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Are comparisons of South African apartheid and Israel useful?


The South African Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee has a habit of speaking in rhetoricals. The effect, however, is that he makes his point quite clearly. This was the case recently at the Palestine Festival of Literature, which travels through Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. Speaking on the festival’s last day, Coetzee noticed that “naturally people ask me what I see of South Africa in the present situation in Palestine.”

At first, Coetzee suggested that using the word apartheid to describe the occupation is not a productive step (“it diverts one into an inflamed semantic wrangle which cuts short the opportunities of analysis”). Coetzee then offered a definition of South African apartheid: “Apartheid was a system of enforced segregation based on race or ethnicity, put in place by an exclusive, self defined group in order to consolidate colonial conquest particular to cement its hold on the land and natural resources.” He continued, “In Jerusalem and the West Bank we see a system of …” and proceeded to read the same definition, ending to applause: “Draw your own conclusions.”

Although comparisons between Israel and South Africa stretch back to the early 1960s, the past decade has seen a growing recognition that Israel’s policies should be characterized as apartheid. The term apartheid (Afrikaans for separation or apartness) gained currency among Afrikaner racial theorists in the 1930s and became the basis of government policy with the election of the Nationalist Party in 1948, which coincides with the founding of Israel. Subsequent global campaigns and UN conventions declared apartheid a crime, and extended its meaning to contexts beyond southern Africa.

Cover of Apartheid Israel: The Politics of an Analogy

Cover of Apartheid Israel: The Politics of an Analogy

More recently, two separate debates have developed regarding the idea of Israeli apartheid. The first is a dispute about legal definitions: do Israeli actions in the occupied territories (or, in some formulations, the Israeli state’s policy toward the Palestinian population, including refugees and Palestinian Israelis) amount to apartheid under the relevant international treaties? When the official statements of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign use the term, they are not making a direct analogy with the South African regime. They are arguing that Israeli policies should be condemned as the crime of apartheid under international law. The significance of this discussion is that the prohibition against apartheid is absolute under international law. In other words, a legal finding of apartheid would obligate the international community to end any aid that perpetuated the crime.

The second debate concerns the broader comparison between Israel and South Africa: to what extent can the histories of these two countries be juxtaposed? Do South Africa’s experiences of settler colonialism and apartheid provide insights that can sharpen our understanding of Israeli politics and society? Are there meaningful lessons from the antiapartheid struggle—for example, from the global cultural and academic boycott—for Palestinian solidarity work? Does the South African political transition and the achievement of a democracy based on “one person, one vote,” whatever its shortcomings, offer lessons for Israel/Palestine?

On one level, the parallels are unmistakable. Apartheid South Africa and Israel both originated through a process of conquest and settlement justified largely on the grounds of religion and ethnic nationalism. Both pursued a legalized, large-scale program of displacing the earlier inhabitants from their land. Both instituted a variety of discriminatory laws based on racial or ethnic grounds. In South Africa itself, the comparison is so widely accepted (outside a small coterie of Zionists) that it is generally uncontroversial. Leading members of the antiapartheid struggle have repeatedly averred that the conditions in the West Bank and Gaza are even “worse” than apartheid.

At the same time, no historical analogy is ever exact. Comparisons reveal differences even as they underline similarities. If South Africa emerged through a centuries-long process of European settlement and colonial warfare, the foundation of Israel in 1948 was preceded by one of the most singular atrocities in humanity’s history, the Holocaust. While the South African economy continues to rely overwhelmingly on the exploitation of African workers, early Zionists consciously sought to displace Arab labor and managed to build a far more closed, ethnically unified economy. However important South African exiles were during the apartheid period, nothing existed that approached either the scale of the Palestinian refugee population or the global Jewish diaspora, which today is increasingly divided over Israel’s claim to speak in its name.

The importance of the apartheid comparison is that it has assisted in fundamentally changing the terms of debate. Until recently, the Israeli government and its partisans, especially in the United States, have largely succeeded in depicting Israel as a besieged democracy defending its very existence against the threat of outside terrorism. Framing Israel/Palestine as an international conflict between two equivalent sides (Jews and Arabs), this narrative suggests that peace will only be achieved by guaranteeing Israel’s security and then adjudicating claims over “disputed” territory.

