B’Tselem, Apartheid, and questions on my mind

Note: I wrote almost all of this piece before the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza and the accompanying violent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians that erupted in mid-May 2021. This post does not address those events.

Recently the Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem, released a new report making the argument that the State of Israel is guilty of apartheid. B’Tselem’s claim is different than one made some months ago by a different Israeli human rights group, Yesh Din. Last September, Yesh Din released a report making the argument that apartheid as a legal term should be applied to Israeli rule in the West Bank, but they declined to address the question of whether apartheid should be used to describe “Israel proper,” ie. Israel within the Green Line, where Arabs and Jews both have citizenship and voting rights.

B’Tselem’s report says that Israel is guilty of apartheid throughout all the lands over which it is the ultimate ruling power. Here’s how they explain their view:

Map of the West Bank with areas A and B in the salmon, and area C (full Israeli control) in the beige.

B’Tselem’s report goes on to describe the different packages of rights and restrictions facing Palestinians depending on which geographical unit they live in. Let’s start with the West Bank. There, Palestinians live in one of three areas: Area A (full Palestinian Authority control); Area B (Israeli military control and Palestinian Authority civil control); or Area C (full Israeli control).

Whichever of these areas they live in, Palestinians in the West Bank are ultimately under Israeli authority. This is true even if they happen to live in Area A, because even though the Palestinian Authority (PA) has civil and security authority in all the Area A enclaves, if Palestinians try to travel from one Area A enclave to another, they have to pass through Israeli military checkpoints and face very long delays to travel short distances. In addition, for any West Bank Palestinians to travel anywhere within Israel proper or visit family or friends in Gaza, they need very-tough-to-obtain Israeli permits. In other words, Israel is the ultimate power throughout the West Bank.

For Palestinians in Gaza, the Israeli government controls their ability to leave the territory, as well as the specific ocean waters that Israel has designated as the limits that Gazan boats must stay within.

Remember, Gaza is really small. The ocean zone Israel has set up is 12 nautical miles in parts and 6 nautical miles in other areas.

Another one of the geographical units Palestinians reside in is East Jerusalem, where they live under a unique set of rules. B’Tselem states:

Roughly 350,000 Palestinians live in East Jerusalem, which consists of some 70,000 dunams [1 dunam = 1,000 square meters] that Israel annexed to its sovereign territory in 1967. They are defined as permanent residents of Israel, a status that allows them to live and work in Israel without needing special permits, to receive social benefits and health insurance, and to vote in municipal elections [but not for the Knesset]. Yet permanent residency, unlike citizenship, may be revoked at any time, at the complete discretion of the Minister of the Interior. In certain circumstances, it can also expire.

Image result for map of jerusalem east jerusalem

Finally, the fourth geographical unit where Palestinians live under Israeli rule is, of course, inside Israel proper – aka Israel within the Green Line. These Palestinians are citizens of Israel, and in theory they are accorded equal rights. They vote for the Knesset and in some respects have more civil rights than many Arabs in neighboring states have. (As of this writing in the spring of 2021, a Palestinian Islamist political party, Ra’am, just won enough seats in the latest Israeli Knesset elections to potentially play the role of “kingmaker” determining which of several possible coalition governments might be able to take power.) B’Tselem’s report acknowledges that Palestinians who are Israeli citizens can be regarded in some respects as similar to the minority populations of many other democracies, who have theoretical equality but often face discrimination and systemic racism. But B’Tselem’s report argues that the citizenship rights Palestinians living in Israel proper enjoy are substantively fewer than those Jews enjoy.

Israel Proper, within the Green Line

Within Israel proper, B’Tselem states, there are fundamentally two different sets of rights – one for Jews, and the other for Palestinians (and other non-Jewish minorities, like the Bedouin). For example, only Jews have the automatic right to immigrate to Israel. Palestinians living in Israel proper don’t have that right. As a result, only Jewish Israelis have the right to bring spouses or children – whether they are Jewish or not -to Israel to become citizens. Palestinian-Israelis who have relatives living in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, or elsewhere have to go through security scrutiny to bring those family members just to visit, and they can’t bring them to Israel to gain citizenship.

In a similar vein, if a Palestinian living in Israel wants to marry a Palestinian living in the West Bank, Israel will allow the Palestinian from Israel to leave Israel proper to live with their spouse in the West Bank, but not the other way around. Palestinians are allowed to move “downward” in terms of their geographically determined package of legal rights, but not to move “upward.” By contrast, a Jew living in Israel who marries a Jew living in the West Bank can live in either area, and will continue to enjoy the gold standard package of rights, which never degrade regardless of which of the Israeli-ruled geographical units they live in.

Here’s a chart to help understand what B’Tselem is describing regarding the rights and restrictions faced by Palestinians living in each of these four geographical units:

Israel ProperEast JerusalemWest BankGaza
Can vote for Knesset. Can use Ben Gurion airport. Unequal rights to immigration and family reunification. Under “Nation State Law,” Israel defined primarily as state serving Jewish citizens – Arabic demoted from having been an official language, and government policy is to regard all non-Jewish citizens as tolerated minorities, not part of the ethno-religious group around which the state is organized.
Can’t vote for Knesset. Theoretically are allowed to apply for Israeli citizenship, which would allow them to vote for Knesset, but those who do find their paperwork in process for years, and the vast majority of Palestinians living here don’t try. Can use Ben Gurion airport though during the pandemic there have been reports of some problems. Can’t get permits to add to existing homes. If they leave the city for any meaningful period of time, they may have their residency permit revoked. Must go through Israeli military checkpoints when traveling from point to point within West Bank, or from WB to Gaza, to Israel, or outside the country. Subject to military tribunals rather than Israeli civil courts. Can be arrested and detained by Israeli military, without charge, from anywhere in the West Bank. Must get hard-to-obtain building permits from Israel in order to add on to existing homes or build new units. Can vote for Palestinian Authority, but not for Knesset. Can not use Ben Gurion airport without special permission.Can not enter or travel through Israel without rare permit. Can not leave Gaza without Israeli permission, or Egyptian permission. Can not use Ben Gurion airport. Can not take fishing boats beyond restricted zone. Can not vote for Knesset. Can not import or export goods without approval by Israeli authorities.
B’Tselem’s report argues that Israel is a single regime ruling over 4 different geographical units, and that in each of the 4 units Palestinians have a different set of laws and fewer rights than Jews.

What I find the most convincing in B’Tselem’s argument that all of the land between “the river and the sea” should be regarded as a single political regime under Israeli rule is that Israeli policy overall has been to allow and encourage Jewish citizens to live in, build upon, travel through, and do business in almost all of these geographic units (Gaza being the exception), while simultaneously shrinking, limiting, or restricting the ability of Palestinians in each of these four geographical units to do these same activities.

Let me speak personally for a moment. As a Jewish-American, if I want to, I can literally buy a ticket, fly to Israel today, take a taxi to a government office and claim Israeli citizenship. Sure, there will be bureaucratic stuff to deal with, but within a short time I’ll have my ID card and be a citizen. I can then decide to live anywhere in Israel proper or in a West Bank settlement. In fact, if I tell the government I’m willing to live in a settlement, there’s a decent chance I can get financial incentives to help pay for my housing.

One of the moral dilemmas I sometimes face is when I am involved, as a rabbi, in the conversion process for people who become Jews-by-choice (the preferred term for converts in Judaism). From time to time, I have been asked some months or years after a completed conversion if I will send a letter verifying that I presided over the person’s conversion, so that the person can prove their Jewish identity for the purpose of immigrating to Israel. What I have no control over once I send that letter – and I always have sent it upon request – is whether the person will decide to live in one of the settlements in the West Bank.

So has B’Tselem convinced me that Israel is an apartheid state, full stop? I’m still in process on it. What they’ve laid out in their argument makes a lot of sense to me, and yet I have hesitations about accepting B’Tselem’s verdict without qualification. I’ve long believed that Israeli rule in the West Bank constitutes an apartheid-like regime, and when Yesh Din published their legal opinion concluding the same in 2020 I readily agreed. Many Palestinians, on the other hand, have for decades argued that Israel is an apartheid state. It’s easy for me to imagine that from their perspective B’Tselem is really late to the dance, and perhaps they even resent that a Jewish person like me is finally giving the apartheid charge serious consideration only after a Jewish human rights organization has come around to make the accusation. Fair enough. I’m willing to accept that criticism, and I’m not yet willing to cast aside my current uncertainty about the apartheid claim. That’s part of why I’m writing this piece – to research the question further, and to process some of my thoughts “out loud.”

