Should we claim Israel is an “Apartheid State”?

This is an issue that has been bothering me for some time, so I might as well come right out with it.

I think its a bad idea to claim that Israel is an “apartheid state” unless you really know what you are talking about.

Lets face it: some people like to use the “A” word for its shock value. That may “turn on” some people, but it also “turns off” others. I think it probably turns on students and activists and turns off a broader audience.

Arguing that the regime in the West Bank is pure Apartheid, of course, is relatively easy. Jimmy Carter first used the word “apartheid” to criticize the Occupied Territories in 2006 in his book “Peace, not Apartheid”.

But Carter was only referring to the occupied territories, not Israel. And showing that Israel itself is an apartheid state is a lot more difficult. It requires quite a sophisticated knowledge of Israeli law, regulations and practice, because Israel has a bewildering system of law which makes its legal discrimination rather opaque – even though the results are clear to the naked eye.

The practical problem I see is that a lot of Canadians visit Israel every year. (About 75,000 according to Wikipedia). Half are Jews, the other half Christian, many on “Holy Land Pilgrimages”. Few spend any time in the West Bank, save, perhaps, for a brief visit to Bethelehm. Few of them see anything that remotely resembles what they think can be called “Apartheid”. And all of them tell their family and neighbours what they saw.

Here is a scenario (A TRUE STORY) from my life

I work out at the Jewish Community Centre in Ottawa. A Jewish man whom I see several times a week as we sweat through our routines side by side, proudly announces to me that he has just returned from Israel.

“Oh,” I grunt, eager for an opportunity to talk about my favorite subject. “How did you find it?”

“It was great,” he said, “and all that stuff about Israel being an apartheid state is a bunch of bullshit.”

(I had never spoken to him about my views on Israel.)

“Oh,” I grunt again, starting my situps, “why not?”.

“Well”, he tells me, “In Tel Aviv, I saw Arabs in the stores, Arabs in the restaurants, and Arabs on the beaches. Arabic is an official language. There were signs in Arabic at the Ben Gurion airport and signs in Arabic on the highway to Haifa. Several of my taxi drivers were Arabs. One of them told me that he already had a house, and was saving to buy another one. His kids go to school in Arabic. He thinks Israel is a great place to live. No way he would prefer to live in “Palestine”. I went shopping in the Mamiya Mall in Jerusalem and there were women in burkas shopping there. (ed – I think he meant head scarf, but whatever.)”

I had finished my situps and was now stretching, but he was barely warming to his theme. He continued to tell me that Arab Israelis have the right to vote, they have members in the Knesset, there are Arabs on the Supreme court, that Arabs have free education from k- 12, free health care, that he saw Arab kids in a university in Beersheva. He saw no checkpoints, no settlements, no settlers and no settler only roads.

“So, he says to me triumphantly “where is the Apartheid? It’s bullshit? Anti-Semitic bullshit.”

Having visited Israel/Palestine several times, I have no doubt that things were exactly as he described. But also because I have been there, and I have talked with many lawyers (Palestinian and Jewish) and lived with a Palestinian family in Israel, I know why it is that he doesn’t see the apartheid system that is built into Israeli law.

But very few Canadian Palestinian human rights activists have had that opportunity. And what happens when they are faced with a Canadian (Jew or Christian) who has visited Israel, (or his friend or neighbor who has talked to him?)

(I have seen this scenario play out several times before.)

Either, the activist starts talking about settlements, or settler only roads, or checkpoints (none of which exist inside Israel and which the tourist says he hasn’t seen);


S/he reverts to talking about the UN definition of “Apartheid” (which not one person in ten thousand has read and which really doesn’t cut any ice with our tourist).

As a result, the normal Canadian (Jew or Christian) who has visited Israel has to choose what to believe.

Will s/he believe us, with our passion and grand theories – or his/her own eyes and ears????

That decision we lose every time. And most of them go away saying to themselves (and to their friends who ask them about their trip to Israel), “those guys are stupid, or blind or… anti-Semitic liars”.

What is the answer to this? Does that mean we should never say Israel is an “Apartheid State”? No, not at all.

But its much more useful to be able to describe the Jewish state of Israel, how its laws discriminate against its own Palestinian citizens – in land ownership, in housing, in employment, in education, etc. etc. We have to be able to describe not only the disparity in incomes, but how the discrimination against Palestinian Israelis is based in law, as a result of Israel defining itself as “a “Jewish state”. That of course requires doing some homework. But if, as a result of that conversation someone says “that sounds like Apartheid’, you have made a significant gain.

There are lots of resource materials available for those interested. “The Inequality Report” from the Palestinian Israeli legal organization Adalah is one place to start. Ilan Pappe’s “The Forgotten Palestinians” is another valuable resource. Susan Nathan’s “The Other Side of Israel”, is a third book on the same theme.

Those who aren’t able to really able to explain how Israel discriminates in law against its own Arab Israeli citizens, should be very careful when they fling around the “A” word. They will just end up convincing decent people that we are either ignorant or anti-Semitic or both.


  1. Totally agree with this analysis, Peter! Human rights activists should focus on facts and people can make conclusions for themselves. The fact that there are admission committees in Israel that decide whether people are suitable to live in an area or not based on their ethnic origin, is more important than arguing whether it is correct to call this “A” or “B”!

  2. Very useful reflections, Peter. I think that the difficulty with any label like apartheid is that it can stop the thinking and become like some sort of bastion – being defended or assaulted, and the richness of the situation can be lost. Moreover, I believe that such labels lead to demonization, which also is not helpful. On the other hand, the shorthand does get attention, it is memorable and can stimulate discussion if it is not the be-all and end-all. Difficulty is that in the discussion, people may not be listening to one another.

    So keep up the reflections. Yours is very useful, and a nice way to piggy-back on the emotiveness of the label without adopting it.

    Paul Durber

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