A series of recent articles have pointlessly debated whether or not Israel can accurately be described as “an apartheid state.” But the problem with the apartheid analogy is less its inaccuracy, and more that, however emotionally appealing some people may find it, it’s just not useful in ending the occupation and advancing the Palestinian cause.
True, apartheid is (vaguely) defined as a war crime under the Statute of Rome, but neither Israel nor most Arab countries (nor the United States, for that matter) are members of the Assembly of Parties at the International Criminal Court. In fact, the apartheid argument really is a historical analogy to the systematized, racist legal discrimination that used to exist in South Africa.
This historical analogy is vague and in some ways inaccurate. Inside its own borders, Israel’s social and political structure significantly discriminates against the large Palestinian minority (about 20 percent of the citizenry). But this cannot be accurately compared to apartheid. The system enforced by the Israeli military in the occupied territories, however, has a great deal of similarity to apartheid in South Africa. In some ways it’s not as onerous, but in many ways it’s worse.
Therefore, the analogy is tempting. Still, pro-Palestinian activists would be wise to avoid it, for several reasons.
First, it’s a conversation stopper, especially in the United States. Because they do not understand what life under occupation means for Palestinians, most Americans are not ready to accept at the outset of any conversation that Israel practices apartheid. They will simply assume that they are being exposed to hyperbolic anti-Israel propaganda and stop listening before they hear the facts.
It is infinitely more powerful to show rather than tell. Rather than leading with an announcement that Israel practices apartheid, it is much more effective to simply describe the realities: Every aspect of daily life in the occupied Palestinian territories for every individual is defined by whether the Israeli government categorizes them as an Israeli settler, and therefore a citizen of the state with all the rights and responsibilities accruing to citizenship, or a Palestinian noncitizen living under occupation. If you simply describe life under occupation, audiences will draw their own parallels between the occupation and apartheid in South Africa or Jim Crow laws in the segregationist American south.
This discrimination applies to the laws people live under: where they may live; what roads they may use; what access they have to resources like land, water, education, and social services; whether they may be armed for self-defense; whether they may travel freely or have to pass through rigorous checkpoints with the permission of a foreign army; whether they may leave their country with any reasonable expectation of being able to return unimpeded; whether they have any say in the government that rules them or are totally disenfranchised; and whether they are routinely subjected to severe abuses under detention and military tribunals. All these, and almost all other aspects of daily life in the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel, are all radically separate and unequal on an ethnically-defined basis.
The system of ethnic discrimination imposed by military force and Israel’s “civil administration” in the occupied territories is by far the most extreme form of discriminatory abuse anywhere in the world today. When they learn these details, audiences conclude for themselves that this is a wicked, immoral and indefensible system and can see the apartheid parallels in a way that will not make them recoil before they know the details.
Secondly, the analogy incorrectly suggests that because these parallels exist, the solution must be the same. But while South African apartheid was ended by a reasonable quid pro quo that was the best deal possible for white and black South Africans alike, no such mutually beneficial arrangement in a single state has yet been articulated for Jewish Israelis and Palestinians. It’s a politically misleading analogy that invites strategic error.
Finally, the analogy falls into the trap of conflating Israel and the occupied territories, which plays into the hands of Israeli maximalists and the settler movement. The implied one-state solution suggests that Israel is simply practicing extreme discrimination within an already-existing single state. This effectively lets Israel off the hook completely when it comes to the occupation. And, worse, it suggests that the expansion of settlements is merely construction taking place within that existing state rather than illegal colonization in occupied territories.
No decent person who is made aware of the realities of life under occupation for Palestinians can fail to see its immorality. Demonstrating the immorality of the occupation and the moral and political imperative to end it, not harping on inexact and misleading historical analogies, should be the imperative for pro-Palestinian activism.