[Update as of July 6, 2021: in a strange twist of events, there is a new development that may have a small impact on the ability of West Bank and Gazan Palestinians who marry Israeli citizens to move to Israel and become citizens. There’s a part of a law that the Knesset has to reauthorize every year since it was instituted in 2003 that explicitly prevents Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza who marry Israeli citizens from gaining residency and citizenship rights in Israel proper. The law needed to be reauthorized by July 6, 2021, but it was narrowly voted down – not by a center-left bloc of votes, but by the right wing opposition now headed by former Prime Minister Netanyahu, apparently solely for the purpose of humiliating and thwarting newly seated Prime Minister Bennett from having a legislative success. I call this a strange twist of events but it’s actually not that weird given the animus and fury that are part of Israeli politics. In any event, despite the lapse in this law restricting “upward” mobility in terms of rights by West Bank and Gazan Palestinians, there remain multiple obstacles to their ability to gain Israeli citizenship, so in essence the status quo remains.]

So what do people mean by “apartheid”?

Jews have been, literally for thousands of years, one of the most racially and linguistically diverse peoples on Earth…

Jewish-Israelis are multi-racial. Very. The Israeli Jewish population is roughly half made up of Jews from Middle Eastern and North African lands. The American Jewish community is also multi-racial, even though 80+% of it is made up of the descendants of European Jewish immigrants. Jews have been, literally for thousands of years, one of the most racially and linguistically diverse peoples on Earth, in part due to their long diaspora history in different parts of the world. For some people, the multi-racial nature of Israel’s Jewish population not only negates the accusation of apartheid – it renders the accusation ridiculous. For others, the definition of apartheid is not limited to replications of South Africa’s one-time system of racist privileging of whites over blacks, but rather it applies to a particular set of crimes under international law committed by one identity group against another. What it comes down to is that it depends what someone means by the word “apartheid.” I have come to think that when people say “apartheid” in reference to Israel/Palestine, they usually mean one or more of three different things.

Three possible meanings of “apartheid”

#1 – The legal definition of the crime of apartheid in contemporary international law

So, to my embarrassment, until last year I didn’t know that for about 40 years there has been a working international legal definition of the crime of apartheid that is different from the specific system that existed in white-ruled South Africa. B’Tselem’s report is not arguing that Israel is just like South Africa was; rather, it is arguing that Israel is violating the international legal definition of apartheid, which is not the same thing. We see a similar distinction made in a very recently released Human Rights Watch report accusing Israel of apartheid. HRW states: “[Our] report does not set out to compare Israel with South Africa under apartheid or to determine whether Israel is an ‘apartheid state’—a concept that is not defined in international law. Rather, the report assesses whether specific acts and policies carried out by Israeli authorities today amount in particular areas to the crimes of apartheid and persecution as defined under international law.”

Let’s look now at that definition. The definition of apartheid in international law is “inhuman acts committed in the context of a regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups with the intention of maintaining that regime.” The definition also requires that there be a “systemic, institutionalized discrimination in rights and resources as a central, constitutive feature of the regime.” (An odd note: there are two key bodies of law involved here – one from 1973 and one from 1998. The earlier version uses the phrase “inhuman acts” and the later one uses “inhumane acts.” I believe the meaning is the same in both uses.)

Also, and this next part is very important, the term “racial group” has a special meaning in international law that is much broader than how we ordinarily think of it. Here’s how Yesh Din’s 2020 legal opinion asserting that Israel is guilty of apartheid in the West Bank explains this:

…the definition of racial discrimination included in the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) expanded discrimination beyond the traditional, narrow scope of racial group which focused on a biological-genetic classification of humans towards a social approach that looks at the political and identity classifications of groups of people and includes these in the definition of racial group as well. Over the years, the conceptualization of racial group as a social construct has taken hold and the prevailing approach now includes national or ethnic origin. It follows that this element is clearly satisfied in the matter at hand, as there are two groups in the West Bank – Palestinian and Jewish-Israeli.

To simplify the legal definition of the crime of apartheid somewhat, a government is guilty of this crime if it does all of the following things:

  1. operates a system of oppression and domination by one group over one or more other groups, in which it
  2. commits inhumane acts (there’s a list of these in the law that we’ll see later), and it
  3. intends to maintain this regime

Yesh Din’s report upends one of the defenses Israel’s government has made against the third of these elements of the crime. Israel has disputed the claim that it is guilty of “the intention of maintaining [the unequal] regime. (italics mine).” Israel’s argument is that the military occupation of the West Bank is temporary, pending the end to the conflict with the Palestinians. Since Israel’s government also argues that the Palestinians are mainly to blame for the failure of the Oslo peace process, the reasoning goes that, as unfortunate as the indignities of the network of checkpoints, roadblocks, and midnight military arrests are, the situation remains an active arena of war and Israel’s role is that of a temporary military occupier. Military occupations are harsh and unfair to innocent locals, the Israeli argument goes, but they have their own set of international laws governing them and Israel has an excellent track record of upholding the rights of local subjects as it maintains a regrettable but necessary temporary military occupation.

Yesh Din’s September 2020 published report.

Yesh Din’s response to that defense is that Israel can’t make that argument while at the same time it expands settlements in the West Bank, extends Israeli civil law to those settlements, and builds permanent roads that are off-limits to Palestinians in the West Bank. It has not behaved, and does not behave, like it is treating its regime of systemic Jewish privilege in the West Bank as temporary.

Furthermore, while in some matters Israel argues that the West Bank is under temporary military occupation, in other international legal situations Israel argues passionately that it is not a military occupation but rather a military policing of “disputed,” not “occupied” lands. Israel uses the “disputed territories” legal argument to justify its settlement expansions. (It’s illegal to build permanent settlements intended for the citizens of the occupying power on lands that are under military occupation, so when the legal subject turns to settlements, Israel argues that these territories are disputed, not occupied.) Yesh Din’s report says Israel can’t have it both ways. The situation in the West Bank, they say, is clearly one Israel intends to maintain, and its Prime Minister has repeatedly sworn that Israel will maintain sovereignty over its settlements forever.

The Knesset – Israel’s parliament

Now let’s turn to items #1 and #2 of the three above. International law defines “persecution” and “denial of rights” as examples of “inhumane acts,” and it spells out what it means by those terms. Yesh Din’s report argues that Israel’s regime in the West Bank carries out several of these inhumane acts and does so in the context of an institutionalized and systemic framework of domination by one group over another.

They cite as one example the dual legal system that Israel maintains in the West Bank – Israeli civil law for Jewish settlers and Israeli military law for Palestinians. They also cite Israel’s denial to Palestinians of the right to develop or improve their property. It’s nearly impossible for Palestinians to get permits to build, expand, or improve property, and when they sometimes go ahead and do so anyway, often to make room for growth in their families, they often are cited by Israeli authorities for violating building code laws and sometimes their homes, or the new construction they’ve done, is demolished. Meanwhile, when ideologically zealous Jewish settlers set up impromptu tents or caravans on West Bank land that Israel hasn’t claimed, most of the time the Israeli army sends troops to protect them, and they usually don’t do much to disrupt or stop them from these acts of creating new facts on the ground. A couple years ago, the Knesset even passed a law called the “regularization law” that retroactively granted legal status to many of the settlers’ unauthorized new settlements.

Israel also engages in periodic officially sanctioned land expropriation and dispossession of Palestinians in the West Bank. Land confiscation by the dominant group against the subjugated group is one of the legally defined examples of “inhumane acts.” Also, Israel severely restricts the freedom of movement of Palestinians, and it maintains policies to keep the Jewish and Palestinian populations separate from each other in the West Bank (separate road systems, separate legal systems, etc.). Yesh Din argues that it meets the legal criteria of imposing policies of separation for the purpose of “[dividing] the population along racial lines by the creation of separate reserves and ghettos for the members of a racial group or groups.” The quoted language is from the 1973 Apartheid Convention. And remember – in this legal framework the term “racial” has been expanded to include ethnic and national groups.

