What Is Apartheid Really?

It's Important To Define What that 'A-Word' Really Means

Separation: What defined ‘apartheid’ as it was applied in South Africa?
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Separation: What defined ‘apartheid’ as it was applied in South Africa?

By Ian Buruma

Published May 17, 2014, issue of May 16, 2014.
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“Apartheid” is an ugly Dutch word that literally means “separateness.” In South Africa, different races were kept apart on ideological grounds. This meant that the majority of people were deprived of citizens’ rights in South Africa on the grounds of their race.

Such is currently not the case in Israel, where Arab Israeli citizens have the same rights as Jewish citizens in theory, if not always in practice. The status of Arabs in large areas of the West Bank, however, is different. Although they are effectively controlled by the Israeli state, they do not have the rights of Israeli citizens.

Secretary of State John Kerry did not compare the present state of Israel to South Africa under apartheid. He was merely repeating a warning that many Israelis, including former prime ministers, have issued: There are only two alternatives to building a sovereign Palestinian state, either making permanent Israel’s military occupation of parts of the West Bank — depriving Arabs of their rights — or creating one state for Arabs and Jews. This one-state solution will leave two options: Either all citizens of that state will have the same rights, in which case Arab citizens would soon be in the majority, or they will have separate rights based on ethnicity, in which case there will be unambiguous apartheid.

Ian Buruma is the Henry R. Luce Professor at Bard College. His latest book is “Year Zero: A History of 1945” (Penguin Press, 2013).


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