Along these lines, Israeli governments have contended that their actions in the occupied territories—including the land seizures, mass arrests, settlements, checkpoints, and the Separation Wall—are defensive measures driven by military necessity. Israel cannot reasonably be accused of apartheid, the argument continues, because the West Bank and Gaza lie outside of Israel proper. Conflating the state’s actions with defense of its Jewish population, this entire mode of debate sets up any criticism of Israel’s policies as being in and of itself  “anti-Semitic.”

In challenging this account, the comparison with South Africa returns the discussion to Israel’s colonial origins and the settler project of consolidating a nation-state through the expulsion of Palestinians. By emphasizing the strategic aims of current Israeli policies (the fragmentation and annexation of Palestinian territory), the comparison underlines that resistance does not somehow come from “outside,” but is the inevitable and justified response to occupation and forced displacement.

The apartheid analogy also illuminates the circularity of Israel’s security argument: since occupation generates resistance, there can be no resolution to the “conflict” short of Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied territories and the dismantling of its colonizing infrastructure. It highlights the mendacity of the Israeli government’s pretense of negotiating for “peace” while attempting to construct a permanent regime of military control. After almost five decades of occupation, it is truly cynical to claim immunity from the charge of apartheid on the basis of a territorial separation that the Israeli government, military, and supreme court have actively worked to undermine.

Perhaps most important, the apartheid analogy has helped to insert the staggering human costs of the occupation at the center of global attention. In place of the Palestinian “terrorist,” the world is increasingly confronted with images of Israeli bulldozers destroying houses and olive trees, Israeli soldiers harassing and humiliating civilians at checkpoints, and the Israeli Army’s indiscriminate shelling of civilians in Gaza. This shift is taking place not only in North America and Europe but also, tentatively and on a much smaller scale, within Israel itself.

In response, apologists for Israel’s policies have attempted to relocate the comparison. When measured against the civil rights records of other Middle Eastern countries, they respond, the Palestinian minority within Israel enjoys significant rights. Palestinian Israelis vote, participate in national elections through legal political parties, and sit in the Knesset—all things that would have been unthinkable for Black South Africans under apartheid. When forces like the Islamic State are perpetrating systematic atrocities against minorities in Iraq and Syria, they pose, why are pro-Palestinian activists focusing on so narrowly on Israel, the “only democracy” in the region?

It is tempting to respond that this vindication tries to have it both ways by asserting that Israel upholds (if imperfectly) the standards of liberal democracy while measuring its record against regimes that are universally condemned for their disregard of basic human rights. But there is another motivation at work. South Africa’s apartheid government also accused its critics of selectivity by invoking the record of governments such as Idi Amin’s Uganda. In doing so, it represented the white settler colony as an island of civilization surrounded by “primitive” societies unprepared for Western democracy. Its defenders could therefore imply that segregationist institutions and repressive actions, while perhaps regrettable, were necessary given the regional threats that the country faced.

When Israel’s apologists recycle this style of argument today, they are trafficking in similar forms of racism. Today, it is “terrorism,” “radical Islam,” or “Arab anti-Semitism.” The problem here is not that fundamentalism and popular anti-Semitism don’t exist. Of course they do. The basic hypocrisy of this position is that the Israeli state (not unlike South Africa during the Cold War) has supported corrupt, antidemocratic regimes in the face of popular movements that might challenge the regional status quo by presenting a radical alternative to both Islamicism and military rule. The realpolitik is, in the abstract, understandable: a popularly elected government in Egypt or Jordan might well be less friendly to Israeli interests than the existing, US-backed strongmen. Nevertheless, Israel’s direct subvention of these regimes undercuts the image of a lone protagonist struggling to uphold democracy in a region hostile to human rights.

