So You Hear Israel is an Apartheid State?


Published in the Cape Towning BlogBy Amanda Zimmerman October 14, 2012

Normally I would avoid writing a blog post like this based on the principle that the Israel-Palestine conflict tends to be a pretty touchy subject for a lot of people and almost any debate I’ve partaken in has been unproductive and extremely frustrating. HOWEVER, as someone who has considered herself an Israel advocate for the past 4+ years and currently finds herself studying abroad in the former Apartheid state of South Africa, I feel it is my obligation to share my thoughts with you on this “branding strategy” and unpack the differences between the current state of Israel and Apartheid South Africa.

While I don’t consider myself an expert on the South African Apartheid, as a three-month University of Cape Town student I have been exposed to much of the history, some of the people who were affected by the Apartheid, and the plenty of remnants of Apartheid in the culture today. From this exposure and my knowledge of the state of Israel, I find it insulting to the victims of Apartheid South Africa that such a comparison is even made.

I realize that many people will not agree with what I have to say (or the sources I have chosen to support my opinion) and I encourage those people to contact me via WordPress or otherwise if they wish to engage in further conversation. I’d be more than willing to hear your thoughts. If you feel as though I’m not qualified to blog about this topic, feel free to check out some of my credentials at the end of this post.

Anyone on a politically active college campus has probably experienced “Israel Apartheid Week“. I personally find such demonstrations on my university’s quad to be counterproductive and appalling. In her blog post, Gabriella Hoffman does a great job of addressing the events of this week at her UCSD campus.

The goal of “Israel Apartheid Week” is to paint Israel as an apartheid state, when in fact, it is the only successful thriving democracy in the Middle East.

In Peter Beinart’s The Daily Beast article, Why Israel is not an Apartheid State, he recognizes that while Israel’s Palestinian Arab citizens experience discrimination in the culture (based on a long history of conflict), they have that same rights as the rest of Israeli citizens. I am not by any means condoning any form of discrimination, but I feel it is important to illuminate the discrepancy between discrimination and Apartheid.

Yes, of course, Israel’s Palestinian Arab citizens suffer significant discrimination. (I’m using the compound term “Palestinian Arab” since, according to polling by the University of Haifa’s Sammy Smooha, Israel’s Palestinian Arabs remain divided between “Palestinian” and “Arab” in describing themselves.) In 2003, the Or Commission—appointed by the Israeli government itself—declared, “Government handling of the Arab sector has been primarily neglectful and discriminatory.”

But unlike their brethren in the West Bank, Palestinian Arabs within the green line also enjoy citizenship and the right to vote. They sit in the Knesset and on Israel’s Supreme Court. They maintain their own religious courts and their own, state-funded, Arabic-language schools and media, something religious and ethnic minorities in many other countries do not enjoy. Arabic is one of Israel’s official languages. Palestinian Arab citizens have also made dramatic educational and economic gains under Israeli rule. The political scientists Ilan Peleg and Dov Waxman note that in 1948, the illiteracy rate among Israel’s Palestinian Arabs was 80 percent. By 1988, it was 15 percent.

In his The New York Times Op-Ed Israel and the Apartheid Slander, Richard J. Goldstone, a former justice of the South African Constitutional Court, who also led the United Nations fact-finding mission on the Gaza conflict of 2008-9, does a fantastic job of addressing the false claim that Israel is an apartheid state:

While “apartheid” can have broader meaning, its use is meant to evoke the situation in pre-1994 South Africa. It is an unfair and inaccurate slander against Israel, calculated to retard rather than advance peace negotiations.

I know all too well the cruelty of South Africa’s abhorrent apartheid system, under which human beings characterized as black had no rights to vote, hold political office, use “white” toilets or beaches, marry whites, live in whites-only areas or even be there without a “pass.” Blacks critically injured in car accidents were left to bleed to death if there was no “black” ambulance to rush them to a “black” hospital. “White” hospitals were prohibited from saving their lives.

In Israel, there is no apartheid. Nothing there comes close to the definition of apartheid under the 1998 Rome Statute: “Inhumane acts … committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.” Israeli Arabs — 20 percent of Israel’s population — vote, have political parties and representatives in the Knesset and occupy positions of acclaim, including on its Supreme Court. Arab patients lie alongside Jewish patients in Israeli hospitals, receiving identical treatment.

To be sure, there is more de facto separation between Jewish and Arab populations than Israelis should accept. Much of it is chosen by the communities themselves. Some results from discrimination. But it is not apartheid, which consciously enshrines separation as an ideal. In Israel, equal rights are the law, the aspiration and the ideal; inequities are often successfully challenged in court.

Those seeking to promote the myth of Israeli apartheid often point to clashes between heavily armed Israeli soldiers and stone-throwing Palestinians in the West Bank, or the building of what they call an “apartheid wall” and disparate treatment on West Bank roads. While such images may appear to invite a superficial comparison, it is disingenuous to use them to distort the reality. The security barrier was built to stop unrelenting terrorist attacks; while it has inflicted great hardship in places, the Israeli Supreme Court has ordered the state in many cases to reroute it to minimize unreasonable hardship. Road restrictions get more intrusive after violent attacks and are ameliorated when the threat is reduced.

The charge that Israel is an apartheid state is a false and malicious one that precludes, rather than promotes, peace and harmony.

What are your thoughts on these political cartoons? Offensive? Convincing? Manipulative?

For the curious, here are my credentials:

I’ve been to Israel three times – when I was ten for my uncle’s wedding, when I was 16 for the duration of five weeks, and this past March for a service learning trip.

In the months following my 2008 return from Israel, the conflict in Gaza escalated to its worse – it was during this period that I felt compelled to educate my peers on this issue and thus began to advocate for Israel. I organized a seminar at my high school with one of my peers who was of Palestinian descent with the aim of portraying both sides of the conflict. We each brought in a representative from an organization that advocated for one side of the conflict (I chose to bring in someone from The David Project). This seminar made me realize how complicated and controversial this topic truly was. From that point on I began to think about how people with opposing beliefs could discuss the conflict in a civilized manner.

Last fall I attended a seminar by The David Project, which discussed appropriate ways to advocate for Israel on college campuses via video. Here are some students’ projects created after the seminar.

In March I spent a week in Tel Aviv learning about the recent influx of African refugees in Israel. Since then I have continued to stay involved with this current issue (I run the Facebook page attached to the previous link – check it out if you want).