It is easy to demolish comparisons between Israel and Apartheid South Africa if we are talking about what goes on within Israel’s borders. But I’ve noticed that sometimes the response of Israel’s supporters is at cross purposes with critics of Israel – the critics point to the deplorable circumstances of occupied non-Jewish, non-citizens while the supporters point to the legal and civil rights which all Israeli citizens enjoy regardless of their ethnicity.
I aim to make a well-defined point here and in doing so I deliberately avoid discussing the rights and wrongs of the occupation. The point is that it’s wrong to treat the occupation as an expression of Israeli ethnosupremacism.
If there is no annexation, an occupation is just that – an occupation. The occupied Palestinian people are not Israeli citizens and there is no reason, in the general scheme of occupations, to expect them to have equal rights to Israeli citizens – I mean that occupations are inherently disenfranchising. So occupied Palestinians do not have equal rights to the ethnically-similar Arab Israeli citizens who have the same legally-enshrined rights as Jewish ones. The reasons for the exclusion of occupied Palestinians are not to do with ethnicity or religion. This is of little comfort to occupied Palestinians, or to the many non-Jewish Israeli citizens who are disadvantaged in the way ethnic minorities the world over are disadvantaged – but it is an argument against the comparison between Israel and Apartheid South Africa.
Arguing that the Israeli occupation is the same as, or morally as bad as, apartheid (Daryl Glaser has observed that apartheid is a gold standard of evil) is wrong. Israel did not mount its occupation in order to segregate and subordinate a group of people on racial grounds.
Why do people persist in making this comparison? At best, reasons for the comparison are lazy and ignorant – the slippery-slope argument that Israel is a Jewish state, therefore it must consider non-Jews inferior, therefore it must discriminate against non-Jews, therefore it must be like apartheid South Africa – ignoring the circumstances under which Israel came into existence, ignoring its neighbouring states as independent factors in the subsequent conflicts, and ignoring the differences between Arab Israelis and occupied Palestinians. At worst, the reasons for the comparison are sinister. The Engage web site’s archive on the subject of comparisons between Israel and apartheid South Africa offers a better examination I can make. I recommend reading it.