Is Israel an Apartheid State?


From 22nd February to 28th February, a diverse range of UK-based activist groups presided over the twelfth annual Israeli Apartheid Week. On university campuses and in town squares across the country, students, trade unionists, and fellow travellers gathered to demonstrate, discuss, and proselytise with the aim of “[building support] for the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.” The following week saw European campaigners take up the baton, and next week it’s America’s turn.

So; is there any truth to the claim that Israel is an ‘apartheid state’? The answer to that question is, as ever, far more complicated than the zealots on either side of the debate would have you believe, but I’d say there’s a pretty good case to be made that levelling such an accusation is both inaccurate and unhelpful, not to mention potentially dangerous.

I think it’s inaccurate because apartheid in South Africa was defined by a social settlement which enshrined in law the comprehensive exclusion of black South Africans from the civic sphere. Until 1994, black South Africans couldn’t vote, they couldn’t run for public office, they couldn’t marry white South Africans or live in the same communities as them. They couldn’t sit on the same bus as white South Africans, nor could they eat at the same restaurants or use the same toilets. That is not the case in Israel. Israeli Arabs comprise around 20% of the country’s population, and they can own property, live next door to Jews, marry them, sit on the same train as them, and so on and so forth. More importantly, they can vote, and they do so in large numbers—turnout amongst Israeli Arabs at the last general election was 63.5%, only slightly lower than turnout amongst Israeli Jews. They can also hold office and organise politically along ethnic and religious lines. In fact, out of the 120 MKs currently sitting in the Knesset, 17 are Israeli Arabs and the Joint List—which includes Hadash, the United Arab List, Balad, and Ta’al—is the third largest grouping. There’s even an Arab judge on the Supreme Court; you might remember him as the person who sentenced former Israeli president Moshe Katsav to seven years in prison for rape.

Could you imagine anything analogous happening in 1970s South Africa? What about in a modern-day Arab country? Can you name one Arab state where Jewish political parties go about their business and Jews hold positions of power and influence? I certainly can’t, chiefly because millennia old Jewish communities across North Africa and the Middle East were dismantled and forced into exile after 1948. To this day, Israeli Jews are barred from entering Saudi Arabia, Iran, and a whole host of other Arab countries, while in Jordan they’re prohibited from acquiring citizenship or holding property. The situation in the Occupied Territories is different, of course, but even then we are essentially talking about a colonial administration, not an apartheid one. Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank are not Israeli citizens and in so far as they are governed, they are governed by the democratically elected regimes of Hamas and Fatah respectively.

On top of that, I think it’s unhelpful because it gives succour to those who oppose the two-state solution. For Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu and their friends at home and abroad, it provides yet another example of the growing conspiracy against Israel and world Jewry. That feeds into an already existing siege mentality, particularly in the border regions, which in turn allows them to justify a hard-line stance when it comes to negotiations with domestic Arab leaders and the Palestinian Authority. It also emboldens Hamas and other far-right Palestinian groups at the expense of Abbas, Fatah, and the secular leadership in Ramallah. And that simply means that it’s harder to sort at least some of the mess out.[1]

Worse, I think it has the potential to be dangerous because—even with the best intentions—it’s intended to delegitimise the very notion of a Jewish homeland, not just the Israeli occupation of Gaza, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights. It ignores context, suggesting that the current territorial grievances and power dynamics in the region are static and linear, when in fact they’re historically contingent and complex. People tend to forget that the West Bank was ‘illegally’ annexed by Transjordan in 1950 and, along with the Gaza Strip, fell into Israeli hands during the Six-Day War, a war in which Egypt, Jordan, and Syria fought against Israel.[2] As for the Yom Kippur War; lather, rinse, repeat, only this time throw in the Saudis, Iraqis, Algerians, Moroccans, and Libyans.

It’s also, for that matter, a slippery slope. If you define Israel as an apartheid state then you have to point the finger at Turkey, Russia, Myanmar, China, Syria, Iraq, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, South Sudan, Iran, and even the UK prior to the Good Friday Agreement. And that gives rise to the more general question of “Why Israel?” As far as I can tell, the world is a pretty unpleasant place, with almost every nook and cranny scarred by tribal conflict of some description. Israel undoubtedly makes its own contribution to this unremitting misery, but not in any unique sort of way—quantitatively or qualitatively. If you were to rank the world’s armed struggles in terms of lives lost and infrastructure destroyed, the Israeli-Palestine conflict wouldn’t break the top fifty.[3] And it’s important to note that Israel isn’t the only source of Palestinian despair. Egypt and Jordan have shown no meaningful interest in the plight of their estranged brothers and sisters, and the conditions in the Yarmouk Camp in Damascus are utterly desperate. Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is reporting that the death toll of the Syrian Civil War has surpassed 210,000, with millions more internally displaced or forced to flee the country. Straddling the border with Iraq, Islamic State have set out to wipe Shia Muslims, Yazidis, and pretty much everyone else off the face of the earth, using chemical weapons and child soldiers, resurrecting Biblical slavery in the process. Yet there’s barely been a peep from the Left.

To be clear: I’m not saying that the occupation and the settlements aren’t morally wrong and strategically dumb—they are, and the international community, along with Israelis themselves, should make that plain, because as Albert Camus famously put it, “peace is the only battle worth waging.” But referring to Israel as an ‘apartheid state’ is disproportionate and counterproductive, as is calling for boycotts. What is more, it holds Israel and Jews to a completely different standard to other countries and peoples in the region and farther afield. And more significantly, I don’t think it will help anyone in the long run.

For more information on Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW), you can visit the IAW website.

For the opposing view, take a look at this paper by the Jewish People Policy Institute.

To consider these viewpoints in context, you can watch this debate between Omar Barghouti and Rabbi Arthur Waskow over at Democracy Now!

Image courtesy of Alex Meade.


[1] This is an important distinction for legal and definitional purposes, but it doesn’t really make a difference to ordinary Palestinians—we shouldn’t lose sight of that fact.

[2] I recognise that the origins of the Six-Day War are still controversial. I think it’s fair to say that the Egyptians are right to be aggrieved at the Israeli air strikes that launched the war. But it’s also fair to say that the Israelis had good reason to fear that an Arab invasion on three fronts was imminent.

[3] Not that it’s a competition. Still, the point stands.