So, Yesh Din has accused its own government of apartheid in the West Bank. B’Tselem has gone a step further by arguing that it’s a fiction to pretend that there’s a separate Israeli regime in the West Bank from the one that rules Israel proper. For B’Tselem, there is only one regime for Israelis and Palestinians alike – the Israeli government – that has ultimate authority over all the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

A key to B’Tselem’s argument is that, from “the river to the sea,” Israel has ultimate authority, not that it is the only political entity with any authority. The Palestinian Authority and even Hamas have constrained and very limited kinds of localized authority within specific enclaves, but Israel is the top dog everywhere between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, the decision-maker with the ultimate ability to enforce its laws and policies. Also, Jewish-Israelis can move back and forth between the different kinds of jurisdictions that Israel controls, and Jews enjoy the same set of rights wherever they go, whereas Palestinians do not.

B’Tselem’s January 2021 pulished report.

The crux of B’Tselem’s case is that there is only one Israeli regime in charge, comprised of four different jurisdictional areas – Israel proper; Gaza; the West Bank; and East Jerusalem. The enclaves of limited Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and the blockaded and walled-off enclave of Gaza are functioning as Palestinian Bantustans under heavy Israeli military guard. B’Tselem says there is one regime in which Jews have the same, gold standard of legal rights wherever they go or live, and in which Palestinians have different combinations of rights and restrictions depending upon which jurisdiction they live in. Wherever Palestinians live, however, their set of rights is always less than the rights of Jews. Finally, like Yesh Din, B’Tselem says that it’s clear that the Israeli government intends to maintain this state of affairs indefinitely.

That’s B’Tselem’s argument. It’s a legal argument and one that seems pretty solid to my non-lawyer’s eyes. I’d like to hear a legally based rebuttal in order to be able to understand what the legal defense against these charges would be, but my purpose with this essay is not to try to resolve my questions about B’Tselem’s legal claim. Rather, it is to explore the questions surrounding the accusation of Israeli apartheid in the different ways in which it is levied.

Human Rights Watch’s report, which is similar to B’Tselem’s in its overall argument, includes this short video summarizing their legal case.

I wrote earlier that I was embarrassed that I didn’t know that there was an international legal crime called “apartheid” that was established in reference to the historical policy of Apartheid that prevailed in South Africa for decades, and that that crime differs in some important ways from South Africa’s version of it. And while I am embarrassed that I didn’t know this until recently, I also know that a lot of the people who argue bitterly about whether or not Israel is an apartheid state also don’t know this. They’re not arguing about the criteria of a contemporary international legal definition – they’re arguing about something else, something that I think falls into one of two categories of thought, which I’ll try to describe in #2 and #3 below.

#2 – A direct comparison between Israel and apartheid South Africa

…words like ‘apartheid’ are still not generally understood as referring to crimes, but rather as descriptive terms.

One issue is that the word ‘apartheid’ is still associated by many with the situation decades ago in its country of origin, South Africa. But like all international crimes the crime of apartheid is not frozen in its origins. It has become a universal legal term. The Rome Statute was drafted in the late 1990s, after the end of apartheid in South Africa.

Another problem may be the common use of the term “apartheid state”. This is not found in international legal definitions but may give the impression that the entire country would need to be responsible for apartheid for it to be a crime. All crimes against humanity under the Rome Statute require evidence of a state or organizational policy, but for other crimes there is no equivalent use of terms like ‘persecution state’ or ‘torture state’. The ICC definition of the crime mentions the context of an ‘institutionalized regime’, but it is clear this is not necessarily the same as a state.

Clive Baldwin, Senior Legal Advisor, Human Rights Watch, writing in April 2021 about his organization’s recent reports claiming that Myanmar and Israel are both guilty of the crime of apartheid

As the quoted text above from Human Rights Watch makes clear, many human rights organizations are taking care to make sure people understand that when they say “apartheid” they do not mean a duplication of what happened in South Africa, and they are rejecting phrases like “Israel is an apartheid state” because “apartheid state” has no meaning in international law. But we all know that many of the people who’ve been making the case that Israel is guilty of apartheid are emphatically claiming that Israel is a close replication of South Africa, and they very much mean to make a direct comparison. Are they correct? I felt like I needed to learn more to try to find out for myself. This next section reflects some of what I’ve learned so far.

Who were the whites in South Africa, what were their beliefs, how did they oppress the black majority? Are Jewish Israelis essentially the same? Another relevant question to ask in this framing of the question of apartheid is: how was the modern Zionist movement like and not like the Afrikaner nationalist movement?

To better understand the culture that coined the term apartheid, I turned to Prof. Alec Ryrie’s amazing lecture, “The Gospel of Apartheid.” Ryrie is a British historian of Protestant Christianity, and this particular lecture is one of a 4-part series of talks he gave at Gresham College called “Extreme Christianity” (highly recommended). I chose to focus on Ryrie’s lecture in part because I’m a rabbi, and one of the lenses that always interests me is the role religion plays in geopolitics.

Briefly, here is what I learned:

The Dutch East India Company (aka the VOC) established a settlement in what is now Cape Town in 1652. Their aim was to provide a place for Dutch sailing ships to stop, resupply, make repairs, and then continue on around to the east as part of their trading empire. The Dutch were in fierce competition with Portuguese and English colonialist trading enterprises, and throughout the 1600s the VOC established colonies in places like Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and parts of India, to name just a few. What began as essentially a Dutch fortified rest stop for ships in 1652 grew by 1660 into a Dutch settlement with permanent residents who had expanded their footprint and already fought against and taken pasture lands from the indigenous Khoikhoi people. It’s important to note that the Dutch colony practiced slavery. It’s also important to note that the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) played a central role in the identity of Dutch South African colonists.

As was the case throughout these centuries of European colonization of Africa, Asia, and the Americas, the major European nations with strong navies competed with each other ruthlessly over domination of trade routes, control of natural resources in conquered lands, and control of indigenous people and their labor. The Dutch, through their agents, the VOC, were a major colonial player.

Coins and flag of the Dutch East India Company

So for some of the same years that Britain and France were fighting each other over North American colonial possessions, and dealing with growing American (white) colonists’ deepening sense of an independent national identity separate from their European founders, Britain and the Netherlands began to fight over control of southern African lands, people, and natural resources. Some of the original Dutch residents were deeply devout members of the DRC, and within a couple generations they began to feel that they had a distinct identity as white, Christian southern Africans – an identity distinct from the Dutch people in the Netherlands, distinct from the black African indigenous peoples of the region, and distinct from the growing population of colonists and clergy from Britain. They developed a distinctive dialect of Dutch, infused with linguistic influences from both indigenous African and English languages, called Afrikaans.

Eventually, a large contingent of Dutch South African people decided that the cosmopolitan city life in Cape Town was a threat to the purity of their specific form of DRC religious life, and they began moving away from the city and into the interior of the country. This movement led to what became known as The Great Trek of the Boers (“boer” being a Dutch word for farmer), in which during the mid-1800s tens of thousands of Dutch Afrikaners formed large wagon trains and ventured into the interior of southern Africa. They took over lands and fought wars against the peoples already living there. They had guns and other technological advantages, and they benefited from the biological “good luck” of their germs tending to be more deadly to the local peoples than vice versa. They won a number of big battles against African peoples, and settled and built farms and churches, asserting Dutch legal and cultural notions of private property upon lands that had never been subject to these forms of ownership and control.

Slide from a presentation by Prof. Alec Ryrie quoting a Dutch Reformed Church pastor’s description of Black Africans and Boer trekkers. See the entire lecture here.

They justified their actions because of religious beliefs that evolved within their specific interpretation of the meaning and calling of the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) in southern Africa. They became convinced that they were the new Israelites. Like in the Old Testament / Torah, God had chosen them to lead them to a promised land that they would sanctify by living their lives in purity. The Zulu and other indigenous African peoples in their way were heathens – literally. They were the new version of the polytheistic peoples that God had commanded the Israelites to vanquish and displace in the Bible. And so they conquered and settled. And they became a distinct people – Boers (“farmers”) or Afrikaners.

