Off the Mark

Don’t Accuse Israel of Apartheid

Israel is not a perfect state, but it is nothing like apartheid South Africa, says a writer who has lived in both countries.

07.17.14 9:45 AM ET

Living in apartheid South Africa, as I did, was easy in moral terms. Living in Israel, as I do now, is difficult.

In apartheid South Africa the choice was clear and beyond escape: It was good versus evil. Apartheid, apartness, which meant racial segregation and discrimination enforced by the white minority on the country’s black, colored and Asian peoples, was wrong and inhuman, denying freedom and stunting and destroying lives. The problem for concerned people was not merely to do the obvious thing and reject apartheid, but to decide what to do about it. That is, how far to go in opposing it against an increasingly tyrannous government: from being a passive bystander to imperiling your liberty, even life.

In Israel, the moral choices are many and complex and are a daily challenge. Each of the two main competing groups, Jews and Arabs, has right on its side, through history, land, religion, geography, and tradition. The dilemma is how to satisfy their separate demands and aspirations for a tiny piece of land. The problem is bedevilled because in the long struggle between them, neither side has always behaved well, inflicting death and destruction on the other.

Each side believes that it is in the right, and each side fears and rejects the other. Jews and Arabs are a mirror image of each other: each believes that force is the only language that the other understands; each believes that the other is trying to wipe it out. That there is some truth in these beliefs on both sides adds to the complexities.

I have had to struggle to relate the image of the pure and beautiful Zionism with which I grew up to the reality of Jewish behavior, which at times is inhumane and beyond toleration and which has grown worse with Israel’s occupation of the West Bank/Judea and Samaria and the spread of settlements.

The ugly reality must not be denied, as some do from the standpoint that Israel can do no wrong or that it must be defended at all costs against its enemies. Anti-Semitism is certainly a factor behind some of the attacks on Israel, but it must not be overstated, as some do, as a means of counterattacking. The Holocaust is inextricably bound up with Israel’s existence, but it must not be misused, as some do, as an emotional weapon to silence genuine critics.

At the other extreme, Israel’s failings and mistakes must not be used, as some do, as an excuse—even more, a cover—for condemning Israel to the extent of denying its very right to exist.

Israel’s accomplishments are wondrous; but it is not a perfect society and its people sometimes behave badly and violate their moral standards, like people anywhere in the world. They must be judged and treated the same as other people and countries. None of it has lessened my belief in Zionism or the imperative of Israel as a home and sanctuary for Jews.

Israel is accused of being “like apartheid South Africa” or it is the “new apartheid” or it is “reminiscent of apartheid” or it “resembles apartheid” or it is “tantamount” to apartheid or it has “elements” of apartheid or it perpetrates the “principle” of apartheid, or it is even “worse than apartheid.” These phrases are used mainly in regard to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, but some critics also apply them to Israel itself.

They are more than mere words: the obvious aim is to have Israel declared as illegitimate a state as was South Africa and hence open to international sanctions. And even more, at least for some, to deny the validity of its existence.

If the apartheid accusation is correct, then Israel merits harsh condemnation. For it to be an apartheid state would be a betrayal of the Jewish ethics that underpin its existence, of the dreams of its founders, and of the words of the Declaration of Independence of May 14, 1948: “The State of Israel . . . will be based on the precepts of liberty, justice, and peace taught by the Hebrew Prophets; will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex…”

Use of the word apartheid in the world has broadened and softened, referring to just about anything that means separation. In Cuba, the ban on tourists staying at swank hotels was labeled as “tourism apartheid” before it ended in 2008. A ban on some bathing costumes on Brazil’s beaches was described as “bikini apartheid.” In Britain, bans on same-sex marriages were described as “a form of sexual apartheid.” The fact that racial minorities, especially blacks, are the majority in U.S. prisons has been called the “New American apartheid.”

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However, even with all this, the word remains powerful and continues to convey the evil that it was in South Africa. It’s a grave charge to level against Israel and, if correct, would justify international sanctions to punish it and to pressure it to change.

But is Israel the new apartheid state? Merely saying so doesn’t make it so.

Repeating the phrase over and over doesn’t make it true, but is merely primitive propaganda used either out of ignorance or malevolence.

Israel is a victim of such propaganda. Within its pre-1967 war boundaries its Arab minority, 20 percent of the population, suffer discrimination but enjoy full citizenship starting, crucially, with the vote. It is not remotely apartheid.

On the West Bank, the Israeli army is in occupation and Palestinians are victims of cruel and unjust actions. But there is none of the institutionalised racism basic to apartheid. Applying the apartheid label is incorrect—and is also confusing because it obscures the tyranny which is in force.

Excerpted from Drawing Fire: Investigating the Accusations of Apartheid in Israel with permission of the publisher, Rowman & Littlefield. All rights reserved.

Benjamin Pogrund was  a journalist with the Rand Daily Mail in Johannesburg for 26 years and pioneered the reporting of black politics and existence under apartheid. He was deputy editor when the newspaper was closed because of its opposition to apartheid. He has lived in Jerusalem for more than 16 years and has worked to promote dialogue across lines of division. This is an extract from his book, Drawing Fire: Investigating the Accusations of Apartheid in Israel, published on 16 July by Rowman & Littlefield.