In recent years many attempts have been made to characterize Israel as an apartheid state. Statements to this effect have been more numerous lately in light of the recent outbreak of hostilities between Hamas and Israel. Tweets by well-intentioned as well as hostile politicians, and statements by guests on news and talk shows, repeated without any challenge by the hosts, speak to the manner that proponents of this view go to find a way to either attack the State of Israel, or to make it awkward and embarrassing for others to support Israel.
Often the accusers themselves appear to have no knowledge of what apartheid really was but use this accusation as a slur, an attempt to score points and embarrass Israel’s supporters, or influence persons who have no opinion about Israel. Or they see this accusation as a means to ingratiate themselves with others with whom they want to identify.
In their zeal to make this accusation stick what these misguided accusers are doing is in fact redefining apartheid to fit their narrow doctrinaire beliefs. They do this by observing Israel’s problems, then calling what they see as apartheid. Voilá! Apartheid has been redefined and Israel is now an apartheid State.
A brief overview of what apartheid was would be helpful in understanding why this accusation against Israel – and indeed if applied to any other country (except to pre-independence South Africa) – is totally and thoroughly false.
Apartheid was a system of repression imposed by a white minority against the black majority in South Africa before its independence in 1994. It was one of the most evil systems of domination in the world, based on racial differences – almost entirely based on skin color – and ethnic origins. It was supported by a complicated system of laws and enforced by a massive security force of national and secret police.
The word ‘apartheid’ comes from the Afrikaans language but it is not easy to translate. Its literal translation ‘apartness’, does not capture the essence of what it was. Rather, its true meaning comes from an understanding of everything that it represented to the population that it impacted. Here in brief are some of what constituted Apartheid.
- The ‘Race Classification’ laws. These were laws that separated the whole population into different racial groups – Whites, Blacks, Coloreds (in South Africa, people with both white and black ancestors), and Indians. Later more groups were included in this classification.
- Enforced segregation of races and ethnic groups. There was a large body of laws, strictly applied, which prevented mixing of the racial groups, including laws prohibiting different groups from living in the same areas.
- ‘Separate Education.’ Schools for blacks were totally separated from those for whites. Black schools were poorly funded, small, with many students in each class, located in the extremely poor areas where blacks were allowed to live, and far from the major cities. In short, for blacks, few schools, many students, few resources, and a very low level of education.
- Non-participation in Government. Non-whites could not serve in the government. Only whites could elect legislators and be elected to parliament, a parliament that made the laws that applied to every group.
- The ‘Petit Apartheid’ laws. For blacks, these laws mandated a life devoid of any social relationships, sexual relations (enforced by a draconian ‘Immorality Act’) and cultural relationships with whites. It denied blacks the ability to attend churches, public pools, concerts, cinemas, dance clubs, etc. set up for whites, or even the right to consume alcohol, among other things.
- ‘Pass’ laws and laws imposing where blacks could work and live. This was so extensive that I will only mention one of the consequences. In white areas, blacks employed as maids and ‘servants’ to whites (and nearly all white households did employ one or more blacks as such) needed a ‘pass’ (a special identity card) to engage in such work. Since normally blacks would need to be out of white areas before dark, with a ‘pass’ most were permitted to live on their employers’ properties, in one-room quarters, totally separated from their employers’ homes. In this way, black families were split up as only the employed parent with a pass was permitted to live this way in the white areas. Husbands and wives would not be permitted to live together, nor could their children live with the employed parent but were forced to live miles away.
There were many other degradations of apartheid. But the most important thing I want to stress here is that apartheid was not just one or a few of some of these policies. No! Apartheid was and is all of them.
If one wants to accuse a state of being an apartheid state, one cannot just pick and choose which attribute of apartheid to use and choose to ascribe to the word. Doing so is only designed to promote a political agenda, to try to gain recognition for a cause, to make allies among other like-minded individuals, and so on. A state either includes all attributes or it is not an apartheid state.
Considering the plethora of problems in countries the world over, if one were to be allowed to pick and choose, then nearly all could be called apartheid states. Doing so is an insult to the blacks in South Africa who suffered terribly under the apartheid system, and also an insult to the memories of those whites, blacks, and others, who died in the struggle against apartheid.
Choosing a subset of offenses, real or imaginary, to describe apartheid, is no less than redefining apartheid to serve an agenda. It is a kind of apartheid revisionism, that only serves the interests of the accusers, often with no basis in reality, an accusation made to score points and to co-opt for a cause a well-intentioned public by the use of slogans.
Calling Israel an apartheid state is a hoax. Words matter. History matters.