Israel, Democracy, and the Apartheid Myth

By Saks, David | Midstream, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Israel, Democracy, and the Apartheid Myth


Saks, David, Midstream


In August-September 2001, the United Nations' World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance took place in the South African coastal city of Durban. It proved to be a traumatic event for world Jewry. Not only was the event marred by grotesque displays of naked antisemitism, but it saw the most concerted campaign yet on the international stage to stigmatize Israel as an apartheid state, the successor to the despised white minority regime that had dominated South Africa prior to 1994.

The Israel=Apartheid accusation is a serious one. If Israel is indeed an apartheid state then, like its despised South African predecessor, its very legitimacy as a sovereign country is questionable.

Those committed to Israel's eradication as a sovereign, Jewish majority state are well aware of the important part a sustained international boycott campaign played in bringing down the original apartheid system. Through imposing the apartheid label, they are seeking quite clearly to turn Israel into a pariah state in the same way as happened with white South Africa. What is now at stake, therefore, is not the acceptability of this or that Israeli policy, nor is it about the future status of territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War. The very right of Israel to exist at all is being called into question--in the United Nations, within many NGOs that label themselves as "human rights" organisations, within a growing sector of the international media, and on university campuses.

The campaign to portray Israel as an apartheid state employs a number of strategies. One is to ignore, or at best downplay, the many obvious differences that exist between apartheid South Africa and modern-day Israel, especially when these reflect any kind of credit on the latter. A second is to hone in on Israel's failings and systematically exaggerate them, while neglecting to subject the Palestinians and its other Arab neighbors to anything like the same kind of critical scrutiny. Another effective ploy is to deliberately blur the widely differing circumstances that exist in Israel proper and in the territories captured by Israel in the 1967 war, with the extraordinary wartime conditions prevailing in parts of the latter being wrongfully depicted as applying to the whole of Israeli society.

Finally, one finds the shameless repetition of half-truths and frequently downright falsehoods (such as the oft-repeated "93% of Israel's land is restricted to Jewish settlement only"), combined with the misuse of out-of-date information and a refusal to recognize how Israeli society is in fact constantly changing in response to the moral and strategic challenges it faces.

What makes confronting the charge much more difficult is the fact that outside South Africa, few people have more than a general idea of what the apartheid system was all about. This makes foisting a generic "apartheid" label on any society one does not like all that much easier, since few are in a position to provide a point by point refutation of it. Defending Israel against this dangerous accusation therefore requires a detailed grasp of what apartheid actually was.

SO WHAT WAS 'APARTHEID'?

Pre-liberation apartheid South Africa was a society underpinned by legalized racial discrimination aimed at concentrating political and economic power in the hands of the white minority. Apartheid entailed the imposition of institutionalized race-based separation in every conceivable field, from the political arena to place of residence, citizenship, public amenities, education, politics, the labor market, and even the bedroom. The system blatantly discriminated in favor of the white minority ruling group, whether it related to land ownership, wage levels, employment opportunities, political rights, or the grossly unequal allocation of public resources. Non-whites lived in a legislative strait:-jacket, their every movement controlled by patently iniquitous laws, and their natural desire to better themselves deliberately hamstrung by a system that explicitly aimed at keeping them in a state of permanent subservience. …

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