Their theology included the idea that their racial identity was part of their chosenness. They wrestled with the question or whether or not Black Africans were beyond Christian salvation, which included questions of whether or not Black Africans were entirely human. Those DRC Afrikaners who believed that there should be a Christian mission to the natives nevertheless believed that God’s intention was to keep the races separate, and that the DRC should maintain a strict policy of having segregated churches. The concept of apartheid (separateness) began, at least in part, as a DRC religious term describing a religious vision of separate races living Christian lives according to DRC beliefs. It was adopted and adapted by Afrikaner political forces who were fighting wars on two fronts: one against the indigenous southern Africans, and the other against British immigrants and troops that had been fighting with the Dutch over these colonial possessions for some time. Once gold and diamonds were discovered in parts of the interior lands where the Afrikaners had settled, the British went all out to try to gain access to the resources. They tried to get the Afrikaners to do business deals that would allow them to establish large mining operations, but the Afrikaners weren’t interested. They were focused on building their religiously devout and austere society in their Promised Land, and they viewed the British as greedy imperialists motivated by base interests. Eventually, the British went to war, twice, against the Afrikaners (The Boer Wars of 1880-81 and 1890-1902). And in the course of those wars, the British committed horrific war crimes, including building concentration camps.

Apartheid was a form not of fascism but of Calvinism.

Prof. Alec Ryrie, The Gospel of Apartheid lecture, 2017

For the Afrikaners, the British were cosmopolitan imperialists only interested in exploiting the natural resources of the land, bringing corrupted and multi-racial forms of Christianity with them. To the Afrikaners the British were also the cruel tyrants who put their people in concentration camps. When Britain outlawed slavery in all of its empire in 1833, including South Africa, the Afrikaners were outraged and morally indignant. They believed that the British version of imperialism posed a threat to the religious and racial purity that defined them as a people dedicated to a sacred purpose.

The British, in turn, viewed the Afrikaners as crazy religious extremists with backwards ideas about many things, including slavery. Of course, although the British ended their own longstanding practice of slavery, the kind of empire they were building still presumed white supremacy and sought to build social relations with colonized peoples based on racism and economic exploitation. There was a self-justifying narrative that was held at least by liberal supporters of the British Empire that Christianity and “civilization” were the gifts the British were bringing to benighted peoples and lands throughout their empire, and that while there were major inequities and other injustices involved in their colonial projects, the long term goal was multi-racial enlightened Christian and capitalist societies under benign British hegemony. At least, that was their moral justification narrative. To the Afrikaners, that vision was morally repugnant, rampant with ungodly race-mixing and crass wealth-seeking.

Flag of the Union of South Africa from 1928 – 1994

Ultimately, a white dominated parliamentary semi-democracy emerged in 1910 – the Union of South Africa – under British rule. By the mid-20th century, the National Party, which had become the political voice of the Afrikaners, was able to take power after an election in which they did not win an outright majority, but they won enough seats in parliament to form the government. The National Party then went about formalizing the ideas of apartheid into a set of legal codes – the system of South African apartheid that became reviled around the world, and which ultimately collapsed and died with the first fully multi-racial free elections in 1994 that brought Nelson Mandela to power as President.

1953 sign near Johannesburg, South Africa

I had never known until recently that apartheid began as a religious concept and migrated into politics. I confess I was stunned to learn this.

Prof. Alec Ryrie’s amazing lecture, “The Gospel of Apartheid,” describes the Afrikaners’ actions as grounded in a collective religious movement based on a combination of radically new interpretations of the Bible, fundamentalist loyalty to that interpretation, and the belief in a God who commanded them to take over lands and displace “ungodly” nations, like the biblical Israelites of antiquity. It’s a story that also reminds me a bit of the Mormon pioneers, or of the Puritans in the English colonies. But not so much of the Zionists of the 19th and 20th century.

I realize that the way the Afrikaners’ beliefs relied on their identifying themselves as the “new Israelites” can lead to the thought that they must have had a very strong connection with the modern Zionists, but that’s not quite right. First of all, the Afrikaners are not a people that began, thousands of years ago, in southern Africa, only to be forced out of their long-time homeland violently, surviving nearly 20 centuries of persecution while maintaining deep ties to their lost homeland, and then eventually launching an organized effort to return to the land of their birth. The Afrikaner form of Dutch Reformed Christianity drew on elements of Judaism’s great mythic foundation story, but it openly admitted that southern Africa was very far away from the land of their origin. Afrikaners had to add to the Jewish mythic story the part about God willing them to go to a land they had previously had nothing to do with, and to add the idea that they had replaced the Torah’s Israelites who had been slaves in Egypt.

That part of their story reminds me somewhat of the early Mormons trekking towards Utah, or of some of the ultra-religious Puritan sects seeing the Americas as the Promised Land God was directing them towards. Speaking as a rabbi and serious student of the Hebrew Bible, the great foundational narrative of the Israelites coming to take possession of the land of Canaan lends itself well to adaptation by later groups imagining themselves to be a divinely chosen group that God wants to reenact that biblical drama in a new land – a land they had never seen or known before. The land Moses, and after him, Joshua, leads the Hebrews to is a land they have never seen or known. In the Book of Numbers, Moses sends scouts to investigate the Promised Land before the Hebrews attempt to enter it, and the scouts return with wondrous stories of what this fantastic and unknown land is like. This is a story easily appropriated for religious groups colonizing unknown lands. And it is not the story behind modern Zionism.

Above: Landing of van Riebeeck at the Cape of Good Hope – painting by Charles Bell depicting the arrival of Jan Van Riebeeck interacting with members of the Khoikhoi people. Van Riebeeck was the founder of the first Dutch outpost in southern Africa, in 1652. Below: Images memorializing the “Great Trek of the Boers” that began in 1836. For me, these images are far more evocative of classic American romantic portrayals of the arrival early Puritans to the east coast of North America and the westward expansion of white Americans in the 19th century than they are of the modern Zionist movement. I’m not saying there aren’t parallels – I’m just reporting on how I react initially to these different kinds of images.

Unlike the Afrikaaners, the Jews did originate as a nation and a religion in Israel. Jerusalem has been the holy city for Jews for 3000 years. In addition, the overwhelming majority of 19th and early 20th century Zionists weren’t religious zealots playing out a race-theory informed religious fantasy on a foreign canvas, but rather were members of a people that had endured a very long diasporic history with frequently catastrophic results, looking for a way to create a secure fortress for themselves in some portion of what had been their ancestors’ homeland. To put it another way: the Zionists’ had many centuries worth of ancestors buried throughout the land they wanted to have for a national home; the Dutch and English who settled in southern Africa did not.

The Hebrew Bible includes several stories about when and how the Jewish people could return from periods of exile. Those stories all involve collective repentance by the Jews in exile for the sins that led to their being exiled in the first place, followed by God acting in the world to return them to their land.

The modern Zionists had to work against that mythic story that was deep in the religious consciousness of the Jews – especially devout Orthodox Jews – because lobbying global powers; raising money to buy land; learning how to farm in a hot, arid climate; and training to fight to win back the ancient homeland were not part of the religious mythic script Jews had inherited. Many Orthodox Jews opposed Zionism because they believed that it violated a religious precept that prohibited Jews from trying to use their own might to try to conquer the Land of Israel, and many also felt that the movement was dominated by dangerous non-religious belief systems such as secular nationalism and revolutionary socialism. For some in the Orthodox community, the Zionists were unwilling to wait for God to decide when the time was right to return the Jews to their land. Many leading early Zionist writers understood their movement of Jewish national liberation to be breaking the self-imposed and self-defeating mental shackles of traditional Jewish religious belief about waiting for God to decide when their exile should end.

Without getting into the merits and faults of the Zionists’ cause, it’s clear that they have some major, important differences with the Afrikaners – not least of which is that Dutch immigrants to southern Africa still had a homeland – the Netherlands – whereas Jews before the formation of the modern State of Israel were nowhere sovereign and often persecuted.

Ultimately, the Afrikaner conquest of southern African lands and their systemic subjugation of Blacks had its origins in European colonial adventures. If the Netherlands had not sought to colonize parts of Asia and Africa, the Afrikaners would never have come into being as a distinct people. Their mythic story re-imagining themselves as the new Israelites entering a newly ordained Promised Land came after Dutch colonial invasion and settlement, and emerged as a meaning-making story in response to the colonial project that brought them to this part of the world. Zionism, by contrast, would never have come into being if the Jewish people hadn’t had over a thousand year history in ancient Israel, which was ended by a violent imperial oppressor’s armies.

