).

Second, it is true that Palestinians currently living in Israel (that is, those who were not expelled in 1948) possess civil rights. This fact is often cited as a refutation of the claim that Israel is an apartheid state. These claims are deceptive. Israeli law institutionalises the distinction between the Jewish population and other groups. As codified in its Basic Laws, Israel is the state of the Jewish people: non-Jewish Israeli citizens do not enjoy the same status under civil law. (It is, in fact, illegal for a political party to run for the Knesset if it questions this principle.) In contrast to Israel’s equal rights legislation regarding women and the disabled, more than fifty laws discriminate directly or indirectly against the Palestinian minority of Israel.

Palestinians face staggering levels of poverty; workforce discrimination and higher rates of unemployment; extensive restrictions on land ownership and residency; and numerous forms of educational, linguistic, and cultural marginalisation. The claim that Arab Israelis enjoy full civil rights further ignores the phenomenon of “unrecognised” Palestinian Bedouin villages. By declaring these settlements illegal, the Israeli state has deprived some 75,000 to 90,000 people of basic services, facilities, and political representation. Nor do these claims address the situation of Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem (unilaterally and illegally annexed by Israel after the 1967 War). The Israeli state has stripped over 14,000 Palestinians of their residency since 1967.

Ultimately, the trumpeting of minority rights falsely detaches the discrimination endured by Arab Israeli’s from the earlier expulsion of Palestinians and its justification on the basis that Israel is a Jewish state. This point is key. Zionism’s postulation of a Jewish national identity for Israel is inseparable from the denial of Palestinian rights in much the same way that apartheid’s assertion of a white South Africa presupposed the displacement and disenfranchisement of the African majority. If the apartheid regime enfranchised a limited number of black South Africans, this fact would have altered neither the original acts of population transfer nor the status of those living in the bantustans or in exile. The enfranchisement of some Palestinians resolves neither the forced division of the Palestinian nation between exile, the fragmented occupied territories, and Israel nor the denial of self-determination to the Palestinian people as a whole.

Does the South African antiapartheid struggle offer any lessons for Palestinian solidarity work? How should we judge the South African political settlement?

While there are many lessons to be learned from South Africa, the most important are neither simple nor easily translatable into other contexts. Although the 1994 transition dismantled legal white supremacy, South Africa remains a profoundly divided society, convulsed by unresolved questions of race, class, and gender inequality. The work of fully understanding the historical experience of apartheid – and addressing its continuing legacies – is still far from complete.

Pro-BDS activists may have to get past reductive depictions of the antiapartheid struggle, particularly of solidarity politics. While simplifications are an inevitable part of activism, they can also shut down much-needed debate. There is, for example, a tendency to exaggerate the impact of North American cultural and academic boycott. On occasion, US activists go so far as to suggest that the boycott movement itself brought about the end of apartheid—a position that comes dangerously close to white saviourism. The academic boycott helped raise public awareness and force debate regarding foreign support for the South African regime. But it was one part of a much wider movement that included the massively influential sports boycott, the International Defense and Aid Fund, direct action by trade unions, and the Free Mandela campaign. This solidarity was not centred in the West, but truly global in scope. It was arguably the largest civil society movement of the twentieth century. And it was supplemental to a mass, democratic movement inside South Africa itself.

Any lessons the South African transition offers for the future of Israel and Palestine are far from simple. Many factors—internal and external, economic and geopolitical—led to the white minority’s abandonment of political power in 1994. For some activists, South Africa speaks to the possibility of a one-state solution based on universal citizenship and equal rights for all. Others see the negotiations of the early 1990s as a model for the realistic and painful compromises that would be necessary to enact a truly just two-state solution. At this level, historical comparison is more useful in sharpening questions rather than providing meaningful answers.

One lesson from South Africa is clear enough though. Whatever factors contributed to the timing and circumstances of its demise, the destruction of South African apartheid would not have occurred without a powerful, international movement dedicated to freedom for all South Africans. “Above the fray” experts might try to untangle and isolate the different strands of liberation struggle, arguing that one tactic or another was decisive. At the time, the ANC and other organisations encouraged diverse forms of resistance and continuously searched for new methods of linking internal opposition to international solidarity. They understood that different modes of struggle strengthened and reinforced each other in ways that cannot always be predicted in advance. Their lesson is clear: we must multiply the forms and points of cultural, economic, and political pressure.

Historian Jon Soske and international affairs scholar Sean Jacobs are co-editors of The Apartheid Analogy (Haymarket Books 2015).


Featured image by Safiyyah Patel