Israel Apart

Israel, needless to say, is not an apartheid state. But—in a distinctly Jewish way—it is a state apart.
February 26, 2014 | Neil Rogachevsky
About the author: Neil Rogachevsky teaches at the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University and is the author of Israel’s Declaration of Independence: The History and Political Theory of the Nation’s Founding Moment, published in 2023 by Cambridge University Press.
An Israel Apartheid Week poster at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Courtesy Wikimedia.

Just in case the anti-Israel calendar wasn’t crowded enough, “Israel Apartheid Week” began on Monday. On university campuses and at sit-ins in North America and Europe, activists have been showcasing the alleged brutality of Israel toward the Palestinians, persuading the persuadable to connect the Jewish state with the despised whites-only regime of South Africa, and mobilizing support for the “Boycott, Divest, Sanction” campaign that is aimed at turning Israel into an international pariah.

At the University of Toronto, where the event had its genesis in 2005, this week’s attendees are being treated to such elegant nuggets as “Globally Resisting Settler Colonial States through Campaigns & Solidarity,” “Pinkwashing, Homonationalism & Love under the Time of Apartheid,” and, my personal favorite, “Rethinking the Syrian Golan in the Context of Apartheid.” (At this point in their civil war, not even the Syrians know who controls the Syrian side of the Golan.)  A few movies and other cultural events make brief nods to actual Palestinians, but for the most part the focus falls relentlessly on the state of Israel and its crimes. 

When it began in 2005, the event was simply another among the many campus protests associated with the American war in Iraq and Israel’s supposedly disproportionate measures of self-defense during the second intifada: some flag-waving, some posters, some quaint 60s-style chants. But even as the intifada tapered out, Israel Apartheid Week took off, quickly spreading beyond North American university campuses to cities around the world. Disheveled protest gave way to meticulously planned programs featuring anti-imperialist celebrity speakers and lurid open-to-the-public exhibits of alleged Israeli war crimes. Over the years, studiously avoiding any analysis of the actual dynamics of life in Israel or the territories, the event has stayed on message: Israel treats the Palestinians the way apartheid South Africa treated blacks, forcing them into the equivalent of Bantustans and brutally depriving them of all political and social rights. To judge by recent endorsements garnered from movie actors and pop stars, always a bellwether of politically correct opinion, the movement might be gaining strength.


Which means that it has now, alas, become a dreary necessity to respond to the substance of the allegation. Is there any truth at all to the equation of Israel with South Africa?

A recent thought experiment comparing the way history developed in South Africa with the way it has in Israel proves definitively that the analogy is ludicrous in every particular. And to the record of developments on the ground one can add still more data: where apartheid South Africa made racial segregation the cornerstone of its founding, the Israeli declaration of independence invited the local Arabs to join the state with full and equal citizenship.  Today, although some Arab members of the Knesset may not like the idea of the state of Israel—and most, whatever they privately believe, feel obliged to denounce it publicly—they are still democratically elected parliamentarians. Much like their Jewish colleagues, they even have, and exercise, the freedom to split into factions and to show a markedly disunited sense of what constitutes the Arab interest. This disunity may be taken as further evidence of apartheid’s absence.

Are there tensions between Jews and Arabs? Of course: sometimes Israeli Jews mistreat Israeli Arabs; sometimes the reverse is true.  When Jews buy homes in neighborhoods of Jerusalem like Sheikh Jarrah, local Arabs and their Jewish supporters claim to be incensed. But such displays belie a more complicated, encouraging reality. For Israeli Arabs, as Joshua Muravchik has shown, the last few decades have seen a dramatic rise in educational achievement, health, and the general standard of living. Israeli Arab income is now a whopping 50-percent higher than the average in the Arab world. More and more, Israeli Arabs are enjoying the benefits of modernity and, in some significant respects, beginning to resemble their Jewish neighbors. Like young Jews, young Israeli Arabs now aspire to middle-class professions—or, alternatively, reveal a kindred cluelessness about what to do with their lives (a solid job in East Jerusalem vs. tending bar and making the art scene in East Berlin). This has been a heartening and underreported development.

What about the territories?  An original pretext for Apartheid Week was the fence or  separation barrier (predictably redubbed the “apartheid wall”) between Israel and the West Bank. Whether the fence was a strategically wise move may be debatable: though it is often associated with the ensuing dramatic decline in Palestinian terror, improvements in intelligence-gathering and the methodical destruction of terror networks by Ariel Sharon and his generals during the intifada may deserve a greater share of the credit. Meanwhile, the wall has given at least some Israelis the potentially deceptive notion of a permanent “border” that might yet prove difficult to defend.

In any case, however, to say that the wall—or the situation in the West Bank at large—represents apartheid is quite simply wrong. The biggest obstacle to the development of a Palestinian state continues to be Palestinian politics. Yes, West Bank Arabs must endure some restrictions on their movements and the limbo induced by constantly being told to expect citizenship in a state that does not and might not ever exist. But who is responsible for this? Palestinians have had significant autonomy in the West Bank since the mid-1990s. Despite an endless stream of financial aid, weapons, and international good will, they continue to suffer from the unreformed kleptocracy known as the Palestinian Authority—and corruption is only the beginning. Hamas and other local extremists have their partisans and extract their tolls and loyalties. Outside the major centers, political parties are often weak, and what appear to be parties can simply be old tribes fitted out with new names.