To put it another way: the Zionists’ had many centuries worth of ancestors buried throughout the land they wanted to have for a national home; the Dutch and English who settled in southern Africa did not.

I’ve covered some of the key ways in which Israel is not like apartheid South Africa. Now I want to consider some of the evidence on the other side of the argument.

First of all, it’s impossible for me not to feel a hard pang of recognition when I look at this map below of how apartheid era South Africa set aside “homelands” – a.k.a. Bantustans – for non-white and indigenous peoples. Whites kept the majority of the land and the best land for themselves even though they represented a small minority of the total population. Today’s maps of the West Bank and Gaza also display a series of mostly disconnected blotches of limited and localized Palestinian autonomy, heavily monitored and guarded by Israeli military forces.

File:Bantustans in South Africa.svg - Wikimedia Commons
Above: Map of Apartheid era South Africa with “Bantustans” – the different colored splotches represent lands set aside as reservations for various non-white peoples. Below: Map of the West Bank with areas under Palestinian Authority control shown in dark green, juxtaposed with the old South Africa map.

When the Oslo peace process was first being implemented in the mid-1990s, it was premised upon the idea of incremental Israeli handovers of territory to the Palestinian Authority, followed by periods of trust-building, followed by more Israeli territorial withdrawals, and ultimately, in theory, a final status agreement that everyone understood would look like two states living side by side. For the first few years, the Palestinian areas of self-rule expanded several times in accordance with the Oslo plan. The Palestinian “splotches” on the map of the West Bank kept growing in size and number, giving a sense of a carefully managed march towards Palestinian statehood and independence. But then Olso hit a wall – a series of walls actually – and the Palestinian enclaves stopped expanding. Regardless of whose analysis you believe about who deserves most of the blame for sabotaging the intended progress of Oslo towards a two-state solution, the fact is that tor many years now, the Israeli government has been dominated by people determined to cement some kind of Palestinian Bantustan reality into place permanently.

Another important piece of evidence in support of the claim that Israel is a state like apartheid South Africa is the historical military, economic, and political alliance that Israel and apartheid South Africa had from the 1970s until shortly before the end of apartheid. Those who defend Israel’s policies during this period argue that Israel’s leaders found South Africa’s racist system abhorrent, but geo-politics and the necessities of survival left Israel’s leaders with little alternative but to work militarily and economically with pretty much whomever was willing. It is true that this was a period when Israel was losing allies in the developing world, including many countries in Africa that Israel had previously supported politically and economically out of a sense of kinship with anti-colonial independence movements across the continent. Leading Zionists like David ben Gurion saw their movement as an anti-colonial national liberation struggle and they spoke publicly about making common cause with similar movements in Africa and Asia. During the time Golda Meir served as Foreign Minister, she also took public stands against apartheid.

But by the mid-70s multiple African governments had severed their diplomatic ties with Israel, in part out of genuine solidarity with the Palestinians, in part because of how the Cold War led many developing countries to have to choose a side, and in part because of the Arab boycott of Israel and the economics of oil dependency in developing countries. As more and more countries joined boycotts of South Africa, Israel’s leaders continued to publicly condemn apartheid, but they decided to enter into a quiet and large scale partnership with the apartheid regime in Pretoria. This included massive weapons sales, joint military training exercises, intelligence sharing, and mutual cooperation on both countries’ nuclear weapons programs. While Israeli officials would disavow apartheid and seek to minimize their ties with South Africa, South African officials, by contrast, from time to time described their view of Israel as a kindred spirit – an endangered, civilized minority surrounded by “hostile natives.”

Partial photo of declassified South African document of the secret 1975 military agreement between Israel and South Africa. I’ve color highlighted part of the text. Original document online here courtesy of the Wilson Center’s Digital Archive.

The bottom line is that Israel was a key strategic ally of the South African regime, “getting in bed with the devil” as many critics of Israel’s policy, including leftwing Israelis, put it. (I’m still in the beginning stages of learning about this part of Israeli history. I found a lot of useful info in this review of the 2011 book by Sasha Polakow-Suransky, The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa.) Does being a military and strategic ally of an apartheid state make Israel an apartheid state? No. But does it raise red flags? How could it not?

One of my rabbinic colleagues, Rabbi Brian Walt, grew up in apartheid South Africa and as a young man joined in the struggle to end apartheid there. Recently, he wrote an op-ed in support of B’Tselem’s report, in which he movingly describes how he came to see Israel as a country practicing apartheid and made a moral decision to use that word despite the tremendous blow-back that doing so tends to create even in the liberal Jewish community. Describing an experience he had visiting the West Bank city of Hebron in 2008 during a peace-building and human rights focused trip, he writes:

Fulfilling The Dream: On Privilege And Solidarity | Opinion | ithaca.com
Rabbi Brian Walt

We arrived in Hebron. Michael Manikin, a leader with the Israeli human rights group Breaking the Silence, gestured to Shuhada Street, the street our group was about to walk down, and told us it was a “sterile street” — a street forbidden to Palestinians. Only Jews and other tourists were permitted to walk down the street.

I was horrified. My heart beat fast as tears rolled down my face. As a child growing up in Apartheid South Africa, I was intimately familiar with separate beaches, buses, cabs, entrances to post offices and public benches with “Whites Only” signs. But even in Apartheid South Africa, there were no “sterile streets” that only white people could walk on.

For Rabbi Walt, whose career I’ve admired since my days as a rabbinical student in the late 90s, there’s a visceral recognition of something he’s experienced before. In his op-ed, he concurs with B’Tselem’s conclusion that the legal definition of the crime of apartheid has been met, and with their assertion that Israel is the accountable ruling authority over all of the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. He also acknowledges that there are some important ways that Israel and apartheid South Africa are very different. But some of his experiences over the years in Israel and the occupied territories have looked and felt to him very much like the apartheid he struggled against as a college student at the University of Cape Town, and that has haunted him.

Mixed results for army's Ethiopian integration program | The Times of Israel
Photo of Ethiopian Jewish Israeli soldiers from a Times of Israel story.

I’ll close out this section with a personal story – one that complicates my understanding of the question of whether or not Israel is like apartheid South Africa was. Let me say first that in no way am I suggesting this little anecdote I’m going to share carries the same weight as the personal story Rabbi Walt has shared. He was a white anti-apartheid activist in South Africa. I was a white American who grew up in the suburbs of St. Louis and rooted for the end of apartheid from a tremendous distance. In any event, here’s my little story: in 1993, fresh out of college, I spent about 5 months living and working as a volunteer on Kibbutz Ein Dor, which was at the time a successful 800 person community with a dairy farm and an A/V cable producing factory. A lot of the other volunteers were North American Jews like me, but quite a few were non-Jews from many different countries. I met Swedes, Germans, Brits, and a fair number of white South African non-Jews.

This was the year before Mandela would become South Africa’s president, so I got to be a part of several conversations with white South Africans asking them about their takes on the situation in their country. Quite a few were anti-apartheid and looking forward to “one-person-one-vote.” But there was one day I remember, when a bunch of us volunteers were on an outing to the nearby city of Afula. Afula is a working class city, and in the early 90s it was one of the cities in Israel with a large Ethiopian Jewish population. As we walked past shops and cafes and the central bus station, I happened to be strolling a couple meters behind two volunteers from our group – both white South African young men. We passed many young Israeli soldiers in uniform, with their very serious looking assault rifles slung over their shoulders, especially near the bus station. Quite a few of them were Jews of color, as is always the case in Israel, and there were a good number of Ethiopian Jewish soldiers walking past us. At one point, I saw one of the white South African men look dismayed at the other, and I heard him say, “I didn’t come to Israel to be around all these blacks.”

