Musings on Post-Apartheid Israel

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S Africa
Post-Apartheid South Africa. (Photo: BBC)

After immersing myself in all things Israel/Palestine for the past few years, and working hard for some modicum of justice to be dealt to Palestinians who have suffered so much only to be denied even recognition of their suffering, I have tried to imagine what post-apartheid Israel will look like.

First the good news: the willful ignorance of people refusing to see the oppression against Palestinians is eroding. Zionists are working overtime to make the oppression appear to be a kinder and more tolerable injustice, which I believe accounts for the gaining influence of organizations like J-Street. But those organizations’ insistence on holding on to the main core tenet of the oppression, an ethnically pure state, means that people will sooner or later see through the bankrupt philosophy.

The plight of Palestinians and historical facts, rather than myths, are making their way into main stream discussion. From high school classes, to churches and grocery stores, in media, film, poetry, and literature, the Palestinian side of the story is finally being told.

An example of this reversal from myth to historical fact is found in the work of Waziyatawin, a Dakota scholar and activist. In an earlier book, What does justice look like[1] she uses Herzl’s Jewish state as a model for how justice can be brought to indigenous Americans: just as Jews returned to the land from which they were expelled, so should the Native Americans return to their lands. She has since renounced that model after learning about the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and she participated in a Women of Color delegation to Palestine. I consider someone with such impeccable anti-colonialist credentials who had been deceived by the Zionist myths as an example of the former success of those Zionist myth-makers. But their successes are becoming fewer.

It is no longer heresy to talk about any other solution than the (what has always been considered “reasonable”) two-state solution. The one-state solution, a secular democratic state of all its citizens, each with equal rights and responsibilities, is no longer such a wild and crazy idea. In large part, the acceptance of this democratic idea into the discussion is due to international solidarity activism, mainly the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement (and I must give a shout out to an organization in which I am involved, Minnesota Break the Bonds Campaign).

I believe that it is a matter of time, and not a long time, that the regime in Israel will fall and there will be a government of all the people in Palestine. What an idea: universal suffrage, a constitution guaranteeing equal rights, representation in parliament, a new national anthem…

At the end of apartheid, international Palestinian solidarity activists will have to bow out. We’re not asked to do more than to use economic and moral pressure to help bring about the end of this oppressive regime. I have no skills that could be useful to a new government or state. My past involvement in this issue gives me no credibility. My work is done.

So what will this new state look like? Does post-apartheid Israel mean a just society with equal rights for all the people of Palestine? A society which respects the human rights of all people? Where racism isn’t tolerated, criminals are brought to justice, and reparations for past injustices are made? What does justice look like?

Post-colonial models

My optimism ends at the certainty that there will be a post-apartheid Israel. After that, the optimism fades as I search for post-colonial models. Apartheid in Israel is often compared to that of the former South Africa, but post-apartheid South Africa has a dubious record.

Less than 10 years after the adoption of the new South African Constitution, the democratic government of South Africa, led by Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress, was confidently declared a success.[2] The 1996 Constitution took precedence over parliament (i.e. the legislators were sworn to uphold the Constitution, not their offices), federal and provincial/local governance was worked out, individual rights were given precedence over nationalities’ rights, and systems of working with traditional group leadership were identified.

But by 2008, Johann Rossouw described the increasing xenophobic and racist violence in South Africa as occurring in a country which was “not yet post-colonial.”[3] The “romantic image of post-apartheid South Africa…was an illusion,” said Rossouw. In many ways there are analogies to be drawn between South Africa and Israel, including the fact that in both countries fiercely nationalistic movements replaced British colonial systems. When the Afrikaners took the reins of government in the early 20th century, they instituted severe oppressive policies against non-Afrikaners, including the apartheid system which began in 1948. This system was not only a method of controlling the colonial subjects, but it also worked to separate those colonial subjects from each other, preventing them from forming alliances which could have helped to overthrow the regime years before its final demise.

