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Unlike South Africa, the world is giving Israel a pass on apartheid

A UN Security Council resolution rejecting South Africa’s 1983 constitution shows that there is precedent and necessity to act against Israel’s Nation-State Law.

Simon KAPWEPWE (standing), Foreign Minister of Zambia, addressing the Seminar on Apartheid, Racial Discrimination and Colonialism. 4/Aug/1967 (UN Photo)

Simon KAPWEPWE (standing), Foreign Minister of Zambia, addressing the Seminar on Apartheid, Racial Discrimination and Colonialism. 4/Aug/1967 (UN Photo)

In a referendum on November 2, 1983, White voters in apartheid South Africa approved a new constitution to restructure their political system. In addition to consolidating executive power with the presidency, a tricameral parliament was established to grant segregated representation for Coloreds and Indians, with the White chamber holding the parliamentary majority. Non-whites were appointed to various public positions, and some economic and social restrictions were repealed. Black Africans, of course, remained excluded from the electorate.

Proponents of this reform hoped it would make apartheid more sustainable by assuaging growing opposition at home and abroad. It didn’t. The following year, the UN Security Council declared the new constitution “null and void” with Resolution 554 (13 in favor, with the U.S. and U.K. abstaining). Affirming the “legitimacy of the struggle … for the elimination of apartheid,” the Council accused the constitution of seeking to “continue the process of denationalization of the indigenous African majority, depriving it of all fundamental rights, and further entrench apartheid, transforming South Africa into a country for ‘whites only.’”

The resolution went further, rejecting “any so-called ‘negotiated settlement’ based on bantustan structures” or on the new constitution. It called on governments and organizations not to recognize the 1984 elections (the first under the tricameral system), and to support the transformation of South Africa into a non-racial democracy. In short, the world was not buying Pretoria’s attempts to beautify its regime. Apartheid had to go.

Israel youth walk in Jerusalem's old city, as they take part in the flags march, to celebrate 48 years for the occupation of East Jerusalem May 17, 2015.

Israel youth walk in Jerusalem’s old city, as they take part in the flags march, to celebrate 48 years for the occupation of East Jerusalem May 17, 2015.

When Israel’s Knesset passed the ‘Jewish Nation-State Law’ one year ago this month, it effectively declared apartheid the constitutional law of the land. Yet the responses of the international community have hardly matched those toward South Africa 35 years ago. Some like the European Union have publicly raised concerns about the Basic Law’s effect on Israel’s minority citizens and democratic values; but for the most part, they have treated it as an internal matter that they cannot interfere with, at least until the Supreme Court completes its judicial review.

This tepid reaction is disturbing given the severity of the new law. Among other provisions, it asserts that the right to national self-determination in the state belongs to Jews only; it demotes Arabic from its status as an official language; and it encourages exclusive Jewish settlement as a “national value.” This discrimination has always existed through government policies and other legislation since 1948; but now, as a constitutional compass, it further narrows the channels left inside the state – particularly for Palestinian citizens – to challenge these practices.

More dangerously, the law solidifies the single regime that oppresses all Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line. Spurred by the U.S.’s endorsement of Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, the Knesset is advancing legislation aimed at annexing settlements and other swathes of Palestinian lands, which would extend the Basic Law’s jurisdiction deep into the occupied territories. Even without formal annexation, Israel’s ‘permanent occupation’ is already securing Jewish supremacy between the river and the sea, thus fulfilling the law’s purpose.

Taken altogether, Israel’s political regime is a striking reincarnation of South Africa’s model in 1983. It offers the vote to Palestinian citizens under the guise of democracy, while disenfranchising the majority of their brethren living under the state’s rule. It maximizes the privileges and living spaces of Jewish citizens, while fragmenting and caging Palestinians into segregated, pseudo-autonomous enclaves.

The UN Security Council, December 18, 2015 (United Nations Photo)

The UN Security Council, December 18, 2015 (United Nations Photo)

And yet, for all these similar features – which Palestinians had identified long before the Nation-State Law ever existed – a resolution like 554 would be unthinkable today. Unlike with South Africa, the world has long given Israel an exception to pursue its own form of apartheid.

Far from questioning the legal hierarchy between Jewish and Palestinian citizens of the state, foreign leaders are pledging to protect Israel’s ‘Jewish character’ and demographic majority. Instead of challenging the power dynamics that entrench the status quo, governments are gluing themselves to a peace process that has shredded a Palestinian state into bantustans. Rather than affirming the legitimacy of the struggle to end the occupation, legislatures are decrying any nonviolent action and criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic.