So, that story captures some of the confusion I still have about the apartheid question and Israel. On the one hand, if Israel had not forged an alliance with apartheid South Africa, it’s unlikely that there would have been large numbers of white South African volunteers in kibbutzim. And it seems that the two young men I overheard had imagined Israelis to be white, or at the very least not black. But here’s the thing. Israel is also the country that provided refuge, citizenship, training, guns, and a permanent home to these Ethiopian Jewish soldiers. Moreover, Israelis are black, white, bronze, brown, and various shades in between. And these two white South Africans found that upsetting, disappointing, not what they’d expected.

I guess what I think at this moment is that there are some ways that Israel is very similar to apartheid South Africa, especially as it keeps expanding settlements in the West Bank and making moves to cement in place a series of Palestinian Bantustans. But in terms of white/black racial mapping within an ideological and religious framework of white supremacy that seeks strict separations of people based on skin color, Israel is not at all like apartheid South Africa. In terms of regulating, dominating, and controlling the movement and basic rights of Palestinians in order to favor an institutionalized system of Jewish supremacy, Israel and apartheid South Africa have major points in common (though I would hasten to add that so do a lot of countries, including quite a few in the Arab world). But when you compare the relationship that Dutch and British immigrants had to southern Africa to the relationship Jews had to Israel/Palestine, the two stories couldn’t be more different. There was no historic return to one’s ancient homeland happening for the Europeans who conquered South Africa. There was for Jews.

Now I’d like to address a third thing that I think people sometimes mean when they accuse Israel of apartheid.

#3 – The label “apartheid” can be a way of saying that a country is one of the worst countries in the world & that it deserves the top priority attention and pressure of the entire international community to break its abhorrent form of rule

One of the resistances I feel to using the language of apartheid about Israel without at least some caveats is my worry that there won’t be a similar scrutiny applied to Islamic states in the region that may be guilty of similar or even worse human rights crimes. I worry that this will lead to a distorted perception of the Middle East as a place of generally acceptable human rights conditions except for mean ugly Israel standing out from the pack as the chief evil-doing country in the region, and possibly the world. It’s not that I love “whataboutism?” arguments – they don’t excuse a country for its wrongs and should not be used to stifle those fighting for justice. It’s just that I’m bothered by thought of treating Israel as the #1 offender leading to the erasure of urgent and massive human rights injustices taking place throughout the Middle East. Also, I’m fearful that Jews will one day lose the collective sovereignty and military power they now have in Israel, and then be residents of a region that never was pushed by the international community to be accountable for human rights across the board.

Encyclopaedia Britannica on Twitter: "For more than a decade, Helen Suzman  was the sole antiapartheid member of the South African Parliament, thus  serving as a key advocate for the disenfranchised. #WomensHistoryMonth  https://t.co/Ph9APUgBFU…
Helen Suzman, South African parliamentarian and anti-apartheid activist

I’m shaken a bit, for example, by these comments by Iqbal Jassat, writing in The Palestine Chronicle in May 2008. Jassat was responding to reports that Helen Suzman, an heroic, white South African (and Jewish) parliamentarian who fought apartheid throughout her political career, disagreed with the accusation that Israel practices apartheid. In his article, “The Same Apartheid, a Different Suzman,” he concludes by asking, “Since the demise of apartheid where else besides Israel does one find such crude forms of racism Mrs. Suzman?”

Cairo based journalist Bahira Amin

Well, if the question had been posed to me, I might have answered: We find such crude forms of racism all over the globe, and especially in the Middle East. We could start with the fact that anti-Black racism has been a longstanding systemic problem in Arab societies. Bahira Amin’s 2020 article, “Anti-Blackness in the Arab world and the violence that doesn’t get a hashtag,” and this 2018 article in Scene Arabia about anti-Black racism in Egypt are both powerful and painful to read.

Or consider one of the largest scale systems of legally enforced inequity based on status and identity in the Middle East – the kafala system in which tens of millions of mainly South Asian and African migrant workers are exploited and, according to Human Rights Watch, part of a system that “tie[s] migrant workers’ visas to their employers and that have enabled abuse and exploitation of workers.” In the case of the United Arab Emirates, nearly 90% of the population are migrants working in subservient and menial jobs, stripped of many basic rights and routinely abused.

Another massive and pervasive injustice throughout much of the Islamic world is the repression or even denial of legitimacy of religious minorities. Look at the plight of the Baha’i in Iran, of the Kurds in Turkey, or countless other often ancient religious communities throughout the region. It’s normative throughout the Islamic world for Islam to be enfranchised as the official state religion. That in and of itself isn’t necessarily a human rights problem – plenty of nation states have an official state church and nevertheless maintain religious freedom as a basic right of citizenship. But religious minorities in numerous Islamic states have faced, and often continue to face, enormous hostility, violence, and degraded status in their own countries.

These Baha’i Iranian citizens were convicted on charges of “propaganda in favor of the Baha’i faith and against the Islamic Republic by being members of an illegal organization.” The Baha’i religion is not recognized by Iran’s constitution.

For many Israeli Jews and supporters of Israel, the claim that Israel is guilty of apartheid seems suspicious if it takes place absent a regional human rights assessment that clarifies: 1) is the crime of apartheid being committed in other countries in the region, and if so, where and how; and 2) what will the basic rights of everyone living throughout the region be and what will guarantee that those rights will apply to Jews if Jews were to give up statehood and military power? The thinking of some Israelis goes like this: “So, if Israel gives up Jewish hegemony as an organizing principle and strips itself of the kind of collective ethno-religious power that operates in all the other countries of the region, what happens after? Does the region as a whole become safer for Jews, or more dangerous? Will Jews be allowed to live throughout the region, enjoy guarantees of civic equality for religious minorities, and shift into a more equitable regional world order in the region? Or will Jews feel hoodwinked after finally ending their role as oppressors of Palestinians, if they are tossed into a region that has not been meaningfully pressured by the international community to remake its many systems of persecution, oppression of minorities, and in some cases, apartheid?”

They’ll also note that if you look at their neighbors Syria and Iraq, you see examples of bloodbaths that have resulted from multi-religious and multi-ethnic groups attempting to co-exist within a single state. Those regional nightmares, combined with Lebanon’s long history of recurring Sunni-Shia-Christian civil wars, also give Israelis pause when they are confronted by those human rights advocates who argue that the only just way to end Israeli apartheid is the dismantling of Zionism and the establishment of a new, bi-national democratic state in all of historic Palestine.

I’m not saying I agree with these objections by some Jewish-Israelis. I am saying they give me pause. Lots of Israelis agree that what they are doing is not right. But they believe that the evil they do is (a) necessary for their survival because of the pervasiveness of the hatred of Jews throughout the region and the unreformed systems of mistreatment of minorities throughout the Islamic world, and (b) not actually as evil as what most of the other governments throughout the region do. For all those Israel has harmed or killed, it has never done anything like what China is currently doing to the Uyghurs. Or Myanmar’s government to the Rohingya.

The ongoing Chinese persecution of Muslim Uyghurs has led to policies that meet the international legal definitions of both apartheid and genocide. Roughly a million people have been taken into concentration / “re-education” camps. Some who advocate for Israel say that they would be more sympathetic to a BDS campaign against Israel if it was part of a global BDS campaign against all countries practicing systems of apartheid and/or genocide under international law. “Prove to us that BDS isn’t a campaign seeking to hold Israel to a vastly different standard than countries that are much bigger human rights offenders,” these people argue. When I hear these arguments, my response is usually to wish there was more of a global effort to hold the other offending countries accountable. This kind of argument should be used to expose the human rights battles that aren’t being fought seriously enough, but not to let Israel off the hook.

Still, double standards in moral condemnation are especially upsetting for Jews, because that is one of the longstanding patterns of antisemitism historically. And too many people in pro-Palestine political circles are utterly ignorant of that fact. They aren’t aware, for example, that in medieval times Christian nobles enforced laws that prevented Jews from owning land – the main source of wealth – and required Jews to serve as tax collectors from Christian peasants on behalf of the nobles. This entire system of economic exploitation was based on the greed of Christian nobles, but the accusation of having a greedy innate character landed on Jews, who as tax collectors certainly seemed to fit the profile. There’s a much longer list of these kinds of historical memories that lead many in the Jewish community to be justifiably suspicious of hypocrisy in organized moral condemnation of Jews as a group (and while Israel doesn’t represent all Jews as a group, it’s the most visible and powerful expression of Jewish group identity of these times.)

