Apartheid Israel

Is it fair to compare Israel to Apartheid South Africa? And no, making the comparison is not antisemitic.

Israel's Wall. Bethlehem, Gaza (Montecruz Foto, via Flickr CC).

We invited eleven scholars of Africa and its diaspora to reflect on the analogy between apartheid South Africa and contemporary Israel. The American Studies Association’s decision in February 2014 to endorse the academic boycott of Israel, followed by the state violence directed against the inhabitants of Gaza this past July, has intensified the debate over Israel/Palestine in universities across North America. The international, nonviolent campaign for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel is gaining momentum by the day.

Most of the contributions to this forum underline the obvious similarities between apartheid South Africa and Israeli policies toward the Palestinians. As Robin D.G. Kelley writes: “That Israel and its colonial occupation meet the UN’s definition of an apartheid state is beyond dispute.” Both apartheid South Africa and the Israeli state originated through a process of conquest and settlement largely justified on the grounds of religion and ethnic nationalism. Both pursued a legalized, large-scale program of displacing the earlier inhabitants from their land. Both instituted a variety of discriminatory laws based on racial or ethnic grounds. Outside of a tiny group of pro-Zionist organizations, the analogy is so widely accepted in South Africa that it draws little controversy. Indeed, leading members of the anti-apartheid struggle, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Jewish struggle veterans like Ronnie Kasrils, have repeatedly stated that the conditions in the West Bank and Gaza are “worse than apartheid.”

At the same time, no historical analogy is ever exact. Comparisons necessarily reveal differences even as they underline similarities. Defenders of Israel’s record sometimes use this fact to chip away at the allegation of apartheid by underlining, for example, the civil rights enjoyed by Palestinian citizens of Israel. (Although many observers argue that these rights have always been limited and are being eroded at an alarming pace.) Such differences are important and unarguable. But generally, this mode of debate strives to deflect attention away from the illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the ongoing construction of settlements on Palestinian land, the indiscriminate bombing and shelling directed at Palestinian civilians, and the mass detention and torture of Palestinian activists. Far from exonerating the policies and practices of the Israeli state, the divergences between the two cases—as Melissa Levin so powerfully shows—more often than not speak to the incredible desperation of the Palestinian situation.

As these essays demonstrate, the work of comparison requires an attentiveness to the ethical and political singularity of each space even as it attempts to generate dialogues across multiple histories of oppression and struggle. Rather than “adding up” similarities and differences, the authors explore various aspects of the apartheid/Israel analogy, ranging from the parallels between post-apartheid neoliberalism and the post-Oslo occupied territories to the role of Israel in southern Africa more broadly. As Salim Vally emphasizes, there are a number of lessons that today’s activists can draw from the global anti-apartheid movement regarding the importance of patience, the practical work of building international solidarity, and the dangers of sectarianism. Yet as other contributors argue, most notably Bill Freund in a rather sober commentary, it is far from clear that the South African transition—itself imperfect and highly contested—can provide clear guidance for a peaceful resolution in Israel/Palestine beyond generalities. In pursuing the comparison, there may be as much to learn from the questions of liberation that the South African struggle failed to answer fully.

These essays should help refute, once and for all, the assertion that the apartheid/Israel comparison is “anti-Semitic” because it seeks to “de-legitimize” the state of Israel. If anything, this analogy reflects the principled rejection of anti-Semitism by the vast majority of pro-Palestinian activists. At the ideological heart of apartheid was the program of building an (ultimately impossible) “white South Africa” based on an ethno-nationalist appeal to self-determination. Apartheid’s forced removals, the creation of the Bantustans, and the stripping of Africans’ citizenship rights were all directed to this end. It is therefore telling that so many defenders of Israel’s practices assert the right to a “Jewish state” at the expense of Palestinian claims for justice. Whatever its considerable limitations, the defeat of apartheid represented the historic triumph of an inclusive vision of South Africa over a racially exclusive conception of nation. By drawing a parallel to the South Africa freedom struggle, the analogy targets Israel’s colonial practices, not any one group or people.

We have published this forum to coincide with the African Studies Association meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana. In South Africa, many of our colleagues have been at the forefront of mobilizing civil society against Israeli apartheid. Until recently, however, North American Africanists have largely been absent from a public debate that hinges, in part, on the historical significance of colonialism, apartheid, and the southern African liberation struggles. The African Literature Association’s endorsement of the BDS Movement was a major turning point in this regard. Among some of our colleagues, this reticence reflects a sincere unease over the way that discussions about Israel/Palestine often mobilize South African history in a highly instrumentalist and reductive fashion. We hope that these essays show that one can think comparatively while remaining attentive to the complexity of (still ongoing) South African struggles.

Other colleagues have invoked an area studies vocabulary to argue that we have enough to worry about in “our own” backyard. South Africa has long boasted an oversized position in African studies. With everything that the continent faces, why return to debates about apartheid once again?  When protestors in Ferguson faced militarized police agencies that had received training from Israeli security forces, they were quick to draw the connection between state racism in the United States and Israel. Moreover, the firing of academic Steven Salaita from the University of Illinois illuminated the way that the orchestrated campaign of intimidation against pro-Palestinian academics has become linked to a broader erosion of shared university governance and academic freedom. As scholars based in North America, it is only possible to see Israel/Palestine as “outside our field of expertise” if we divorce the concerns of African studies from the forms of militarism, racism, and censorship that operate in our own society.

The global anti-apartheid movement was one of the largest international civil society mobilizations of the late 20th century. For all of its mistakes and internal divisions, it succeeded because it managed to connect diverse, localized struggles to a campaign against international support for the South African regime. The BDS movement is today developing a similar dynamic. We hope that this forum will encourage collaborations with colleagues in Middle East Studies (and other fields), the organization of conferences and special journal issues, and the difficult work of teaching about contemporary forms of apartheid in our courses. The editors believe that the African Studies Association should move toward endorsing the academic boycott of Israeli universities. We offer these essays as a launching point and invite our colleagues to join us in this discussion.

You can read the ebook here.

About the Author

Jon Soske is the author of the book, "Internal Frontiers: African Nationalism and the Indian Diaspora in Twentieth-Century South Africa" (Ohio, 2017).

Sean Jacobs, Founder and Editor of Africa is a Country, is on the faculty of The New School and a Shuttleworth Fellow.

Further Reading