In recent years, a common item in the Palestine solidarity campaign in the West has been the ‘Israel Apartheid Week’, which was often organised by students on campuses in Europe and the United States.
This activity was one of many reflecting a wish to compare the reality of present-day Israel with that which existed in Apartheid South Africa. Activists all over the world felt that the analogy was not only valid but also inspirational for the continued struggle for peace and liberation in Palestine.
However, such a comparison is not only an item on the agenda of activists or critical academics; it has been attempted by some unexpected people and organisations. Quite a few high-ranking Israeli politicians and generals referred occasionally to the analogy. A recent book by Sasha Polakow-Suransky about Israel’s ties with the apartheid regime registers these references quite pedantically and systematically.
A typical example is one made by the former Israeli Chief of the General Staff, Rafael Eytan, in front of a student convention at Tel Aviv University:
Blacks in South Africa want to gain control over the white minority just like Arabs here want to gain control over us. And we too, like the white minority in South Africa, must act to prevent them from taking us over.
The acknowledged similarity is probably one of the main impulses behind Israel’s long-lasting support for the regime even at the time when Western governments began to shun it. This odd behaviour did not escape Nelson Mandela when he was finally liberated from Robben Island. When an Israeli of South African origin wrote to him, shortly after his release from prison, saying that he was a ‘latter day Moses who was about to reach the Promised Land’ (this was before the elections that brought Mandela to power as president of South Africa), Mandela replied: ‘South Africa will never forget the support of the state of Israel to the Apartheid regime’.
This book is also interested in such an analogy and comparison, but it is, of course, motivated by different impulses from those pushing Israeli leaders into the hands of the apartheid regime. It is moved by the same sense of duty that led academics, activists and generally interested people in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict to refer to South Africa as a favourite point of compassion and inspiration. What unites all those engaged in such a comparison – be it professional, journalistic or popular – is that they all accept the validity of such an exercise. What is missing, we felt, was a more thorough examination of this comparison.
One of the reasons why, academically, this comparison was late in coming is the strong opposition to it in the pro-Israeli Western academia – and, of course, among the Israeli research community.
In fact, most Israeli scholars and politicians are still enraged, even if they belong to the ‘Peace Camp’, by any such comparison. This is not surprising: even a slight or indirect implication of Israel as an apartheid state has far-reaching implications for the international legitimacy of the Jewish state.
And yet even a cursory knowledge of Israeli policies and practices on the one hand, and familiarity with the definition in the international law of apartheid on the other, begs at least a serious consideration for the validity of such an analogy.
The International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, adopted by the UN General Assembly in November 1973, regards apartheid as ‘a crime against humanity’ and a violation of international law. Apartheid means ‘similar policies and practices of racial segregation and discrimination as practised in southern Africa’. Such policies are criminal as they are ‘committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them’.
Despite strong pressure from Israel and its friends not to use the language of apartheid about the Palestine situation, it does seem that worldwide, especially in the wake of Jimmy Carter’s clear reference to Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories as an apartheid regime, the need for such a comparison is deemed not only legitimate but even helpful.
This volume wishes to launch a professional and academic discussion less about the validity of the comparison, which this editor takes for granted, but more about the similarities and dissimilarities of the two case studies. This is just the beginning of this comparative search and therefore this volume is not a comprehensive project – for this to happen one needs more than one collection and a longer and sustained academic effort.