Is Israel Apartheid a too simplistic analogy?

The Apartheid analogy is useful in describing what is occurring in Israel today. One cannot remain silent when pictures of Arab children massacred by the IDF find historical resonance in similar pictures taken during our own struggle. The tragic portrait of Hector Peterson is but one example. Unfortunately, like any analogy, the use of an emotive term such as apartheid is open to abuse, the more so when those who deploy the term, move from simple analogy to an outright revision of the historical record.

Blaming Jews for apartheid, like blaming Africans for slavery, is a form of apartheid denial which obliterates the memory of those most affected by the system of race segregation. A system which came about because of racist laws enacted under a Christian government. The role of the Dutch Reformed Church/Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk (NGK) in the creation of the apartheid system is well documented by scholars and formed part of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission Faith Communities hearings into the subject.

If the situation was 100% analogous to the South African situation, and anywhere correct from a semantic and heuristic point of view, both the PLO and Hamas would have a Freedom Charter guaranteeing rights for all, whether Jew or Arab. No such charter exists, instead, both organisations have highly inflammatory founding documents that are a far cry from the civil rights articles formulated in our own country, at Kliptown.

The founding documents of Hamas, for example, call for the subjugation of Jews, the total destruction of the Jewish state, and its replacement by an Islamic Republic. Israel, on the other hand, has an “emergent” constitution which still has a long way to go before it ranks in terms of our own constitution which guarantees human rights for all.

Calling what is happening in Israel and the “occupied territories” a civil rights struggle in the making is thus more accurate than abusing a term which inevitably ends up by denigrating the memory of the victims and survivors of the apartheid system.

Many Jews for instance were active in the civil rights movement, and are vocal supporters of the Communist Party and ANC. Jews were imprisoned alongside Mandela during the Treason Trials and are found on the left as much as the right, as is the case with any religious grouping. Instead of banding around apartheid terminology, we must therefore take care to distinguish the facts on the ground in the Middle East, unpacking what is similar from what is actual reality.

We must also remember Jews are a threatened minority group in South Africa, comprising less than 1% of the population. Despite this, our courts have consistently failed to protect diversity and divergence of opinion within the community (my own problems with Jazz discrimination at an apartheid media company is case in point ) —  typically, the corrupt legal system of South Africa can’t be bothered with such details and refuses to recognise the idiosyncracies of the Jewish religion — I am a progressive Jew not an Orthodox Jew.

It is arguable whether or not our own struggle has actually delivered tangible freedom and rights for the black majority as well as the minority of minorities — Progressive Jews. Despite a constitution which ostensibly grants freedom of belief and religion for all, we are lumped into the same category as Zionists and the Ultra-Orthodox. Has apartheid ended? Are we suffering from a collective delusion in forgetting the importance of minority rights?

While the black majority in South Africa has freedom of movement and association and may now purchase land anywhere in the world, no such universal rights exist for Jews. Many of the Arab states for example, forceably expelled their Jewish communities resulting in what is known as the Jewish refugee problem.

Although most “whites” in South Africa trace their descent from Europe, many as former “colonialists”, and Jews as relative newcomers from Eastern Europe were classified “white” under apartheid, this is not the case for Jews from Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Ethiopia, Yemen, and the Arab Peninsula where Jewish communities have an entirely different culture and heritage and are not considered European. Apartheid denialists thus seek to diminish the existence of black Jews and the role of assimilated, non-white “whites” in the South African struggle while insisting on the validity of the apartheid race classification system.

Since there are at least a quarter of a million black Ethiopian Jews, and 2.5 million Arab Jews living in Israel, admissions policies which give local communities autonomy in deciding who can and cannot settle in Israel are thus no more racist than similar admissions policies restricting immigration in our own and other countries.

The genocide of European Jews is often used by the right-wing to justify atrocities in the name of religion, undoubtedly Jews as a people have a right to self-determination, the more so in the light of the Holocaust. In contrast, the genocide of the Khoisan by Europeans as well as the Bantu has gone unnoticed in South Africa where whites own more than 60% of the land as a result of the 1913 Land Act. In Israel, the reverse is true and there have been no such race laws, rather expropriations of land in Jerusalem and occupation of land in the disputed territories are the basis for the ongoing conflict over borders since the “Jewish State” has yet to define its boundaries following the 1948 War of Independence.

The historical reality shows less than 30% of the former British Mandate of Palestine, a country created shortly after World War 1, currently under Israeli control, while the remaining 70% including the Kingdom of Jordan is in Arab hands. South Africa has abundant land available for redistribution, while this is not the case in the Levant.  Maps show Israel existing historically, on both sides of the Jordan river, thus an entirely different geographic problem prevails.

