Skip to content
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Deconstructing Apartheid Accusations Against Israel

Filed under: Anti-Semitism, Europe and Israel
Publication: Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism

  • The historical context of the Jewish-Arab conflict in the Middle East is fundamentally different from that between the whites’ Afrikaner ideology of apartheid and the blacks in South Africa. The latter was a system of discrimination and inequality based upon racial criteria; a system of domination by a minority over a majority and refusal to negotiate a bilaterally agreed solution. Furthermore, for Palestinians, violence aimed primarily at civilians has been the first choice for many decades, for the African National Congress it was the last resort and never aimed intentionally at the murder of civilians.
  • The accusation that Israel is an apartheid state is an insidious tool in the hands of those who deny the entitlement of Jews to a viable national home. The tool is so effective because it contains within it the precedent of the use of boycotts as a method of attack as was the case against apartheid South Africa.
  • Those who use the apartheid accusation employ the old anti-Zionist arguments. These constitute a multi-layered construct of fundamental ideological positions and analytical constructs, one of which is the purposeful displacement of the real nationalist context for historical comprehension of Zionism with the vilifying label of colonialism. Many anti-Zionists, but not necessary all of them, apply identifiable double standards of judgment to Israel traceable to the characteristic anti-Semitic premise that all things Jews do are inherently evil, including their nationalism.
  • Even Israel’s relinquishment of all of the occupied West Bank would not dispel the fallacious Israel=apartheid accusation because it is rooted in a priori denial of Jewish nationalist need and entitlement, proscription of the entire Zionist enterprise as loathsome colonialism, and false equation of the Jewish national purposes and symbols of the State of Israel with racism.

Deconstructing the False Equation

“The term ‘apartheid’ originated in South Africa to describe a policy that institutionalized separation and differential status of racially defined groups in order to maintain the White minority’s domination of South Africa’s non-white majority. Those who attack Israel as a so-called ‘apartheid’ state, give that term a meaning so broad that it is deprived of its original significance. This enables them to label as apartheid any controversial policy or action of Israel rather than comprehending it in the context of conflict situations and legitimate security needs.”

Professor (Emeritus) Gideon Shimoni is a former head of the Hebrew University’s Institute of Contemporary Jewry, and held the Shlomo Argov Chair in Israel-Diaspora Relations. One of his books deals with the Jewish community in apartheid South Africa.

“A foundational element of the false equation is the disingenuous transforming of the term ‘apartheid’ from the description of a singular historical phenomenon in a particular time and place – South Africa from about 1948 to 1994 – into a generic concept. This deceptive device functions much like use of the term ‘holocaust’ to describe any and all human disasters. It obscures apartheid’s constitutive core, racism, as well as its actual historical context, South Africa.

“Unfortunately, also some Israeli journalists, who are otherwise legitimately critical of certain policies, throw the word in loosely, generally as a warning as to what could become the reality if the areas under occupation remain permanently so without granting the vote to their Palestinian residents. Such loose usage of the term ‘apartheid’ thus provides a great service to those who are unconscionably hostile to Israel and use the apartheid charge to delegitimize her very existence.

“Former American President Jimmy Carter is one of those who use the word apartheid in an over-generic sense. In his book, Palestine: Peace not Apartheid  Carter in fact admits that he is not claiming that Israel practices apartheid but only that what is happening in the West Bank looks like it. Yet he chose to give the book a title that trumpets the stigmatic apartheid code-word. This attests to prejudice. As Alan Dershowitz commented, ‘Sometimes you can tell a book by its cover.’

“In deconstructing and refuting the application of the term apartheid to Israel one has primarily to address the criticism that comes from persons who constitute the liberal-minded public, many of whom are probably naïve, misinformed and misguided. There is a vast range of such people who are neither anti-Semites nor inveterately hostile to Israel.”

The Historical Context

Shimoni stresses that the historical context of the Jewish-Arab conflict in the Middle East is fundamentally different from that of apartheid South Africa.

“The contextual essence of the Palestine/Israel syndrome was not colonialism but rather a clash of nationalisms. In sharp contrast, the genesis of South African society was patently colonialist, in the definitive sense of involving colonization in the imperialist interests of external states, initially the Netherlands, later Britain.