The post-Mandela South African government has shown characteristics of many post-colonial African governments: corruption, censorship of the press,[4] government cronies amassing immense wealth at the expense of the majority of the poverty stricken population, neglecting to provide services and infrastructure for those people. Much of this anti-democratic governance may be attributed to economic policies forced upon the new country by the International Monetary Fund (IMF),[5] a new colonialism. This leads to statements by impoverished and unemployed residents of slums, that things were better under apartheid when, for some, at least there were jobs.[6]

The South Africa experience is an imperfect analogy, as all analogies are. South Africa is a country with vast mineral wealth. The victims of apartheid make up about 80 percent of the population and had been exploited for their labor. Israel has few natural resources and the apartheid system there was never for labor exploitation. The very western economic system in Israel may insulate it from falling into the trap of indebtedness to institutions like the IMF, and therefore if there is to be exploitation in post-apartheid Israel, it will come from within the country. This brings me to the second model, and one that seems to me even more apt: post-slavery United States.

Michelle Alexander’s extremely disturbing book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,[7] describes systems of race-based control in the United States. Following the end of slavery, when it was clear that no “40 acres and a mule” would be forthcoming to most former slaves, many newly freed slaves had to resort to returning to indentured servitude to earn enough to feed themselves and their families. Shortly after Reconstruction the system we have come to know as Jim Crow was instituted, stripping African Americans of their recently acquired right to vote and hold elected office and instituting an oppressive system of total control, which rivaled the system of race-based slavery. That system came to an end in the 1960s with the Civil Rights era, but has been replaced by an equally oppressive system of control called the War on Drugs. Cloaked in non-racial terms, drug laws target primarily people of color, meaning huge populations are imprisoned, disenfranchised, impoverished, and left permanently in an under-caste.

Because this system appears to target only law-breakers, rather than people of a certain race, most people in the U.S. are disinterested in its real effects. People can point to successes in civil rights, like the election of an African American president, to prove that we have overcome racism in this country. We don’t have to examine the statistics showing the enormous disparity in numbers of people (mainly men) of color compared to whites who are incarcerated. People who have been convicted of a felony (and drug crimes are for the most part non-violent offenses) face a lifetime of unemployment, racism, homelessness and often disenfranchisement, and all of this is legal and accepted, because they are perceived to be “bad guys” who deserve what they got.

It is because the racism and oppressive system of control of populations of non-whites can be invisible to most whites, that I believe this is the most likely analogy for what post-apartheid Israel will look like. It may not be a war on drugs that becomes the system of control, but some other non-racial method of maintaining a permanent under-class.


Demographics are the most boring of statistical data if the subject is voting patterns in Wisconsin or migration patterns into urban areas, but it becomes the most racist of terms when the subject is Israel and Palestine. My fingers hesitated as I reached the “g” in “demographics,” giving my brain a chance to find a synonym. But “the underlying rationale for ethnic cleansing” is hardly better.

Israeli society is dominated by the minority Ashkenazi Jewish population (those descended from Eastern Europeans). As of 2006 only 22% of the Jewish population were Ashkenazi Jews, and the rest were Mizrahi[9 PDF] (from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa). Just as white privileged people in the U.S. were able to drive a wedge between poor whites and African Americans by allowing poor whites some measure of superiority over blacks, Israeli society drives a wedge between the Mizrahim and the Palestinians. Ben-Gurion’s disdain for Jews of Middle Eastern origin (he said they were “difficult human material—[their] cultural level is low”)[10] is shared by many Ashkenazi Jews today and the Mizrahim suffer discrimination in housing, education, and employment. They would be natural allies of Palestinians, were it not for the exploitation of this wedge. Mizrahi Jews supported Avigdor Lieberman’s extreme racist Yisrael Beytanu party overwhelmingly in the last elections, which mirrors some poor white Americans’ support of racist candidates.

Among the Jewish population in Israel divisions are exacerbated, as fundamentalist Orthodox Jews discriminate and attack others for not being Jewish enough. The Orthodox Jews have had special privileges since the beginning of the State, where the men don’t work or serve in the military, but receive welfare benefits and subsidized housing. In post-apartheid Israel how willingly would they give up those benefits? How willingly would the rest of the population continue them?

