There is a controversy raging in North America over Israeli Apartheid Week (March 1 to 7, 2010). A resolution was passed in the Ontario Provincial Parliament, which was unanimously supported (though only 30 MPPs voted), declared the comparison of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians to apartheid as "odious."
To quote an article in The Toronto Star, Canada's largest circulation paper:
"Progressive Conservative MPP Peter Shurman (Thornhill) tabled the motion Thursday to denounce the sixth annual provocative campus event that kicks off next week at universities and colleges in 35 cities around the world.
"Resolutions in the Ontario Legislature send a message. They are about moral suasion," said Shurman, adding "it is close to hate speech" to liken democratic Israel to apartheid-era South Africa.
Shurman also argued that the comparison "is also offensive to the millions of black South Africans oppressed by a racist white regime until the early 1990s."
It is interesting to see what South Africans who actually lived under the apartheid system have to say about Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. The natural basis of such kinship between the policies of Israel and South Africa was apparently recognized by the virulent supporter of apartheid and prime minister of South Africa, Hendrik Verwoerd. He noted in 1961 that Jews "took Israel from the Arabs after the Arabs had lived there for a thousand years. In that I agree with them, Israel, like South Africa, is an apartheid state."
The much revered leader of the struggle against racism and apartheid in South Africa, and the first President of the non-racist Republic of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, had the following to say on the issue of the Palestinians, according to journalist John Pilger. "To Nelson Mandela," he wrote, justice for the Palestinians is "the greatest moral issue of our time."
Here is an excerpt from a speech Mandela gave on International day of Solidarity with the Palestinians:
"The temptation in our situation is to speak in muffled tones about an issue such as the right of the people of Palestine to a state of their own. We can easily be enticed to read reconciliation and fairness as meaning parity between justice and injustice. Having achieved our own freedom, we can fall into the trap of washing our hands of difficulties that others faces. Yet we would be less than human if we did so.
"It behooves all South Africans, themselves erstwhile beneficiaries of generous international support, to stand up and be counted among those contributing actively to the cause of freedom and justice.
"Even during the days of negotiations, our own experience taught us that the pursuit of human fraternity and equality -- irrespective of race or religion -- should stand at the centre of our peaceful endeavours. The choice is not between freedom and justice, on the one hand, and their opposite, on the other. Peace and prosperity; tranquility and security are only possible if these are enjoyed by all without discrimination.
"It is in this spirit that I have come to join you today to add our own voice to the universal call for Palestinian self-determination and statehood."
Aziz Pahad, the South African Deputy Foreign Minister, and Kgalema Motlanthe, the Deputy President of the African National Congress, met with Palestinian human rights activists on June 6, 2008 in South Africa. The South Africans officials had recently returned from a visit to the 1967 Occupied Palestinian Territory. In the meeting with Arab Political Leaders and Adalah representatives, Pahad and Motlanthe stressed the South African government's support for the Palestinian people. Motlanthe stated that in his view "the current situation for Palestinians in the OPT is worse than conditions were for Blacks under the Apartheid regime."
Here is what other prominent South Africans have to say about the issue of Israel and apartheid.
"I've been very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land; it reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa. I have seen the humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like us when young white police officers prevented us from moving about."
- Archbishop Desmond Tutu
"Israel came to resemble more and more apartheid South Africa at its zenith -- even surpassing its brutality, house demolitions, removal of communities, targeted assassinations, massacres, imprisonment and torture of its opponents, collective punishment and the aggression against neighbouring states."
- Former South African Intelligence Minister Ronnie Kasrils from a speech at Israel Apartheid Week 2009.
"But what is interesting is that every black South African that I've spoken to who has visited the Palestinian territory has been horrified and has said without hesitation that the system that applies in Palestine is worse."
- Professor John Dugard, Former U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Occupied Palestine.
"Apartheid Israel can be defeated, just as apartheid in South Africa was defeated."
- Winnie Mandela
"When I come here and see the situation [in the Palestinian territories], I find that what is happening here is 10 times worse than what I had experienced in South Africa. This is Apartheid."
- Arun Ghandi
"As someone who lived in apartheid South Africa and who has visited Palestine I say with confidence that Israel is an apartheid state. In fact, I believe that some of Israel's actions make the actions of South Africa's apartheid regime appear pale by comparison."
- Willie Madisha, in a letter supporting CUPE Ontario's resolution.
"They support Zionism, a version of global racist domination and apartheid based on the doctrine that Jews are superior to Arabs and therefore have a right to oppress them and occupy their country."
- Current COSATU President, Sidumo Dlamini.
Former U.S President Jimmy Carter, who helped bring about the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, has also written and spoken out on Israel's policy towards the Palestinians. In an interview in Israel, Carter stated the following on the apartheid comparison:
When Israel does occupy this territory deep within the West Bank, and connects the 200-or-so settlements with each other, with a road, and then prohibits the Palestinians from using that road, or in many cases even crossing the road, this perpetrates even worse instances of apartness, or apartheid, than we witnessed even in South Africa."
Carter said his new book, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid" was meant to spark U.S. discussion of Israeli policies. "The hope is that my book will at least stimulate a debate, which has not existed in this country. There's never been any debate on this issue of any significance.
Issues that are virtually forbidden in the North American public arena are treated much differently in Israel where such topics are part of the general political discourse and debate. Many Israelis use the term apartheid to describe Israel's policies toward the Palestinians. It is worth reviewing the political debate and public discussion of these questions in Israel.
