Why the “Israel – Apartheid State” analogy is misleading and dangerous

On demonstrations in support of the Palestinian struggle today, it is common to see banners and placards likening the state of Israel to Apartheid. Apartheid was the name given to the system of strict racial segregation and oppression that existed in South Africa in one form or another for most of the twentieth century, until it was overthrown by a social revolution in the late 1980s.   

The campaign to boycott and divest from Israel aims to pressure Israel to end its abuse of the rights of the Palestinian people [Twitter]
Protestors in 2018 demonstration denounce Israeli Apartheid. Photo: Middle East Monitor

Recently a friend drew my attention to a statement written by two former Israeli diplomats, who had both served as ambassadors to South Africa in the time of Apartheid, and who now endorse this view. The statement compares the two-tier legal system that operates in the West Bank, whereby Jewish settlers live under Israeli civil law whereas Palestinians live under military law, with the Apartheid legal system. It compares the continuing evictions and forced relocations of Palestinians to the constant evictions of Black South Africans that took place under Apartheid. And above all, it compares the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories in the West Bank and Gaza with the Apartheid system of Bantustans.

“The Bantustans of South Africa under the apartheid regime and the map of the occupied Palestinian territories today are predicated on the same idea of concentrating the “undesirable” population in as small an area as possible, in a series of non-contiguous enclaves. By gradually driving these populations from their land and concentrating them into dense and fractured pockets, both South Africa then and Israel today worked to thwart political autonomy and true democracy,” the authors write. “The West Bank today consists of 165 “enclaves” – that is, Palestinian communities encircled by territory taken over by the settlement enterprise. In 2005, with the removal of settlements from Gaza and the beginning of the siege, Gaza became simply another enclave – a bloc of territory without autonomy, surrounded largely by Israel and thus effectively controlled by Israel as well.”

“It is time for the world to recognize that what we saw in South Africa decades ago is happening in the occupied Palestinian territories too. And just as the world joined the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, it is time for the world to take decisive diplomatic action in our case as well and work towards building a future of equality, dignity, and security for Palestinians and Israelis alike,” they conclude.

Map of highly-fragmented Palestinian-controlled areas in West Bank (dark green) Graphic: Ground Up

I remain convinced that the Apartheid-Bantustan analogy is unhelpful and dangerous in understanding the situation in Israel-Palestine. There is no denying the similarities described in the statement, especially if you look at the West Bank more or less in isolation. It becomes less similar if you also include Gaza in your field of view, and totally useless and misleading if you consider Israel and Palestine as a whole.

Here are some rather important differences between Israel-Palestine and Apartheid South Africa:

  • In Apartheid South Africa the so-called Independent Bantustans were creatures of the Apartheid regime, utterly dependent on it, and supported by it and no one else. Whatever else it may be, the Hamas regime in Gaza is not a creature of the Israeli regime.
  • When South Africa declared some of these Bantustans ‘independent’, the entire South African liberation movement campaigned against giving international recognition to these ‘independent’ states – and succeeded. Not one other government in the world ever recognised them. Today, Palestine – “Bantustan Palestine” that is – is recognised by a majority of the world’s governments, and the Palestinian national movement seeks greater recognition, not less.
  • Gaza also receives more than just diplomatic recognition from other governments. No South African Bantustan ever received military aid from a power hostile to South Africa, still less launched rocket attacks against it from the Bantustan territory. The Hamas rocket attacks may be militarily ineffectual and futile, but they are extremely important politically in shoring up Jewish support for the Israeli regime and Palestinian support for Hamas.
1940s_mine_hostel
Workers’ hostel in Apartheid South Africa.
Photo: UnCensored
  • The Bantustan ‘territories’ were barren tracts of land generally reserved as dumping grounds for the ‘surplus population,’ while the big majority of the employed Black workers continued to live in South Africa proper. Domestic servants continued to live near the families they served, for example, mine workers lived in single-sex hostels near the mines – in both cases the right to live there was dependent on employment; this was a means of policing the labour force.  

    Some forced relocations to the Bantustans did occur, when the regime wanted to evict people from their actual homelands – and in most cases, the people forcibly relocated there had no prior connection to the Bantustan lands at all. Many more of the evictions and forced relocations in Apartheid South Africa were to new ‘townships’ inside South Africa, like Soweto on the outskirts of Johannesburg – reflecting the heavy dependence of South African economy on Black labour.

    This is not the case in Palestine, where the ‘Bantustans’ even as they exist today constitute a significant part of the historical Palestinian homeland, and contain a majority of the Palestinian population in the region. (To recognise this fact is not to deny the forcible evictions of Palestinians elsewhere in Israel, both historical and those continuing in the present day, nor the necessity for a vastly enlarged and contiguous Palestinian territory.)
South African Bantustans in Apartheid era – barren dumping grounds for ‘surplus population’ Photo: Sutori
  • The Apartheid regime, in declaring Blacks to be citizens of the Independent Bantustans, sought thereby to extinguish their citizenship rights in South Africa proper. This was the primary function of the Bantustans. They were a means of depriving Blacks of the rights to vote, to own land, to organise unions, to travel freely, to change employment, live where and with whom they chose, etc, in South Africa, reducing them to the status of permanently-temporary immigrant workers. The long-term goal of the Israeli rulers may be something similar, but they are a long way from achieving that. The 1.5-million-plus Palestinian citizens of Israel (nearly one-quarter of Palestinian population in Israel-Palestine today) face discrimination in jobs, housing, and education, but can still vote and organise joint unions with Jewish workers. Nothing remotely similar to those rights existed in Apartheid South Africa.  