For many Israelis and their advocates, there’s a feeling that the label of “apartheid” is code for “the world’s most abhorrent human rights offender,” and most Israelis deeply dispute that they deserve that infamous place in the public’s imagination. Too often one finds antisemitic imagery, beliefs, and tropes mixed in to the materials, rhetoric, and political cultures that are passionate about condemning Israel as an apartheid state. As a colleague of mine, Rabbi Carl Choper, writes, there’s been a longstanding problem of propaganda that demonizes the State of Israel by depicting it as an effort to impose evil upon the entire region, or even the world, and that trope carries on classic traditions of antisemitism found in Christian religious polemics against Jews, as well as certain classical Islamic anti-Jewish tropes.

I’m not saying I agree with these objections by some Jewish-Israelis. I am saying they give me pause.

Just as some would argue that it’s important to talk about Israel’s systemic oppressive treatment of Palestinians as part of a wider discussion of how it compares to similar injustices taking place throughout the world, still others would argue that it’s also important to compare the scale and numbers of people being killed or displaced in the various ongoing violent conflicts of the 21st century. Making this comparison doesn’t erase the injustices of Israel’s government, but it does offer a measure of scope and scale that may impact the question of how the international community should prioritize human rights emergencies. Here’s my effort at a chart examining casualties and refugees from several of the most recent major armed conflicts worldwide.

I’ll let you draw your own conclusions from it, and then I want to move on to the question of how widespread the crime of apartheid may be across the world right now.

21st Century warest # killed incl. civiliansest # refugees / displaced
Syrian Civil War400,000 – 600,0005,600,000
Iraq War450,000 – 650,0004,000,000
Darfur300,000+3,000,000
Afghanistan110,000 – 300,000
Yemeni Civil War100,000
Boko Haram37,5002,700,000
Israel / Palestine11,710 (10,300 Pal / 1,410 Isr)

Accusations of apartheid against other countries

When I learned that there was an international legal definition of apartheid and that it is considered a crime against humanity, I began to wonder how many countries around the world actually meet the criteria of the crime. And I wondered whether human rights organizations and the UN had developed an ongoing list, or global index type report, on the prevalence of the crime of apartheid around the world. Assuming for the moment that Israel is guilty of this crime, is it one of a tiny number of nations that are guilty of it, or it it part of a much larger group of nations? And are there ways to measure and compare the scale of intensity, cruelty, and fatality among the different nations practicing apartheid?

As I review the legal definition of apartheid, I find myself wondering if the reality happening in the wider Middle East is a pattern of authoritarian, ethno-religiously defined regimes implementing variations of apartheid as defined in international law. To try to learn more, I made a short list of countries that I thought were probably violating all 3 of the legal criteria (discussed above) necessary to be guilty of the crime of apartheid. Then I started Googling those countries along with search terms like “apartheid” to see what I’d find. What emerged were many articles written by noted journalists and human rights leaders accusing most of the countries I looked up of apartheid. In one case, the UN itself made a public accusation (Myanmar 2019). Here’s some of what I learned:

Saudi Arabian women’s rights activist, Loujain Al-Hathoul, imprisoned by her government and allegedly tortured along with other women’s rights activists.
“The new Chinese settlers have created an alternate society: a Chinese apartheid which, denying Tibetans equal social and economic status in our own land, threatens to finally overwhelm and absorb us.” – H.H. the 14th Dalai Lama, 1991
Country Name Article Making Accusation of Apartheid
SyriaBritish journalist Nick Cohen’s article in The Guardian.
MoroccoLink to website of organization accusing Morocco of apartheid.
BahrainNicholas Kristof writing in 2011 exploring whether Bahrain is guilty of apartheid. Brian Dooley of Human Rights First also writing about Bahrain.
Saudi ArabiaSarah Aziza in Ms. Magazine writing about gender apartheid in Saudi Arabia.
ChinaThe Dalai Lama speaking about China and apartheid. Note – China may be guilty of apartheid against both Tibetans and Uyghurs.
IranH. E. Chehabi writing about religion-based apartheid in Iran.
MyanmarArticle on the UN’s declaration of apartheid in Myanmar (2019).
Accusations of apartheid are more common than I expected, though it’s not clear to me that there’s any consistent standard determining when the UN or other human rights watchdog groups use the language of apartheid and when they use different terminology to expose and oppose human rights violations in different countries.

I decided to take my little experiment further. I created another chart, below, which you’ll probably need to click on to enlarge in order to be able to read the small fonts in some cases. I took the international legal definition of apartheid and applied it to 14 countries that I picked largely out of curiosity, and out of a hunch that they might be guilty of the crime of apartheid. I looked for accusations of violations of each of the 3 criteria required for the crime: 1) a government that operates a system of oppression and domination of one group over one or more other groups; 2) and that commits one or more of a specific list of inhumane acts within the context of that system of oppression; and 3) that intends to maintain that system of oppression. The three columns in the middle of the chart represent those 3 criteria in order. The column at the far right of the chart lists the groups that are being oppressed in each case, and sometimes I have included notes about which inhumane acts are being carried out against them. Here’s the chart:

“Do we have a choice?”

Some Jewish Israelis will probably concede B’Tselem’s point – they’ll review the analysis of what international law says constitutes apartheid, compare it to the circumstances taking place in Israel and the occupied territories, and say, “what do you know – you’re right. We’re guilty of that.” But they won’t agree that therefore Israel should immediately withdraw its troops from the West Bank, end the blockade of Gaza, open its borders, divest itself of its military power in the region and allow an attempt at bi-national democracy to play out — and just hope that it doesn’t result in disaster for the region’s Jews. Also, they won’t agree that Israeli apartheid is morally worse than what many other countries are doing throughout the region.

They’ll hope for a better and more humane, more just state of affairs, but they’re unwilling to take what feels like existential risks. Some of them will go so far as to agree that their government and their right-wing zealots make matters unnecessarily worse for Palestinians than is necessary for Israeli security. But these Jewish-Israelis tend to advocate for gradual reform while maintaining the current system, which B’Tselem says is apartheid, in a more humane and respectful way. In the end, though, many of these Israelis will agree with the belief that apartheid may just be the necessary cost of Israeli survival in a deeply antisemitic, systemically unjust, and politically unstable region that now is home to about half the world’s Jewish population.

To better understand where Israelis like the ones I’ve just described are coming from, let me quote an Israeli journalist I often partly agree with but also get frustrated with, Matti Friedman. Friedman seeks to evoke empathy for how ordinary Israelis experience the conflict, and while he doesn’t reject all criticism of Israel, he criticizes those who aren’t well-informed about the totality of what Jewish-Israelis consider and weigh when they think about their country’s options. He writes:

If you see only an “Israeli–Palestinian” conflict, Israel’s decisions won’t make sense. In the Western mind, for example, the West Bank and Syria are two completely separate stories. In the real world, they are so close that the drive between them takes the same time as a subway ride across New York City. If you don’t understand that context, it’s hard to understand why many sane Israelis are afraid that a power vacuum in the West Bank might not become a “Palestinian state,” as the press story assumes, but might actually become like Syria, where a civil war just killed 500,000 people. The Arab world numbers about 330 million people, a tiny portion of whom are Palestinian. The Arab minority under Israeli control, the Palestinians, are part of the regional majority. The broader Islamic world is (depending on whom you ask) about 1.5 billion people. There are 6 million Jews in Israel. The entire Jewish population on Earth, about 13 million, is a lot smaller than the population of Cairo. 

The context doesn’t mean that all of Israel’s decisions are right — just that they’re being driven by factors that many people miss. 

Matti Friedman, “Eight Tips for Reading about Israel,” Sapir Journal, April 2021

I agree with Friedman’s argument that we should make sure we understand how Israelis assess their situation and take into account the bigger picture they hold in mind. What worries me about this argument is that it’s easy to use it to try to dismiss or diminish the scope and severity of the injustices Israel imposes upon Palestinians. Just because Israelis perceive their risk factors a certain way doesn’t mean they always perceive them accurately, especially when their leaders promote demonizing beliefs about Arabs and Muslims and use mass media to manipulate opinion. And just because honoring Palestinians’ human, legal, and civil rights may present frightening risks for Israeli Jews doesn’t mean that the Palestinians’ rights should be set aside until enough Israelis feel safe enough to grant them. All that said, I think Friedman’s points are an important part of the discussion and can not be dismissed.

