“Apartheid,” used in reference to Israel, has become an accepted part of the American progressive vocabulary. For some, the term is a socially acceptable way to channel anti-Semitic—or at least anti-Zionist—impulses. For others, it is a form of virtue signaling. Recently, deep thinkers like Ilhan Omar, AOC, Cori Bush, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley have started making the apartheid claim, following the lead of the inevitable Peter Beinart. Also, some on the Jewish left—like the young activists who belong to If Not Now—are playing the apartheid card.
Those who label Israel an apartheid state (and actually think about what they’re saying) typically compare it to pre-1994 South Africa. Or they invoke the 1998 Rome Statute, which makes apartheid a crime against humanity. But both those arguments have been convincingly refuted. For example, the noted South African jurist, Richard Goldstone—not known for going easy on Israel or overlooking human rights violations—has stated: “In Israel, there is no apartheid. Nothing there comes close to the definition of apartheid under the 1998 Rome Statute: ‘Inhumane acts … committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.’” On the West Bank as well, Goldstone sees no violation of the Rome Statute. Nor does he think Israel bears a meaningful similarity to pre-1994 South Africa. Indeed, as Goldstone puts it, “those who conflate the situations in Israel and the West Bank and liken both to the old South Africa do a disservice to all who hope for justice and peace.”
Warren Goldstein, chief rabbi of South Africa, has written that the apartheid accusation “presents a grotesquely distorted picture of both South African history and the current reality in Israel.” The goal behind this slander, he maintains, is “to delegitimize Israel, to portray it falsely as a state founded on the cardinal sin of racism, thereby denying it the moral right to exist.” Moreover, he says, “[t]here can be no greater desecration of the memory of the victims of apartheid than ripping the word out of South African soil, detaching it from its original meaning, and weaponizing it in the cause of another form of bigotry.”
New York Times journalist Roger Cohen, who grew up in South Africa, has written: “I knew apartheid in South Africa. I saw how its implacable persecution was codified and applied. Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians does not constitute apartheid reborn in the Holy Land, whatever the echoes of it in the West Bank.” Cohen correctly argues that “Palestinians who are Israeli citizens, about 20 percent of the population, enjoy rights unthinkable in apartheid South Africa (and rare for minorities in the Middle East), even if discrimination and prejudice exist. They are represented in the Knesset and an Arab justice sits on the Supreme Court. Even in the occupied West Bank, where Palestinians are not citizens and humiliations commonplace, the systematic cruelty of apartheid—its disappearances and judicial hangings—is not the stuff of everyday life.”
It’s also important to note that the apartheid claim supports, and allegedly justifies, the B.D.S. movement. As Cohen writes, one of the movement’s aims is to “fight for the right of return of all Palestinian refugees.” And that would mean “the end of Israel as a Jewish state. This is the hidden agenda of B.D.S., its unacceptable subterfuge: beguile, disguise and suffocate.” Continuing, Cohen tells us: “Mellifluous talk of democracy and rights and justice masks the B.D.S. objective that is nothing other than the end of the Jewish state for which the United Nations gave an unambiguous mandate in 1947.”
Many American progressives need to think about these points. They should listen to those with first-hand knowledge of what apartheid really means. They should stop trying to reduce complex issues to bumper stickers. And they should consider that reasoned dialogue is usually better than inflammatory rhetoric.