Confronted with the charge that Israel is equivalent to Apartheid South Africa, it is tempting simply to retort that it is probably the only country in the Middle East that is not an apartheid state. One could further make an ostensibly compelling case as to why this is so. Take the example of Iran, where the only non-Muslims allowed to become Members of Parliament are those elected by their respective communities to the five seats reserved for religious minorities. Does this not call to mind the separate seats for ‘Bantu’ and ‘Coloured’ representatives elected on separate voters’ rolls in the apartheid parliament? In Yemen, there reportedly remain restrictions on Jews with regard to places of residence - Group Areas Act? In Saudi Arabia, non-Muslims are prohibited from even entering the cities of Mecca and Medina - Urban Areas Act? Syrian Kurds are denied citizenship rights and legally treated as stateless foreigners – as were blacks outside the “independent homelands”?
It would be easy to go on drawing apparent parallels between various Middle Eastern states and the old apartheid regime, but in truth, the notion is a specious one. Not only is discrimination in those countries is in the main based on religion, not race, but more importantly, the extent of that discrimination (the position of the Bahai’i in Iran is an exception) is not comparable to the comprehensive system of repression, control and exploitation that existed in South Africa. Put another way, while religious-based in the Middle East is deplorable, it cannot be equated to apartheid, and that applies even more to Israel, whose record in terms of religious equality is far and away the best in the region.
But is Israel guilty of practising apartheid based on race? Azad Essa, in his column of 7 March, alleges as much. According to him, its very founding came about through “the needs and whims of Jews of European descent”. But if this is so, how does one explain the fact that over 60% of Israeli Jews are not from Europe, but from North African and other Middle Eastern countries, who found a refuge there after being driven by persecution from their countries of origin? Why, from the 1980s onwards, has Israel devoted so much effort to bringing in virtually the entire Jewish population of Ethiopia, and why have the majority of Indian Jews come to settle in the Jewish state since its founding? It is an odd kind of “apartheid state” that goes to such trouble and expense to increase its non-European population.
Must Israel then be regarded as a paragon of interracial and inter-religious harmony, where freedom and equality for all prevails? Obviously not. A measure of inequality and discrimination, de jure or at least de facto, does exist, and it is to be hoped that this will be remedied in future. However, to compare such imperfections to apartheid as practised in South Africa is not only to grossly exaggerate these flaws but, just as reprehensibly, to implicitly downplay the magnitude of the oppression which generations of black South Africans had to endure. There is no enforced residential segregation in Israel, no pass laws, job colour bars, racially-mandated wage gaps, separate and unequal public amenities, compulsory and unequal segregation in education, the denying to certain racial groups of the right to form or even belong to trade unions or prohibitions against racially-mixed marriages and sexual relationships. No doubt this is why those pushing the anti-Israel boycott line are so anxious to prevent South Africans from visiting the country to see for themselves what is happening there. A couple of years ago, this went so far as for participants in a touring student group being, by their own testimony, offered substantial cash payments in return for pulling out of the tour.
The more the Israel-Apartheid analogy is unpacked, the more apparent it becomes how colossal a fraud it is. Nor is it the only instance in which reality is being surreally inverted. One sees it also in how the Zionist movement, which aimed at (peacefully) liberating the ancestral Jewish homeland from Islamic colonial occupation (the land then being under the rule of the Ottoman Empire), is described as a “settler-colonialist project”, with Islamist activist groupings being at the forefront of pushing that analogy.
We are indeed living increasingly in a “post-truth” environment, where appeals to emotion trump objective facts and where the point of view that prevails depends on who is able to shout the loudest. That being said, there remains space for sensible people to resist these trends, find out more about what is happening and come to informed, balanced conclusions. Such an approach should surely inform the way we regard all international disputes, where there are always two or more sides to the story, and where the issues can seldom, if ever, be portrayed in purely black and white terms.