Israel is an apartheid state – and South Africans agree

Using Black oppression to exonerate Israel isn’t just immoral, it’s ahistorical.

Israel is an apartheid state – and South Africans agree
The South African flag. Credit: flowcomm/Flickr

On April 27, South Africans around the world braaied boerewors, ate chakalaka and pap and drank cream soda, Klipdrift and katembas. It was Freedom Day, the 27th anniversary of South Africa’s first post-Apartheid election. For the Board of Deputies of British Jews, it was another day to defend Israel.

This year, Freedom Day coincided with the release of a report by Human Rights Watch. A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution comprises 213 pages of methodical analysis of Israeli policy towards Palestinians living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Working within the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, its authors conclude that Israel has “dispossessed, confined, forcibly separated, and subjugated Palestinians by virtue of their identity” in a manner “so severe that they amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution”.

Israel’s supporters generally rely on two mutually reinforcing arguments to rebut the charge of apartheid. First, they insist that the label necessitates an exact correspondence between Israel-Palestine and white-minority rule in South Africa. Second, they argue that we must distinguish between the Israeli regime that exists on either side of the Green Line, between a democratic state with voting rights for Palestinian citizens on one side and a brutal-but-supossedly-temporary military occupation on the other. From this, they conclude that the presence of Arab Israelis in the Knesset and the absence of Jew-only water fountains invalidates any comparison with South African Apartheid. 

The Board of Deputies of British Jews takes this sophistry even further. The charge of apartheid, claims its president Marie van der Zyl, is a “slur” and a “sham”, its description of the oppression faced by Palestinians is “false hyperbole that extends the cycle of conflict.” In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, such a position is unmistakably pro-apartheid.

Nor was Van der Zyl alone in her apartheid apologia. Labour party NEC member and director of We Believe In Israel Luke Akehurst claimed that “[the regime in Palestine] doesn’t bear any resemblance to the horrific racist subjugation of a majority black population by the white minority in apartheid South Africa.” Meanwhile, Tory-appointed life peer Ian Austin argued that referencing apartheid in discussions of Israel-Palestine is “an insult … to black South Africans.”

Deploying the experience of Black South Africans to defend apartheid in Palestine is bad enough, but when set against the thriving pro-Palestine movement in South Africa, it becomes obscene. The African National Congress, the South African Communist Party, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the Economic Freedom Fighters, the Pan African Congress, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, the South African Federations of Trade Unions and many other sections of South African civil society have loudly condemned Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and acknowledged its similarity to Apartheid. While Zionist Black South Africans do exist, their influence outside of fundamentalist Christianity and the bourgeois Democratic Alliance party is minuscule compared with that of figures such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela’s family.

Even South Africa’s moderate president, Cyril Ramaphosa, has significantly cut ties with Israel. South African ambassador to Israel Sisa Ngombane was recalled following the state’s killing of Palestinian civilians at the Gaza border – he has not been replaced since – while the embassy in Tel Aviv was downgraded to a liaison office. While many Western governments criticised Israel following the Gaza killings, South Africa’s ruling ANC was vociferous, calling on its citizens to “demonstrate to the world that we regard the Israeli government and its armed forces as an outcast and blight on humanity”.

This animus is partly historical. South Africans are acutely aware of Israel’s support for the Apartheid regime at a time when it was shunned by much of the rest of the international community. South Africa was the largest purchaser of Israeli arms following the 1977 UN Arms Embargo. The South African Defence Force bought Israeli-made IAI Scout drones to attack the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia and the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola in 1981, the first military application of unmanned drones. The two regimes also collaborated closely on the development of nuclear weapons, with South Africa supplying the uranium and Israel the technical expertise. Israeli ballistic missiles were produced near Cape Town and tested in Overbeg.

The reason for Israel’s cooperation with South Africa until the very end of Apartheid was not merely pragmatic; it reflected something deeper about these two colonial states. As the South African government’s yearbook of 1978 documenting the country’s programmes and policies states: “Israel and South Africa have one thing above all else in common: they are both situated in a predominantly hostile world inhabited by dark peoples.”

Despite the Board of Deputies claim to represent the Jewish community, there is nothing inherently Jewish about settler-colonialism. Indeed, South African Jews were massively overrepresented in the struggle against Apartheid: Jews made up the majority of the white defendants at the 1956 Treason Trial, while six of the 15 arrested during the anti-ANC police raid on Rivonia in 1963 were Jewish. Lionel and Hilda Bernstein, Ruth First, Joe Slovo, Denis Goldberg, Ben Turok, Ronnie Kasrils – the latter of whom sits on the South African BDS Coalition’s steering committee, which unequivocally welcomed the HRW report – were among the many Jewish stalwarts of the anti-Apartheid movement, often at huge personal cost.

Their heroism stands in stark contrast to the cowardice of the South African Jewish establishment, in particular the South African Board of Deputies, which happily facilitated Zionist-South African cooperation and marginalised Jews engaged in antiracist struggle (much as their British counterparts do today). This contrast was mirrored elsewhere in the diaspora, where some Jews campaigned for boycotts against the Apartheid regime while others, such as Dame Margaret Hodge – now parliamentary chair of the Jewish Labour Movement – directly profited from white-minority rule.

Jews around the world face the same choice today as they did thirty years ago: do we stand with the oppressed in their fight against apartheid, or do we accommodate the oppressors? The Board of Deputies has made its choice – so must we.

Yirmeyahu Wedgewood is a pseudonym.