Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the Commonwealth Ephraim Mirvis has written an incredibly insightful article about the use of the word “apartheid” in relation to Israel. As someone who grew up in South Africa, who saw what the term really means, in the midst of so-called “Israel Apartheid Week” on university campuses, Rabbi Mirvis explains why it is simply unacceptable to refer to Israel in this way.
This week on university campuses across the UK, activists are preparing for “Israel Apartheid Week”. Note: not Palestinian “nationalism” or “awareness” week, which might focus on the well-being of the Palestinian people, but a week dedicated to attacking Israel – its government, its people, its very existence. The implied message here is simple: Israel today is where South Africa was in the latter part of the 20th century. It is a comparison that is entirely false; a grave insult to those who suffered under apartheid; and a tragic obstacle to peace.
The difference between the two countries could scarcely be more stark. Under apartheid, a legal structure of racial hierarchy governed all aspects of life. Black South Africans were denied the vote. They were required by law to live, work, study, travel, enjoy leisure activities, receive medical treatment and even go to the lavatory separately from those with a different colour of skin. Interracial relationships and marriages were illegal. It was subjugation in its rawest form.
Contrast that with Israel, a country whose Arab, Druze, Bedouin, Ethiopian, Russian, Baha’i, Armenian and other citizens have equal status under the law. Anyone who truly understands what apartheid was cannot possibly look around Israel today and honestly claim there is any kind of parity…
I personally draw a great deal of inspiration from the state of Israel and am proud of her achievements. The state was born against all odds and, despite having to fight every day for survival, has become a world leader in medicine, technology, science, agriculture and beyond. But of course, as even the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, has said, Israel is not perfect – no country is. The challenges she faces, both external and internal, are urgent and severe. And yet, the beauty of Israel’s democracy, unique in the Middle East, is that there is no social or political problem that is not given abundant consideration within Israel’s own parliament, free press and civil society.
Join that constructive debate by all means, but reject language that stigmatises and polarises. Pursue instead a tone of open dialogue, respectful disagreement and ultimately a common desire for peaceful reconciliation. Say that the conflict in the Middle East is an intractable struggle over nationalism, heritage and territory, if that is what you believe, but please, do not say that it is about race. Say that you are concerned, that you object and that you feel an obligation to speak out but please, do not denigrate or delegitimise. Say that there is social inequality, under-representation and disadvantage but please, never say that there is apartheid.
You can read the full article on the New Statesman site.