There was a time when such comparisons would have made them very defensive, even angry. After all, having grown up in apartheid South Africa before leaving for Israel, they had witnessed institutionalized racism and discrimination up close. They knew what it was, they could say with authority, as well as what it was not.
True, the Israeli occupation was not a pretty situation. True, it raised many moral and ethical dilemmas. And true, it often challenged their deep-seated beliefs in equality and justice – beliefs born out of their exposure to a system that was inherently unequal and unjust.
But comparing Israel to an apartheid state?
Apartheid, these South African immigrants would explain, was a system based on different classes of citizens living within one sovereign state. It was a system of discrimination based on skin color. And it was a system in which a small minority ruled a majority. None of these descriptions, they would argue, applied to Israel.
But that was before there was serious talk in Israel about annexing parts of the West Bank. Given the likely ramifications of such a move, these South African immigrants now find themselves having a harder and harder time rejecting the apartheid analogy.
“There is a big difference between de facto annexation – which many would say is the situation today – and de jure annexation,” says Gideon Shimoni, professor emeritus of Jewish history at the Hebrew University and a leading authority on South African Jewry.
“The minute it becomes statutory, then you have created exactly what characterized the South African system: two systems of law, and populations with different rights,” he says. “It doesn’t really matter that in South Africa it was based on race and here it’s based on a national distinction, because by now it’s already accepted in the world that anything that involves the discrimination of one population by another – that’s considered apartheid.”
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Under the de facto situation, Shimoni notes, Israel could always claim it was waiting for the right opportunity to work out a deal with the Palestinians. “But once you annex territory, it becomes like it was in South Africa. You have closed the window on something happening that could lead to a fair settlement with the Palestinians, enabling their self-determination in some meaningful form.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had set July 1 as his target date for moving forward with annexation, but that date has come and gone with no plan of action announced. Despite being warned against unilateral moves by numerous world leaders, Netanyahu has said he will continue to discuss annexation plans with the U.S. administration. Under the so-called deal of the century, announced by the Trump administration in January, Israel would have U.S. approval in principle to annex 30 percent of the West Bank, including the main settlement blocs and the Jordan Valley.
The Palestinian state envisioned on the remainder of the territory, according to this plan, would consist of numerous autonomous enclaves – reminiscent of the Bantustans, or black homelands, that existed in apartheid South Africa.
Born and raised in Johannesburg, Shimoni, 83, immigrated to Israel in 1961. Like many of his fellow South Africans who came on aliyah at the time, he says, the motive for leaving was not so much escaping apartheid as it was old-fashioned Zionism.
Many of these young South African Jews, who emigrated in the 1960s and ’70s, were graduates of the labor-affiliated Habonim youth movement and identified with parties on the Israeli left. It was common for them to spend their first years in Israel on kibbutzim.
“Like many people with my background, I felt alienated in South Africa,” Shimoni recounts. “But I never dreamed I’d see the day when I would have that same sense of alienation here in Israel.”
That sentiment was echoed in an essay published in The Atlantic last week by Israeli author and journalist Hirsch Goodman.
“As much as I hated apartheid, fighting it was not my cause,” wrote Goodman, who emigrated in 1965. “For me, South Africa was an accident of birth, not my country. From an early age I saw Israel as my home, the light at the end of the tunnel. It promised identity, freedom of speech, international acceptability – not a pariah state, but a thriving democracy – and the challenge of building a new society with healthy values: a light unto the nations.
“That light will be dimmed for me if the annexation goes through,” he warned, “and I find myself back in a country that practices discrimination and inequality as policy.”
Change of heart
It’s still not clear what Netanyahu means when he talks about annexation – or, as he prefers to describe it, “extending Israeli sovereignty” to territory captured in the 1967 Six-Day War. Would Palestinians living in the annexed territories be granted full rights, for example? Nor is it clear whether Netanyahu will even move ahead with the plan, amid growing opposition from both outside and inside Israel. Indeed, many of the settlers themselves are opposed to the plan as it requires Israel to grant the Palestinians some form of statehood in exchange.
“When people talk about annexation, I wonder what that means for Palestinians who are going to be in those annexed territories,” says Max Moss, 75, who grew up in Cape Town and came to Israel at 17 to join the army. “Are they going to become Israelis with equal rights, or will they be like Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, who don’t have full rights? I, for one, am not interested in an Israel where we have a growing population of people who are of a different class than we are.”
As someone who has long rejected analogies between Israel and apartheid South Africa, Moss indicates that he may be having a change of heart. “If one wants to call that apartheid,” says the retired software specialist, “then call it apartheid.”
