‘Apartheid’ was the term introduced by white supremacists in South Africa to describe an ideology aimed at ensuring white domination by keeping blacks and whites separated in all walks of life. Whites were protected in their privileged status by a forest of legislation: blacks had no vote, they were blocked from certain jobs, restricted to living in certain areas, denied educational opportunities and consigned to ill-health and poverty through the allocation of inferior resources.
Legislative measures and social attitudes went hand in hand to promote the fantasy of ‘separate development’ until eventually, towards the end of the twentieth century, the ground shifted and reality began to shine through. Apartheid was seen to be unworkable, both as an ideology and a political doctrine. The blight which had settled over that country for hundreds of years was finally lifted and the task of reconstruction and repair could begin within an integrated society.
Apartheid in practice is deservedly dead today, but it lives on as a symbol, capturing the folly in the belief that communities living in the same country can be forcibly separated to the benefit of one and the detriment of the other.
Unfortunately, the term has become weaponised in the Israeli context. It is now being used as a stick with which to beat Israel, a blanket term implying condemnation of an entire nation with the intention of turning it into a pariah state in the eyes of the international community.
It would be easy to respond with a knee-jerk defence – that Israel, whatever the failings of its government, is a democratic state, accorded legitimacy in 1948. But it is virtually impossible to distinguish between well-intentioned criticism of certain policies and malevolent attacks on the state designed to dispossess and even destroy the country’s Jewish population. These attacks merge into worldwide antisemitism, with enough of a history to sensitise Jews to the hazards of taking any steps which might weaken their status, whether within Israel or beyond its borders. Israel was created as a haven after centuries of persecution and attempts to eradicate the Jewish people. Through force of circumstance Israel has become a fortress. strengthened internally by democratic structures within which its citizens, Jews and Arabs alike, wrestle with the problems of co-existence.
The ‘apartheid’ epithet is unhelpful at best, dangerous at worst. It is both inaccurate and inflammatory and it serves only to undermine the efforts of those who are trying to address the problems of discrimination and prejudice within Israel. South Africa has broken free from the shackles of apartheid. Like any other country, it still has its racists, but the country as a whole has moved on. The application of the apartheid label to Israel not only does injury to the truth but makes a peaceful solution more remote.