It was not a novel comparison, but it caused quite a stir. In June 2001, Ronnie Kasrils and Max Ozinsky, two Jewish heroes of South Africa’s struggle for liberation from state-driven racism, published a letter in the Pretoria newspaper comparing Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands to South African apartheid. The letter, signed by several hundred other prominent Jewish leaders and titled “Not in My Name,” called for an immediate end to the occupation and sparked a frenzy in the South African press in the months that followed. Most recently, Nobel laureate Bishop Desmond Tutu drew the apartheid parallels in his editorial calling for Israel’s full withdrawal. [1] The Kasrils-Ozinsky petition continues to inspire both support and opposition in South Africa.

The Israeli left has been discussing this comparison since at least the late 1980s, when Israeli anthropologist Uri Davis published his famous work, Israel: An Apartheid State. At the September 2001 UN conference on racism in Durban, South Africa, calls to compare occupation with apartheid were drowned out by the more incendiary claim that “Zionism is racism,” and therefore received little substantive or even-handed coverage in the press. But suddenly, the analogy is getting wider circulation, as efforts to persuade universities and other institutions to divest from Israel gather steam internationally and in the US.

Emerging Apartheid

Apartheid South Africa was based on an “us here, them there” formula of territorial segregation in which the white-ruled areas consisted of 87 percent of the country, including the big cities and most of the arable land. Nominally independent bantustans, forming a horseshoe-shaped archipelago along the nation’s outskirts, made up the remaining 13 percent of the land. There is striking similarity to Israel-Palestine, where the state of Israel covers 78 percent of the original British mandate territory, while Palestine, a nation-in-waiting, makes up the remaining 22 percent. In early September 2000, Israeli activists organized a conference in Neve Shalom to announce a Campaign Against an Emerging Apartheid, which some on the radical left feel is an apt description of Israel’s “matrix of control” — composed of settlements, bypass roads, security zones and checkpoints — in Palestine. [2]

Especially after Operation Defensive Shield, when Palestinians are required to get permits from the Israelis to travel from one tank-encircled West Bank enclave to another, life for an average citizen in the Occupied Territories resembles that of the apartheid-era townships in more ways than one. Most notably, after 1967 Palestinian workers became as dependent on work inside Israel as township residents were on jobs in the white-dominated cities and equally vulnerable — through closures and internal sieges — to collective punishment. Meanwhile, the growing Israeli refusenik movement evokes the small anti-conscription drive that took shape in South Africa in the late 1980s. Decorated officers refusing to perform military service in the Occupied Territories are a political embarrassment to the Israel Defense Forces. Those not in prison have taken their message on the road, arguing at US synagogues and campuses that the occupation is both wrong and a formula for perpetual insecurity. Just as in contemporary Israel, mandatory military service in apartheid South Africa was integral to the national fabric, and a refusal to serve was rare and highly stigmatized. The government attempted to coopt the young officers by offering alternative forms of service, but failed. The actions helped convince Pretoria that its apartheid policies were simply untenable.

The South African analogy also conjures up the international activist movement which emerged in the late 1970s and 1980s to dismantle apartheid. This grassroots effort consisted of university and government divestment efforts, consumer boycotts, arms embargoes and eventual economic sanctions of the apartheid regime. Students confronted their university administrators, union members pressured their stockholders, faith-based groups informed their parishioners and ultimately a populist force culminated in radical change.

Berkeley Revisited

A famous redoubt of the activist left, the city of Berkeley is partly known for its pioneering decision to divest from South Africa in 1979, an important turning point in the effort to end apartheid. In subsequent years the city also boycotted companies abetting repressive activities in Indonesia, Nigeria and Tibet. More recently, the city itself became the target of a threatened boycott following its call for an end to US bombing in Afghanistan. [3]

The Berkeley city council recently considered a proposal, drafted by the locally based Peace and Justice Commission, calling for a municipal boycott of all financial ties to Israel. The proposal included demands that UN peacekeeping troops be sent to the region and that Congress hold hearings on regional human rights violations. [4] The measure was voted down, but if it had passed, the Supreme Court would have likely intervened. Two years ago the Court barred Berkeley and all other cities from boycotting Burma, stating that “the United States must speak with one voice in foreign affairs.” [5]

Not far from the Berkeley city council building, students at the University of California-Berkeley have been active against the Israeli occupation for some time. Founded in the fall of 2000, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) aimed to push the Board of Regents to reconsider the estimated $6.4 billion that the UC system currently invests in companies that do substantial business with Israel (defined by the group as transactions worth $5 million or more annually). Their petition states that there should be no investment in Israel until four conditions are met: full compliance with UN Security Council resolution 242 and a withdrawal from the Occupied Territories, an end to Israel’s legal use of torture, a full freeze on settlements and the application of UNSC resolution 194 on the rights of refugees. To date, SJP has collected over 5,000 signatures from students. Its strength stems in part from coalition building. With Jewish students among its members, the organization has staged a number of daring and creative joint actions with groups such as Jews Against the Occupation and Jews for a Free Palestine.

