Activists often term Israel’s Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and sometimes Israel itself, as constituting an “apartheid state.” So too do political figures concerned with ending the awful situation – be they Omar Barghouti, John Kerry, or Tzipi Livni. Indeed, it is a convenient, short, and powerful way to term the brutality of the military and legal restrictions imposed upon the citizens of the West Bank and Gaza.
“Pro-Israel” activists almost instantly retort: “How dare you compare us to Apartheid South Africa!”Arguments are brought out for Israel’s humanity, democracy, or need for support. Token examples of Arab access to social services are repeated. It is said again and again: “How can Israel be compared to those evil Afrikaners?”
I am personally far more concerned with ending the Occupation than getting into a debate over semantics. (I also prefer “Occupation” as the term – it is succinct.) I also find the appropriation by Western activists of the apartheid struggle to be problematic and somewhat off. Yet I do not think the comparison between Israel now and pre-1994 South Africa is inaccurate. Rather, I think it is profoundly telling.
Israel now is what White South Africa was.
Let me first state this: my family is from South Africa. Many of my relatives live in a South African bubble in Israel, others stayed in South Africa, some integrated into Israel, and others – like my parents – immigrated to the United States. Though I was born and raised in the United States and was the ripe old age of two-and-a-half when apartheid was dismantled, I know a thing or two about White South Africa from having interacted with the culture for my whole life, alongside not insignificant historical research. Furthermore, I have spent my entire life moving between Israeli spaces and South African spaces. Instead of dismissing this article as the ramblings of another idealistic American, I would suggest that you read further, since I have probably been doing this comparison for longer than most New Voices readers.
And what have I noticed for a long time?
For starters, there is the common narrative of the settler conquest and civilizing mission. Let’s be frankly honest for a moment: Israel and White South Africa have their geneses in settler-colonial movements (albeit South Africa was about two hundred and thirty years earlier). Initial colonizers came and conquered the land, built European-style towns, and started farms in European manners. Official histories in both Israel and Apartheid South Africa glorify the early Zionists/early settlers’ “drive” in creating a “civilized” land. Both declaim those who supposedly let land lie fallow rather than “make the desert bloom.” (Never mind that such enterprises have been environmentally disastrous in both Israel and South Africa.)
Alongside that narrative is an idea of cultural superiority – and I am not talking of the All-American “look at who is Jewish” pride. This is the conviction that a) the settler cohort is specifically culturally superior to the indigenous folk, and that b) that there is something fundamentally necessary and good about the settler nation’s hegemonic presence on the land.
Note here that I am not discussing the presence of Jews in Israel or whites in South Africa, but rather of complete power over the land itself.
Israel and apartheid South Africa share this narrative. In South Africa, baaskap(something that roughly translates to “being the boss”) was seen as essential to both the maintenance of apartheid and the justification for all that the settler nation did. For the sake of civilization and capitalism, against the rooi en swart gevare– the “red and black dangers” of indigenous rule and Communism – apartheid was necessary. Furthermore, theology was twisted to teach that the white man’s dominion over other peoples was a God-given right – not just by Afrikaner Calvinists, but by other Christian pastors too. (In case you’re wondering, most Jews were, by and large, complicit with this.)
We see so much of the same rhetoric in Israel. The Occupation is justified as a good influence or light, and it is seen as necessary for the maintenance of the Middle East’s “only democracy.” (For a case study of a real Middle Eastern democracy that actually gives the vote to most of the people under its control, please proceed here.) Palestinians are termed as “unwilling to make peace” or as “barbaric”; Israel’s achievements are always compared to an assumed lack thereof on Arabs’ part. Theology is twisted to claim that the Occupation serves a divine birthright that probably does not actually excuse Israel’s actions. Of course, the modern state de facto is termed as the “first flowering of our redemption.” (Fun facts: there’s plenty of Jewish theology that disagrees with this. Here is a good start.)
These topics are not just political, they permeate the everyday culture of Israel and pre-1994 White South Africa. Just as many whites across South Africa once said (and often still say) of their black neighbors, many an Israeli Jew is quick to say “don’t ever trust an Arab.” Continued repetition of national myth and right-wing slogans occurred at dinner tables in Johannesburg then and Rishon Le-Zion now. Self-congratulation for being Israeli/White South African is de rigeur, supported by praise for Israel’s tech bubble or the cosseted suburbia of Sandton and Kenilworth. As an experiment, I have translated sayings from Afrikaans or English to Hebrew, to find that they were the same: “we are modern and they were not,” “look at all that we built.” It’s honestly frightening. And, of course, there are the more mundane comparisons: walls in South Africa and the West Bank, or even the shared taste for whitewashed imitations of Los Angeles in both Ramat Gan and Berea.
Of course one could make counter-arguments. “Arabs have access to hospitals, beaches, and consumer capitalism in Israel! They did not have that in South Africa!” Okay, true. But what about the fact that that’s only the Palestinians born in specific places under Israeli control, behind an Israeli-built wall, with Israeli-assigned documents? “Israel is a democracy, White South Africa was not!” Just because you have a somewhat free press and elections, that doesn’t make you democratic: I remind readers that 33% of native people under Israeli control have no voting rights for the Knesset whatsoever. “Israelis aren’t racist and are good to Palestinians!” Ahem. Also, Israel is pretty racist: just look at the media tropes present there long considered beyond the pale in other societies. (Another note: to claim that seeing racism somewhere is simply applying American problems elsewhere is a tired and clichéd excuse for not examining societal problems.) As for the idea of the Occupation being good for Palestinians, that claim could only be made with complete ignorance of the other narrative. As Peter Beinart says, “ask them.”
Rather than decide a semantic debate, it is important to acknowledge the similarities between Israel now and White South Africa then. Is it a scary acknowledgement to make? Yes. However, it is key to remember that to most people Israel is not “a light unto nations,” but “just another country” that happens to be misbehaving rather badly. And in that context, comparisons can be a little too true for comfort. In addition, such comparisons can lay bare the problematic nature of society so easily ignored.
Jonathan P. Katz is a student at the University of Chicago.