I don’t know how anyone could consider these facts and still assert that the Apartheid-Bantustan analogy actually tells us anything useful about the Israel-Palestine question today.  Accepting the analogy requires shutting one’s eyes to the situation of the Palestinian Israelis and the openings there to organise unions and political organisations together with Israeli Jews, it means ignoring Palestinian demographics, ignoring Hamas and its military capability, disregarding or equivocating on the question of recognising Palestine, and more.  

Why then are some supporters of the Palestinian struggle so keen to use the ‘Apartheid State’ designation for Israel? Because the word Apartheid confers on Israel the status of pariah state – to be boycotted, sanctioned etc in the same way that the actual apartheid state was. No one calls Indonesia an apartheid state, although it has practiced genocidal policies of colonial settlement and ethnic cleansing in West Papua for as long as Israel has. No one seems to feel the need to call China an apartheid state, though it is well known that China does something similar in Xinjiang. China is too big to boycott.

On the other hand, this pariah state idea dovetails perfectly with the anti-Semitic perspectives of the Islamists – such as Hamas, which openly states its view that the Jews are the problem and must be driven out of Palestine. In addition, it conceals class divisions within Israel, holding all those Jews who look to the Israeli state for protection at least partly culpable for the crimes of Israeli militarism and expansionism.  It diminishes opportunities for Palestinian and Jewish workers to work side by side and join common organisations to fight for their common interests: take for example the great victory of the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions campaign in shutting down the SodaStream factory in the West Bank in 2015, which cost 500 Palestinian workers their jobs.

Employees work at the new SodaStream factory built deep in Israel’s Negev Desert Photo: Dan Balilty, Jewish Telgraphic Agency

In this way, it helps to keep the Palestinian liberation movement locked in the deadly cycle we have seen for several years now: provocations in Israel mostly by rightist Israelis, followed by ‘retaliation’ by Hamas in the form of rocket attacks, followed by far more massive ‘retaliation’ by the Israeli military, all resulting in a terrible toll in lives, some Jewish, many more Palestinian, and further setbacks to the Palestinian cause.

Regardless of the motivations of the people using the Apartheid-state designation, it is a stepping-stone to accepting, consciously or unconsciously, the Hamas framework and perspective for political struggle in the region.  

When the boycotts of the South African pariah state were gaining strength in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was a revolutionary-democratic leadership of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa which clearly proclaimed that ‘South Africa belongs to ALL who live here, Black and White.’ Such a leadership is lacking in Palestine today – and consequently, the tendency for the pariah-state boycott to manifest itself as anti-Semitism is that much stronger.

“But the authors of this statement are former officials of the Israeli regime,” you might object.  “They can hardly be accused of anti-Semitism!”

To which I would answer: the reactionary rulers of Israel and of Gaza have far more in common with each other politically – even while they are in armed conflict with each other – than they have with the toilers of the region, Jewish or Palestinian.

I welcome the cracks in the edifice of Israeli militarism that statements such as this one reveal. But these authors have nothing to offer us. The political orientation their concluding statement clearly indicates, one of looking to ‘international law’ and the pressure of ‘the world’ – in other words, looking for salvation to elements of the bourgeois class, their parliaments and their lawyers, their “decisive diplomatic action,” their military and economic pressure – is entirely the wrong one.

The solution to the problem lies with the exploited classes, the wage workers and farmers of Israel-Palestine. In the first instance, this means the Palestinian workers whose struggle for national self-determination has been set back but not broken. But it also means the Jewish workers, beginning with those who can recognise in their Palestinian co-workers friends and allies, class brothers and sisters.

Joint List Leader Ayman Odeh addressing Tel Aviv demonstration 22 May 2021. Photo: Joint List, Jerusalem Post

In the latest upheaval in Israel and Gaza, there were some small but promising indications of the way forward. In Lod and other Israeli cities where Jews and Arabs live side by side, there were many instances where Jews protected their Arab neighbours and union co-workers who were coming under attack by rightist Israeli gangs intent on ethnic cleansing. There were similar cases where Arabs defended their Jewish neighbours from attack. A one-day general strike in protest against the Israeli air strikes won wide support among Palestinian Israelis. Demonstrations of Jews and Arabs in support of peace and co-operation, and for an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, took place in Jaffa, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. “There are two peoples living here and both deserve the right for self-determination,” Joint List leader Ayman Odeh told the crowd in Tel Aviv.

These were mostly small and largely spontaneous expressions of solidarity. Nonetheless, they are worth more than a thousand appeals to “the world.”

2 responses to “Why the “Israel – Apartheid State” analogy is misleading and dangerous

  1. This is excellent, James. We spent several weeks in Israel late 2014. We met people working in unions, fighting for workers rights across Israel and the occupied territories, working with immigrants. A very clear material base for connection, examples of united defense of interests as workers. Earlier that year the previous bloody exchanges between Hamas and the Israeli state had set relations at various workplaces backwards. They too have much in common.

  2. Pingback: Why the “Israel – Apartheid State” analogy is misleading and dangerous – The Union Of Workers·

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