The Unbecoming Appropriation of “Apartheid”

Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), an organization that consistently preaches anti-Semitism on college campuses, frequently compares the security situation in Israel to South African apartheid. Anti-Israel propagandists use images of the security barrier and the checkpoints to demonize Israel as an “occupying power” and to equate it to one of the worst instances of state-sponsored segregation in the 20th century. The comparison is seen as so atrocious that even citizens of South Africa find it morally reprehensible.

“The comparison is disgusting,” says Nkosi Kennedy, a native of Johannesburg. “It brings out the emotions and the trauma that South Africans do not wish to revisit and does so in a very unacceptable way.”

Kennedy represents the first generation in his family in over a century not to live under the brutal regime that separated people on the basis of skin color. His grandfather and father, for example, were born in one-room shacks because the apartheid regime did not allow black South Africans into hospitals. Those were reserved for the white minority.

“My entire family was oppressed throughout the apartheid era and my parents were freedom fighters. The stories they tell about the brutal oppression and the poverty levels they faced are incomparable to what is happening in Israel,” Kennedy continues.

Kennedy’s parents were politically active and took part in active protests against the apartheid system. He grew up hearing about the brutal conditions his family and his people went through, as well as learning the story of how the African National Congress (ANC) eventually brought down the state-sponsored segregation. For him, even though he was born during the twilight years of the regime, he knows what separates the former reality in South Africa to the current situation in Israel and the disputed territories.

The purpose of the security barrier in Israel is to prevent terrorist attacks from occurring in Israel following the Second Intifada. According to the Jerusalem Institute for Justice, the barrier decreased the number of murders from 2002 to 2009 by 99.8%. Anti-Israel propagandists, like SJP, tend to use pictures of the security barrier, particularly the walls, which only constitute approximately 4 percent of the entire barrier, as a depiction of “apartheid” in Israel. When Nkosi heard about SJP’s tactics, he was shocked over the outrageous comparison.

“The first time I heard the comparison between Israel and apartheid was three years ago, when I came back to South Africa from school,” Kennedy expounded. “One of the girls who I went to high school with was active on the political left and she told me that she was organizing a rally against ‘apartheid’ in Israel.”

“Having gone to an international school in the United States, I would have known if there was any international condemnation of any legitimate charges of apartheid happening in Israel” Kennedy continued. “I honestly believe that people are trying to make that comparison to stir up emotions, but they are using my people’s traumatic experiences to their own benefit. It is disgraceful to those who actually fought against apartheid in my country.”

Nkosi explained that since apartheid, South Africa has been a beacon of light to the freedom of expression in the African continent. Like a phoenix from the ashes, the South African nation emerged from an atrociously segregated nation into what South Africans proudly call, “The Rainbow Nation.” The political climate changes constantly, due to the presence of multiple political parties, and it fosters a place where different ideologies about various topics are brought to national attention. Though Archbishop Desmond Tutu has taken a very anti-Israel stance over the last decade, Kennedy claims that he does not represent the mainstream opinion of Israel.

“There are many views on Israel in South Africa, but it is important for South Africans to understand the complexity of Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Self-determination is a huge part of the struggle for both sides and it is not fair to label one side as the oppressor. It is more nuanced than that.”

Kennedy further explained that much of his views on Israel came from Nelson Mandela’s teachings about acceptance, the right of self-determination, and the importance of making peace with those who you saw as enemies. He believes that the only way that there will be peace between Israel and the Palestinians is when both sides come to an agreement that each nationality has the right to exist and that all of the violence and terrorism must come to an end.

“Anybody who uses Mandela’s words as a rationale for denouncing and eliminating the Jewish people’s right of self-determination does not know what Madiba fought for all of his life,” Kennedy affirmed. “I believe that mutual acceptance of both sides’ right to self-determination is vital to creating an ever-lasting peace. This ‘Israeli apartheid’ comparison does the opposite. This propaganda needs to stop.”

Asked if he had a statement for everyone regarding the comparison between South African apartheid and Israel, Nkosi said the following: “You should not draw on past emotions and past catastrophes to build a case. By using words out of context to evoke emotions, you are undermining the movers who got past the [apartheid] struggle. Learn from the past, but do not bring it up as a means of exacerbating the conflict.”

Note: Nkosi’s name has been changed to protect the privacy of his family. 

About the Author
Elliott Hamilton is a JD/MPH candidate at Boston College Law School and Tufts University School of Medicine. He was credited as a researcher in the 2016 film "Hate Spaces: The Politics of Intolerance on Campus."