He agrees with Shimoni that de jure annexation carries much greater risks for Israel than the current de facto situation. “At the moment, Israel is seen as an occupying power, ostensibly interested in making peace one day. And as such, we’re still part of the family of nations,” says Moss, who lives in Ra’anana, where he heads the local Conservative-Masorti congregation.
“But when we take a unilateral step and annex territory, the world will say that we’re no longer interested in coming to the negotiating table and looking for a peaceful settlement, and that all we’re interested in is a land grab. I fear we’re going to become, as South Africa was, a pariah state in many respects.”
Jonathan Zausmer, 66, doesn’t believe Israel fits the description of an apartheid regime “one for one.” He admits, however, that “it’s getting to a situation where it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, and so on and so forth.”
Should Israel move ahead with annexation, warns Zausmer, who moved to Israel from Cape Town in 1977, “that would definitely bring us far closer to the definition of apartheid.”
He adds: “The main problem here is the unilateral nature of the decision. Anything not done in the framework of dialogue is bound to cause huge amounts of trouble. We had a similar situation in South Africa when the government declared various Bantustans as homelands. It was all artificial. These were places where blacks lived in incredible poverty, and not one country in the world recognized these unilaterally declared homelands.
“If you look at the maps included in the Trump plan, there would be similar enclaves set aside for the Palestinians, and I see this as the beginning of a process whereby the Jewish state disappears and morphs into a South Africa-type situation,” Zausmer says.
For this reason, he says, he is “horrified” by the prospect of annexation. “Many Israelis from South Africa, like myself, never dreamed we’d see the day when South Africa would become a democracy,” says Zausmer, a business consultant who lives in Kochav Ya’ir, a town in central Israel. “But we also never dreamed that we’d see Israel as an infinite occupying power over another people with so many similarities to the place we came from.”
Originally from Johannesburg, Pamela Bethlehem, 76, moved to Kibbutz Tzora, near Jerusalem, as a young newlywed. She was a fierce opponent of the Israeli occupation “from day one,” she says.
“I do believe there are similarities with apartheid,” says Bethlehem, who now lives in Haifa and worked at Microsoft for many years. “Apartheid is segregation and discrimination by decree, and occupation is a policy of segregation.”
Although she’s not sure much will change on the ground if Israel does move forward with annexation, she fears the situation could become worse from at least one perspective: “I don’t think there will be any hope then – not that there is much today – for a two-state solution.
“I find the whole situation so disturbing,” she adds. “Not the least because it’s so reminiscent of what we grew up with in South Africa.”
‘No apartheid in the West Bank’
According to Telfed, the Israeli branch of the South African Zionist Federation, an estimated 25,000 South African Jews live in Israel today. Unlike those who came in the ’60s and ’70s, a large share of the immigrants arriving in recent, post-apartheid years have tended to be Orthodox and supporters of the settlement movement.
Prof. Bernard Lerer, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, does not hold views typical of those who came when he did in the early ’70s. A resident of the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut, he says it is “inaccurate, unfair and wrong” to use the term apartheid to describe either the current situation in the West Bank or the situation that would develop under annexation.
“There is no apartheid in the West Bank,” Lerer insists. “There is a situation in the West Bank whereby steps need to be taken to avoid terrorist attacks, and these have resulted in certain measures that do limit the freedom of movement of Palestinians. But on the other hand, the freedom of movement of Israelis living in the West Bank is also limited.” He notes, for example, that Israelis are prohibited from entering sections of the West Bank, known as Area A and Area B, that are predominantly under Palestinian control.
Apartheid, he says, was a system based on a belief that Blacks were an inferior race and did not deserve full rights. “They were not allowed to sit on the same benches as whites, they were not allowed to live in the same areas as whites, and they were not allowed to have sexual relations with whites,” says Lerer, 71. “That was apartheid. There is no apartheid in the West Bank.”
He says he would support annexation as long as Palestinians living in the annexed areas received full civil rights.
The late Arthur Chaskalson, president of the Constitutional Court of South Africa from 1994 to 2001 and chief justice from 2001 to 2004, was the best man at Shimoni’s wedding. The two remained close friends long after Shimoni left South Africa for Israel and would often meet up on his frequent visits back to his homeland.
“Every time we’d get together, we’d often have discussions about where the solution would come first – in South Africa or Israel,” Shimoni recounts. “Arthur was optimistic and believed that apartheid would end in South Africa before we had a solution to the conflict here. I mistakenly always took the opposite position. As a strong Zionist who believed in the Jewish people and its morality, I thought South Africa would never break out of apartheid, but that in Israel we would reach a settlement with the Palestinians.”
“How wrong I was,” he laments. “How wrong I was.”