The Many Problems with Labeling Israel an Apartheid State

Quite often, in our fractured discourse, we see groups appropriate language that should exclusively belong to another oppressed community’s experience. This happens when people compare their experiences to the Holocaust. It happens when white supremacists claim to be victims of racism. It is offensive to lay claim to another group’s tragic experience just to further a political agenda. The false charge that Israel commits apartheid is an offensive example of this misappropriation. Why?

Apartheid was a legally established system of racial oppression to keep the Black majority in South Africa from gaining power, political and otherwise, at the expense of the minority white population. The reason the world united against South African apartheid was because of its explicit creation of a hierarchy of rights and freedoms among citizens of a single country. As such the UN definitions speaks to the true horrors of apartheid as a “crime against humanity.” Humans are inherently created equal, so creating institutionalized distinctions and hierarchies among them within a single body politic is inhuman. In the case of South Africa and therefore in the foundational meaning of apartheid, the injustice of the system was race-based, legislatively established, and internal to a national identity. None of those elements is present in the State of Israel.

Most reasonable people are very concerned about what is occurring between Israelis and Palestinians. We are concerned about the lack of progress towards peace. We are concerned about the treatment of the Palestinians in the West Bank. We are concerned about the persistent recourse to violence, both by Palestinian organizations like Hamas and by extremist Jewish settlers. We are concerned and moved to do something to bring about positive solutions to peace. However, misappropriating the language of apartheid does not get us there.

Rhoda Kadalie, who was appointed by Nelson Mandela as commissioner at the South African Human Rights Commission, reminds us that “racism and discrimination do not form the rationale for Israel’s policies and actions.” Rev. Dr. Kenneth Meshoe, a member of the South African Parliament says, “This ridiculous accusation trivializes the word apartheid.”

Our call in the church is to be peace-makers and to know the truth; inappropriately exploiting a national tragedy in South Africa for the purpose of rallying support for one side in another conflict is neither truthful nor a path to peace.  We have enough homework to do in reconciling our relationship with our Jewish neighbors and working for peace without continuing down a divisive path that leads nowhere.