You may have seen it: demonstrators line city streets holding signs such as “Free Palestine,” accusing Israel of xenophobia, racism, and apartheid. Amnesty International even published an official report accusing Israel of apartheid against Palestinians.1 But are these claims true? Is Israel an apartheid, racist state?
Definitions of Racism and Apartheid
First, let us begin by defining terms. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines racism as both “a belief that race is a fundamental determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race” and “the systemic oppression of a racial group to the social, economic, and political advantage of another.”2
The International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid defines apartheid as “inhumane 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.”3 Thus, apartheid constitutes government-instituted oppression against its citizens based on race, as was the case with South Africa’s racist policies against its non-white citizens from 1948 to 1994.4
Now, let us examine whether Israel systemically oppresses some of its citizens based on race. If it does, then Israel is a racist nation guilty of apartheid.
Israel’s Racial Diversity
How does Israel treat its citizens of different races? Israel’s Declaration of Independence states that “The State of Israel will…ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”5 Here, in Israel’s founding document, we see a legal precedent for fair treatment of all citizens, regardless of race, religion, or sex.
After Israel’s founding, these words became a reality for Jewish people of many different races fleeing persecution. Jewish people from Europe, the Soviet Union, the Arab world, Turkey, Iran, Ethiopia, and more fled to Israel for freedom from oppression because of their ethnicity and religion, joining the indigenous Jewish and Arab populations that lived in the land for thousands of years. Thus, Israel became “one of the most diverse countries in the world with over half of its population being from Africa, India, and other areas of the Middle East.”6
Israel is made up of more than seven million Jewish men, women, and children—both dark- and light-skinned—from more than 100 countries and almost three million Muslim and Christian Arabs, Druze, Baha’is, Circassians, and other ethnic groups.7 In fact, the majority of Jewish people in Israel today are Mizrahi, descendants from Middle Eastern or North African countries. Only about 30 percent of Israel’s Jewish population are Ashkenazi, of white European Jewish descent.8 As one Israeli Mizrahi wrote,
I believe their [those accusing Israel of apartheid] misrepresentations are part of a strategic campaign to taint Israel as an extension of privileged and powerful white Europe, thereby justifying any and all attacks on it. This way of thinking signals a dangerous trend that positions Israel as a colonialist aggressor rather than a haven for those fleeing oppression….Any erasure of the Mizrahi experience negates the lives of 850,000 Jewish refugees [expelled from Arab countries in the wake of Israel’s independence] just like them, who…were treated as “dhimmis,” [non-Muslim, second-class citizens forced to pay an extra tax in order to live in Muslim countries]…Demographic ignorance also works to deny the existence of almost 200,000 descendants of Ethiopian Jews who were threatened by political destabilization in the early 1990s and airlifted to Israel in a daring rescue operation.9
Although no country is perfect, Israel—as the only democracy in the Middle East—grants all its citizens, regardless of race, religion, gender, and even sexual orientation, equal rights. Sixty-five percent of Israel’s Arab citizens choose to vote; Arab politicians make up the third most powerful coalition in Israel’s legislative branch; an Arab political party currently (as of this writing) serves as part of Israel’s governing coalition; and Arabs have served in cabinet positions and on Israel’s Supreme Court.10 In fact, Arabs in Israel, especially Arab women, enjoy far more civil liberties in Israel than in any Arab country. As one Jewish writer put it, “To call Israel—with its Arab justices, parliamentarians, diplomats, academics and business leaders—an apartheid state is to not know the meaning of apartheid.”11
Even Arab citizens in Israel prefer to live under Israeli rule rather than under Palestinian leadership, as indicated by a 2021 poll conducted by the Palestine News Network. The network surveyed 1,200 Arab (Palestinian) residents of East Jerusalem asking whether they preferred Israeli or Palestinian Authority rule over Jerusalem. The results were telling: 93 percent (1,116 residents) said they preferred Israeli rule.12
The West Bank and Gaza
Now, what about Arabs in the Palestinian territories? Is Israel committing apartheid against them?
First, let us examine the legal status of the territories. In 1922, the League of Nations legalized the creation of a Jewish state in the region of Palestine, where Muslim Arabs and Jews had been living for centuries. There was no nation of Palestine in existence. The region included modern-day Jordan, Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. Seventy-eight percent of this region became the Arab state of Jordan. Then in 1947, the United Nations resolved to partition the remaining 22 percent of the region into an Arab state and a Jewish state. The Jewish people accepted the resolution, and the Arabs rejected it, not wanting the creation of a Jewish state. Soon afterward, five Arab armies surrounded the new Jewish nation to attack it, violating the prohibition of wars of aggression.