The attempt to shift the comparison from Israel/South Africa to Israel/Syria or Israel/Iran deserves scrutiny on two other levels. The first concerns the argument that the BDS campaign singles out Israel unfairly by failing to call for a boycott of Syria and Lebanon as well—countries that have long histories of marginalizing Palestinians and denying civil rights to refugees. Why then, critics ask, focus solely on Israel and not on these countries as well? This particular strategy of comparison conflates cause and effect. As many historians now acknowledge, the origin of the Palestinian refugee crisis was the policy of expulsion or “transfer” pursued by Zionist forces in 1947–48. The continued existence of almost three million refugees in surrounding countries is the direct result of the fact that Palestinian claims to land and citizenship within the borders of post-1948 Israel have not been resolved. It is deliberately misleading to equate the underlying cause of the problem (the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and the denial of their right to return) and its immediate consequences (the existence of disenfranchised refugees across the region and their treatment by Arab governments).

Second, it is true that Palestinians currently living in Israel (that is, those who were not expelled in 1948) possess civil rights. This fact is often cited as a refutation of the claim that Israel is an apartheid state. These claims are deceptive. Israeli law institutionalizes the distinction between the Jewish population and other groups. As codified in its Basic Laws, Israel is the state of the Jewish people: non-Jewish Israeli citizens do not enjoy the same status under civil law. (It is, in fact, illegal for a political party to run for the Knesset if it questions this principle.) In contrast to Israel’s equal rights legislation regarding women and the disabled, more than fifty laws discriminate directly or indirectly against the Palestinian minority of Israel.

Palestinian Israelis face staggering levels of poverty; workforce discrimination and higher rates of unemployment; extensive restrictions on land ownership and residency; and numerous forms of educational, linguistic, and cultural marginalization. The claim that Arab Israelis enjoy full civil rights further ignores the phenomenon of “unrecognized” Palestinian Bedouin villages. By declaring these settlements illegal, the Israeli state has deprived some 75,000 to 90,000 people of basic services, facilities, and political representation. Nor do these claims address the situation of Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem (unilaterally and illegally annexed by Israel after the 1967 War). The Israeli state has stripped over 14,000 Palestinians of their residency since 1967.

Ultimately, the trumpeting of minority rights falsely detaches the discrimination endured by Arab Israelis from the earlier expulsion of Palestinians and its justification on the basis that Israel is a Jewish state. This point is key. Zionism’s postulation of a Jewish national identity for Israel is inseparable from the denial of Palestinian rights in much the same way that apartheid’s assertion of a white South Africa presupposed the displacement and disenfranchisement of the African majority. If the apartheid regime enfranchised a limited number of Black South Africans, this fact would have altered neither the original acts of population transfer nor the status of those living in the Bantustans or in exile. The enfranchisement of some Palestinians resolves neither the forced division of the Palestinian nation between exile, the fragmented occupied territories, and Israel nor the denial of self-determination to the Palestinian people as a whole.

Does the South African antiapartheid struggle offer any lessons for Palestinian solidarity work? How should we judge the South African political settlement?

While there are many lessons to be learned from South Africa, the most important are neither simple nor easily translatable into other contexts. Although the 1994 transition dismantled legal white supremacy, South Africa remains a profoundly divided society, convulsed by unresolved questions of race, class, and gender inequality. The work of fully understanding the historical experience of apartheid—and addressing its continuing legacies—is still far from complete.

Pro-BDS activists may have to get pass reductive depictions of the antiapartheid struggle, particularly of solidarity politics. While simplifications are an inevitable part of activism, they can also shut down much needed debate. There is, for example, a tendency to exaggerate the impact of North American cultural and academic boycott. On occasion, US activists go so far as to suggest that the boycott movement itself brought about the end of apartheid—a position that comes dangerously close to white saviorism. The academic boycott helped raise public awareness and force debate regarding foreign support for the South African regime. But it was one part of a much wider movement that included the massively influential sports boycott, the International Defense and Aid Fund, direct action by trade unions, and the Free Mandela campaign. This solidarity was not centered in the West, but truly global in scope. It was arguably the largest civil society movement of the twentieth century.  And it was supplemental to a mass, democratic movement inside South Africa itself.

