Talking About Apartheid: IJV Factsheet

What is the crime of apartheid?

UN Apartheid Convention

Apartheid is classified by the U.N. as a crime against humanity. The word comes from the South African language Afrikaans, and was used there to describe that country’s system of institutionalized privilege based on segregation and racial discrimination. But the crime is not limited to South Africa. In 1973, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Apartheid Convention, which defines the term and its application beyond the South African experience:

The Apartheid Convention declares that apartheid is a crime against humanity and that “inhuman acts resulting from the policies and practices of apartheid and similar policies and practices of racial segregation and discrimination” are international crimes (art. 1). Article 2 defines the crime of apartheid –“which shall include similar policies and practices of racial segregation and discrimination as practised in southern Africa” – as covering “inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them (1).”  

Does this definition apply to Israel?

The Israel Wall that divides and expropriates the West Bank is often referred to as the “Apartheid Wall”

There has been no ruling on this question by the International Court of Justice. The fear that the Palestinian National Authority would bring the question to the Court was a major reason  why the U.S. and Israel opposed recognition of Palestinian quasi-state status in the U.N. To date there has been no ruling on the matter by the Court.

Given the opprobrium attached to the term apartheid, especially in the context of South Africa, it is not surprising that Zionists and supporters of Israel bristle at the mere suggestion of its application to Israel. If the Jewish State is judged to be an apartheid state, the entire Zionist project stands indicted.

Some of those who acknowledge that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank constitutes an ongoing crime reject the idea that Israel can be validly described as a state that practices apartheid. From such folks comes the argument that while apartheid might exist in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, Israel “proper” — i.e., west of the Green line —  cannot be deemed an apartheid state. Others argue that it is not politically expedient to talk about Israeli apartheid, regardless of the validity of the description (2)

Those on the right often use the argument that anyone who brands Israel an apartheid state is an anti-Semite because doing so vilifies all Jews. Their position is that the use of the term should therefore be banished. A prominent example of this was the campaign led by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) and B’nai Brith to pressure the Toronto City Council to pull the city’s funding for the Toronto Pride Parade if Queers Against Israeli Apartheid was allowed to march in it. Universities came under similarly heavy pressure to ban Israeli Apartheid Week on their campuses. Interest groups successfully pressured the Ontario Legislature to pass a motion expressing support for banning the term. A similar motion was brought before the Manitoba Legislature but did not pass.

David Matas, senior council for B’nai Brith Canada, has argued that the “charge of apartheid against Israel is one of a barrage of anti-Zionist accusations levied against Israel. Anti-Zionism by definition is rejection of the existence of the Jewish state. That rejection is the denial of the right to self-determination of the Jewish people.” Matas went on to say that “The charge that Israel is an apartheid state is connected to anti-Semitism both in substance and in form.” Historian Catherine Chatterley of the Canadian Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism claims that “pro-Palestinian activists” invented the idea of Israeli apartheid as “a deliberate strategy to delegitimize the State of Israel by comparing it to racist South Africa… (3).”

Matas, Chatterley and others who share their views would have us to believe that use of the term apartheid to describe Israel is restricted to a lunatic fringe of pro-Palestinian anti-Semites and their naive fellow travellers who have been duped into thinking they are fighting for justice and self-determination.

Talking about apartheid

South Africans see the Palestinian struggle as similar to their own

Talk about Israel and apartheid began as early as 1961, when South African Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, the man behind the conception and implementation of apartheid in South Africa, observed that “Israel, like South Africa, is an apartheid state (4).” In 1971, New York Times publisher C. L. Sulzberger pointed out that “Prime Minister Vorster even goes so far as to say Israel is now faced with an apartheid problem (5).” Israeli academic and activist Uri Davis published his book Israel: An Apartheid State in 1987. Clearly, the question of Israeli apartheid was being raised long before the Palestinian Solidarity Movement began to organize Israeli Apartheid Week in 2005. Furthermore, it was not invented by Palestinian solidarity activists.

It is fundamentally inaccurate to argue that charging Israel with being a state that practices apartheid “is one of a barrage of anti-Zionist accusations” made by “pro-Palestinian activists.” The charge has been levied by a range of individuals inside and outside of Israel. For instance, the University of Manitoba library holds 20 titles on the subject, including books by Menachem Klein of Bar-Ilan University and Sasha Polakow Suransky, Senior Editor of Foreign Affairs Magazine. John Mearsheimer, a conservative professor of political science at the University of Chicago, wrote this comment in the American Conservative Magazine:

…there is not going to be a two-state solution. Gaza and the West Bank will become part of a greater Israel, which will be an apartheid state bearing a marked resemblance to white-ruled South Africa. Israelis and their American supporters invariably bristle at this comparison, but that is the future if they create a greater Israel while denying full political rights to an Arab population that will soon outnumber the Jewish population in the entirety of the land.

An opposing view was published as an op-ed piece in the New York Times by international jurist Richard Goldstone:

UN jurist Richard Goldstone is a South African Jew.