Michael Ben-Yair was Israel's attorney general from 1993 96. He wrote that after Israel won the Six Day War in June 1967:
We enthusiastically chose to become a colonial society, ignoring international treaties, expropriating lands, transferring settlers from Israel to the occupied territories, engaging in theft and finding justification for all these activities. Passionately desiring to keep the occupied territories, we developed two judicial systems: one progressive, liberal - in Israel; and the other, cruel, injurious - in the occupied territories. In effect, we established an apartheid regime in the occupied territories immediately following their capture.
That oppressive regime exists to this day.
Here are the words of another veteran Israeli politician, Yossi Sarid, on the comparison of Israel's policies toward the Palestinians and apartheid. Sarid served as a member of the Knesset for the Alignment, Ratz and Meretz between 1974 and 2006. A former Minister of Education and Minister of the Environment, he led Meretz between 1996 and 2003.
The white Afrikaners, too, had reasons for their segregation policy; they, too, felt threatened -- a great evil was at their door, and they were frightened, out to defend themselves. Unfortunately, however, all good reasons for apartheid are bad reasons; apartheid always has a reason, and it never has a justification. And what acts like apartheid, is run like apartheid and harasses like apartheid, is not a duck -- it is apartheid. Nor does it even solve the problem of fear:
Today, everyone knows that all apartheid will inevitably reach its sorry end. One essential difference remains between South Africa and Israel: There a small minority dominated a large majority, and here we have almost a tie. But the tiebreaker is already darkening on the horizon. Then the Zionist project will come to an end if we don't choose to leave the slave house before being visited by a fatal demographic plague. It is entirely clear why the word apartheid terrifies us so.
What should frighten us, however, is not the description of reality, but reality itself. Even Ehud Olmert has understood at last that continuing the present situation is the end of the Jewish democratic state, as he recently said.
Another prominent Israeli politician who served many years in the Knesset, Shulamit Aloni, has also been scathing in her criticism of Israel's policies toward the Palestinians. Aloni, is the Israeli Prize laureate who once served as Minister of Education under Yitzhak Rabin. She wrote, "A Jewish self-righteousness is taken for granted among ourselves to such an extent that we fail to see what's right in front of our eyes. It's simply inconceivable that the ultimate victims, the Jews, can carry out evil deeds. Nevertheless, the state of Israel practises its own, quite violent, form of apartheid with the native Palestinian population."
The following are comments made by Yossi Beilin, a member of the Knesset, and chairman of the Israeli Meretz Yahad Party, on the uproar caused in the United States over former President Carter's book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.
I cannot recall when the publication of a book has generated such a debate in Israel. And even though we are talking here about a book that was published in the United States and has yet to be translated into Hebrew, the quiet way in which A Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid has been received in Israel is nevertheless noteworthy, not least because it is Israel itself that is the object of Carter's opprobrium.
Part of the explanation for why Carter's book did not set off any public outcry in Israel lies in the difference in literary culture. For better or worse, and I, for one, certainly think that it is for worse, Carter's books just don't matter here in the way they still do elsewhere.
Yet perhaps a larger part of the explanation lies with the difference in political culture, and with local sensitivities (or perhaps insensitivities) to language and moral tone.
It is not that Israelis are indifferent to what is said about them, but the threshold of what passes as acceptable here is apparently much higher than it is with Israel's friends in the United States. In the case of this particular book, the harsh words that Carter reserves for Israel are simply not as jarring to Israeli ears, which have grown used to such language, especially with respect to the occupation.
In other words, what Carter says in his book about the Israeli occupation and treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories is entirely harmonious with the kind of criticism that Israelis themselves voice about their own country. There is nothing in the criticism that Carter has for Israel that has not been said by Israelis themselves.
Another example of the type of discussion that goes on in Israel is the following statement made by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert: "For 60 years there has been discrimination against Arabs in Israel. This discrimination is deep seated and intolerable."
Olmert made this statement while addressing a meeting of the Knesset committee that was investigating the lack of integration of Arab citizens in the Israeli public service. Prime Minister Olmert also made the following comment in an interview with Haaretz: If the day comes when the two state solution collapses, and we face a South African style struggle for equal voting rights, then as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished.
Ehud Barak, Israel's defence minister, and former Prime Minister, also has used the apartheid analogy. At the annual national security conference in the Israeli city of Herzliya Barak "delivered an unusually blunt warning to his country that a failure to make peace with the Palestinians would leave either a state with no Jewish majority or an "apartheid" regime."
To quote The Guardian newspaper, "His stark language and the South African analogy might have been unthinkable for a senior Israeli figure only a few years ago and is a rare admission of the gravity of the deadlocked peace process."
Barak, a former general and Israel's most decorated soldier, said that a two-state solution was "the only way to secure Israel's future as a "Zionist, Jewish, democratic state."
Barak also said:
"As long as in this territory west of the Jordan river there is only one political entity called Israel it is going to be either non-Jewish, or non-democratic,... If this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state.
Can you ever imagine a top American or Canadian politician making statements like these, or a leading Canadian or American newspaper publishing comments like these ones? If the politicians did make statements like these what would be the reaction?
This article only reviews a portion of the critical debate in Israel from Israeli politicians. There is much more debate and critical examination of Zionism and of Israel's policies toward the Palestinians. The comparison between Israel's policies toward the Palestinians and to apartheid is a legitimate part of that debate and this is an analogy frequently used by Israelis and also by South Africans.
Edward C. Corrigan is a lawyer certified as a Specialist in Citizenship and Immigration Law and Immigration and Refugee Protection by the Law Society of Upper Canada in London, Ontario.