What I’ve learned from studying this subject so far…

Human rights activists shouldn’t have to prove that the regime is like apartheid before the world takes their oppression seriously and steps in to help.

Brian Dooley, “Is Bahrain the New Apartheid State,” Human Rights First, March 28, 2015
An Israeli demonstration against Netanyahu’s proposed annexation of Jewish settlements and additional lands in the West bank. The banner in black translates to “There is no democracy with apartheid.” It’s not clear to me whether the demonstrators are making the accusation that Israel is at risk of becoming an apartheid state if it annexes territories in the West Bank or even fails to end the occupation, or whether they are making the accusation that B’Tselem has made, that Israel is already guilty of apartheid throughout all the lands it rules. If I was Palestinian, I’m not sure how much the distinction would matter.

People frequently argue past each other. One person accusing Israel of apartheid may have done their homework about contemporary international law, seen the analysis of what Israel’s government is doing, and drawn a conclusion that appears well-proven or even obvious. Someone else, meanwhile, hears the charge of “apartheid” leveled against Israel, thinks about the white supremacist race theory upon which South African apartheid was based, considers how repulsed South African white supremacists would be by Jewish-Israeli racial diversity, and concludes that the person making the apartheid accusation about Israel is not only wrong, they must also be unaware of Jewish-Israelis’ racial diversity, or else they may just be antisemitic.

Palestinian writers have been using the term apartheid for many years, in part as a way to describe their day-to-day lives living under Israeli occupation and domination. I’m pretty sure that if I was Palestinian, I would use the term too, without hesitation. As others have said, the boot on one’s neck feels the same whether it is labeled “apartheid” or “occupation” or “injustice.”

I am not sure what I will decide to do yet regarding the use of the word “apartheid” regarding Israel. I’ll probably try to have longer conversations than those who shout slogans on one side or the other of this debate want to have. Two things I feel much more certain about, however, after researching and writing this essay: 1) there may be an epidemic of apartheid happening around the world, an alarming crisis in which dozens of countries currently meet the international legal criteria of the crime; and 2) as Brian Dooley has written, “Human rights activists shouldn’t have to prove that [a] regime is like apartheid before the world takes their oppression seriously and steps in to help.

I’ll close with a final thought regarding the second of these two new realizations on my part. Whether or not it’s fair to use the word “apartheid” regarding Israel, Palestinians continue to endure a regime of systemic domination, humiliation, and injustice at the hands of Israelis. Apartheid, whether we mean how it’s defined in international law or whether we’re talking about historical South Africa, is a packaged set of organized cruelties by one group against another. Whether it qualifies as apartheid – however one defines it – or not, the regime Israel operates enforces a packaged set of organized cruelties against Palestinians. A wider context may reveal that Israel is still morally superior to scores of other countries; or that many of Israel’s harsh critics are guilty of some hypocrisy, antisemitism, or both. But wider context doesn’t justify or excuse organized cruelty. The boot of the soldier has to come off the neck of the person whom the soldier is pressing into the ground, regardless of whether the accusations that the person on the ground hurls at the soldier are one hundred percent accurate.

4 thoughts on “B’Tselem, Apartheid, and questions on my mind

  1. This is an amazing essay, Rabbi Maurice! I feel as if it really helped me gain perspective I did not have before. My undergraduate degree(double major) was in African History, focusing on South Africa, so I had a very distinct understanding of apartheid. You have decidedly expended that understanding!
    Part of the problem in South Africa stemmed from another phenomenon: mfecane (the crushing) which was a massive population collision/explosion concurrent with the Great Trek. It seems to me that there have been massive growths of population that have exacerbated the issues in the Middle East and elsewhere (here in the US) bringing the populations of each of these areas into even greater and more intense conflict. Apartheid (by my new understanding, thanks to your essay) seems to be a growing international approach to population pressure, as well as racial/cultural differences. It is as worthy of combating now as it was back when it was specifically a South African phenomenon.
    Fascinating, sir!

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  2. There are a couple of things I want to address that complicate some of your questions or reasoning outlined here.

    The first is around the comments you’ve made that the Jewish people are multi-racial (correct), that there are non-white Jewish people in Israel (correct), and that non-white Jewish people in Israel are accorded the same rights and freedoms as white Jewish people (correct on paper, but not always the case in reality). You specifically mentioned seeing Ethiopian Jewish soldiers and pointed to this as an example of how Jewish is a multi-racial safe haven for non-white Jews. Immediately it brought to my mind the scandal, which broke only 8 years ago, where Ethiopian Jews were being injected with birth control shots–without the full understanding or consent of those being injected–when immigrating to Israel. Ethiopian Jews in Israel are disproportionately likely to live in poverty–over half of Ethiopian Jews live in poverty, versus 16% of the Israeli population overall. And until 1975, Ethiopian Jews did not have the right of return in Israel, and while I know there are some theological reasons for that, the ongoing discrimination and poverty makes it clear it’s not merely theological differences.

    Beyond the struggles of Ethiopian Jews in Israel, in the 40s and 50s, there was the Yemenite Children Affair, and Mizrahi children were subjected to radiation treatments upon immigration to Israel. I believe you referenced the linguistic diversity of Jewish people, yet you do not note how Israel went from a place with a broad diversity of Arabic dialects being spoken among Jewish families to Arabic barely being spoken at all, in only 70 years. Mizrahi Jews in particular have protested the demonization of their language, food, and culture by the Israeli government and also by the way their appearance causes them to face many of the same challenges as Palestinians in terms of freedom of movement. There are widely known disparities in educational and professional opportunities based not on racial identity. Tucked into housing segregation between Palestinian and Jewish Israelis, non-white Jewish people in Israel sometimes cite that they have also experienced racial discrimination in housing.

    While Jewish people are absolutely multi-racial and all Jewish Israelis on paper have the same rights as every other Jewish person in Israel, that is not the same as that being the lived experiences of non-white Jewish Israelis. It would be like me arguing that because racial discrimination is technically illegal in the United States, and the United States is a diverse nation of immigrants with no official language, and we see people of all races serving in the government and the military, that means there is no racial discrimination or inequality in the United States. We both know the opposite is true.

    That brings me to my final comment, which is the “whataboutism”. You noted yourself that whataboutism is problematic, and yet you engaged in it at length. I did not read most of it, because frankly, I was so angry after a few paragraphs, my blood pressure was up. Talking about all the bad things other countries in the Middle East are doing and have done–which absolutely are issues and need to be addressed–does not change what is or is not happening in Israel. And when Israel is held up as “the only democracy in the Middle East,” while the rest of the Middle East is largely viewed by the West as a regressive backwater of religious extremists, it seems like we might already be holding up other Middle Eastern countries to greater scrutiny than we are Israel.

    Regardless, the barrier for addressing mass inequality or human rights violations in any place should not be dependent on whether we’ve addressed mass inequality or human rights violations in every place. I am an American. Obviously, OBVIOUSLY we have massive inequality and human rights issues here that must be addressed. But that doesn’t mean I can only focus on American problems until we fix everything here in the USA. Especially when we are helping to fund Israeli military violence against Palestinians and the Israeli system of governance that upholds “separateness”, whether you want to call it apartheid or not. I believe we all have an obligation to speak up against the wrong that we see being done, regardless of whether that’s the only wrong or the worst wrong or the wrong that pervades our own communities. Quibbling over the correct terminology we apply to what the Israeli government is doing to Palestinians or saying, “but what about those people over there?” feels, to me, like trying to minimize the severity of what is happening and diminishing the urgent need for change.

    I appreciate that you are taking the time to grapple with all of this and have dissected, at length, the issues. I hope this post spurs you to expand your investigation and also consider whether the application of the term “apartheid” is truly where the focus should be, when in the last 2 weeks, over 200 Palestinians–include nearly 60 children–have been killed. Whatever you want to call it, it’s wrong, and the entire political framework around it must change.

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  3. This is the most nuanced and thorough breakdown that I’ve read on this argument. Thank you for sharing your journey as you honestly interrogate these questions. I’m going to come back to this post as a tool to do the same thing. Thank you.

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