It is hardly reasonably to label as racist Israels definition of itself as Jewish when countries like Egypt, Iran, Kuwait, Libya, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia unabashedly define themselves as Islamic or Arab countries, says the writer. File picture: Sebastian Scheiner

Does Israel have discriminatory laws similar to those practised in pre-1994 South Africa? The answer is an unequiviocal “no”, says David Saks.

SINCE its establishment in 1948, Israel has absorbed millions of Jewish immigrants. In doing so, it has carried out the mission for which the UN voted it into being in the first place, namely to provide a homeland in which the Jews can live as a free, sovereign people able to determine their own national destiny.

The UN General Assembly Resolution 181, which approved the partition of Mandatory Palestine into independent Arab and Jewish states, was quite unambiguous in defining the partition in such terms. Indeed, it uses the expression “Jewish state” no fewer than 27 times.

Under international law, there has never been any question about the legitimacy or legality of Israel defining itself as the state of the Jewish people. Why, in any case, should there be, when virtually all of its neighbours define themselves in either religious or national-ethnic terms?

It is hardly reasonably to label as “racist” Israel’s definition of itself as Jewish when countries like Egypt, Iran, Kuwait, Libya, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia unabashedly define themselves as “Islamic” or “Arab” countries.

The Palestinians wish to establish societies defined along religious (Islamic) or nationalist (Arab) lines, as seen by the respective founding documents of Hamas and Fatah.

In reality, what is fundamentally racist is denying the Jewish people the right to establish a sovereign national entity of their own, whereas that same right is unquestioningly accorded to others. That those at the forefront of driving the “Zionism is racism” (or the related “Israeli apartheid”) canard are quite unapologetic in advocating on behalf of self-defined Islamic countries says something about the hypocrisy and double standards that underpin the war of delegitimisation against Israel.

This is not, nor ever was, about combating “Israeli apartheid”. It is about waging a ceaseless campaign of defamation against the world’s sole Jewish majority country with a view to turning it into a pariah and driving it out of existence.

Apartheid in South Africa, as hardly needs to be pointed out, was a system underpinned by racial differentiation and discrimination. The idea was to divide the population into racial categories and concentrate power and privilege in the hands of the white minority.

Israel, by contrast, has gone out of its way to facilitate non-European immigration. About half its population originates from Arab-speaking countries and a significant minority of the remainder come from India and Ethiopia. All have full and equal citizenship rights. What most immigrants have in common is a shared adherence to the Jewish religion and if the claim is then made that it is on this basis that it practises “apartheid”, the sheer absurdity of such a position should be apparent.

Of all the countries in the Middle East, not one comes even close to ensuring the legal protection and freedom of religious minorities to the extent that Israel does.

Elsewhere, religious discrimination and persecution is characteristic of the entire region. Jews have long since been driven out because of it, and today it is the Christian minority that is being forced out en masse.

It is only in Israel that the Christian minority has actually grown, and significantly so, since 1948. Nor is it accidental that the international headquarters of the Bahai’i faith, another much persecuted religious minority, is located in the Israeli city of Haifa.

Does there nevertheless exist in Israel proper discriminatory laws similar to those practised in pre-1994 South Africa? The answer is an unequivocal “no”.

In South Africa, only whites had political rights, race-based residential segregation was mandatory, public amenities such as parks and hospitals were segregated, non-white education was separate and inferior, 87 percent of the land was reserved for white ownership and non-whites were not only restricted from most professions, but as a matter of law received lower wages.

Nothing of this remotely exists in Israel. There, all citizens have full political rights, can attend whatever educational institution they wish, have access to all levels of the economic and professional sectors and can lease or reside in 87 percent of the country.

De facto discrimination does exist, but the difference is that whereas in South Africa discrimination was mandatory, in Israel it is illegal.


The next crucial point to address is whether Israel is practising apartheid in the occupied West Bank. This is less clear cut, since here Jews and Palestinians are obviously segregated from one another. Moreover, there are many laws that do impact negatively on Palestinians, particularly when it comes to freedom of movement.

Here, it is necessary to distinguish between restrictive measures imposed in order to enforce racial domination (as was the case in South Africa) and those necessitated by the reality of bitter inter-ethnic and/or religious conflict. Before the Palestinian terror campaign waged against Jewish Israelis in the early years of this century, separation measures such as checkpoints, border fences and separate roads did not exist.

The actions of the Palestinians have forced Israel to impose a range of security measures in order to protect its citizens. One of the most egregiously dishonest ploys by those pushing the Israel-apartheid equation is to portray those measures as having been imposed without cause on an entirely innocent population in order to dominate them.

Israel’s presence in the West Bank is not good for Palestinians or Israelis. Israel has consistently shown its willingness to withdraw from the territory if its legitimate security concerns are met, and once the Palestinians display a similar willingness to co-exist with their Jewish neighbours, then peace will at last come to the region.


* David Saks is associate director of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

The Star