“The role of nationalism in the further development of South African society was relatively limited, functioning primarily for mobilization of White Afrikaner ethnicity against British imperial control. The essence of the South African syndrome was thus never a clash of nationalisms, but rather the near absolute domination exercised by a racially defined minority (the Whites) over a racially defined majority of the population, which was denied the franchise and equal civic rights.

“By the same token, if one compares the historical experience of South Africa and Israel, the question is whether the valid paradigm is that of  conflict over equal, as opposed to unequal, human rights in a common society and polity, or rather over which national collective’s self-determination should have  precedence in a particular disputed territory?

“The answer is: the first paradigm is ontologically constitutive of the South African case, the second of the Israel case. In South Africa the essence of the struggle was for a shared civic society and for individual equality, whereas, the Israel-Arab conflict was and remains in essence a struggle between two nationalist aspirations for self-determination in the same territory. Hence the prospect for optimal resolution of the conflict diverges:  in the first case, marriage and sharing, in the second, divorce and dividing. Both require negotiation. Accordingly, the main obstacle to resolution of the Arab-Jewish conflict is rejection of territorial partition; the main obstacle to resolution of the conflict that developed in South Africa was apartheid.

“Another basic difference between the two historical contexts is the way in which the struggle of the ANC and the PLO was conducted. In South Africa the blacks started with a tradition of non-violent resistance. They tried in every peaceful way to argue their case, only turning to violence as a last resort, because the other side refused to negotiate. Even when the African National Congress (ANC) turned to violence, its nature was incomparable with the barbarically indiscriminate practice not only of the Hamas and the Islamic Jihad but even of the PLO. The ANC always tried not to harm civilians, and most of their attacks were against installations such as electricity pylons. Comparing the Palestinian struggle to that of the ANC is an absolute insult to the latter’s historical record.”

Palestinian Rejectionism

“The Palestinians have repeatedly rejected Jewish offers of a negotiated compromise.” Shimoni mentions a few examples: “They refused all possibilities that were proposed by segments of the Jewish community in the 1920s and 1930s. This included ideas of cantonization and bi-nationalism. In 1937 the Peel Commission came to the conclusion that the only possible settlement was on the basis of a partition plan. Its work is acknowledged by most historians familiar with the history of the period to have been the most fair-minded approach ever taken to dealing with the tragically unfolding Arab-Jewish conflict.

“The Jewish community, notwithstanding pain and internal conflict, basically accepted this approach. The Palestinians rejected it with the support of the entire Arab world. The same happened in 1947 with catastrophic consequences for themselves. Like the Peel Commission, the UN came to the same conceptual conclusion that partition was the only solution. The Jewish side accepted this and the State of Israel was established accordingly. The Palestinian side, supported by all Arab independent states, totally rejected the partition compromise and turned to warfare in order to efface the Jewish state.

“In 1967 another round of war was imposed upon Israel. Reacting pre-emptively to a grave existential threat, with astonishing success, Israel found itself in control of the Sinai Peninsula and the West Bank up to the Jordan River. After the Six-Day War, eight Arab heads of states met in Khartoum, Sudan and resolved ‘no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it.” When asked whether he knows of any people other than the Arabs who – when defeated – refused to negotiate even to get back land which had been lost in a war of their own choosing Shimoni answers, “I don’t know whether there are any.”

He observes: “Later the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) did undergo a change of mind or strategy which resulted in the Oslo agreements of 1993. In the year 2000 Prime Minister Ehud Barak went further than any other Israeli leader in offering a negotiated compromise, again on the basis of a partition arrangement. Its essence was the acceptance in principle that there would be a Palestinian State alongside a Jewish state. When it came to the crunch, however, Arafat refused to take up this option of negotiated compromise. After that, the PLO turned again to terror and suicide murders.”

The Moral Excoriation of Apartheid

“The international resistance to South Africa’s apartheid regime was motivated by many different interests and purposes. Above all, a norm of racial equality that had grown out of the universal post-second world war anti-racialism agenda paved the way for apartheid to be morally adjudged the very epitome of abhorrent racist-grounded violation of the principle of equal human rights and dignity.

“From the purely moral point of view, it must be stressed that what became near universally recognized as so abhorrent about apartheid as to justify sanctions and boycotts of South Africa, was not the severe repression of all opposition to the regime, the likes of which could be found abundantly in many other countries plagued by violent internal conflict. Nor was it the ethnic survivalist rationale of White South Africans, because continued exercise of domination is not entirely indefensible as long as there are solid grounds for believing that the only alternative to dominating the Other is to be dominated by the Other.