History, however, shows that there is precedent and necessity for international action. Instead of parroting praise of Israel’s ‘democracy’ on election day on September 17, governments should be calling out the fact that over half of the state’s subjects have no say in the regime that rules them. They should be rejecting the Nation-State Law and endorsing efforts to build a democratic, non-racial, and rights-based future – just as Resolution 554 did. The world’s message should be as clear today as it was three decades ago: apartheid has to go.

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    1. David Schulberg

      This article is replete with misinformation.
      Many countries around the world have similar ‘nation-state’ laws or practices and Israel is no exception but that doesn’t stop the author here from harping on about so-called Israel;i apartheid.
      According to a 2017 survey by the Pew Research Center, nearly a quarter of states in the world indicate an official religion in their national constitutions.
      But the author with bias and ignorance just picks on Israel and throws around the demeaning label of ‘apartheid’ which is much more appropriate in fact for describing Palestinian society.
      The USA is a nation-state of the Americans, and the Americans, as was defined by the Fathers of this nation-state, are those who live by the Bible-prescribed Judeo-Christian morality.
      Russia is a nation-state of the Russians, and the Russians are defined by their history as the people of many ethnic subgroups, such as Tatars, Udmurt’s, Evenks, Ossetins, Chechens, etc., who willingly accept this nation-state authoritarian, Russian-Orthodox governing morality.
      The Swedish people separated themselves from Finnish and Norwegian peoples and created the Swedish nation-state. Why? – Because they had found that their unique governing moral principles were different from that of Finnish and Norwegian peoples, and separation was needed to preserve the unique Swedish governing morality. Nowadays they are in turmoil since they are flooded with Middle-Eastern peoples with a completely different governing morality.
      Malaysia favours its Malay population endowing them with privileges and rights over and above those of the Chinese.
      Post-World War I Greece had to accommodate a vast wave of Greek-speakers expelled from Turkey. But it has continued in recent decades to express special concern for the descendants of diaspora Greeks, establishing for that purpose a General Secretariat for Greeks Abroad as recently as 1983 and following up in 1995 with a World Council of Hellenes Abroad.
      These are hardly isolated examples. Among other countries, Ireland, Italy, Spain, and Portugal have in recent decades established bodies to promote ties with their national diasporas. A 1999 report from the Council of Europe (representing the signatory states to the European Convention on Human Rights) suggested that, given patterns of migration, “many problems could certainly be solved” if nations recognized not only those rights “linked with residence in given geographical areas (‘citizenship rights’) [but additionally] those linked with possession of a given cultural, civic, and national identity.”

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Time and again we get subject to arrant nonsense about how it’s all so simple and Israel-Palestine is just like Sweden, Spain, Greece, the U.S., etc. The phoniness of the comparisons is instructive.

        Never mind the historical ignorance and the fabrications intertwined with false comparisons. The following sentence is preposterous, ignorance or fabrication at a very basic level:

        “The USA is a nation-state of the Americans, and the Americans, as was defined by the Fathers of this nation-state, are those who live by the Bible-prescribed Judeo-Christian morality.”

        Please. Go back and take a basic American civics course.. Don’t be out sick the day the teacher discusses the writings of Jefferson and Madison and the history of the founding of the American republic, and the day the teacher explains the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. And the rest of the Bill of Rights.

        The nearest proper analogy you are searching for and never finding is this:

        France since 1945 has never withdrawn from the French sector of post war Germany and in 2019 Marine Le Pen succeeds in passing a radical right wing nationalist law stating that France is the Nation State of the French White Roman Catholic People and the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of France is unique to the White Catholic people, the German language has an status officially inferior to the French language, and the state views the development of French Catholic settlement in Baden-Württemberg and the Rhineland as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation, because Alsace-Lorraine just ain’t good enough.

        Reply to Comment
        • Derek

          Well put Sir !

          Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        @David Schulberg: Israel isn’t an apartheid state just because of the Nation State Law, it’s an apartheid state because it completely controls the lives of over 4 million people who have no say, no vote, and effectively no rights.

        This 5 minute talk by an Israeli talk show host explains:


        “An Israeli television host used the final episode of his late-night show to sharply criticize the country’s treatment of Palestinians, comparing settlement efforts in Gaza and the West Bank to South Africa’s apartheid era.”

