Is Israel Really An Apartheid State?–One Black Man’s Perspective

I went to Israel for the first time in April 2018. It was an amazing trip. Israel is like one huge museum—almost everywhere you go, you are stepping into history. I had a great time, and I’d like to visit again some day. When I told my friends and family I would be going to Israel, some of them asked me if I wasn’t afraid of going to Israel because the Middle East is so “dangerous”. You know, with all the Arab-Israeli conflict etc. I shrugged their concern off by jokingly reminding them that, generally speaking, terrorists don’t take Black hostages. I mean, what would be the point of taking me hostage? Where’s the leverage or bargaining power in that? Can you imagine the US paying a ransom to get me-a Black man-back? If anything, I can imagine the US agreeing to pay a ransom on the condition that the terrorists keep me, and never send me back.   I am, of course, being facetious, but only partially.

As historic victims of oppression and discrimination, Black Americans are oftentimes viewed differently by non-Americans people the world over. What I mean by that is, Black Americans are sometimes viewed sympathetically by non-Americans. Non-Americans will often make a distinction between “Americans” (i.e. White Americans) and Blacks. For example, during the Vietnam War, it was common for the Vietcong to treat Black POW’s better than the White ones. The Vietcong would even place signs in the jungle addressed directly to Black American soldiers. The signs would say things like, “Negro, this is not your fight” etc. During the Vietnam War, several Black leaders, including Dr. King and Muhammad Ali, noted that America was sending Black people to fight Yellow people with whom they had no beef. Blacks were expected to fight, ostensibly to secure rights and liberties for the Vietnamese, that Black Americans themselves didn’t enjoy right here in America–their own country.  From the 1940’s to1960’s communist Russia used America’s Jim Crow as a persuasive device to woo African nations to join the Soviet Bloc. What Russia said to the African nations was basically this: take a look at how America treats her own Black citizens. If that’s how she treats her own Blacks, then what do you think America has in store for you?

Lest you assume that such thinking is a thing of the past, then let’s fast forward to the present. In June 2016, America experienced what was the worst mass shooting in its history at that time. A gunman killed 49 people in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. According to witnesses, the gunmen yelled out to terrified victims who locked themselves in a bathroom, “Are there any Black people in there?” A Black man in the bathroom yelled back that yes, there were 6 or 7 Blacks in the bathroom. The gunman then said, “I’ve got nothing against Black people. You all have suffered enough.” He didn’t kill those Black people. He chose to spare their lives. What’s amazing about this story isn’t just that a terrorist felt that Black Lives Matter, but that the terrified Black man hiding in the bathroom apparently knew intuitively that the shooter didn’t have a beef with Black people. How could he have known that? I’m guessing he figured it out because before the shooter asked if there were any Blacks in the bathroom, the victims heard the shooter call 911 and tell the operator that his motive for the shooting is that he wants America to stop bombing his country—Afghanistan.

Israel’s enemies are aware of the discrimination Blacks in America have suffered and continued to suffer. Those enemies have attempted to use Black Americans’ history of discrimination to curry favor with Black activists. Chief among Israel’s enemies’ claims is that Israel is an apartheid state. Calling Israel an apartheid state is an attempt to compare it to the racist policies of apartheid South Africa.   Israel is definitely not free of racial prejudice– as the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel can well attest to.  But calling it an apartheid state is a gross distortion and an unfair characterization. Comparing Israel to apartheid South Africa would be like comparing a paper cut to a slit wrist. In referring to Israel as an apartheid state, I think Israel’s critics forget that the racism of the apartheid policies of South Africa were in fact much more egregious than any other nation in the world at the time. That is precisely why the civilized world uniformly condemned South Africa’s apartheid. While in Israel, I was pleasantly surprised by the rainbow of diversity—including several people who looked Black like me. Israel has great horizontal diversity (letting people in), but admittedly, it still needs to improve its vertical diversity (letting people up). But that’s true of many other nations as well—racism is not unique to Israel, nor is the racism in Israel more acute than the racism of most other nations.  And when I say “other nations”, I’m including the Palestinians.  While in Israel I met four your Black men who told me they were Palestinians who lived in Jericho.  I had no idea that there were Black Palestinians.  Turns out there are some Black Palestinians.  They are a small minority, but they do exist.  And guess what else?  Black Palestinians complain that Arab Palestinians discriminate against them.  I bet the BDS movement doesn’t talk about that around the camp fire.

Meanwhile, the Klu Klux Klan and White Nationalist organizations are still active in America. Not to mention the discriminatory treatment that Black and Brown people in America still suffer at the hands of the police. Black and Brown communities have complained about police brutality for decades, but White America ignored us until recent years when police misconduct has been caught on video. Even in America—the freest and fairest nation on Earth, Black and Brown people need a videotape of our abuse in order for most Whites to take our complaints seriously.   Heck, I can’t even feel comfortable in a Starbucks anymore, ever since those young Black men were arrested for doing nothing other than merely being Black. What all of this means is that there are still certain parts of America where my physical safety will be at risk solely because I’m Black. I can’t say that about Israel. I know of no place in Israel where that is true.   I can, and did, walk around Israel without fear that I will be killed, kidnapped, or arrested solely because of my race. So for those who call Israel an apartheid state, I pose this question to you: if Israel is an apartheid state, then what should we call America?

About the Author
Patrick D. John is a Black Christian attorney living and working in Chicago, IL. He is a member of Chicago's Decalogue Society of Lawyers, and serves on its anti-Semitism committee. He believes that Christians should embrace the Jewishness of Jesus and speak up against anti-Semitism. He grew up for several years in Brooklyn, NY and completed his undergraduate education at the City College of NY in Harlem, where he majored in Urban Legal Studies and minored in Black Studies. Patrick is originally from Guyana, South America, a place of great religious diversity. Guyana celebrates the major religions of Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. Guyana's first female president was Jewish--Janet Jagan (f/k/a Janet Rosenberg).