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

No Resemblance At All

Born only a year after the National Party came to power in 1948, I grew up in a South Africa that was deeply and obscenely divided. An intricate system, built on centuries of colonialism and segregation, defined every aspect of life: place of residence, education, health prospects, career opportunities, sports and ordinary daily movement. Harsh exploitative laws hemmed in the overwhelming black majority, including coloreds (those of mixed descent) and Indians.**

Secretary of State John Kerry superficially raises the prospect of Israel becoming an apartheid society. Perhaps he has in mind annexation of the West Bank. That would indeed raise the possibility of an apartheid Israel. But Israel proper bears no resemblance to the old South Africa. Its Declaration of Independence declares all its citizens equal, without distinction of race, creed or sex. In practice, there are flaws. But similar shortcomings and ambiguities exist in many other democracies, including the United States.

Given Israel’s circumstances — most notably its effective state of war with most of its neighbors and its threats of annihilation — the Jewish state has done reasonably well. Its far-from-perfect treatment of Israeli Arabs is certainly comparable with the treatment of minorities in many other respected countries. Israeli symbols are not neutral, but this is much the same for many other states. Even the contentious “law of return” is not unique. Shortcomings and ambiguities exist in many democracies; Israel is not alone. But the excoriation of Israel in world forums is unique.

Milton Shain teaches in the department of historical studies and is the director of the Isaac and Jessie Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Cape Town.

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