Many Israelis believe Jordan today, to be the Palestinian homeland, over 40% according to a poll conducted by the Christian Science Monitor. The country has exactly the same flag as the Palestinian flag, with the only real difference being the addition of a white star, denoting the Hashemite monarchy. In 1950 Jordan annexed the West Bank and East Jerusalem.  The country is home to some 2.6 million Palestinians and 1.5 million refugees from Palestinian West Bank and is 80% Palestinian Arab. The country later revoked citizenship of its West Bank refugees in order to prevent them from settling, using them as pawns in a power-play over control over precious land and natural resources in the Levant.

At no point has there ever been a separation barrier in South Africa. Apartheid instead used laws to segregate and de-emancipate people of colour. It oppressed black Christians as much as those from other groups who were not members of the NGK . The race-based political system denationalised non-Europeans and created bantustans which allowed Europeans to rule with impunity. This is precisely what the policies of Hamas and the PLO seek to do in their attempt to reclaim the Ottoman Empire (Turkey is a member of the European Union)  while delegitimising the state of Israel in order to seek control over 100% of the former British Mandate of Palestine.

Jordanian Flag

Flag of Palestine

How many Palestinian states does the world need? Why are their now three different Palestinian entities – Jordan, Gaza and West Bank? Are we not seeing the tragic result of the United Nation’s sponsored balkanisation of the Middle East?

Unlike the current Palestinian-Israel conflict, the freedom struggle in South Africa aimed to unify all South Africans under a common Bill of Rights. All the land was to be shared by all the people. It sprung into motion upon the motivation for class solidarity and equality for all and was not overly characterized by separatist calls for independence and self-determination by ethnic groups. This is why South Africa now has 11 official languages.

While the adoption of Hebrew as the national language of Israel has overtones of Afrikaner Volkstaat, it is the universal civil rights struggle which is most pertinent to the problem in the Middle East today, not our country’s historical legacy of race laws. In particular it is religion not race which is the political and social determinant underpinning the conflict. As can be expected, Israel remains the sole Jewish state and it is this claim which needs to be examined if we are to understand the root cause of the problem.

Why are there 9 Roman Catholic nations in Europe and South America, 4 Eastern Orthodox  and 4 Lutheran in Europe and one Anglican country, the United Kingdom? Why are there 49 Muslim countries in which Muslims are in the majority?

Clearly, it is religious separatism which is the problem in Israel today. Yet calling this separatism, ‘religious apartheid’ results in a strange invective, in which one must undo history, first by denying the Covenant and then forgetting the  blood libel against the Jews, who were accused of murdering Jesus Christ during the Middle Ages.

Yes the Jewish religion has retained its tribal identification with the Israelites of the Old Testament and does not proselytise because of the historical journey over the eons in which Christianity and Islam gained the upper hand.

The accusation that Judaism is thus inherently racist, since it generally refuses to induct gentiles should be seen for what it is, the tragic result of ongoing anti-Semitism.

Let’s look at the problem from another angle:

Is it also not the case that those who are not Hebrew-speakers suffer the most from lower status in Israel? An Arabic speaker is more likely to be searched when stopped at a check-point than a Hebrew-speaker.

The Haredim, a particular sect of Rabbinical Judaism involved in a recent controversy surrounding gender segregation on a Jerusalem bus, illustrate the complex problems found in a quixotic nation that is avowedly all about protecting the religious and linguistic rights of its Jewish citizens to the detriment of other groups. While the controversy has called into question Israel’s claim to be a modern democracy, tolerant of diversity and expression, unlike its neighbours Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran, where no such freedom exists, the incident has more in common with the civil rights movement than the apartheid struggle.

If the apartheid analogy truly fitted as anything more than a metaphor, one would expect race not religion, (comprising gender and linguistic dimensions) to be the important deciding factor in discrimination, discrimination which, since it is religious in nature, is lawful by any standard. One might as well argue for changes in laws restricting non-Muslim access to Mecca, and yet Muslims are allowed to visit Jerusalem, a city which is holy to all three monotheistic religions.

Has the apartheid label been misappropriated? How useful  is the apartheid analogy when one constantly has to qualify it, with other terms that are more applicable to any analysis of the “holy land”, for example, religious apartheid?

As tragic as the 64 year old conflict is, and as terrible as the ongoing violence and aggression by religious fanatics on either side remains, the apartheid label does not serve as anything more than a metaphor, a loose analogy that expresses solidarity with an oppressed people in the face of military aggression.

We must therefore take care to avoid stripping it of its meaning, since doing so, destroys the historical narrative of those who directly experienced the apartheid system in South Africa.