        Reply to Comment
        • itshak Gordine

          The majority of Arabs in Judea and Samaria live under the (totally corrupt) governance of Ramallah’s authority (Zone A & B according to the Oslo Accords). There is very little in Area C which constitutes 60% of Judea and Samaria. As for the Arabs in Gaza, their situation will improve greatly when they make peace with their Egyptian brothers and with Israel.

          Reply to Comment
          • Amir

            This a reply from a Palestinian, you know the people who don’t exist according to you

            “Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza. And no, we’re not under the control of the PA. The PA is nothing but an unpaid messenger for Israel. In Arabic we have a saying: “They don’t peel an onion.” They’re absolutely useless and powerless. When the “president” decides to travel abroad, he applies for a permission from the IDF’s Civil Administration. The PA has zero sovereignty over borders, zero sovereignty over land outside of our towns (The IDF’s Civil Administration gives permits for anything built on the outskirts of our towns and beyond and it’s not unusual for the IDF to demolish buildings that don’t have permits and the PA can’t do anything about it), the IDF regularly shuts roads between towns and the PA can’t do anything about it, no central bank, no sovereignty over what goes in and out (importers clear with, and pay to, Israel, then Israel pays the PA its share; assuming it hasn’t been acting naughty lately which it has for the last 4 months by the time i’m writing this,) if you have an accident on a road outside your town, even if it’s inside the West Bank, the police can’t come (Yes, that’s true, hilarious, I know! Actually happened to me twice, once with a settler’s vehicle.) You can’t enter Israel unless you have a special permit and you can’t drive there. This category of Palestinians doesn’t pay taxes, doesn’t speak Hebrew, and doesn’t decide who runs the country. They just wait for the IDF to tell me how to live their lives.”

            Reply to Comment
        • David Schulberg

          Note this article happens to be about the Nation-State law and you have chosen to discuss something else instead of dealing with the topic at hand.

          Reply to Comment
        • David Schulberg

          @Bruce Gould, it is not true to say that Palestinians in the West Bank cannot vote. Just as Israeli citizens vote in Israeli elections, Palestinians vote in Palestinian Authority elections (which are a joke), which were set up within the framework of the 1993 Oslo accords.
          Just as Israelis don’t participate in Palestinian Authority elections, Palestinians don’t participate in Israeli elections. Nobody can participate in both elections.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Really David Shulberg? Your really going to submit this as an argument to Bruce Gould and not be embarrassed about it? You’re revealing the level you’re playing at.

            Let me rewrite what you just wrote but write it honestly and without insulting the intelligence of the reader:

            Just as Israeli citizens and settlers living in illegal settlements outside Israel vote in Israeli elections while totally controlling the lives of people who do not vote in Israeli elections, Palestinians vote in Palestinian Authority elections while having their lives totally controlled by people in whose Israeli elections they cannot vote. All of which was not set up within the framework of the 1993 Oslo accords, but which accords Israel misused as a trick to do the kind of thing you, David Shulberg, are trying to attempt here, not as trick this time around, but as farce.

            Got an answer to my reply to you on July 28? I’ll wait.

            Reply to Comment
      • Tim

        @David Schubert.
        I don’t think you get what the author is saying, as your rant isn’t even logically associated to the authors point, like seriously.
        So I’m not sure that it’s worth debating with you. But if you ever get around to getting help being a member of the human race, please don’t hesitate to check in again.

        Reply to Comment
      • Mark

        Are you sure Judaism is the “official religion” of Israel?

        This is very different from Israel as the state of the Jewish people where the majority of its citizens are Jews of one stream or another.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Derek

      Actually, in 1975 the Organisation for African Unity (OAU) adopted Resolution 77, declaring that colonisers of Palestine shared the same racist, imperial policies as regimes in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa. Referencing the resolution two months later, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 3379 that declared Zionism “a form of racism and racial discrimination.” You learned all these talking points from their propaganda when your apartheid is just as long and even more nastier than theirs ever was.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Firentis

      The Nation State Law has made not a single change to the structure of Israel’s democracy. All citizens regardless of ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation or anything else for that matter still vote for a unicameral legislature. It is a law that cements the symbols of the state in a constitutional setting and is no different from similar laws and constitutions as legislated in much of Europe. If y’all want to open up a discussion as to European countries that have (1) official religions (2) official titular ethnic groups (3) national symbols that are religious in origin (4) laws of return for titular ethnic groups, I am entirely open to that but I doubt you’d want to because you know that I can find examples of all four.

