Apartheid, which is Afrikaans for “Apart-ness” or separation, was the system of white supremacy and racial segregation that existed in South Africa from 1948 until 1991. Under Apartheid, South Africa’s black majority was kept politically powerless by the white minority, and socially excluded by a series of racist laws.
This is in sharp contrast to Israel, where all citizens have full legal, political and social rights. Israelis, whether Arab, Jewish or of any other background, can vote and serve in the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament. Arabs and Jews work together, share public spaces and there is no segregation or legally-imposed exclusion.
Because boycott was one of the primary tactics used by the anti-Apartheid movement, the slander that Israel is an Apartheid state is used by anti-Zionist activists to justify the antisemitic Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Campaign. South African Apartheid was an evil political regime that needed to be destroyed; by claiming that Israel is an Apartheid state, these same activists are effectively calling for its destruction, too.
Under Apartheid, every South African was considered to be either White, Black, Asian or “Colored”, a term which meant mixed-race. Whites had the most rights in law, while Black South Africans had the least.
Black South Africans were not allowed to be in relationships with White people, or to operate businesses in White areas. Public transportation and events were totally segregated, as were facilities like parks and bathrooms. Apartheid South Africa even had separate hospitals for Black and White residents, ensuring that the Whites got the best medical care while Black South Africans suffered.
South African Apartheid could never have existed in a democracy, so the White minority deprived the Black majority of political rights. The Separate Representation of Voters Act of 1951 removed all Black South Africans from the electoral roll. Eventually, the mixed-race “Colored” South Africans were banned from voting, too. Political protest was banned, and protest leaders like Nelson Mandela were jailed for decades.
The world was horrified by the Apartheid regime. Many countries imposed strict trade sanctions on South Africa, and popular campaigns promoted cultural and sporting boycotts. The message was clear: end Apartheid and give Black South Africans back their rights.
Eventually, in the face of internal conflict and international pressure, full voting rights were granted to all South Africans. Nelson Mandela was elected President and the system of Apartheid was permanently ended.
In Israel, on the other hand, all citizens have full legal, political and social rights. Israelis, whether Arab, Jewish or of any other background, can vote and elect representatives to the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament. Israel has had Arab Knesset members since its first election in 1949, and has Arab Supreme Court justices, ambassadors, police commanders, innovators, academics, sports stars and media personalities.
Israel’s Declaration of Independence promises that the State will
“foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants;
it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel;
it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex;
it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture;
it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions;”
In Israeli hospitals, Jewish and Arab patients are treated side-by-side by Arab and Jewish doctors and nurses. They study together at Israeli universities and share the same public services. While in the past there have been gaps in the degree of government funding going to Arab and Jewish municipalities, in more recent times, the Israeli government has invested massively in closing those gaps and correcting historic discrepancies.
This is the complete opposite of Apartheid, where strict laws kept Black South Africans excluded from political power and White public spaces. Anyone visiting Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Haifa, Jerusalem or Beersheba will see vibrant multicultural cities where people of all races and backgrounds work, travel and shop together.
Israel’s Jews are very ethnically diverse as well; nearly half of Israelis are the descendants of Arabic-speaking Jewish immigrants from Arab lands, in addition to European Jews and Jews from Iran, India, Ethiopia and other countries. Israeli Arabs are also quite diverse. This contrasts with the strict racial system of Apartheid South Africa, where the white minority believed its skin color made it superior.
Like many countries around the world, Israel has a law that defines its flag, anthem, national language etc. Of course, this law does not take away from any individual rights of minorities. Many European states have similar laws.
Israel, like all democracies, sees incidents of racism. But the Israeli Police and judicial system prosecute unlawful discrimination and racist violence, and anti-racism campaigns educate the public and promote coexistence.
To get around these facts, anti-Israel activists deliberately conflate the situation of Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel with that of the Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza. Israel signed the Oslo Accords with the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1993, recognizing that the Palestinian people have national aspirations, and paving the way for Palestinian self-government through the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian Authority has a President, a Parliament, its own legal system, judiciary and police force.
There are security checks and barriers between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, just like there are between many other states and territories. Israeli security measures in the West Bank are meant to foil the real and constant threat of murderous terror attacks.
Nelson Mandela himself understood and supported this approach when he visited Israel in 1999 and praised then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak and the ongoing Oslo process.
When anti-Israel activists accuse Israel of Apartheid in the West Bank and Gaza, they are opposing any future Two-State Solution and instead advocating for Israel and the Palestinian Territories to merge, likely leading to a bloody civil war. This both ignores the aspirations of the Palestinian people and denies Israel’s right to exist. It’s like calling the United States apartheid for not granting citizenship to all Canadians.
South African Anti-Apartheid activist Benjamin Pogrund put it best, asking:
“Why is the apartheid accusation pushed so relentlessly, especially by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement? I believe those campaigners want Israel declared an apartheid state so it becomes a pariah, open to the world’s severest sanctions. Many want not just an end to the occupation but an end to Israel itself.”
The Apartheid smear is an attempt by anti-Israel activists to promote their own racist BDS campaigns in the hope of wiping Israel off the map.