Comparing Israel to Afrikaner-ruled South Africa

“The Israeli regime is not apartheid. It is a unique case of democracy.”

— South African Interior Minister Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi


“We do not want to create a situation like that which exists in South Africa, where the whites are the owners and rulers, and the blacks are the workers. If we do not do all kinds of work, easy and hard, skilled and unskilled, if we become merely landlords, then this will not be our homeland.”

— David Ben Gurion (Shabtai Teveth, Ben-Gurion and the Palestinian Arabs:
From Peace to War
, London: Oxford University Press, 1985, p. 140)

Since the United Nations Conference on Racism in August of 2001, anti-Semites and racists have tried to delegitimize Israel by calling it an apartheid state. Their hope is that this false equation will tar Israel and encourage measures similar to those used against South Africa, such as sanctions and divestment, to be applied to Israel.

Today, within Israel, Jews are a majority, but the Arab minority are full citizens who enjoy equal rights and are represented in all the branches of government. Arabs are represented in the Knesset, and have served in the Cabinet, high-level foreign ministry posts (e.g., ambassador to Finland), and on the Supreme Court.

Unlike Israel, under the discriminatory policies of old South Africa, skin color determined every aspect of your life from birth until death. Black South Africans could not vote and were not citizens of the country in which they formed the overwhelming majority of the population. Laws dictated where they could live, work, attend school, and travel. And, in South Africa, the government killed blacks who protested against its policies. By contrast, Israel allows freedom of movement, assembly, and speech. Some of the government’s harshest critics are Israeli Arabs who are members of the Knesset.

“To be sure, there is more de facto separation between Jewish and Arab populations than Israelis should accept,” observed Richard Goldstone, former justice of the South African Constitutional Court. “Much of it is chosen by the communities themselves. Some results from discrimination.” But, he added this is nothing like the situation in South Africa where separation was considered an ideal. “In Israel,” Goldstone added, “equal rights are the law, the aspiration and the ideal; inequities are often successfully challenged in court.”44

The difference between the current Israeli situation and…[Afrikaner ruled] South Africa is emphasized 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 anesthetist 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.

—Benjamin Pogrund45

The comparison is malicious and insults the South Africans who suffered under apartheid.

The term “apartheid” refers to the official government policy of racial segregation formerly practiced in South Africa. The whites sought to dominate the nonwhite population, especially the indigenous black population, and discriminated against people of color in the political, legal, and economic sectors.

  • Whites and nonwhites lived in separate regions of the country.
  • Nonwhites were prohibited from running businesses or professional practices in the white areas without permits.
  • Nonwhites had separate amenities (i.e. beaches, buses, schools, benches, drinking fountains, restrooms).
  • Nonwhites received inferior education, medical care, and other public services.
  • Though they were the overwhelming majority of the population, nonwhites could not vote or become citizens.

By contrast, Israel’s Declaration of Independence called upon the Arab inhabitants of Israel to “participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.”

The 156,000 Arabs within Israel’s borders in 1948 were given citizenship in the new State of Israel. Today, this Arab minority comprises 20% of the population.

It is illegal for employers to discriminate on the basis of race and Arab citizens of Israel are represented in all walks of Israeli life. Arabs have served in senior diplomatic and government positions and an Arab currently serves on the Supreme Court.

Israeli Arabs have formed their own political parties and won representation in the Knesset. Arabs are also members of the major Israeli parties. Twelve non-Jews (10 Arabs, two Druze) are members of the Seventeenth Knesset.

Laws dictated where nonwhites could live, work, and travel in South Africa, and the government imprisoned and sometimes killed those who protested against its policies. By contrast, Israel allows freedom of movement, assembly and speech. Some of the government’s harshest critics are Israeli Arabs in the Knesset.

Arab students and professors study, research, and teach at Israeli universities. At Haifa University, the target of British advocates of an academic boycott against Israel, 20 percent of the students are Arabs.

Israeli society is not perfect — discrimination and unfairness exist there as it does in every other country. These differences, however, are nothing like the horrors of the apartheid system. Moreover, when inequalities are identified, minorities in Israel have the right to seek redress through the government and the courts, and progress toward equality has been made over the years.

The situation of Palestinians in the territories is different. The security requirements of the nation, and a violent insurrection in the territories, forced Israel to impose restrictions on Arab residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip that are not necessary inside Israel’s pre-1967 borders. Israeli policy is not based on race, but is a result of Palestinian animosity. Palestinians in the territories dispute Israel’s right to exist, whereas blacks did not seek the destruction of South Africa, only that of the discriminatory regime.

Despite security concerns and the hostile attitude of many Palestinians, by the summer of 2016, more than one hundred thousand Palestinians from the territories went to work in Israel every day (fifty-eight thousand legally with Israeli work permits). Another twenty-five thousand work in those “obstacles to peace”—Jewish settlements.46 People who are allegedly so persecuted they live in a constant state of fear, anger, and humiliation work side by side with Israelis, earning more money and enjoying superior benefits to what they would receive from Palestinian employers. According to the Palestinian Authority’s official newspaper, Al-Hayat al-Jadida (September 21, 2014):47

