Israeli Policy Is Not Apartheid

Saying it is apartheid may alleviate the frustrations of those who hate occupation, but it's completely inaccurate, insults South Africans, and feeds Israel's most hate-filled enemies.

Benjamin Pogrund
Benjamin Pogrund
The separation fence as it passes through Qalqilyah.
The separation fence as it passes through Qalqilyah. Credit: Alex Levac
Benjamin Pogrund
Benjamin Pogrund

"Israeli policy is what it is: apartheid," writes Bradley Burston (Haaretz, August 21, 2015). It's clearly a cry from the heart in conveying his feelings about Israel. He should, however, also apply his mind. If he did, he would know that applying the word "apartheid" to Israel is both factually wrong and politically naive.

Burston is not alone. He reflects the despair evident among Israel's left-wingers. They face a right-wing government moving inexorably ever-more to the right and supported by a majority of voters. They do not know what to do. In their impotence and confusion they thrash around trying to find ways of countering the horrible things they see being done and come up with what they think is the answer: "It's apartheid!"

Apartheid – the Afrikaans word for apartness – was a vile system of racial discrimination driven into every nook and cranny of South African society to subjugate the black majority. To apply it to Israel is deeply offensive, insulting to the people of South Africa who suffered under it, and is detached from reality. I say this as someone who was born in South Africa and spent 26 years there as a journalist investigating, reporting and analyzing apartheid. During the nearly 18 years I have since lived in Israel, I have been involved in dialogue across lines of division.

What Burston insists is apartheid are the actions of a right-wing government behaving like a right-wing government.

Declaring that stone-throwing is terrorism, as Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked does, is not apartheid; nor is the new law to impose up to 20 years' imprisonment for stone-throwing. Instead, they have everything to do with Israel's occupation of the West Bank and the resulting Palestinian resistance.

Stone-throwing can be life-threatening (I have personal knowledge: I was twice a victim while a reporter in South Africa and am lucky to be able to tell of it) but if there are to be harsh penalties then rather than drag in an irrelevant apartheid label, ensure that Palestinian and Jewish perpetrators are equally subject to the full rigor of the law.

Despite what Burston says, appointing Danny Danon as ambassador to the United Nations has nothing to do with apartheid. It's more likely that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to get rid of a pesky Likud opponent. Linking it to apartheid elevates a crass and unintelligent appointment into something that it isn't.

Nor is it apartheid when fundamentalist clergy spearhead segregation, supremacism and prejudice. Instead, look at the questionable nature of the Judaism they preach and the abject failure of Israel's Chief Rabbinate as a whole to offer guidance in the difficult moral situations in which Israelis find themselves.

Nor is the new law to allow force-feeding of detainees anything to do with apartheid. The controversial practice is not unique to Israel: the United States has used it as has the United Kingdom.

"Administrative detention" is not apartheid either. This euphemism for detention without trial might be acceptable in short-term emergency situations but it's beyond justification to have it as a permanent fixture of the law, with nearly 400 Palestinians said to currently be in prison without trial, some for years, and Jews now also being caught up. But rather than slickly using the false apartheid label, energy and effort should go into a public campaign to rein in this gross undermining of basic human rights.

Attacks by settlers on Palestinian lives and property are not apartheid, but another monstrous outcome of the occupation. The apartheid tag confuses and distracts. The West Bank, despite all that is cruel and unjust there, lacks the pervasive institutionalized racism that was the basis of apartheid South Africa. Rather than labeling the occupation with an inaccurate, inflammatory title, call it what it really is – tyranny, oppression – and focus on getting rid of it.

Burston is correct on one point: the call by Likud's Avi Dichter for separate, segregated roads for Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank could take us down the slippery slope to apartheid. Yes, an argument could be made in the (sacred) name of security, as has been done before, but this is getting into problematic territory. Last October separate buses for Jews and Arabs were announced, but the attorney-general immediately stepped in and the plan came to nothing. It should stay that way.

The danger in accusing Israel of apartheid as an expression of domestic left-wing despair is that it provides a platform to the country's most hate-filled enemies. They aim to have Israel declared as apartheid – and pariah state, as was South Africa at its worst – and subjected to international isolation and boycott. Do Israeli left-wingers realize which crocodile they are feeding?

South Africa does offer one valid comparison: during the more than four decades of apartheid, the white government's majority increased in election after election. Opponents felt helpless to stem the tide. But they stood firm and went on believing in a nonracist and democratic South Africa. And of course, apartheid did eventually fall.

For Israel too: the left must remain unflinchingly committed to core beliefs of Zionism and democracy and freedom for Palestinians, best seen in a two-state solution. In Afrikaans, they must "Hou moed, hou koers" – "Keep strong, stay on track."

Benjamin Pogrund's "Drawing Fire: Investigating the accusations of apartheid in Israel" is published by Rowman & Littlefield, New York.

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