The divide and rule strategy, which served colonialists so well created havoc during post-colonial periods (a recent extreme example being the Rwandan genocide). Palestinians, too, have been divided into many groups, which may never re-coalesce into a single people: there are the Palestinian Israeli citizens, West Bank residents, Gaza residents, refugees within the West Bank and Gaza, refugees in other countries, diaspora Palestinians, and now Hamas supporters and Fatah supporters. At times the various groups have had little respect for one another, and certainly after many years of separation, culture, language and priorities have become differentiated. In a post-apartheid country, even one in which the Palestinian population is approximately the same as the Jewish population,[11] would these differences further divide people or could the population embrace differences? History does not show many examples of the latter.

The birthrate within Israel (not including the occupied territories) is about 3 children per woman, higher than other developed countries.[12 PDF] This is about 3.75 children per Palestinian Israeli woman and 2.97 children per Jewish Israeli woman.[13 PDF] Currently, with Israel’s fear of “losing the demographic war,” Jewish families with many children are encouraged. It is not unreasonable to believe that Palestinians feel the same way. Overpopulation, overcrowding in cities and suburbs, and dwindling resources, will only exacerbate the problems.

Environment and Land

Even well-intentioned post-apartheid players in Israel will come up against physical factors that would destroy hope of justice. These include changes to the landscape, land use, resources, and environment.

The Jewish National Fund (JNF) has worked for over a century to build parks over ethnically cleansed Palestinian villages. It uses them as propaganda to promote its “good stewardship of the land”—carbon sinks, green space, the encouragement of wildlife habitat, a quiet spot for (Jewish) Israelis to picnic, etc., and all the while not mentioning the violations of human rights, the massacres, the theft, that take place because of those parks.[14] Justice demands that those parks be returned to the villagers and descendents of those villagers who were expelled. But in post-apartheid Israel, could that happen?

In the last 10 years, the estimated average per capita carbon dioxide emissions by Israelis were 6.9 metric tons per year (compared to 15.1 tons per capita per year for U.S. citizens).[15] With a population of about 8 million,[16] this is more than 55 million metric tons of CO2 per year emitted on average from both Israelis and Palestinians. One acre of forest absorbs approximately 75 metric tons over 20 years.[17] (These numbers are given for rainforests and not arid regions, and may not be equivalent.) Since 1901, the JNF has planted more than 250,000 acres of trees,[18] giving a sequestration rate of 18.8 million metric tons of CO2 in 20 years. In other words, the sequestration rate doesn’t come close to the emission rate. But regardless of the origin of those forests, or the effects of forest fires,[19] there would be a world-wide outcry if the future state tried to cut out its lungs, even to repair a previous injustice. Since the trees planted over ethnically cleansed villages are not native to the region, their presence there has changed the ecology of the land, which is no longer suitable for growing the crops that sustained the former residents.

Land that has been confiscated for roads, houses, and the apartheid wall, is equally unsuitable for farming. With a wildly increasing human population (there and everywhere else), the land will be required and used for other purposes. The vast majority of Palestinians who were stripped of their living as farmers or herders will have to give up the dream of returning to that life for good. Those types of farms will be replaced by factory farms, squeezing the highest yield from the smallest acreage, using high amounts of chemicals and water.[20] Those farms will be owned by the settlers and their descendents; Palestinians will work as laborers on the Jewish-owned farms. Land redistribution ends up badly no matter where it is done or for what reason, and I can’t envision a scenario where land is taken from a settler to give back to the Palestinian who formerly owned it. The Palestinians who have suffered from land and livelihood confiscation, assessments of extraordinary fees, denial of educational opportunities, will not have enough wealth to purchase a farm, even if a Jewish land owner did not have heirs to which to will the land.

With the land being now designated for various purposes, with an increasing population and decreasing resources, and with the divisions among the different Palestinian groups, what are the chances that a significant number of refugees will have the opportunity to return to the country? Unfortunately, I see this also as a very low probability.