After this 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Egypt occupied the Gaza Strip, and Jordan occupied the West Bank until Israel regained control over the territories in 1967 after another war of self-defense. Since then, Israel has chosen to govern the West Bank and Gaza in accordance with the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC).
Under the LOAC, Arabs in Gaza and the West Bank are not citizens of Israel, so they are not governed under domestic Israeli law. The Palestinian territories have their own governing authorities. Israel, under the LOAC, has enacted certain security measures to protect its Jewish and Arab citizens against repeated rocket attacks, suicide bombings, shootings, knife attacks, etc. coming from the Palestinian territories. Israel is legally allowed and obligated to take such security measures under the LOAC.
These security measures cannot be categorized as apartheid since Arabs within the territories are not Israeli citizens, the measures are legal under the LOAC, and Israel treats its Arab citizens equally, revealing its military measures in the territories are not racially motivated, but security motivated.13 And while Palestinians from these territories outside Israel are able to enter the country with proper identification, Jews are not afforded the same privileges. Commenting on this double standard, Israeli human rights activist, Hananya Naftali wrote, “Amnesty International will probably never report on the real apartheid against Israelis. While [non-Israeli] Palestinians [living in the West Bank and Gaza] can freely enter Israel with the proper documents, I, an Israeli Jew, am banned from entering Gaza or other Palestinian cities.”14
In conclusion, we believe Israel—with all its faults and failures—is not a racist regime carrying out apartheid. Israel is not a perfect country, but it is the only democracy in the Middle East, and as such, it affords all its citizens equal rights and protections, regardless of race, religion, or gender.
- “Israel’s apartheid against Palestinians: a cruel system of domination and a crime against humanity,” Amnesty International, February 1, 2022, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2022/02/israels-apartheid-against-palestinians-a-cruel-system-of-domination-and-a-crime-against-humanity/.
- Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, s.v. “racism,” accessed October 10, 2023, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/racism.
- International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid art. II, 30 Nov. 1973, 1015 U.N.T.S. 243 as cited in “Apartheid or Antisemitism?” American Center for Law and Justice, accessed October 21, 2021, http://media.aclj.org/pdf/Apartheid-or-Antisemitism—Detailed-Analysis.pdf
- Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, s.v. “apartheid,” accessed October 10, 2023, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/apartheid.
- “The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel,” Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, May 14, 1948, https://www.mfa.gov.il/mfa/foreignpolicy/peace/guide/pages/declaration%20of%20establishment%20of%20state%20of%20israel.aspx.
- “Zionism is racism,” American Jewish Committee, accessed October 10, 2023, https://www.ajc.org/translatehate/Zionism-is-racism
- “Vital Statistics: Latest Population Statistics for Israel” Jewish Virtual Library, accessed October 12, 2023, https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/latest-population-statistics-for-israel
- Hen Mazzig, “Op-Ed: No, Israel isn’t a country of privileged and powerful white Europeans,” Los Angeles Times, May 20, 2019, https://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-mazzig-mizrahi-jews-israel-20190520-story.html
- Shaheryar Gill, “U.N. Targets Israel: Apartheid or Antisemitism?” American Center for Law and Justice, September 22, 2021, https://aclj.org/israel/un-targets-israel-apartheid-or-antisemitism
- David J. Michaels, “Importance of fighting the ‘Zionism is racism’ smear,” Jerusalem Post, June 2, 2021, https://www.jpost.com/opinion/importance-of-fighting-the-zionism-is-racism-smear-669934
- “Poll: 93 percent of eastern Jersualem Arabs prefer Israeli rule,” JNS, December 14, 2021, https://www.jns.org/poll-93-percent-of-arabs-prefer-israeli-rule-in-jerusalem/.
- “Apartheid or Antisemitism?” American Center for Law and Justice, accessed October 21, 2021, http://media.aclj.org/pdf/Apartheid-or-Antisemitism—Detailed-Analysis.pdf
- Hananya Naftali, “The biggest lie of the decade—opinion,” Jerusalem Post, February 20, 2022, https://www.jpost.com/opinion/article-695895.