This past week, a conference was hosted in the Knesset by representatives from Meretz and the Arab Joint List, entitled: “After 54 years: From occupation to apartheid.”
At the outset, let me be clear, it is entirely appropriate for the Knesset, either in its main plenary or in side conferences, to debate the social, political and moral issues surrounding Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza.
These issues are sensitive, divisive and highly contentious, and there are vastly different responses to them from parties across the political spectrum, and even among parties within the current governing coalition. But strong differences of opinion are the lifeblood of Israeli democracy and one of its great strengths, and all debates should be on the table, regardless of one’s personal views.
However, the use of the word ‘apartheid’ in the context of these discussions is deeply problematic for three reasons.
Firstly – from a logical, factual and legal standpoint, the term is completely inaccurate and therefore creates intellectual confusion over issues that require precise analysis, careful consideration and rational debate. The apartheid label is highly emotive, and rather than adding anything substantive to the debate, actually muddies the waters, creates confusion and prevents sincere people from properly confronting these issues.
Describing Israel as an “apartheid state” is absurd. I grew up under the real apartheid system in South Africa. It was truly evil. I recall black people being arrested for walking in white areas. I saw public toilets and benches marked separately for black people and white people. I lived in a society in which racism was repugnantly institutionalised by parliament, carried out by the courts, enforced by the police and lived on every level of society.
This evil system was put into practice using all levers of government power – parliamentary, judiciary, police and military – resulting in a slew of oppressive laws aimed at obliterating the economic, political and cultural freedoms of an entire country.
Nothing remotely like this exists in Israel, where all citizens – Jewish, Muslim, Christian – have the right to vote and complete equality before the law, and where schools and universities, benches and beaches, buses and hospitals, are unsegregated in any way.
Israel has none of the apartheid legislative machinery designed to discriminate against and separate people. It has no Population and Registration Act, no Group Areas Act, no Separate Representation of Voters Act, no Separate Amenities Act, or any other of the myriad evil apartheid laws. Israeli Arabs hold high-ranking positions throughout the various levels of Israeli government, including Parliament and the Supreme Court. In the recent election, it was an Islamist party that cast the deciding votes which brought the very coalition of which Meretz is a part of to power. Of course, as in any free society, there are human flaws and prejudices, but that is categorically different from legally enforced discrimination.
Outside of the legal borders of the State of Israel, there is, however, an ongoing and bitter dispute around establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. These territories have never been annexed and are therefore not legally part of the State of Israel. This is a crucial difference. It is a matter of intense debate within Israel and globally how to solve the ongoing dispute. The negotiations have been tortuous and protracted and are currently in limbo.
The point is, no one who truly understands the brutality and the systematic racism and denial of basic human rights that made apartheid infamous could, in good faith, use the term apartheid in a discussion relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – a territorial, political, religious, cultural dispute concerning national identity and borders.
Secondly – the actual word ‘apartheid’ is the national heritage of the South African people, a term deeply rooted in South African soil. The word is sacred, sanctified by the blood and suffering of millions of South Africans who were discriminated against on the basis of race, and by the self-sacrifice of heroic freedom fighters like Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki and Steve Biko.
By detaching apartheid from its birthplace, those who would wield it against Israel by misappropriating the South African experience for political ends, thereby desecrate the memory and trivialise the suffering of the victims of the real apartheid.
Thirdly – using the term apartheid in the context of Israel is dangerous. There are many forces in the world seeking Israel’s destruction, and the current focus of these efforts is to delegitimise the Jewish State – to falsely portray it as a nation founded on the cardinal sin of racism, and thereby to deny it the moral right to exist. To achieve their aims, these malevolent forces seek to galvanise an international campaign of boycotts, disinvestment and sanctions that aim to cripple the Jewish State.
At the very heart of this campaign is the use of the word ‘apartheid’. While the word has no application to the Israeli context for the reasons set out above, it nevertheless carries a tremendous amount of associated history – in particular, the international sanctions campaign that brought apartheid South Africa to its knees. The enemies of Israel are seeking to do the same to the Jewish State by intentionally misapplying the word ‘apartheid’ and making Israel’s very existence both morally indefensible, and politically and economically unsustainable.
Again, I speak here from personal experience. Living in South Africa, I have watched BDS and other anti-Israel movements invest huge resources to poison South African society against Israel by the misleading use of the word apartheid, which often slides into open antisemitism, such as calls to boycott local Jewish businesses.
‘Apartheid’ is such a term that no Knesset event should use, because it is factually incorrect and misleading, insensitive to the victims of the real apartheid, and increases the diplomatic and economic threat level to Israel. People of good faith who are seeking an end to the pain and the suffering of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should choose the words of how to frame the issues with care and integrity so that genuine peace can emerge.