Religion & Beliefs

Jewish Mythbusters: Israeli Apartheid

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard Israel referred to as an apartheid state. On college campuses in particular this kind of thing is all over the place. But it’s not just feisty undergrads trying to make … Read More

By / February 5, 2008

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard Israel referred to as an apartheid state. On college campuses in particular this kind of thing is all over the place. But it’s not just feisty undergrads trying to make a point—there’s also Jimmy Carter’s bestselling book, Peace Not Apartheid,which caused so much trouble when it came out in 2006. You can be as "pro-Palestinian" as you want, but it’s hard to reasonably make the case that Israel is an apartheid state. The Internet teems with websites and articles that assert–with varying degrees of intensity–that Israel is nothing like the South Africa of a quarter century ago. The three best, as far as I’m concerned, are by Michael Kinsley from the Washington Post, a piece on the History News Network by Gil Troy, and a piece by South African Benjamin Pogrund, who is founding director of Yakar's Center for Social Concern in Judaism. The main points that these articles make to counter the apartheid argument are:

  • Even accepting the discrimination that Arabs and Palestinians face in Israel, it’s nothing near as bad as blacks faced in South Africa. In the words of Pogrund:

The difference between the current Israeli situation and apartheid South Africa is emphasised at a very human level: Jewish and Arab babies are born in the same delivery room, with the same facilities, attended by the same doctors and nurses, with the mothers recovering in adjoining beds in a ward. Two years ago I had major surgery in a Jerusalem hospital: the surgeon was Jewish, the anaesthetist was Arab, the doctors and nurses who looked after me were Jews and Arabs. Jews and Arabs share meals in restaurants and travel on the same trains, buses and taxis, and visit each other’s homes. Could any of this possibly have happened under apartheid? Of course not.

  • Arab Israelis can vote. Pogrund again:

A crucial, indeed fundamental, indicator of the status of Israel’s minority — and another non-comparison between apartheid South Africa and Israel — is that Arabs have the vote. Blacks did not. The vote means citizenship and power to change. Arab citizens lack full power as a minority community but they have the right and the power to unite as a group and to ally with others.

  • The official stance of the Israeli government is one of fairness and equal rights for the Palestinians and Arabs in Israel and the territories.



Whether or not these rights are held up is certainly questionable, but as Kinsley writes: Apartheid had a philosophical component and a practical one, both quite bizarre. Philosophically, it was committed to the notion of racial superiority. No doubt many Israelis have racist attitudes toward Arabs, but the official philosophy of the government is quite the opposite, and sincere efforts are made to, for example, instill humanitarian and egalitarian attitudes in children.

  • Zionism may be many things you don’t like, but it’s not racism.

All three articles spend some time on this, but here’s the jist:If the Jews aren’t a “race,” then it’s hard to make the case that anything a Jewish government tries to carry out is racism. Claiming Jews are a race is a traditionally anti-Semitic move, and discredits anything that comes after it.

There are a number of races on both sides, too. As Troy writes:

The Arab-Israeli conflict is a nationalist clash with religious overtones. The rainbow of colors among Israelis and Palestinians, with black Ethiopian Jews, and white Christian Palestinians, proves that both national communities are diverse.

  • Finally, Israel has a right to define its citizenship according to the wishes of the majority. That’s not a racist action, it’s democractic. Pogrund says:

If the majority wish to restrict immigration and citizenship to Jews that may be incompatible with a strict definition of the universality of humankind. But it is the right of the majority. Just as it is the right of Saudi Arabia and other Arab states not to allow Christians as citizens, or the right of Ghana and other African states to reject or restrict whites as citizens, or the right of South Africa to have a non-racial citizenship policy. It’s the norm for countries to have citizenship laws and immigration practices which do not subscribe to universal ideals, but which are, on the contrary, based on their perceptions of colour or religion or economic class or whatever. Europe demonstrates that every day in dealing with would-be economic migrants.

Previously: Nobody Has Sex Through a Hole in the Sheet