I believe that the system of apartheid in Israel will end, but I do not believe that the end will mean justice for Palestinians. So with all this pessimism, why do I continue? Well, for one, I’m desperately hoping someone will read this and point out my basic analytical error. But I’ve thought about this for a long time and don’t believe I’ve made an analytical error. For another, I like to believe that had I lived during slavery in the U.S., even knowing the oppression that African Americans would face at the end of that system, I would have worked to end it. And then I would have worked to end Jim Crow. The end of one struggle is the beginning of the next.[21] So I will continue to work for justice and human rights in Israel/Palestine and continue to hope that somehow an equation can be found which will allow for justice to prevail.


1 Waziyatawin, Ph.D., What Does Justice Look Like? The Struggle for Liberation in Dakota Homeland. St. Paul:Living Justice Press, 2008.
2 Bekker, Simon and Leildé, Anne, “Is Multiculturalism a Workable Policy in South Africa,” International Journal on Multicultural Societies (IJMS), Vol. 5, No. 2, 2003: 119-134.       3 Rossouw, Johann, “South Africa: not yet post-colonial,” Le Monde Diplomatique. Aug. 2008.
4 Achmat, Zackie, Dawes, Nic, and February, Judith “Muzzling the Rainbow Nation,”New York Times, 30 Nov. 2011.
5 Klein, Naomi, The Shock Doctrine: the Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Metropolitan Books. New York: Knopf Canada, 2007.
6 “Some things were better under apartheid,” BBC News, 29 May 2010.
7 Alexander, Michelle, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2010.
8 Never mind that the 40 acres would not be taken from any white land-owner. If any freed slave had received land it would have been expropriated from Native Americans’ land anyway.
9 “Jews and others, by origin, continent of birth and period of immigration,” [PDF] Central Bureau of Statistics, Government of Israel.
10 Grodzinsky, Yosef, In the Shadow of the Holocaust. Monroe: Common Courage Press, 2004.
11 Palestinian population fast approaching that of Israeli Jews, in vBulletin, 1 Dec. 2011.
12 “Table 3.13 – Fertility rates, by age and religion,” [PDF] Statistical Abstract of Israel, 2011.
13 Ibid.
14 See and the fourth e-book: Greenwashing Apartheid: The Jewish National Fund’s Environmental Cover Up [PDF]
15 “Carbon Dioxide Emissions (CO2), metric tons of CO2 per capita (CDIAC).” Millennium Development Goals Database. United Nations Statistics Division.
16 “Israel population tops 7.8 mn”, European Jewish Press. 8 Jan. 2012.
17 FAQ. World Land Trust.
18 Blumenthal, Max “The forest through the trees: What the Carmel fire reminds us about Israel’s history.” Mondoweiss. 7 Dec. 2010
19 Ibid.
20 Despite the high water wastage for which settlers in the occupied territories are known, Israel has pioneered the field of water re-use in agriculture. Some of this water will be recycled.
21 Thanks to Bob Kosuth for this line!

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Quality intellect, indeed. Very well written. This article reminds me of what one of the Palestinian BDS leaders said recently at the Penn BDS Conference. Namely, that just because Apartheid ended did not mean that the legacy of it was ereased. Same thing with the century-long oppression of blacks in… Read more »

Sylvia, Thank you for this article, it touches upon questions that I’ve been asking for nearly two years now, since I fully understood the Apartheid situation. You asked about reading this and finding a basic analytical error. I find a lot that I agree with, including that income inequality will… Read more »

Post-independence Ireland gave equal political and legal rights to Protestants (who had formerly been the ruling Ascendancy) and allowed them to maintain their dominant economic position. A lot of the Irish Protestants left, largely because they felt uncomfortable living in a situation where they no longer had the political power… Read more »

A few basic misconceptions about the Israelis statistics: Ashkenazi vs Mizrahi-47.5% vs 50.2 former Soviet Union Jews 20.9% of total Jewish population. “The growth rate of the Arab population in Israel is 2.6%, while the growth rate of the Jewish population in Israel is 1.7%. The growth rate of… Read more »

Perhaps the good start would be from the stories the Mizrahi Jews descendants have heard from their grandparents and parents, about how they were expelled from their countries and stripped of everything. I just finished reading Rachel Shabi’s “We look Like the Enemy”, about the discrimination against Mizrahi Jews in… Read more »