To be sure, there is more de facto separation between Jewish and Arab populations than Israelis should accept. Much of it is chosen by the communities themselves. Some results from discrimination. But it is not apartheid, which consciously enshrines separation as an ideal. In Israel, equal rights are the law, the aspiration and the ideal; inequities are often successfully challenged in court (6). 

Inside Israel there is much talk about Israel becoming an apartheid state. While pro-Israel advocates propose banning those who apply the term to Israel, and more progressive Jews warn that it isn’t politically expedient to use it, in Israel the debate about apartheid is a lively one. In 2012, the newspaper Haaretz reported on a recent poll indicating that ” a third to half of Jewish Israelis want to live in a state that practices formal, open discrimination against its Arab citizens. An even larger majority wants to live in an apartheid state if Israel annexes the territories.” According to the article, the majority of those polled (58%) believe Israel practices apartheid against its Arab citizens.

Israel’s political elite has taken up the subject. Ehud Barak, Israel’s Minister of Defense and former Prime Minister, wrote:

“As long as in this territory west of the Jordan River there is only one political entity called Israel it is going to be either non-Jewish, or non-democratic,” Barak said. “If this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state (7).”

Several years before, another former prime minister, Ehud Olmert , warned:

If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights (also for the Palestinians in the territories), then, as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished (8),

and Shulamit Aloni, former Israeli Minister of Education under Yitzhak Rabin , wrote:

The US Jewish Establishment’s onslaught on former President Jimmy Carter is based on him daring to tell the truth which is known to all: through its army, the government of Israel practises a brutal form of Apartheid in the territory it occupies (9).

Israeli academics have been no less vocal on the subject. The assortment of op-ed pieces and articles coming out of Israel has been extensive. For instance, Oren Yiftachel, Professor of Political Geography at Ben Gurion University , has warned of “creeping apartheid”:

The [Gaza] disengagement has indeed made a significant difference to the political geography of Israel/Palestine, but a close examination reveals not a crossing of the watershed toward ending Israeli colonialism in favour of a two state solution but, rather, an Israeli policy of “oppressive consolidation,” a “politics of suspension,” and a perpetual probability of mutual violence. These have combined to create a political geographic order best described as “creeping apartheid (10).”

Baruch Kimmerling

The late Baruch Kimmerling , formerly Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of Sociology, University of Toronto , and George S. Wise Professor of Sociology at Hebrew University, Jerusalem, believed that apartheid already existed in Israel:

… Israel [has] ceased being a true democratic state and became a Herrenvolk democracy. This term, coined to describe South Africa under Apartheid, describes a regime in which one group of its subjects (the citizens) enjoys full rights and another group (the non-citizens) enjoys none. The laws of Israel have become the laws of a master people and the morality that of lords of the land (11) 

The most recent example of a prominent public figure employing the term to make reference to the situation in Israel/Palestine is American Secretary of State John Kerry. Kerry said that Israel risked becoming an “apartheid state” if it did not make peace with the Palestinians. He later apologized for this remark after an overwhelming amount of backlash from pro-Israel lobby groups (12).

It is crass propaganda to argue that the Palestinian Solidarity Movement invented the idea of Israel as an apartheid state, that only radicals consider the issue seriously, and that the real motive of those who levy the charge is to promote anti-Semitism.

What about the South Africa comparison?

As the United Nations’ Apartheid Convention cited above makes clear, the term “apartheid” is not limited to the South African experience. The Palestinian Solidarity Movement has, nonetheless, compared Israel with South Africa. Those opposed to applying the term to Israel have argued vehemently that the comparison does not hold. This is not the view of many who lived through and struggled against apartheid, however. In 2002, Archbishop Desmond Tutu declared that Israelis were “treating Palestinians in the same way the apartheid South African government treated blacks.” Other leading South Africans who have expressed a similar opinion include Breyten Breytenbach, John Dugard, Antjie Krog, Mahmood Mamdani, and Barney Pityana.

The African National Congress (ANC), which led the decades-long struggle against apartheid in South Africa, has endorsed “Israeli Apartheid Week,” (13) and the ANC’s chairperson, Baleka Mbette, has stated that the Israeli regime is “far worse than Apartheid South Africa (14).”

Of singular importance in addressing this matter is this statement issued by the Sciences Research Council of South Africa, South Africa’s statutory research agency:

[D]iscriminatory treatment cannot be explained or excused on grounds of citizenship, both because it goes beyond what is permitted by ICERD [The Apartheid Convention] and because certain provisions in Israeli civil and military law provide that Jews present in the OPT who are not citizens of Israel also enjoy privileges conferred on Jewish-Israeli citizens in the OPT by virtue of being Jews. Consequently, this study finds that the State of Israel exercises control in the OPT with the purpose of maintaining a system of domination by Jews over Palestinians and that this system constitutes a breach of the prohibition of apartheid (15). [Emphasis added.]

Palestinians’ views on the subject of apartheid

Hebron segregation

Marwan Bishara, a Palestinian Israeli, has lectured at the American University in Paris and has written for the International Herald Tribune and Le Monde Diplomatique. In 2001 he published Palestine/Israel: Peace or Apartheid. In this book, which focuses on conditions in the West Bank and Gaza, he quotes the Palestinian scholar Muhammad Hallaj:

Jewish settlements serve as an instrument of an apartheid system in the Occupied Territories…. Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza make Israel the only state in the world today where apartheid is the prevailing system of administration (16).

