Australia/Israel Review

The motive behind “Apartheid Israel” charges

Mar 1, 2022 | Elliot Kaufman

Amnesty actually admits Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is not analogous to the situation in apartheid South Africa, where blacks were legally unequal and segregated (Credit: Shutterstock)
Amnesty actually admits Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is not analogous to the situation in apartheid South Africa, where blacks were legally unequal and segregated (Credit: Shutterstock)

Amnesty International is the latest anti-Israel organisation to make headlines by using the word “apartheid”. But lots of people dislike Israel and make false claims about it. What makes this claim notable? Why has it started to catch on?

The human rights group’s report, “Israel’s Apartheid Against Palestinians: Cruel System of Domination and Crime Against Humanity,” isn’t intellectually rigorous. The version distributed to reporters in advance claimed that a “system of apartheid originated with the creation of Israel in May 1948 and has been built and maintained over decades.” 

After critics noted that this was an attack on Israel’s very existence and creation, Amnesty expunged the “originated” clause from the final version, although the claim still appears in the conclusion: “Israel has established and maintained an institutionalised regime of oppression and domination of the Palestinian population for the benefit of Jewish Israelis – a system of apartheid – wherever it has exercised control over Palestinians’ lives since 1948.”

It gets stranger still. Amnesty asserts that it doesn’t seek to argue that any element of Israeli apartheid is “the same or analogous to the system of segregation, oppression and domination as perpetrated in South Africa between 1948 and 1994.” Not even analogous? Then why use the word “apartheid” at all?

Muddled from the start, the report leads off by rehashing a long-running dispute over a few properties in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of Jerusalem. Jordan seized the land from Jewish owners in 1948, when it occupied east Jerusalem and expelled every Jew, but in 19 years Jordan never got around to transferring the title to the Palestinians who moved in. Nevertheless, Israeli courts have offered a compromise whereby these Palestinians could avoid eviction and stay as tenants, with protected status, while paying a low rent to the Jewish owners. Under pressure from Ramallah, the Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah rejected the compromise. Apparently, this is leading evidence of apartheid.

Under a normal understanding of the term, this makes no sense. But Amnesty defines apartheid as when “serious human rights violations are committed in the context, and with the specific intent, of maintaining a regime or system of prolonged and cruel discriminatory control of one or more racial groups by another.” These terms are clay in the hands of the left. One could easily imagine them being applied to modern-day America.

If “apartheid” isn’t being used to convey its well-known meaning, maybe the purpose is to achieve its well-known effect. Apartheid states are beyond the pale, the modern version of hostis humani generis, enemy of all mankind. 

Think about it: Hostile critics could claim instead that Israel is undemocratic or oppressive, but there are plenty of autocracies out there, and mostly we leave them alone. Even dictatorships that slaughter their own people are each welcomed at the United Nations and given a vote – and sometimes a seat on the Human Rights Council. But for the crime of apartheid, South Africa was effectively expelled in 1974 by the UN General Assembly, a decision without precedent in UN history and probably a violation of the UN Charter.

It happened anyway because apartheid is one of the capital crimes of the international system. Its practitioner was boycotted, made into a pariah and fought until it dismantled the system.

Boycott, marginalisation and even violent resistance follow from the apartheid label. In 1975, a year after South Africa’s diplomatic credentials were rejected, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference sought to expel Israel from the UN as well. This failed, but as a consolation prize, the UN passed the “Zionism Is Racism” resolution. 

This diplomatic offensive was the new stage in the Arab war against the Jews, after military force had failed for the last time in 1973. In 1982 the General Assembly recommended “all Member States to cease forthwith… all dealings with Israel in order to totally isolate it in all fields.” In Resolution 37/43, also passed in 1982, the General Assembly grouped Israel with South Africa and affirmed “the legitimacy of the struggle… by all available means, including armed struggle.”

Who today would deny that the African National Congress had a right to fight Pretoria? The same was meant to apply to Palestinian Liberation Organisation terrorism against Jerusalem. The UN reaffirmed this right to armed struggle many times, thwarting general treaties against terrorism. The OIC insisted that “anti-Israel militants be exempted,” reported the Washington Post in November 2001.

Whereas the sponsors of Resolution 37/43 had their eyes open, Amnesty International’s leaders doubtless have their eyes shut. But by invoking apartheid to single out Israel as an enemy of mankind, Amnesty implicitly rejects Israel’s right to exist and authorises violent resistance to destroy it.

With an idea of the stakes, supporters of Israel rush to defend it from the apartheid charge. But in this strange game, the only winning move is not to play. 

Forget “War Games” [the 1983 film in which a computer almost starts a nuclear war thinking it is playing a game before concluding “A strange game. The only winning move is not to play”]; this is the lesson of Kafka’s The Trial (1925). Josef K., standing in for the Jews, is told that he is on trial, though for what, he can’t comprehend. His mistake is to mount a defence. An accusation that isn’t the product of disinterested reason won’t be refuted by recourse to it, and to defend oneself is to acknowledge the legitimacy of the court. The beauty of Zionism is that Jews can finally have their own court and no longer be made to stand before the biased judges of centuries past, protesting their innocence of imagined crimes when all parties know a guilty verdict is assured in advance.

Amnesty International and a dozen UN bodies would love nothing more than to preside as arbiters in this latest trial of the Jews. We are lucky that they have no power to compel Israel’s participation. But if the apartheid charge were to stick, rallying an international boycott and authorising renewed armed resistance, who’s to say the Jews couldn’t be paraded into court one more time?

Elliot Kaufman is the letters editor at the Wall Street Journal. © Wall Street Journal, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved. 


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