      The international community considers the West Bank and the Gaza Strip occupied territory and the population there is ruled by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas respectively. They are not Israeli citizens and never have been. Their status hasn’t changed a bit by the Nation State Law. As soon as the Palestinians accept a peace deal they will have their own separate country which is already recognized by like 140 countries. So, the analogy made just collapses under examination.

      “it further narrows the channels left inside the state – particularly for Palestinian citizens – to challenge these practices”

      Indeed. That is the point. If you want to overturn and eliminate the country this law makes it more difficult for you to do so through lawfare or legislation. The law is only necessary because people like you were trying to do exactly that. So the majority of citizens have decided to block such attempts. Welcome to democracy where as a minority you do not get to decide how the country defines itself.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        @Firentis: “West Bank and the Gaza Strip occupied territory and the population there is ruled by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas respectively.’

        No. Israel controls exit and entry in the West Bank and Gaza, it determines how far out Gaza fishermen can go, it send soldiers into the West Bank (and even Gaza!) whenever it feels like it, and is slowly stealing the land underneath the Palestinians feet. Furthermore, the West Bank is carved up into small areas and Israel controls all movement between these areas.

        But if you’re talking about deciding the trash pickup schedules, the Palestinians rule themselves.

        Reply to Comment
        • Mark

          Picking up the trash is a good place to start in terms of controlling your life. Does it work under the PA or under Hamas?

          Reply to Comment
      • Ray

        If the Nation-State Law doesn’t change anything (i.e. is purely aesthetic) then why is it the hill you people have decided you want to die on?

        Israel has been a Jewish state since before its inception (whether or not it officially says so on the label). Contrary to your rationalization that it works to protect against Israel ever becoming non-Jewish, this would be a practical impossibility even WITHOUT everyone having call Israel a “Jewish State”. As long as you have no plans to end the status quo of the occupation (either via finally putting the Two State Solution into practice, or by formally annexing the West Bank and extending citizenship to its inhabitants), where exactly is the danger to Israel’s “Jewish” character coming from that this purely aesthetic change is necessary?

        Reply to Comment
      • Talkback

        @ Firentis:

        1-3 are Irrelevant. That’s the difference to other countries : In Israel only a subgroup of citizens are nationals based on their religion while the rest is not. Nobody can become part of Israel’s nation by acquiring its citizenship, because “Jewish” is not a citizenship, but a subgroup of citizens and “the Jews” are not a nation in its legal relevant and non ethnic, civil sense know as “nationality” in the rest of the world.

        Regarding 4: These law of return are for 1.) those who emigrated and they or they descendants want to return or 2.) were born there and expelled. See for example Germany. It allows those who emigrated to Russia hundreds of years ago to return and Jews who were expelled by Nazi Germany.

        It’s obvious that 1.) and 2.) are not the case in Israel. To the contrary. Israel keeps Nonjews who were born in Palestine and their descendants expelled. And then they claim that it would be unique that Palestinias can pass their refugee status unto their descendants allthough it is exactly the same under UNHCR.

        Reply to Comment
    4. Firentis

      The challenge comes from Arab organizations in Israel pursuing the piecemeal elimination of the Jewish state through lawfare and activist judges that indulge them.

      The law itself changes nothing. Why is the law important? Because the things enshrined by the law have no other constitutional legal standing and other basic laws can be seen to be more important which gives an opening to those operating from the inside against the Jewish state.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        @Firentis: This post and the one preceding it is a showcase of the falsehoods and fabrications upon which the occupation is built, and of 80 year old European fascist tropes. You started out trying to make the usual unconvincing equivalences to benign liberal 21st century western European states and end with language (“operating from the inside against”) reminiscent of 20th century European fascism.

        The Nation-State Law certainly does change the structure of Israel’s political system in all the ways explicated by Amjad Iraqi and all the ways explicated by Hassan Jabareen in Henrietta Chacar’s piece. It didn’t much change the actual discriminatory practices on the ground yet only because the practice are already there. The Law (as you hint) encodes legalisms that protect pseudo-democratic forms sustaining an implicit tyranny of the majority. Shaked’s efforts to emasculate the High Court’s oversight is a complementary attack. Make the law, emasculate judicial oversight of that law. The German National Socialists did the same. The loved their laws. And their judges.

        More to follow.

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        “…and is no different from similar laws and constitutions as legislated in much of Europe. If y’all want to open up a discussion as to European countries that have (1) official religions (2) official titular ethnic groups…”

        There is no “discussion” to be opened up on this, only a distraction. It is false to portray the way this law was conceived, enacted, intended and implemented and the context in which this was done, as anything like “official religions and titular ethnic groups” of 21st century European states. For the true comparison, see my response to David Shulberg regarding Marine Le Pen and the law she’d love to, but cannot, pass. Le Front National’s longed for version of France is the nearest true analogue to actual, not imagined, present day Israel.

