A couple of weeks ago the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) issued a report equating Israel with apartheid. The ESCWA is charged with promoting economic and social development in Western Asia but spends much of its time bashing Israel. This is easy enough since the committee is composed of 18 Arab states each of which is eager to delegitimize Israel. But the “apartheid” analogy continues to rear its ugly head and has become an effective weapon against Israel and its legal and moral standing. You can learn more about ESCWA here.
Since Israelis and West Bank Arabs live separately and there is an asymmetrical relationship between Israel and the Palestinian territories it becomes quite easy, albeit sloppy thinking, to turn the word apartheid into a convenient hammer in order to bruise the Jewish state. Labeling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as apartheid stretches the meaning of the term beyond recognition and out of its historical context. It is like calling any human violence a “holocaust” or “genocide.” There are differences.
And my guess is that the apartheid analogy is often motivated by anti-Semitism but we will set that aside for the moment and consider some more compelling historical and political theory reasons for why Israel is not an apartheid state. If someone wants to just “name call” and lash out at the despised other, then the word apartheid is a good place to start because of its inherent implication of racism. And if you repeat it often enough people will believe it.
But the apartheid accusation is more than just name-calling. Language has power and consequences and cannot be divorced from specific behaviors. Thus, the apartheid accusation is used to justify violence against Israel and deny Israelis basic human rights of self-defense. It is a way of dehumanizing Israelis which makes it easier to justify violence. The apartheid accusation also distorts information and data and makes it more difficult to understand the truth or new information because attitudes and perceptions of the other become entrenched and impossible to unfreeze.
Some differences between Israel and apartheid
- Apartheid is a system of inequality based on racial ideology. The Israel-Palestine example is a failure to negotiate agreed-upon solutions. Racism is not what motivates Israel. Israeli Arabs can vote and serve in the Knesset in Israel. This was not true in apartheid South Africa.
- The Palestinians regularly reject compromises and good faith efforts. Partition has been considered the most fair-minded approach but is rejected by the Palestinians.
- Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are not governed by Israel. They are governed by the Palestinian Authority.
- Skin color, voting rights, restrictions on movement, and geographical separation are not based on racist attitudes but on security concerns the goal of which is to one day eliminate, not perpetuated as a permanent definition of the political relationship.
- Zionism is certainly concerned with the development and defense of the Jewish people but is not rooted in racist ideology as much as – like any other political entity – national defense.
- Israel does not want to oversee and control Palestinians. On the contrary, Israel would like to help the Palestinians launch their own independent state and free themselves from the Israelis.
- Actually, apartheid is just what Israel is trying to avoid rather than perpetuate. The demographic threat along with pressures for bi- national and uni-national states threatens Israel’s existence as a democratic and Jewish state.
- Equating Zionism with colonialism is one reason the apartheid accusation seems plausible. But the Zionist movement was never part of the designs of an outside state on Palestine, and Zionist immigration was more interested in investing in Palestine rather than exploiting it.
- Apartheid in South Africa was based on the absolute domination of a racially defined minority (Whites) over an indigenous majority (Blacks). The Israelis and Palestinians are engaged in the clash of nationalisms.
- Finally, the Palestinians have been offered numerous opportunities to negotiate a compromise from the 1930s to the present. They have regularly rejected these opportunities and consequently have a clear role in the responsibility for maintaining the present situation.
Israel is certainly not blameless with respect to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but equating Israel with apartheid is little more than denying Israel its fundamental right to self-defense and a national identity.