What Does it Mean to be an Apartheid State?

In the entire area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, the Israeli regime implements laws, practices and state violence designed to cement the supremacy of one group—Jews—over another—Palestinians.” So says B’Tselem, the premier Israeli human rights organization.1

The International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid defines apartheid as “inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them.”

Under international law apartheid is a crime against humanity. Although most famously associated with South Africa, apartheid isn’t actually specific to any one country or one exact system of racial domination. Many countries have been accused of (but never prosecuted for) establishing apartheid systems, including China in its treatment of minority groups such as the Uyghur, and Myanmar in its treatment of the Rohingya.

But neither China nor Myanmar has been described as an exemplary democracy that shares Canadian values. On the other hand Israel regularly receives such praise and, for many years, has also regularly received Canada’s supportive votes at the UN. Canada is one of only a few countries in the world to back Israel in nearly everything it does. This is in spite of the fact that “86% of Canadians disagree with the idea that Canada should overlook Israel’s human rights violations just because it is considered to be an ally.”2

As an illustration of how Canadian politicians at all levels usually treat Israel, consider a few years ago when Ontario debated a motion to condemn the nonviolent Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions protest movement. One Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) stood and said Israel was not only an important ally but also “a country with a stellar human rights record.” Not one MPP chose to challenge this claim.3

The apartheid system operated by Israel has become ever more blatant in recent years, as illegal Israeli settlements continue to expand, Palestinian homes continue to be demolished, and even COVID-19 vaccinations are applied successfully to Jewish Israelis—including those living in illegal West Bank settlements—while being denied to their Palestinian neighbours.

Apartheid (“separateness”), like segregation in the US, was never about separation. It was, and is, about domination. Segregation in the US was sometimes called “separate but equal,” when this was obviously a lie. This is the case in Israel as well, which, as so many groups have now pointed out, is not a state for all its citizens. In fact, its parliament has passed a law saying it is a Jewish state.

“86% of Canadians disagree that Canada should overlook Israel’s human rights violations just because it is an ally.”

According to many South Africans who experienced apartheid—among them Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former South African Member of Parliament Ronnie Kasrils (who, like me, is Jewish and so faced the charge of being a “self-hating Jew” for his comments)—the situation of Palestinians is the same or worse than that faced by Black South Africans under that country’s apartheid regime.

The two contexts are also very different. White South Africans wanted Blacks’ labour and so, while they did create Bantustans such as KwaZulu and Transkei, they never hoped to expel all Blacks and have the country just for the whites (a policy some Jewish Israeli politicians advocate with respect to the Palestinians). White South Africans never thought of themselves as the Indigenous inhabitants of the land, as some Zionists (including Christian Zionists) claim for all Jews. White South Africans never believed that Blacks were invaders, as Palestinians have been called.

Canadians who criticize China or Myanmar aren’t vilified on social media and aren’t in danger of losing their jobs or of not getting a job they apply for. But criticism of Israel is increasingly being falsely called hatred of Jews and censured by institutions trying to stamp out actual antisemitism (which is of course a worthy goal, especially as far-right hate groups multiply in Canada).

Grand Chief John Kelly, in testimony before the Royal Commission on the Northern Environment in 1977, said, “To commit genocide it is not necessary to build camps and ovens. All that is required is to remove the basis for a way of life.”4 That is what Israel has been doing for years to the Palestinians. That is what Friends are so profoundly concerned by and why CFSC continues to support efforts toward a just peace for all.

Elizabeth Block, is a member of CFSC’s Israel/Palestine Working Group. She attends Toronto Meeting.

  1. B’Tselem, “A Regime of Jewish Supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is Apartheid,” January, 2021, http://bit.ly/BTselemReport
  2. Independent Jewish Voices, “Survey: Regarding ICC, Canadians Reject Double Standard for Israel,” September 16, 2020, https://www.ijvcanada.org/survey2020-2
  3. See CFSC’s statement at the time for its views: https://quakerservice.ca/JustPeaceBDS
  4. Quoted in Adrienne Clarkson, “Room to Grow,” Canada’s History, June 1, 2017, http://bit.ly/CanadasHistory