Is Israel an Apartheid State?
The term “Israeli apartheid” has been used by scholars, critics, and UN investigators to make an analogous relationship between Israel’s treatment of Palestine and South Africa’s treatment of non-whites during its apartheid era. Israel as an “apartheid state” has become the lingua franca of anti-Israel politicking, in part because it is fundamental to the “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” movement, which “works to end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians.”
Apartheidism is a weighty accusation, one with a specific legal definition and consequences, which, if the accusation is valid, would end the life of the Jewish State altogether. But proclaiming it loudly and ceaselessly does not make it true. In order to determine the validity of the comparison, we must examine the practices of both South Africa and Israel on a variety of fronts.
Apartheid laws in South Africa are commonly divided into two sections: petty or grand apartheid. Petty apartheid is the practice of legally segregating every day areas, such as public amenities, water fountains, beaches, and parks, and is comparable to Jim Crow laws in the United States. Grand apartheid dictated housing and employment opportunities, the ability to marry and whom one could marry, and trial proceedings on the basis of race alone.
In South Africa, both forms of apartheid provided whites with access to the best suburbs, schools, and jobs, while all non-whites were disadvantaged and disenfranchised. Non-whites — a catch-all comprised of blacks, Indians, and “colored people” — did not have citizen or voting rights. There were no non-whites in the courts, teaching in schools, practicing medicine in hospitals, or anywhere else a non-white person might benefit from representation.
While the amount of representation Arabs in Israel possess is heavily criticized, they do, in fact, have representation that non-whites in South Africa couldn’t have imagined under apartheid. According to Benjamin Porgund, author of Drawing Fire: Investigating the Accusations of Apartheid in Israel, “The Supreme Court has an Arab judge, the head of surgery in a leading hospital is Arab, and Arabs head university departments. In hospitals and clinics, Jewish and Arab doctors and nurses, secular and religious, work together, giving care equally to Jewish and Arab patients — unthinkable under apartheid.”
South African apartheid can be described simply as tyranny of the racial minority. Whites made up between 15% - 20% of the population yet dominated the South African government, a “constitutional democracy.” Today, in “Israel proper,” Arabs make up 20.8% of the population and Jewish Israelis make up 74.7%. The government is a parliamentary democracy, with a Prime Minister, a unicameral legislative branch (called the Knesset), and an independent judiciary.
Jamil Dakwar, an Arab Palestinian citizen of Israel and a New Israel Fund Law Fellow, describes the condition of Palestinians in Israel: “Arabs in Israel enjoy formal equality: they vote in all elections on an equal basis with other citizens, and they regularly elect their own representatives in the Knesset.
Arabs have almost complete freedom of worship; their respective religious communities have jurisdiction over religious courts and places of worship with salaries of religious paid by the state.
Arabs also have freedom of expression; they publish a number of Arabic-language newspapers and magazines criticizing the Israeli Government, which are to a great degree uncensored.” Dakwar goes on to highlight the problems faced by Arabs in Israel — from lack of acknowledgement as a national minority to being treated as a “Trojan Horse” inside Israel’s borders.
While a hostile social climate is terrible and poses a threat to the well being of Arabs living in Israel, equating social segregation or even ostracization with South African apartheid diminishes the suffering non-white citizens endured in their decades-long fight for equal rights. Recognizing the uniqueness of the Israel-Palestine conflict — legally, religiously, and culturally — is essential to recognizing potential solutions to the conflict.