Palestinian Israeli Azmi Bishara, a former member of the Israeli Knesset, sees apartheid on both sides of the Green Line.

Azmi Bishara

Jewish democracy can tolerate Arab citizens as guests so long as they respect the rules of hospitality. In other words, Israel can tolerate the presence of those Israeli-Arabs who agree to remain on the margins of both Arab society and Israeli society. The problem was not discrimination but something else—exclusion (17).

Elsewhere he wrote: 

The Palestinians, both inside Israel and in the Palestinian areas, have to come together to defend continuous incursions on their freedom and future. The Palestinians need peace and equality, but first they have to remain steadfast and focused. This is the only way in which they will defeat Israel’s apartheid (18).

Let’s talk about Apartheid

There has been some willingness on the part of those who are critical of Israel’s occupation to acknowledge that apartheid exists in the territories occupied in 1967. People like Justice Goldstone recognize the extensive anti-Arab discrimination and racism that exists in Israeli society, but they refuse to describe Israel as an apartheid state.  Others like Mearsheimer, Barak, and Olmert warn that if Israel refuses to accept a viable two state solution, it will become an apartheid state. Bishara and Kimmerling believe that the reality of apartheid already exists. The fact that the right of return is restricted to Jews and denied to relatives of Palestinian-Israelis and 1948 Palestinian refugees, and the fact that non-Jews are denied the collective rights which are enjoyed by Jewish-Israelis, have created what Kimmerling calls a “Herrenvolk” or what Yiftachel terms an “ethnocracy”: the rule of one ethnic group over another. In other words, apartheid. Others writing on apartheid west of the Green Line, or over all of the land controlled by Israel (all of historic Palestine), include Jonathan Cook, Jeff Halper, Yves Engler, Ali Abunimah, Ben White, and many others.

Those who would avoid discussion of Israeli apartheid or ban such talk altogether do not acknowledge the fact that such discussion is becoming general. The discussion is taking place in Israel among politicians, academics, and the general public. It is taking place among Palestinians and Jews. It is taking place among academic and international activists. Contrary to what some wish us to believe, Israeli apartheid is taken seriously in South Africa, the home of the valiant struggle against that country’s system of racist discrimination, by people who were prominent in the struggle to end it.


(1)   Dugard, J: International Convention on Suppressions and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, New York, 30 November 19.  Retreved from

(2)   Chatterley, C: History and Purpose of Israeli “Apartheid” Week (IAW), presented at “When Middle East Polilitics Invade the Campus,” sponsored by Advocates for Civil Liberties, Toronto, 16 February 2011.

(3)   Ibid.

(4)   Quoted by Ronnie Kasrils from the Rand Daily Mail, 23 November 1961,in his article “Apartheid in Duplicate.” Kasrils was involved in the liberation struggle in South Africa and is a former cabinet minister in the post-Apartheid South African government.

(5)   Cited in Davis, U.: Apartheid Israel: Possibilities for the Struggle Within. London: Zed Books, (2003).

(6)   Richard J. Goldstone, Op-ed: “Israel and the Apartheid Slander.” New York Times, 31 October 2011.

(7)   Quoted in “Barak: make peace with Palestinians or face apartheid,” Guardian, 3 February 2010. Retrieved from

(8)   Quoted in “The Two State Solution, or Israel Is Done For,” Haaretz, 9 November 2007. Retrieved from

(9)   Article appearing in Yedioth Aharonoth, cited and translated from Hebrew in The Scoop, from Middle East News Service. Retrieved from

(10)   Yiftachel, O.: “Neither Two States nor One: Disengagement and ‘Creeping Apartheid’ in Israel/Palestine.” The Arab World Geographer/Le Géographe du monde arabe Vol. 8, No 3, 125-129, 2005. Retrieved from

(11)    Kimmerling, B.: Politicide: The real legacy of Ariel Sharon. London: Verso, 2006, p. 39.

(12)    Peter Beaumont, “John Kerry apologises for Israel ‘apartheid’ remarks,” Guardian, 29 April 2014. Retrieved from

(13) Rachel Ahren, “South African ruling party endorses Israeli Apartheid Week,” Time of Israel, March 2 2014. Retrieved from

(14) Ali Abunimah, “Israel ‘far worse than apartheid South Africa’ says ANC chair as Pretoria conference backs boycott,” The Electronic Intifada, October 29 2014. Retrieved from

(15)   Middle East Project of the Democracy and Governance Programme, Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa. Occupation, Colonialism, Apartheid? A Re-assessment of Israel’s Practices in the Occupied Palestinian Territories under International Law, May 2009, p. 22. Retrieved from

(16)  Bishara, M.:  Palestine/Israel: Peace or Apartheid. London: Zed Books, 2002, p. 141.

(17)  Cook, J.  Blood and Religion: The Unmasking of the Jewish and Democratic State. London: Pluto Press, 2006, p. 13.

(18)  Bishara, A. (12 June 2002). Tales of Apartheid. 12 June 2002. Retrieved from