Any lessons the South African transition offers for the future of Israel and Palestine are far from simple. Many factors—internal and external, economic and geopolitical—led to the white minority’s abandonment of political power in 1994. For some activists, South Africa speaks to the possibility of a one-state solution based on universal citizenship and equal rights for all. Others see the negotiations of the early 1990s as a model for the realistic and painful compromises that would be necessary to enact a truly just two-state solution. At this level, historical comparison is more useful in sharpening questions rather than providing meaningful answers.

One lesson from South Africa is clear enough though. Whatever factors contributed to the timing and circumstances of its demise, the destruction of South African apartheid would not have occurred without a powerful, international movement dedicated to freedom for all South Africans. “Above the fray” experts might try to untangle and isolate the different strands of liberation struggle, arguing that one tactic or another was decisive. At the time, the ANC and other organizations encouraged diverse forms of resistance and continuously searched for new methods of linking internal opposition to international solidarity. They understood that different modes of struggle strengthened and reinforced each other in ways that cannot always be predicted in advance. Their lesson is clear: we must multiply the forms and points of cultural, economic, and political pressure.

Jon Soske and Sean Jacobs

Historian Jon Soske and international affairs scholar Sean Jacobs are co-editors of The Apartheid Analogy (Haymarket Books 2015).

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24 Responses

  1. ritzl on June 15, 2016, 6:05 pm

    A) Call it Hafrada. Same crime. No semantics involved. And yes I get the “name recognition” niceties and/or legalities. So call it Hafrada-Apartheid.

    B) Are the authors Israelis? Do they consider Palestine a state?

    • Talkback on June 16, 2016, 11:35 am


    • Mooser on June 16, 2016, 3:22 pm


      A newly coined expression? Doesn’t matter, it still rings true.

      • Talkback on June 17, 2016, 3:25 pm

        According to Google, yes. LOL.

  2. klm90046 on June 15, 2016, 7:32 pm

    “However important South African exiles were during the apartheid period, nothing existed that approached either the scale of the Palestinian refugee population or the global Jewish diaspora.”

    —Oh yes, there was the White Christian world supporting South African apartheid for many decades before finally throwing in the towel and joining the civilized world in its boycott, divestment and sanctions.

    You do not mention another point of departure in the analogy: the population mix. Whites comprised roughly 9 percent of the population of South Africa. Today, Ashkenazim and Sephardim between the river and the sea together have about the same numbers as Palestinians. This creates a whole new conundrum.

    Otherwise a well-written article.

    • echinococcus on June 16, 2016, 1:39 am

      You can’t be serious.

      Whites comprised roughly 9 percent of the population of South Africa. Today, Ashkenazim and Sephardim between the river and the sea together have about the same numbers as Palestinians. This creates a whole new conundrum.

      And how many of that “same number” are illegally immigrated, since at the latest 1917, with the declared hostile intent of taking over sovereignty, and offspring thereof?

      How many in addition to the “same number” of Palestinians are full owners of the national sovereignty on Palestine?

      This creates a whole new conundrum

      Nah. Illegitimi non carborundum.

    • Sycamores on June 16, 2016, 11:41 am

      Hi Kim90046,

      You do not mention another point of departure in the analogy: the population mix. Whites comprised roughly 9 percent of the population of South Africa. Today, Ashkenazim and Sephardim between the river and the sea together have about the same numbers as Palestinians. This creates a whole new conundrum.

      it seems to me you are using the difference of race for South Africa but using the difference of religion for Israel/Palestine? if that the case well there’s your conundrum.

      if you had use religion for South Africa you would have found that it is predominant Christian regardless of race.


      if you had use race for Israel/Palestine you would have found that it is predominant Arab regardless of religion.

      where the Ashkenazim(European) would be less than 30% of the population of Israel/Palestine.

      that is the problem in comparing South Africa Apartheid with Israel/Palestine Apartheid, where one is racial the other is religious. i agree that this difference of Apartheid needs to be address.
      however the solution is the same equal, human rights for all

      • klm90046 on June 16, 2016, 12:48 pm

        Ashkenazi and Sephardi are not religions. They are ethnicities.