“The utter excoriation of apartheid rested on two indefensible wrongs: firstly, the racist basis of apartheid’s enforced inequalities; secondly the adamant refusal of the apartheid regime to accept negotiation as an option for resolving the consequent conflict. Essential moral conditions for such negotiation were not only the willingness of the dominator to end the system of apartheid domination but also the willingness of the dominated Other not to resort to reverse domination. In fact, when these conditions were satisfied, boycotts and sanctions against the South African state rightly ceased. Manifestly, neither of the above-mentioned fundamental wrongs applies in the case of Israel.

“The present government of Israel was elected on a platform calling for a mutually negotiated agreement that will satisfy the national requirements and thereby the human right needs of both sides. It is willing to let a Palestinian state come into existence alongside Israel. The Palestinians, however, elected a Hamas government which refuses to negotiate on the basis of mutual recognition and declares that it will wage war until Israel is wholly displaced by a Palestinian State.  

“Hamas is a movement that bases itself upon a policy that has genocidal potentiality. This should be totally indefensible from the point of view of fair minded liberals. Thus public demonstrations and boycotts should be against Hamas, not against Israel’s government.”

History of the Israel=Apartheid Equation

Shimoni analyzes the Israel-apartheid equation in more detail. “It has a long provenance, but before 1973 its use centered on Israel’s policy toward South Africa. When Israel joined the international condemnation of apartheid, in the 1950s and 1960s, it was used by its Afrikaner advocates, who truly believed – with an appalling mix of ignorance and fallacious comprehension of Judaism – that the teachings of the Bible, the practices that sustained millennial Jewish survival as a separate people, and the renewal of Jewish statehood, all together, constituted admirable models for apartheid theory and practice.

“Alternately, when Israel cooperated with the South African government, after about 1973, the Israel=apartheid equation was deployed in the international forum as a propaganda sub-theme of the notorious ‘Zionism is Racism’ slander. More recently the ‘Israel-is-an-apartheid state’ mantra has subsumed and largely superseded the defamatory ‘Zionism is Racism’ slogan.

 “The foreboding signpost for this new direction was the September 2001 World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance held in Durban. Even the South African government hosts admit that it turned into an unprecedented anti-Semitic hate fest in the course of which the apartheid stigma was viciously stamped upon Israel.[1] The signal significance of what happened in Durban is the spin that turned the human rights cause against itself, disingenuously creating congruence between anti-Semitism and support of human rights. Anti-Semitism postured as anti-racism, and Israel was demonized as South Africa’s successor apartheid state!”

A Multi-Layered Construct

“The presumed Israel=apartheid equation is a multi-layered construct of fundamental ideological positions and analytical paradigms. One of these is the depiction of Israel as a product of colonialism. For the sake of the battle against Israel by its enemies it was vital to purposefully displace the nationalist context of Zionism with the colonialist paradigm. Zionism however never used the methods of the exploitative, historical phenomenon known as colonialism.

“The differences between Zionist settlement and definitively known cases of colonialism are of paramount significance. The foremost is that Zionist settlement in Palestine neither emanated from, nor was activated in the interests of, a state outside of Palestine.

“Zionists practiced colonization, but not in the context of colonialism. Their praxis was more akin to the parallel fin-de-siècle immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe to Argentina and to the establishment there of agricultural colonies with the support of philanthropist Baron de Hirsch. From an economic perspective there was also a major difference with colonialism:  the Zionist movement characteristically invested in Palestine rather than drawing profit or resources out of it.

“In sum, the definitive essence of Zionism was nationalist aspirations, and the essence of the Arab-Jewish conflict is the tragic clash between two self-defined national entities, each aspiring to national self-determination in the same territory. The core question was, and remains: which need and entitlement to national self-fulfillment should have precedence in the disputed land, known as Eretz Israel to the Jews and Filastin to the Arabs. Applying a colonialism paradigm subverts genuine understanding of Zionism and the Arab-Jewish conflict.

“Understandably, this depiction was enthusiastically adopted by Arab spokesmen for the cause of Arab resistance to the Zionist program in Palestine. Branding Zionism as colonialism, thereby denying recognition of any Jewish national needs and entitlement to Palestine as the Land of Israel, became a constitutive myth of the Arab discourse against the Jews.