Most Palestinians, in the West Bank as well as Gaza, smart under the rule of “eminent families” who are locked in petty internecine quarrels while remaining expert at rendering the lives of ordinary Arabs difficult if not miserable. Political life in the Palestinian territories today recalls southern Italy in the middle of the last century or earlier, festering from what the late political scientist Edward Banfield called “amoral familism”—the demand for absolute loyalty to family and clan rather than legitimate political authorities. Brave, reform-minded Palestinians there surely are; they could use their own Banfield, as well as an honest reckoning of the political problems that afflict them.  

And yet, despite all this, even in the territories, the economic growth experienced by Israeli Arabs has been felt. The West Bank economy, which expanded rapidly during the allegedly dread occupation of the 1970s and 1980s, underwent a slowdown upon the installation of the PA but has since resumed its growth; according to the IMF, the annual rate of increase in GDP stands above 5 percent. The organizers of Apartheid Week, if they were honest, would ponder this fact; but they are not.


Israel, then, is not an apartheid state. But is it nevertheless a state apart—and in what sense?

After all, at a time when many Westerners insist that states must not favor any one religion over any other, does not Israel proudly call itself a Jewish state. And does it not constantly harp upon the political relevance of its Jewish character by demanding that Arabs recognize it as such in any negotiated settlement?  A Jewish state is not a Christian state, nor a Muslim state, nor a purely secular state with a wall of separation between church and state. 

Influential critics of Israel (not least within Israel itself, including in the influential newspaper Haaretz) claim that the designation “Jewish” necessarily entails an infraction of the human rights of others.  For their part, liberals who are more or less well disposed to Israel are bothered enough by the charge to think of ways to deflect it. One way is to identify Judaism itself with the modern principle of openness and diversity, thus turning an irksome ethnic negative into a cheerful liberal positive.

Take, for example, the well-known British historian Simon Schama, whose recent book The Story of the Jews argues that Jews, whether they lived in ancient Judea or Elephantine Alexandria, in medieval Andalusia or England, were always open to the outside world. Despite frequent persecution, they aped the customs of the Gentiles among whom they lived and participated to the extent possible in the intellectual and cultural and sometimes even the political life of their surrounding nations.  Schama does not address contemporary politics (at least so far; a second volume is to come), but the implications are clear. A Jewish state is not discriminatory because Judaism is cultural interchange and mutual fructification.

Indeed, much as Schama suggests, Jews have almost always been intimately involved with and influenced by the affairs of non-Jews. But as a statement of the essence of Judaism, this is absurd.  If Judaism is defined only by Jews’ different interactions with different peoples in different times, there would have been no reason for them to differentiate themselves as they did throughout history, sometimes at the cost of their lives. The key features of Jewish life have always remained the observance of mitzvot that are incumbent upon Jews alone and the study of the texts containing those precepts. Jewish practices like circumcision and kashrut, even if partly shared with or originating from similar practices of neighboring peoples, developed to give tangible articulation to the idea of a particular covenant with God. Even today, Jews thank God three times a day for choosing them from among all the nations of the earth.

True, as the phrase “light unto the nations” conveys, the covenant always had a universal component, and living a Jewish life was presumed to have implications for the ideas and morality of others. But it did not imply devolution into a bland and formless universalism. To be chosen, to be an example, you had to be different. Jews were supposed to stand apart. 

None of this means that a Jewish state must therefore “discriminate” against non-Jews. In fact, rather the contrary. What some find difficult, or discomfiting, to take in is that Judaism, precisely while insisting on its distinctiveness, developed a marked spirit of liberality, encapsulated in the mandate of kindness to strangers.  Completely alien to the Mishnah, the Talmud, and all later authorities of note was any concept of “dhimmitude” or enslavement of minorities. Jews outlawed slavery, polygamy, and other such practices, and inscribed elaborate rules for strangers that, while not amounting to “multiculturalism,” made clear that non-Jews were to be tolerated and had rights. Far from encouraging or licensing apartheid in the South African sense, the Jewish ethos of “apartness” articulated a truly humane basis for dealing with the irreducible fact of competing political goals.

That spirit is alive and well in modern Israel. Precisely because of its distinct Jewish character, the Jewish state has eschewed maltreatment of the non-Jewish minorities in its midst. Even more remarkably, it has consistently demonstrated humanity to others even while facing unremitting hatred and hostility, intolerance, brutality, and aggression. To the extent that Israelis fail to adhere to this standard, their media and their society let them know it. (See the endless news stories on the travails of African and Asian guest workers.)  

In order to dismiss the charge of “discrimination,” then, there is no need to resort to obfuscation and limp redefinition. The liberality of the Jewish state is indeed a thing apart: a noble testament to its Jewish character, a standing rebuke to its enemies, and, to its fainthearted friends, an object lesson in self-respect.


A 2013 Tikvah Fellow, Neil Rogachevsky has written for the American Interest, Claremont Review of Books, Ha’aretz, and other publications.