Israel’s passage of the so-called nation-state law has reignited a long-running debate on whether the country qualifies as an apartheid state. “Israel has effectively declared itself an apartheid state,” pronounced the official Palestinian BDS movement. Rebecca Vilkomerson, the executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, blasted the legislation for “enshrining apartheid into law.” The line was picked up in various corners of the left, and even bled into mainstream news coverage, with ABC News citing critics who bemoaned the measure as “a step toward an apartheid state.”
The nation-state law is, to quote one commentator, “redundant where it is not repulsive.” Downgrading Arabic from its official language status, elevating so-called “Jewish settlement” and omitting mention of equal rights, it marks out Israel’s Arab citizens as strangers in their own land. But does its passage cement Israel’s status as an apartheid state? And what does that mean?
There are still significant differences between Israel and South Africa’s apartheid regime. South Africa barred non-whites from meaningful forms of political power. Israel seats in its Knesset 17 Arab members, who continue to voice their community’s viewpoint despite persistent insults and parliamentary obstacles from the governing coalition. South Africa tried mightily to ban all mixing between the races, excluding non-whites from towns, professions, universities, hospitals and all manner of public places designated for whites. The nation-state bill’s tacit sanction for Jewish-only towns—watered down thanks to the intercession of diaspora Jewry and the international community—must be resisted. But Jews and Arabs still meet in state institutions and public spaces throughout Israel, with nothing resembling the transit passes black South Africans were forced to carry.
Proponents of the apartheid charge have a stronger case when it comes to the West Bank. Palestinians living in the West Bank do exist within a harsh legal regime entirely separate from the one governing Jewish settlers. Since the millennium, Israel has loosed a plague of barriers, entry bans and shifting boundaries on the territory that militate against interaction between the two groups. Nonetheless, West Bank Palestinians are discriminated against on the basis of their citizenship status, not their racial background. And while experiencing the depredations of occupation, West Bank Palestinians can access opportunities that were unimaginable to black South Africans.
The best case for the apartheid charge rests not with the on-the-ground realities in Israel-Palestine, but with how the term “apartheid” has been transformed into a general political concept that transcends the South African case. According to the United Nations, apartheid is defined as “inhumane acts committed for the purpose of establishing or maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them.” Racial discrimination, for these purposes, means “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, color, descent or national or ethnic origin.”
Israel would be guilty of practicing apartheid under these terms; it does privilege some over others on the basis of ethnicity and descent. But this definition is so broad that it contains little meaning. Countless regimes around the world offer fast-track citizenship to the children and grandchildren of citizens. Does this amount to apartheid? Most reasonable observers would answer no.
There are also substantial doubts about whether apartheid is an intellectually valid paradigm for understanding cases of identity-based oppression outside South Africa. Discrete events can serve as the impetus for new general concepts in political science. Raphael Lemkin coined the term “genocide” following the extermination of Europe’s Jews. He formulated the idea of genocide with attention to the Ottoman Empire’s mass slaughter of Armenians and Stalin’s starvation of Ukrainians. He avoided conflating the Holocaust with the abstract idea of genocide in using distinct labels for each. There is a single agreed-upon instance of global apartheid—i.e., South Africa. And apartheid as a general concept shares its name with this one example. The common nomenclature and scanty sample make it difficult and confusing to speak of apartheid in the abstract.
But perhaps there is intent to confuse in how the apartheid charge is leveled at Israel. Within academic and political circles, the term “apartheid” is construed as a general phenomenon that includes Israel because each instance of apartheid need not conform to all the aspects of the South African model. At the same time, activists fling the accusation at the Jewish state precisely to associate Israel with apartheid-era South Africa. This is a disingenuous rhetorical double-game that is sadly in evidence with other terms, including “genocide.”
Of course, activists have imperatives other than strict adherence to factuality. The situation in Israel-Palestine is bleak: the occupation grinds on after a half-century with no end in sight. Minorities within the Green Line are in the cross hairs of a far-right government that disdains equal rights and democracy. This baleful state of affairs seems liable to worsen in the short- and medium-term. Perhaps left-wing activists are justified in harnessing the power of the apartheid charge to drum up the moral outrage that sustains protest movements. But the plight of Palestinians should engage the conscience of the world absent faulty historical references.
Daniel J. Solomon is a freelance writer living in Washington, DC.