Apartheid: What it is and what it isn’tMonday 04/06/2018

By Nikki Golomb.

“For the purpose of the present Convention, the term “the crime of apartheid”, which shall include similar policies and practices of racial segregation and discrimination as practised in southern Africa, shall apply to the following inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them…”

UN International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid

Apartheid, the Dutch word for separation, was the official system of political, economic, social, and cultural oppression of the Black majority in South Africa from 1948 until 1991. Although different forms of racism and discrimination still exist around the world today, the specific methods of oppression exercised by the South African government during this time are unique to the system of apartheid. The United Nations Apartheid Convention (cited above) lists several methods of oppression indicative of apartheid, thus defining it as a distinct system of legislative discrimination.

A common misconception among the anti-Israel community is that Israel is an apartheid state. In order to dispel this misunderstanding, it is important to recognize two facts: first, that Arab Israelis and Jewish Israelis are equal under Israeli law; and second, that Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza are not Israeli citizens, and thus are not subject to Israeli law.

First, let us explore the rights of Arab Israelis. In order to do this, it is important to recognize the difference between societal discrimination and legal discrimination. Societal discrimination, for example, would explain that Arab Israelis are likely to receive a poorer education when compared to Jewish Israelis due to Arabs being viewed by some as second-class citizens, economic factors which make it difficult for Arab families to pay for private education, and a history of discrimination of which the effects are still being felt today. Lawful discrimination, on the other hand, would imply the legalization of forced school segregation based on ethnicity, as well as substandard educational materials and resources provided to Arab schools. While it is true that state religious (Jewish) schools and Arab and Druze schools exist, they are meant to cater toward each individual group’s cultural needs and are provided with uniform subject matter and appropriate funding; furthermore, the majority of Israeli students attend public (mixed) schools [source]. In terms of higher education, Arab Israelis make up 14.4% of Bachelor Degree students; 10% of Master Degree students; 6% of PhD candidates; and 35% of medical school students at the Technion [source]. While South Africa under apartheid gave Black citizens an inferior education, Israel provides equal education for all of its citizens, regardless of ethnicity. Arab Israelis additionally enjoy the right to vote, the right to form political parties, freedom of expression, and all other rights granted to all Israeli citizens.

Arab Israelis also have many prominent positions in Israeli society, a phenomenon which would be downright impossible, let alone illegal, under apartheid. Seventeen Arab Israelis were elected to serve in the current Israeli Knesset, comprising 14% of all Members of Knesset. An Arab Justice serves on the Israeli Supreme Court, and 52 of Israel’s 672 Judges are Arab. Arab Israelis additionally work as professors, doctors, journalists, and other high-power positions throughout Israeli society. While these numbers do not reflect complete equality (in which, theoretically, Arabs would make up 19% of these workers, as they comprise 19% of the population of Israel), it again highlights the important distinction between social discrimination and legal segregation. Israel cannot be an apartheid state, because all of its citizens are treated equally under the law.

Now we can look at the more complex issue of Palestinian rights. While it is true that Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip cannot vote in Israeli elections, do not have access to Israeli education, and are not represented in the Knesset, this is because of the simple fact that they are not Israeli citizens. Just as I, an American Jew, cannot vote in Israeli elections because I am not an Israeli citizen, neither can a Palestinian. Since the Oslo Accords in 1993, Palestinians are subject to their own governments; and though these governments (the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and Hamas in Gaza) are anything but just, Israel has no governmental authority in those territories. Israel cannot be an apartheid state on the grounds of the rights of Palestinians simply because the Israeli government is in no position to grant or deny Palestinians civil and political rights.

With regards to what many refer to as the “apartheid wall,” the Security Fence along the border of Israel and the West Bank is actually a fence that is less than 5% wall. Although security checkpoints are an inconvenient reality that create difficulties for Palestinians when they enter Israel, they are necessary in order to protect the lives of all Israeli citizens. The fence, which was built during the second Intifada, stopped hundreds of terror attacks a day during the height of its success. While many Palestinians feel it is degrading and it is not a perfect solution by any means, it is a necessity in order to ensure the security of Israeli citizens. Just as you and I must go through border control when entering a different country, those wishing to enter Israel from the West Bank must also endure a security checkpoint. This is not apartheid – it is national security.

Discrimination is, like in all countries around the world, a problem in Israel which is being addressed. However, it is not the legalized system of oppression that many claim it to be. Arab Israelis have full rights under Israeli law, and Palestinians are subject to their own laws and policies. While the methods of protecting national security are not perfect and social equality has not yet been realized, calling Israel a state of apartheid is both factually inaccurate and offensive to the Black South Africans who lived through true apartheid. In order to truly advocate for the rights of those in and around Israel, it is vital to do so using all the facts and correct terminology. It is impossible to fight against something which does not exist, and it is a waste of time and energy to do so when there are real problems that must be addressed. 

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