Is Israel an apartheid state?

“Israeli apartheid” has become a meme, an all-inclusive term that Israel’s critics on the far left use to tarnish everything connected with the Jewish state.  Many people throw the A-word around very loosely, as if Israel’s Arab citizens are victims of the the same kind of systematic, racial exclusion that Afrikaners imposed on South African blacks. Here is Benjamin Pogrund, a South African journalist who campaigned against apartheid:

The difference between the current Israeli situation and apartheid South Africa is emphasised at a very human level: Jewish and Arab babies are born in the same delivery room, with the same facilities, attended by the same doctors and nurses, with the mothers recovering in adjoining beds in a ward. Two years ago I had major surgery in a Jerusalem hospital: the surgeon was Jewish, the anaesthetist was Arab, the doctors and nurses who looked after me were Jews and Arabs. Jews and Arabs share meals in restaurants and travel on the same trains, buses and taxis, and visit each other’s homes. 

Could any of this possibly have happened under apartheid? Of course not.

However, in recent years well-established human rights organizations have accused Israel of apartheid using definitions that go beyond the South African paradigm. For example, they note that the Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court in 2002, defined apartheid as a “crime against humanity“ that is “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.” 

Does that apply to the circumstance of Israeli Arabs?  They certainly suffer from economic inequities and serious—sometimes systematic—discrimination when it comes to housing, employment and municipal services. They are, too often, the victims of outright and unapologetic racism. 

This is an appalling situation and it needs to be fixed. Israel is a deeply flawed, heterogenous democracy where Arabs are too often treated as second-class citizens. But we think it’s a major stretch to claim that Israeli Arabs are victims of the kind of “systematic oppression and domination” that is so inhumane it constitutes a “crime against humanity.” 

Israel’s Arab citizens, about 1/5th of its population, can vote and have the same civil rights under the law as Israeli Jews. Some of them serve in the Israeli Knesset. Those who deem Israel guilty of apartheid west of the Green Line are not accurately describing the plight of Israeli Arabs.

What about Palestinians in the occupied territories? 

The plight of Palestinians in the occupied territories is obviously different. They can’t vote in Israeli elections or drive on major roads that crisscross the West Bank. They can be imprisoned—via “administrative detention”—without charges or a trial and are denied many other basic rights. The Israeli human rights organization, Yesh Din, has made a compelling case that this is apartheid. Other analysts who strenuously oppose the occupation, like Michael Koplow, argue that the “A-word” doesn’t technically apply to the West Bank or Gaza Strip. Whether it is does or doesn’t, that is a distinction without a difference to Palestinians who live under a morally unsustainable occupation. 

Since Israel is frequently accused of apartheid, those who are committed to peace and justice should consider whether the accusation is accurate. At the same time, we believe the enormous amount of energy that is now expended on arguing about the A-word would be more productive if it were devoted to stopping the annexation of the West Bank and ensuring the equality of Israeli Arabs.

As former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, hardly a leftist, has noted: “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.”