Why aren’t Europeans calling Israel an apartheid state?
Israel’s apartheid is not that different from the one South Africa used to have, both in terms of policy and brutality.
Apartheid is alive and well and thriving in occupied Palestine.
Palestinians know this. South Africans know this. Many Israelis have accepted this as part of their political debate. Americans are coming to terms with this, with new voices in Congress and NGOs like Jewish Voice for Peace unafraid of speaking this truth.
Only in Europe is there a steadfast denial of Israeli apartheid over Palestinians despite overwhelming evidence underlining it.
Israel‘s restrictions on freedom of movement in the occupied Palestinian territory are a resurrection of South Africa’s hated pass laws, which criminalised black South Africans without a permit or pass to be in a “white” city. Israel’s policy of forcible population removals and destruction of homes resembles the relocation of black people from areas zoned for exclusive white occupation in apartheid South Africa.
The Israeli security forces engage in torture and brutality exceeding the worst practices of the South African security apparatus. And the humiliation of black people that was a feature of apartheid in South Africa is replicated in occupied Palestine.
Racist rhetoric in the Israeli public debate offends even those familiar with the language of apartheid South Africa. The crude racist advertising that characterised campaigning in Israel’s recent elections was unknown in South Africa.
Of course, there are differences that arise from the different histories, religions, geography and demography, but both cases fit the universal definition of apartheid. In international law, apartheid is a state-sanctioned regime of institutionalised and legalised racial discrimination and oppression by one hegemonic racial group against another.
In some respects, apartheid in South Africa was worse. In some respects, Israeli apartheid in occupied Palestine is worse. Certainly, Israel’s enforcement of apartheid in occupied Palestine is more militaristic and more brutal. Apartheid South Africa never blockaded a black community and methodically killed protesters as Israel is currently doing along its fence with Gaza.
These facts are well known. No one who follows the news can claim to be ignorant of the repression inflicted on the Palestinian people by the Israeli occupation army and Jewish settlers. It is common knowledge that the different legal systems for settlers and Palestinians have created a regime of separate and grossly unequal legal statuses.
Why then do Europeans consistently deny the existence of apartheid in occupied Palestine? Why is it business as usual with Israel? Why is Eurovision to be held in Tel Aviv? Why does Europe sell arms to Israel; trade with it, even with its illegal settlements; maintain cultural and educational ties? Why is Israel not subjected to the kind of ostracism that was applied to South Africa and complicit white South African institutions?
Why were sanctions against apartheid South Africa welcomed while European governments take steps to criminalise the nonviolent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement that seeks to secure freedom, justice and equal rights for Palestinians?
There are three explanations for this conundrum.
First, pro-Israeli lobbies in many European countries are as effective as their US counterparts without the same degree of visibility.
Second, there is Holocaust guilt. The policies of some countries towards Israel, such as the Netherlands, are still determined by guilt stemming from the failure to have done more to save Jews during World War II.
Third, and most important of all, there is the fear of being labelled anti-Semitic. Encouraged and manipulated by Israel and Israeli lobbies, the concept of anti-Semitism has been expanded to cover not only hatred of Jews but criticism of Israeli apartheid.
In the case of South Africa, President PW Botha was hated because he applied apartheid and not because he was an Afrikaner. It would seem obvious that in the same way many hate Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu because he enforces apartheid and not because he is a Jew. But this distinction is increasingly blurred in Europe. To criticise the government of Israel for applying apartheid is seen as anti-Semitism. And so it becomes dangerous and unwise to criticise Israel.
In Europe, criticism of apartheid in South Africa was a popular cause. The Anti-Apartheid Movement, which lobbied for the boycott of South African exports, trade, sport, artists and academics was encouraged and subjected to no restrictions. Governments imposed different kinds of sanctions, including an arms embargo. Public protests against apartheid were a regular feature of university life.
Criticism of Israel’s discriminatory and repressive policies, on the other hand, can result in one being labelled anti-Semitic with serious consequences for one’s career and social life. Consequently, there are fewer protests against Israeli apartheid on European campuses and less popular support for BDS. Public figures who criticise Israel are attacked as anti-Semites, as evidenced by the witch-hunt against members of the British Labour Party.
Until Europeans have the courage to distinguish criticism of Israel for applying apartheid from real anti-Semitism – that is, hatred of Jews – apartheid will continue to flourish in occupied Palestine, with the direct complicity of Europe.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.