        But you are right on the other aspect. European occupiers of Palestine have successfully conflated their faith and ethnicity, so today, even educated people use the expression “Jews and Arabs” without realizing they are mixing apples and oranges.

        And let’s face it: “Jews” in Israel number about the same as Palestinians. How they got there is another subject for debate altogether.

      • echinococcus on June 16, 2016, 1:11 pm

        How anyone of both “sides” got there, or multiplied, or was expelled (outside their land or direct to heaven) is the *only* essential point regarding the determination about the entire territory.

        Numbers are worth zilch in this matter –until a genocide is fully successful thanks to the Zionists, their helper governments and population sectors, and the pretend anti-Zionists who are trying to give them non-existing rights.

      • echinococcus on June 16, 2016, 1:16 pm

        The discrimination is “religious” when the Zionists want it to be, then it is racial when they intend it to be, unless they make it “ethnic-cultural” (ohhh yeah, they even talk about a “Jewish culture”, Vilna in Ethiopia…) so it’s a good thing never to take their word for anything in this regard. There is nothing ethnic or national or religious in Zionism, but plain unvarnished genocidal (imagined-)racial (Ashkenazi) supremacy.

  3. johneill on June 16, 2016, 2:03 am

    This article is a very good refresher on the power of analogy, above and beyond it’s astute comparisons.
    Slightly OT, it seems beyond obvious to me that a single, equal state cannot be ‘jewish’ lest it become another middle-eastern theocracy. Zionists learned the wrong lesson from the holocaust: israel-palestine should be a state of and for refugees. It should not have an army, and advocate for an end to all armed conflict. It’s security guaranteed by its upholding of modern abrahamic ethical codes, and its existence secured by the death spasms of the military-industrial complex.

  4. JimMichie on June 16, 2016, 9:38 am

    “Are comparisons of South African apartheid and Israel useful?” Jon and Sean, I would suggest that, like me, there are many, many readers of Mondoweiss who know anything at all about the brutal, ruthless, racist, genocidal, ethnic cleansing, fascist Zionist Israel military occupation and rule of what little remains of Palestine wonder why some academic writers continue to raise question over whether Zionist Israel is “apartheid”, or racist.

    Permit me to suggest that those of us who have come to know about the horror of Zionist Israel’s 68 years of barbarism in the grand theft of the entire nation of Palestine, massacre and destruction of hundreds of Palestinian villages, along with wholesale violation of international law, the Fourth Geneva Convention and fundamental human rights find pieces like yours to be counterproductive in the longstanding global human rights cause for freedom, justice and equality of Palestinians.

    Further, permit me to suggest that the headline for your piece should read:

    Comparison of South African apartheid and Israel racism is useful

  5. Talkback on June 16, 2016, 11:44 am

    Jon Soske and Sean Jacobs: “The continued existence of almost three million refugees in surrounding countries is the direct result of …”

    … Israel’s Crime of Apartheid according to international law:
    “Any legislative measures and other measures calculated to prevent a racial group or groups from participation in the political, social, economic and cultural life of the country and the deliberate creation of conditions preventing the full development of such a group or groups, in particular by denying to members of a racial group or groups basic human rights and freedoms, including the right to … return to their country, the right to a nationality, … .”

  6. Henry Norr on June 16, 2016, 2:40 pm

    Good article, IMO – I just ordered their book. Among other things, I think this point is quite true, in my experience, and important:

    There is, for example, a tendency to exaggerate the impact of North American cultural and academic boycott. On occasion, US activists go so far as to suggest that the boycott movement itself brought about the end of apartheid—a position that comes dangerously close to white saviorism.