        “…occupied territory and the population there is ruled by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas respectively…”

        Patently false. See Bruce Gould’s reply to you.

        “If you want to overturn and eliminate the country…operating from the inside against”

        As I said, the language of fascism.
        Israel’s Right Wing Is Worse Than Europe’s

        More to follow.

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        “As soon as the Palestinians accept a peace deal they will have their own separate country”

        The last thing the majority of Israelis want is “a peace deal” and a separate country.
        They want more land, settled by Jews exclusively. Their nation state law plainly says so, says its “a national value.” Their leading politicians verbally ratify this every day. The vast majority of Israelis are either actively or passively supportive of this agenda. Oslo was became an Israeli trick exploited to this day to pursue this agenda.

        It is the Israel of Netanyahu, Smotrich and Shaked that constitutes an eliminationist threat against the Palestinians, not the other way around. Right wing visitors here regularly deny the Palestinians even exist and deny their right to exist. The Israeli State works constantly to weaken and destroy the Palestinians’ culture and identity. Only a fool could believe the Israelis seriously intend to sign “a peace deal.”

        “as a minority you do not get to decide how the country defines itself”

        A blunt anti-democratic expression of the tyranny of the majority, of judeosupremacism

        Reply to Comment
    5. Ben

      @David Shulberg on July 27 (and referencing also the reply of ‘Talkback’ to Firentis on July 30):

      You go on about “the nation-state of the Americans,” etc. As if to say the analogue, the relevant comparison, to the American people is “the Jewish people.” But of course it isn’t. The true analogue is “the Israeli people.” But Israel refuses to recognize an Israeli people. It insists on racializing everything. There is no “Israeli” nationality on Israeli passports. Israel pointedly refuses it. There is only “Jewish” and “Arab” and similar ethnic “nationalities.” Israel, anomalously, refuses the concept of nation in the civic, legal and non-ethnic sense know as “nationality” in the rest of the world.

      This shows your analogy to be false; and your use of that false analogy says a lot about the problem here, about ithe way Israel pretends to be one thing but actually does another.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        And clearly, what you are attempting with “the Americans, as was defined by the Fathers of this nation-state, are those who live by the Bible-prescribed Judeo-Christian morality“ is explained in depth by Peter Beinart in the article linked to here by Bruce Gould:

        Reply to Comment
    6. Nathanael

      Really, it’s a matter of time. When apartheid was originally formally established in South Africa — 1948 — the world gave it a free pass too. Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions didn’t really start until the 1970s and didn’t really get going until the 1980s, and it wasn’t until the late 1980s that the apartheid leaders really found themselves isolated. Even after that, nothing changed until the US and USSR strong-armed South Africa into getting out of Namibia, and nothing changed in South Africa proper until racist-in-chief P W Botha had a stroke and was replaced with de Klerk.

      The same isolation is happening to the apartheid country of Israel, but more slowly. It is being isolated economically and socially. Like South Africa and Myanmar, nobody actually needs to trade with Israel, so trade will slowly dry up. (By contrast, China can get away with genocide because it’s the only remaining superpower in the world and eveyone needs to trade with it.)

      But unfortunately, I see no signs of Netenyahu having a stroke, and I see no de Klerk on the horizon for Israel. This means that Israel will end the way apartheid Rhodesia ended — by losing a civil war — rather than the way apartheid South Africa ended.

      It’s taking longer for Israel because Israel is *less important* to the world. The conflict in Kashmir has world implications, and the great powers may have to really step in. The conflict in South Africa entangled everything from Angola to Zimbabwe. Even the Chinese abuse of Uighurs is of a scale that international action may become unavoidable. But Israel’s apartheid crimes are on the scale of the genocides in Rwanda; it’s small enough that it doesn’t really bother international security most of the time. Unfortunately the same is true of the (at least) five genocides currently taking place in Myanmar.

      The main issue for the Great Powers is the untenable US financial & military support for racist, apartheid Israeli governments. The US government also supported apartheid South Africa. Eventually public pressure will get the US government out of this foreign entanglement; the US really has a very strong isolationist tradition, and this is a case where that’s going to win.

      The US will also have to stop backing racist, undemocratic Saudi Arabia, which because of the oil is going to be a much bigger deal internationally.

      Reply to Comment
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