“More recently, a broad school of so-called ‘post-colonial’ theorists – drawing heavily on Edward Said’s polemic against so-called ‘Orientalist’ discourse – has sought to depict Zionism and the Jewish state as an entirely colonialist enterprise. The post-colonial paradigm has become a dogmatic ideological tool for automatically valorizing respectively stigmatizing beyond repair the presumed victims and perpetrators of all that is cast under the rubric of colonial or Orientalist discourse.”

Why the Israel=Apartheid Fallacy Resonates

“Israel’s governance, like that of most if not all states, undeniably has faults and moral failings and these may include breaches of human rights. But apartheid they are not, because they do not institutionalize human inequality on the grounds of race. Nor does Israel refuse the option of fair negotiation to resolve the conflict which has engulfed it. So why has the Israel=apartheid fallacy enjoyed such resonance?

“The answer is that apartheid has become one of the world’s most potent defamatory code-words. Hence those who a-priori seek fatally to stigmatize Israel grasp it with alacrity as a weapon in the struggle to end its existence as a Jewish state. In a sense, the Israel=apartheid fallacy can serve as a litmus test for distinguishing between those who are hostile to Israel’s very existence and those who are conscientious critics of the policies and actions of  Israel’s governments and public.

“On the whole, caring critics of Israel find it unconscionable to treat Israel as the successor of South Africa’s apartheid state, much as they rightly shun the obscene equation of Zionism with Nazism or application of ‘Protocols of Zion’ conspiracy theory to describe Israel’s behavior. However, today the apartheid stigma is all too serviceable for fighting Israel, because it evokes the precedent of powerful external pressure in the form of boycott and sanctions.

“The principal faults of many otherwise fair-minded liberal critics of Israel are: firstly, their double-standard moral judgment – higher standards for Israel than for Arabs – which in fact is an insult to the Arabs. Secondly, their one-eyed credulousness in favor of Arab ideological discourse and intent as opposed to Jewish cause and intent. This one-sidedness is compounded by their simplistic essentializing. Many left-liberals essentialize Israel facilely by dint only of the segmental Jewish national-religious ideology upheld by the settlers of the occupied areas, Samaria, Judea, and until recently Gaza. Few such critics, if any, are willing equally to essentialize the Palestinians by dint of Hamas’ Muslim-nationalist ideology, even after it has gained the votes of a majority of the Palestinian electorate.”

Ending Occupation Will not End Accusations

Shimoni considers that as long as the occupation regime and settlements beyond the borders of pre-Six Day War Israel exist, the Israel=apartheid fallacy will garner international credibility and be deployed increasingly as a weapon against Israel. In his view, effective repudiation of the charge requires recognition of the settler-occupation regime’s moral indefensibility and encouragement of the Israeli public’s willingness to end it; a willingness indeed demonstrated by the recent painful withdrawal from the Gaza strip.

He stresses that even the most ardent and persuasive advocates of Israel’s cause, for example Alan Dershowitz, share this view. “Purely legalistic arguments such as that Gaza and the West Bank are disputed territories legitimately held by Israel as a result of failed aggression by the Arabs, carry no more weight than the purely theological claim that God promised all of the Land of Israel to the Jews.”

Yet, Shimoni says that it is important to recognize  that even relinquishment of all of the occupied West Bank, as has already been done in regard to the Gaza Strip, would not dispel the fallacy. “It rests firmly on a multilayered edifice of hostile premises: denial in principle of Jewish nationalist need and entitlement, proscription of the entire Zionist enterprise as loathsome colonialism, and false equation of the Jewish national purposes and symbols of the State of Israel with racism.”

Shimoni concludes: “In sum, the fallacious Israel=apartheid equation is manifestly a malicious calumny used as a weapon aimed at the de-legitimization of Israel and its dissolution as a state that is Jewish in any meaningful sense. It is particularly insidious because it twists the worthy universal human rights agenda against itself.”

Interview by Manfred Gerstenfeld

*     *     *

Professor (Emeritus) Gideon Shimoni is a former head of the Hebrew University’s Institute of Contemporary Jewry, and held the Shlomo Argov Chair in Israel-Diaspora Relations. Among his books are The Zionist Ideology, (1995) and Community and Conscience: The Jews in Apartheid South Africa, (2003) both published by Brandeis University & University Press of New England.

*     *     *



[1] See Kenneth Stern, Antisemitism Today, American Jewish Committee, 2006, 23-42.