  • “The only cases in which a Palestinian worker does not receive the salary his Israeli [employer] determined for him are those cases in which the middleman is Palestinian.”
  • “Whenever Palestinian workers have the opportunity to work for Israeli employers, they are quick to quit their jobs with their Palestinian employers for reasons having to do with salaries and other rights.”
  • “The salaries of workers employed by Palestinians amount to less than half the salaries of those who work for Israeli employers in the areas of the Israel-occupied West Bank.”
  • “The [Israeli] work conditions are very good, and include transportation, medical insurance and pensions. These things do not exist with Palestinian employers.”Many people discovered some of these facts when actress Scarlett Johansson was attacked for being the spokesperson for SodaStream because the company’s factory was in Maale Adumim. This city of roughly forty thousand people, ten minutes from downtown Jerusalem, is considered a “settlement.” Ironically, Palestinian peace negotiators agreed the city would remain part of Israel if a Palestinian state is established. More to the point, the company employed hundreds of Palestinians, several of whom spoke out against the call to boycott the company: “Before boycotting, they should think of the workers who are going to suffer,” a young SodaStream worker said. He now earns nearly ten times what he earned before joining SodaStream, which also provides transportation, breakfast, and lunch for its employees.48 Though the owners of SodaStream denied the boycott had any effect, they decided to move the plant to Lehavim, near Beersheba, and, sadly, five hundred Palestinian Arabs lost their jobs.

Beyond limits placed on their ability to attack Israel, roughly 98% of the Palestinians in the territories are governed by the rules of the Palestinian Authority, which do not permit freedom of speech, religion, assembly or other rights taken for granted by Westerners — and guaranteed in Israel.

Israel could offer Palestinians in the territories full citizenship, but this would require the annexation of the West Bank and Gaza and the end of the two-state solution. Palestinians vigorously oppose this idea and demand full independence.

Paradoxically, despite their criticism, when asked what governments they admire most, more than 80 percent of Palestinians said Israel because they can observe its thriving democracy, and the rights the Arab citizens enjoy there. By contrast, Palestinians place Arab regimes, including their own Palestinian Authority, at the bottom of the list.49

One other glaring example of Palestinian hypocrisy in condemning Israel’s treatment of Arabs is the fact that Mahmoud Abbas and other officials send their family members to Israel when they have serious health problems. Abbas’s brother-in-law, for example, underwent life-saving heart surgery in the Assuta Medical Center in Tel Aviv. A year earlier, Abbas’s wife was also hospitalized in Assuta. Hamas leaders calling for Israel’s destruction also send their loved ones to be saved by Israeli doctors. For example, the daughter, granddaughter, and mother-in-law of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh received medical treatment in Israel, as did the sister of Moussa Abu Marzouk.50

The glaring differences in the way Israel treats its citizens and the way that the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, and Arab governments treat theirs has led growing numbers of Palestinians in East Jerusalem to apply for Israeli citizenship. When given the choice, many say they would rather live in Israel than Palestine. For example, 54 percent of Arabs living in East Jerusalem said that if their neighborhood were part of Israel, they would not move to Palestine.51

There is still one other question arising out of the disaster of nations which remains unsolved to this day, and whose profound tragedy, only a Jew can comprehend. This is the African question. Just call to mind all those terrible episodes of the slave trade, of human beings who, merely because they were black, were stolen like cattle, taken prisoner, captured and sold. Their children grew up in strange lands, the objects of contempt and hostility because their complexions were different. I am not ashamed to say, though I may expose myself to ridicule for saying so, that once I have witnessed the redemption of the Jews, my people, I wish also to assist in the redemption of the Africans.

Theodor Herzl52

The clearest refutation of the calumny against Israel comes from the Palestinians themselves. When asked what governments they admire most, more than 80 percent of Palestinians consistently choose Israel because they can see up close the thriving democracy in Israel, and the rights the Arab citizens enjoy there (James Bennet, “Letter from the Middle East; Arab Showplace? Could It Be the West Bank?” New York Times, April 2, 2003).

Additional Basic Points

  • Instead of fighting the South Africa analogy, make the America analogy: America occupies Iraq, Afghanistan. Should BDS apply to U.S. too?
  • There is no comparison between Israel and Apartheid South Africa.
  • There is no Israeli ideology, plan, or policy to segregate or persecute Arabs.
  • 11 Arabs serve in the Knesset, Muslims can live anywhere in Israel.
  • False analogies just blur history for a political agenda.
  • Their goal is more to sell the analogy, slander Israel.
  • Divestment is just a tool to spread the Israel=Apartheid message.
  • Even if BDS here is mild/symbolic, their message will spread.
  • The movement will not stop at just targeting settlements.

What if Desmond Tutu is coming to campus?

  • Handle the situation with caution.
  • We need to be careful when criticizing a Nobel winner.
  • On the other hand, we must voice our disapproval of BDS.
  • Ask tenured Jewish professors to see if they are willing to voice their disapproval of the Academic Boycott.
  • Look at the SPME letter from Nobel Prize Winners.
  • See the faculty letter in response to Tutu’s visit to Michigan State.


NGO Monitor’s detailed analysis of the term apartheid

Anti-Defamation League: Apartheid

StandWithUS: The Apartheid Analogy

Zionism On The Web: The Apartheid State

Camera Apartheid Quotes

Bedouin Diplomat Ishmael Khaldi on the Apartheid

A South African-Israeli Opinion: Why Depict Israel as a Chamber of Horrors?

Khaled Abu Toumeh on the Apartheid Analogy

Boycotting Israel at NYU?

Apartheid? Israel is a democracy in which Arabs vote

An Open Letter to Tutu – The Jerusalem Post

Modern Israel is a far cry from old South Africa