    On the other hand, I have to point out that (t least in this piece) the authors seem to share another blindspot of the US solidarity movement: overlooking the importance of the Cuban military intervention, specifically the defeat the Cubans inflicted on the South African “Defense” Force and its CIA-funded African allies at the battle of Cuito Cuanavale in Angola in 1987. That led not only to the withdrawal of the South African military from Angola, but also to also to the opening of the negotiations, under US auspices, that led to the fall of apartheid. As Nelson Mandela told the Cuban people when he traveled their in 1991,

    The decisive defeat of the aggressive apartheid forces destroyed the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressor. The defeat of the apartheid army served as an inspiration to the struggling people of South Africa. Without the defeat of Cuito Cuanavale our organizations would not have been legalized. The defeat of the racist army in Cuito Cuanavale made it possible for me to be here with you today. Cuito Cuanavale marks the divide in the struggle for the liberation of southern Africa. Cuito Cuanavale marksd an important step in the struggle to free the continent and our country of the scourge of apartheid.

    So maybe we could convince Raul Castro to send his military to the Middle East? Just kidding, of course, but we shouldn’t forget the role of military force in the outcome…

    • echinococcus on June 16, 2016, 10:32 pm

      Dunno, Henry. The Cubans would sure help a lot in the Middle East but they could help much more by intervening here in the States –after all, here is the source of almost all mayhem.

    • mcohen. on June 16, 2016, 9:17 pm

      jon s

      thanks for the link.good article and sums it up perfectly.the pro bds crowd took the bait and latched onto “apartheid” like fish in a barrel.

      • echinococcus on June 16, 2016, 10:42 pm


        Just curious: what is so special about fish in a barrel when, instead of getting shot and murdered defenceless like the Gaza population, they “latch onto smthg”? Or is this a well-known pan-Judaic idiom that proves the existence of a distinct Jewish culture, common among all Jews of all countries, that gives them a distinct language also in English?

        BTW, please convey my congratulations to Dr. Goebbels, who must be the real author of this “article”. Just declare the owners of the whole country “non-citizens” and everything is hunky-dory; Brooklynites can continue to rule the East.

      • Mooser on June 17, 2016, 12:11 am

        .“the pro bds crowd took the bait and latched onto “apartheid” like fish in a barrel.”

        You are right. More and more people will apply “apartheid” to Israel. Isn’t the Zionist name for it Hafrada or something?

  7. Seth Edenbaum on June 16, 2016, 5:35 pm

    The parallel is Liberia, where the immigrant/refugee population conquered and ruled under a Jim Crow system, for more than a hundred years.

  8. Ossinev on June 17, 2016, 10:13 am

    @jon s

    Always open to hearing and reading different views. The one you linked was an interesting variation on the “not apartheid” “no comparison with South Africa” etc meme. It comes from someone who was able to “emigrate” to Israel no doubt because of his 2000 yr , 3000 year , 4000 yr “birthright ” as a Jew (possibly like your good self ? ) unlike the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who were expelled forcibly from their NATIVE HOMELAND had their homes and lands stolen and who together with their children and grandchildren cannot return because the JEWISH STATE IN THE LEVANT is precisely that – a gruesome little cult colony based on APARTHEID principles which was designed,built and exists on the simple undeniable premise of being for Jews only. As for the incidental 20% of the population who are Arab they are there simply because logistically and diplomatically JSIL 48 couldn`t complete the Zionist untermenschen cleansing project. Further attempts to complete the project will no doubt come what with the emergence of the new generation of feisty QuasiNazis taking over the JSIL show led by their “patrician” head bouncer Lieberman.

    As for the situation in the Occupied Territories (oops sorry Judea and Samaria) somehow not being the equivalent and worse of Apartheid South Africa – you are pulling my plonker.

  9. dx on June 18, 2016, 4:49 am

    As an American, the bottom line for me: why is the American government supporting a government whose stated purpose is to maintain a religious and ethnic majority of one group over all others? Why are US tax payers protecting a foreign government–financially, militarily, and politically–that imposes ethnic and religious tests on the people it governs and controls? And in a presidential election season in which race and religion and bigotry have been recurrent themes and issues, why aren’t US journalists asking these questions?

    • philweiss on June 18, 2016, 8:11 am

      I agree that the explicit majority/demographics stuff ought to be a neon/vibrant scandal in the US discourse. Why more people cant talk about that is nuts

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