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Would Israelis Know How to Recognize Apartheid?

Yuli Novak
Yuli Novak
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A Palestinian demonstrator holds portraits of Nelson Mandela and Yasser Arafat before an Israeli soldier in a weekly demonstration against Israel's separation barrier, in the West Bank, Dec. 6, 2013.
A Palestinian demonstrator holds portraits of Nelson Mandela and Yasser Arafat before an Israeli soldier in the West Bank, Dec. 6, 2013.Credit: AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed, File
Yuli Novak
Yuli Novak

Before engaging in the discussion of whether or not there’s an apartheid regime here, I suggest we ask ourselves a different question: If we were genuinely privileged subjects in an apartheid regime, would we be capable of recognizing it?

After years of studying and getting familiar with the way in which such a regime’s rationale acts on one’s soul and mindset, I am certain that it’s impossible to fathom what apartheid means without taking into account two of its essential components: fear and blindness. These components are so basic to this regime that when you live in its shadow, any thought, idea or conversation are necessarily tainted by them. Apartheid as a type of regime, as a rationale driving a state’s apparatus, is a sophisticated trap that grips all its subjects, even the ones benefiting from an inherent advantage.

The apartheid regime in South Africa was created by white Afrikaners on the backdrop of a national narrative of annihilation and heroism. In their narrative, the conquering British tried, cruelly but unsuccessfully, to exterminate them. Indeed, at the beginning of the 20th century, the British built the first concentration camps in history, in which families of Boers, as Afrikaners were called before their national identity was formed, were left to die of hunger or disease. The establishment of the apartheid regime in South Africa was for Afrikaners a continuation of the expression of their right to self-determination and to an independent national existence in their homeland. No less importantly, apartheid was the political response they found to their “demographic problem.” In 1952, an Afrikaner journalist explained the background for the establishment of a regime embracing spatial and legal segregation. “Like the Jews in Palestine and the Muslims in Pakistan, Afrikaners did not fight for liberation from British dominion only to find themselves ruled by another majority.”

The plans of the South African regime for dividing the space, by erecting Bantustans slated to become autonomous over time, as well as the promotion of a policy of “separate development” for different ethnic communities allowed liberals to live in peace with the idea of “apartheid,” or separateness. They didn’t see themselves as racists and did not consider apartheid to be something bad or anti-democratic. For many of them, South Africa with its apartheid regime was the only democracy in Africa, a model of a well-ordered state, with a fast-developing economy and the strongest army on the continent, to which all 18-year-olds enlisted proudly in order to fight just wars, essential ones, with surrounding countries. They had much to be proud of, and even more to be afraid of. When whites in South Africa looked at post-colonization processes in other African countries, they were horrified. They were convinced that if the black majority assumed power in South Africa, this would signal their end. Apartheid was their way of preserving a white majority, by dividing up the space.

Fear was the glue that held the South African regime together. Under apartheid, fear was the driver of a chain of justifications, leading to obliviousness. Fear was what classified any idea that deviated from the basic premises as “unfounded.” Have we mentioned “trap?”

In the face of such sophistication, a new kind of courage was required, an emotional, not just an intellectual one, a courage guided by sincerity. As a first step, it’s necessary to face that fear, instead of reacting from a position of fear. When I dare ask myself what is so frightening about thinking of ourselves, of Israel, as an apartheid state, I identify within myself different types of intermingled fears.

A clash of identities is the basic and primary fear. I was born to be a Zionist Israeli. What does it mean to face the fact that Israel’s regime, the framework in which I was raised and educated, and which always provided me with security, is like that? What does it say about me? What does it say about the five years I served in the army of a regime that has no legitimacy? What does it say about “our” Supreme Court? What does it say about the school system in which I studied? In fact, the realization gradually dawned on me that almost everything I’ve done in my life was steeped in that poison, in that regime-associated toxicity. That is truly frightening!

And from identity we move to costs: These include costs already paid for in order to keep the narrative intact and the losses and sacrifices, ours and those of previous generations, and the ones yet to be incurred. Because if we admit to ourselves that Israel’s regime is truly an apartheid one, then people dedicated to democratic values have two options. They either have to fight for a change of regime while forgoing the inbuilt advantages it bestows on them, or to recognize that they are part of an unjust and cruel system, while choosing to continue living this way. Both options are scary. For me, one of them is far scarier.

The fear is there. It’s not going anywhere. But does it have to sustain the blindness? What if that fear doesn’t protect us, only imprisoning us in a trap that doesn’t permit one to imagine a different political reality? For example, a reality in which a change of Israel’s regime does not lead to a national defeat? Or a reality in which we continue to live here, between the Jordan River and the sea, in a democracy in which there are no advantages bestowed on Jews. Or on men. Or on white people. In other words, a regime of the kind that lies beyond the limits of a political imagination dictated by apartheid.

Yuli Novak was the executive director of Breaking the Silence. She has recently published a book [in Hebrew] called “Who Do You Think You Are?”

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