Human rights organisations have taken to arguing simultaneously that Israel is practising Apartheid and that it does not resemble the old discriminatory regime in South Africa.

Last Saturday I wrote an article for spiked on how the latest report on Amnesty International manages this conjuring trick. In short it redefines Apartheid to refer to something other than what most people assume it means. Here I want to spell out in more detail how this deception is achieved.

It is first necessary to recognise that Amnesty is far from alone in resorting to this sleight of hand. On the contrary, a slew of human rights organisations have published similar reports. These including international organisations such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) (April 2021), Israeli organisations such as B’Tselem  (January 2021) and Yesh Din (July 2020) and Palestinian organisations such as Al-Haq (April 2021) and Adalah (November 2021).

In broad terms they all take a similar approach. Rather than examine the dynamics of South African as it actually existed they redefine Apartheid to mean something else. My spiked article quoted Amnesty International saying it did not consider the Israeli situation to be analogous to that which existed in South Africa. This is the take from HRW:

“The international community has over the years detached the term apartheid from its original South African context, developed a universal legal prohibition against its practice, and recognized it as a crime against humanity."

Such passages need to be considered carefully to consider what they mean. How can the term “Apartheid” be detached “from its original South African context”? Apartheid was a social system that precisely emerged in the particular conditions of South Africa.

Of course it is theoretically possible that a regime similar to apartheid South Africa could emerge. But to make such a case properly would mean examining the specific dynamics of Apartheid in South Africa then comparing them to the accused country.

If the current debate is followed closely it becomes clear that is not the procedure applied to Israel. Instead, as the HRW quote shows, Apartheid has been redefined to mean something other than what once existed in South Africa.

There are several key documents defining Apartheid in international law. These include the 1973 Apartheid Convention (which defines Apartheid as both a “crime” and a “policy”) and the 1998 Rome Statute (which also defines Apartheid as a crime and refers to “an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by ne racial group over any other racial group"). The debates sometimes also refer back to the 1965 International Convention On All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

There are two notable features of this redefinition of Apartheid in relation to the debate on Israel. First, it defines Apartheid as a crime. In other words states that are deemed to confirm to this definition are held to be in breach of international law. Therefore, in principle at least, Israel itself can be hauled before the International Criminal Court as can Israeli individuals who are deemed complicit. Indeed Amnesty International seems to favour such courses of action.

The flip side is that those regimes not deemed as practising Apartheid are not considered criminal by this criterion. These include some of the world’s most odious states.

Second, it essence it redefines Apartheid to mean systematic discrimination. But if that is the case why not discuss it in those terms? There are plenty of countries which arguably discriminate against some of their inhabitants on a systematic basis. Consider, for instance, the Kurds in Turkey, ethnic Nepalis in Bhutan and Uyghur Muslims in China.  Many other examples could be given.

The point here is not to justify discrimination but, on the contrary, to argue that it should be judged on a consistent basis. If countries are accused of engaging in discriminatory practices this should be examined in the same terms.

Given a special label to Israel in this case is, as I argued in my spiked article, itself discriminatory. The term “Apartheid” is being used as a moral signifier rather than as a description of what exists in Israel. The implication is that Israel should be judged differently from others.

There are parallels with the 1975 United Nations General Assembly Resolution that declared Zionism was “a form of racism and racial discrimination”. It also linked Israel to the South African regime. That was before the Apartheid Convention mentioned above.

The 1975 UN resolution was rescinded in 1991, in the run-up to a peace conference between Israel and the Palestinians, but the charge of Apartheid lives on. Indeed anti-Israel activists often use the terms “Israel” and “Apartheid” in the same breath.

Essentially the use of the term “Apartheid” in this context is a coded way of treating Israel according to a double standard. In that sense it seems to me fair to describe it as anti-Semitic.

If Israel was judged by the same criteria as other nations that would be reasonable. But that is not what is happening here.

In a future article I want to look more closely at the dynamics of Apartheid in South Africa. That will show in more detail that, although Israel has faults, it is not remotely like the old South African regime.

Photo: Edson Junior on Unsplash