Is Israel an apartheid society?

Page last updated 23 Oct 2015


The use of the term “apartheid” to describe Israel is now common in the Palestine solidarity movement. There has been a stormy debate, over a decade and more, as to whether it is helpful to use the term in the Israeli context – see the apartheid section of our “Israeli Society and Politics – What kind of society?” page for arguments for and against its use.

Critics say the analogy is plain wrong and therefore its use can only be malign: to delegitimate, demonise and apply double standards to use Sharansky’s 3-D test of criticism of Israel (see Introduction to Is criticism of Israel antisemitic?) that goes beyond what is acceptable. Ultimately, for many of these critics, the use of the term “apartheid” is antisemitic.

Those who argue for applying the term to Israel generally acknowledge the differences from the South African case but argue that a wider definition of apartheid, enshrined in the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, UN General Assembly Resolution 3068, 30 Nov 1973, covers the Israeli case well. South Africans, too, have been prominent in drawing analogies between living under the two regimes and their voices have been important. In particular, it is experience at the checkpoints that has led South Africans to say that it is “worse than apartheid”. For in South Africa, while non-whites had to carry passes, there was generally freedom of movement in the sense that you could go anywhere unless and until you were called on to produce your pass. Control in general was by post hoc police raid, in a general search for “illegal” migrants in urban areas where they were not supposed to be. Control over movement within Palestine and between Palestine and Israel is far more rigorous and rigidly totalitarian on a daily basis than it was under South African apartheid.

The use of the term “apartheid” to draw analogies from South Africa about strategy for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been criticised because the social forces at work locally, regionally and internationally are so different. The one analogy made that finds a wide response is the boycott call. Memories of the success of the Boycott South Africa movement are strong (even if its effect is over-rated) and there is no doubt that the apartheid analogy is used to bolster support for a similar strategy with regard to Israel. But BDS – Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions – has much deeper roots than simply being a copycat version of the Anti-Apartheid Movement. Boycotts against injustice have long historical roots (remember the origins of the term lie in the refusal of the Irish Land League to harvest crops on the estate where Captain Boycott was land agent in 1880). It is therefore not an antisemitic singling-out-Israel-unfairly campaign in inspiration, though some have tried to argue that it is this in effect (especially with regard to the academic boycott campaign). See BDS and antisemitism for more on this.

The articles below, all posted on the JfJfP website, give links to those who use the analogy to mobilise support and those who argue against it. It is the reality they all describe that delegitimises Israel, rather than whether “apartheid” is the best term to capture this reality…


1. Tutu urges Presbyterians to name Israel an apartheid state
Ali Abunimah, Electronic Intifada, JfJfP 15 Jun 2014

The extraordinary Desmond Tutu has developed an understanding of forgiveness which is vigorous, liberating, and founded on the idea of justice. Naming Israel an apartheid state and divesting from its machines of oppression are thus steps towards his Christian idea of what liberation, forgiveness and reconciliation mean.


2. Apartheid label begins to stick
Hirsh Goodman, NY Times Op-Ed, JfJfP 1 Feb 2014

This is the first of two Op-Ed pages which the NY Times gave to the opposition to Israel’s exceptional colonial rule and the weakness of the Israeli government’s position which cries ‘delegitimisation’, while building more housing and checkpoints on Palestinian land. The critic is Hirsh Goodman, ‘Liberal Zionist’ South African who at first decries the use of the label “apartheid” for Israel. If it was intended to ‘balance’ Omar Barghouti, published on the same day, it failed.


3. Israel, boycott, apartheid – the argument
Amira Hass, Chemi Shalev, Anshel Pfeffer & Henry Siegman, Ha’aretz, JfJfP 20 Dec 2013

Four writers give their opinions on whether Israel is an apartheid state and on whether the tactic of boycotting Israeli goods is politically justified or effective. The backdrop to the discussion is the death of Mandela and the American Studies Association decision to boycott Israeli academic institutions which have, if nothing else, brought the argument alive in Israel.


4. Israel losing fight against ‘apartheid state’ label
Harriet Sherwood, Guardian; an AP report; and Peter Beinart Open Zion/Daily Beast, JfJfP 15 Dec 2013

Three articles around the death of Nelson Mandela brought to the forefront the Palestinians’ identification with him and his identity as the leader of a battle against an apartheid state. Despite many protestations – Peter Beinart here – that label is going to stick.


5. How to tell Israeli and South African apartheid apart
Samer Abdelnour, Al-Shabaka, JfJfP 23 May 2013

Al-Shabaka (“The Network”) describes itself as “an independent, non-partisan, and non-profit organization whose mission is to educate and foster public debate on Palestinian human rights and self-determination within the framework of international law”. Its policy director argues here that the specific characteristics of Israel’s unique brand of apartheid need to be better understood in order to successfully dismantle it…


6. Degrees of separation: judging apartheid
Lev Luis Ginsberg / Russell Tribunal on Palestine, JfJfP 24 Nov 2011

Ginsberg rejects the term “apartheid” but, in a rejoinder to former Judge Richard Goldstone’s Israel and the Apartheid Slander, argues it is far worse. The Russell Tribunal on Palestine, meeting in Cape Town, gave extensive reasons for how they judged the Israelis’ treatment of Palestinians under their rule. It’s not South Africa. It is separate and unequal treatment and is thus apartheid.


Contents of this section


a) Setting the scene: the hasbara (propaganda) war
b) Is criticism of Israel antisemitic?

Singling out Israel
Is Israel an apartheid society?
BDS and antisemitism

c) Can you have a Jewish and democratic state?
d) What is Zionism today?

e) The nature of the nakba
f) One state or two?
g) Is Hamas to blame? / Is Gaza still occupied?
h) Right of return and law of return
i) The role of the JNF


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