Countering Pro-Palestinian Propaganda, Part 3: The Apartheid State

Newcastle / Great Britain – March 30, 2019: Free Palestine Rally held by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. Image Credit: Robinson

by A.J. Caschetta

(Investigative Project on Terrorism) — No pro-Hamas, anti-Israel protest would be complete without a few posters or banners demanding an end to “Israeli apartheid.” After all, many of the protesters attend colleges that host an annual “Israel Apartheid Week” as part of their Spring festivities. But the term “Israeli apartheid” is a farcical slur, meant to indict Israel as a racist nation by comparing it to the South African apartheid government.

There are two components to refuting this claim. The first one is easy, involving only a brief comparison between apartheid South Africa and Israel. The second part is more difficult, explaining the origin of the slanderous accusation.

The term “apartheid” is an Afrikaans word meaning “apartness.” Beginning in 1948, South Africa’s government implemented a series of laws that forced black people to live apart from whites within the same country – an important detail. Those who accuse Israel of apartheid conflate foreign and domestic policy to substantiate their weak claim that Palestinian Arabs living in Gaza and parts of the West Bank controlled by the Palestinian Authority (PA) are forced to live apart from the citizens of Israel. But these “Palestinians” do not have rights to anything in Israel since they don’t live in Israel. This is not apartheid social policy but rather common-sense international relations. For instance, U.S. laws don’t apply in Canada, and Canadians can’t vote in American elections, but nobody calls this arrangement “apartheid.”

South Africa’s apartheid laws withheld from black citizens the rights and privileges that white citizens enjoyed. But there are no such laws in Israel today. Not a single element of apartheid South African law discriminating against non-whites is applied by Israel against its non-Jewish citizens.

Arab citizens of Israel are not forced to live separately from Jewish citizens. Arab citizens of Israel have the same rights as Jewish citizens. Arab citizens of Israel can be anything they want in Israel — doctors, lawyers, soldiers, police officers, members of the Supreme Court, and politicians. Many Arab citizens of Israel join the IDF. Nearly 20 percent of students at Israeli universities are non-Jewish, Arab citizens, and Israel has devoted considerable efforts to increase that number.

That’s not how apartheid works.

It is important to understand that the “Israel-is-an-apartheid state” lie did not originate from one of the usual suspects — the U.N., academia, or a Democrat in Congress. In fact, it came from post-apartheid South Africa itself.

The link between post-apartheid South Africa and Palestinian terrorists begins with the friendship between Nelson Mandela and Yasser Arafat. In 1990, Mandela said “we identify with the PLO because just like ourselves, they are fighting for the right of self-determination.”

From its earliest days as a nation, Israel rejected apartheid. In 1962, Israel voted to condemn South Africa’s apartheid policies at the UN, where then-foreign minister Golda Meir said it was a “shameful iniquity.” But after the Six Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973, almost every nation in Africa had severed ties with Israel. South Africa was not one of them, so Israel traded with it and maintained diplomatic ties. Mandela, it seems, never forgave Israel. He explained in 1994 that his African National Congress party, then ruling the country, was “extremely unhappy” about Israel’s relations with South Africa’s apartheid government.

Mandela never called Israel an apartheid state, but his wife Winnie did, and so too did his grandson, a convert to Islam. In 2004, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela mourned the death of Hamas founder Ahmed Yassin telling a group called the Palestine Solidarity Alliance in Johannesburg that “Apartheid Israel can be defeated, just as apartheid in South Africa was defeated.” In 2017, Mandla Mandela, son of Nelson’s son Makgatho, called Israel “the worst apartheid regime” and exclaimed that “Palestinians are being subjected to the worst version of apartheid.”

Another famous South African combined his anti-apartheid credibility with his religious authority to the charge. Desmond Tutu, the Archbishop of South Africa, or as Yishai Fleisher calls him, “the reverend father of Israel apartheid,” also called Israel an apartheid state. According Fleisher, “with his credentials in fighting apartheid, Tutu worked to reframe Israel in the same category as South Africa: as white oppressors, interlopers, colonialists, a foreign entity in the Middle East.”

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt concurs, arguing that “Tutu was probably more responsible for introducing the slanderous accusations about Israel being an Apartheid state into the public discourse than anyone else.”

As Alan Dershowitz points out, Tutu “accused the Jews of Israel of doing ‘things that even Apartheid South Africa had not done’.”

It’s not a coincidence that the U.N. held its World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, in Durban, South Africa, from Aug. 31 to Sept. 8, 2001. The conference’s declaration targeted Israel by equating Zionism with racism and identifying Israel as an occupying power. The declaration drafting committee, chaired by Iran, adopted language recognizing a “right” of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel.

After the Durban conference, the once-venerable Human Rights Watch took up the apartheid slur. Under Kenneth Roth’s direction, HRW became devoted to anti-Israel activism, culminating with his effort to tar Israel as an apartheid state in a report released on April 27, 2021.

Following the deaths of both Mandela in 2013 and Tutu in 2021, South Africa under the ANC increased its anti-Israel stance, including support for Hamas. After the Oct. 7 pogrom in Israel, Hamas sent two of its top officials to Johannesburg – Bassem Naim and Khaled Qaddoumi, Hamas’s representative in Iran. On December 5, Naim took more Hamas officials to South Africa to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Mandela’s death. They were warmly received in Pretoria.

On Nov. 6, South Africa recalled its ambassadors from Israel. On Nov. 21, South African lawmakers voted to close the Israeli embassy in Pretoria, and in late December they brought charges against Israel at the UN’s International Court of Justice.

Psychologists might explain South Africa’s hostility towards Israel as a combination of guilt, projection, revenge, and simple antisemitism. Whatever the impetus, the slur that Israel is practicing apartheid against Palestinians is a gross distortion of history that diminishes the horrors of genuine apartheid.

Investigative Project on Terrorism Senior Fellow A.J. Caschetta is a principal lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology and a fellow at Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum where he is also a Milstein fellow.