In its first demonstration, the group blocked off Sather Gate — a major point of entry onto campus — and turned it into an Israeli checkpoint. On one side of the gate, marked “Jews only,” there was free access. On the other, marked “Palestinians,” SJP members dressed in military fatigues and armed with cardboard guns questioned passersby about their destination and reasons for travel, and demanded to see their ID cards. More recently, SJP activists “occupied” Wheeler Hall, one of Berkeley’s largest buildings, blocking all entrances except three. For the first time in the university’s tumultuous history of student unrest, the administration officially banned the group from campus activity. The ban was later lifted and charges against 32 students arrested during the sit-in were dropped.

Some UC students have paid high personal costs for their activism. Robert O’Neill, a Berkeley student, and Nauman Zaida of UC-Riverside joined the International Solidarity Movement activists who visited the beleaguered Palestinians and clergy in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity. Upon their eventual departure from the church, both students were arrested and sent to the Masiyahu prison in Ramle, Israel. In any other case, there would have been considerable alarm at the political jailing of American citizens, but with these two students the State Department dragged its feet. Both students also recently received suspension notices from the University of California, mailed to their prison cells.

Overall, SJP activists seem to recognize that without political dynamism there is no movement. In February, the organization hosted a conference which attracted over 500 students from all over the country to plan how to spread the divestment campaign to campuses nationwide. Discussion spanned the gamut of political, legal and tactical issues, including how to get trustworthy numbers on university investments and how to lock down a building safely. Berkeley was an ideal location for the conference since its students succeeded in 1986 in forcing their university to pull its $3 billion out of South Africa, becoming the first major institution to take a stand.

Lightning Rod

Within weeks of the recent conference, fledgling divestment efforts were emerging at Yale, Penn State and Columbia. Students at the University of Illinois held a meeting with the board of trustees over the roughly $30 million that the university had invested in the Israeli economy. SJP-style demonstrations were replicated at campuses such as Georgetown and the University of Michigan, where students set up an imitation refugee camp. [6] With over $100 million invested in companies tied to Israel, Princeton University also faces a student push. Not long after Israel blocked the UN Commission on Human Rights from sending a three-person team to the Occupied Territories to investigate alleged human rights violations, international legal scholar Richard Falk, who was part of the proposed team, threw his weight behind the Princeton divestment campaign.

A joint effort at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University has drawn backing from several hundred students and over 100 faculty. The campaign is also one of the few which has made smart use of its alumni. Digging within the ranks of their Ph.D. graduates, the group recruited public support from within Israel. Their petition features the signatures of professors at several Israeli universities; one of the keynote speakers at the recent teach-in was Yosef Grodzinsky, professor of psychology at Tel Aviv University, who argued that being “the only democracy in the Middle East” does not justify the ongoing military occupation. [7] Further coalition building with the progressive Jewish American community, and, where possible, with the Israeli left, will be invaluable for the movement. Likewise, vigilant and proactive policing against anti-Semitism within the ranks is absolutely essential.

A lightning rod for the press and an organizing principle for education, the campaign faces an uphill battle in actually getting either university to reconsider its portfolio. During the South African divestment efforts, MIT never withdrew its monies, and Harvard resisted until the bitter end. As late as 1989, Harvard — home to the fattest university endowment in the country — still held significant stock in the South African economy, while also putting up dogged resistance that same year when Tutu attempted to get a seat on the Harvard Board of Overseers in order to pressure the university. [8] Currently, Harvard holds roughly $614 million invested in companies that do major business in Israel. MIT has not finished compiling the numbers.

Intricate Portfolios

Boycotting isn’t what it used to be. Globalization has made for a far more complicated financial scene. Faced with the impossibility of untangling the Gordian knot of multinational investments, university students have called for simply cutting it altogether. Yet with huge and disparate financial players like General Electric, Microsoft and Coca-Cola hanging in the balance, there would have to be massive popular force to make such a cut possible.

University portfolios are not only more intricate, they are also larger. The total investments of the University of California at the time of the last divestment efforts was $9 billion. At present, their portfolio amounts to $54 billion. Unlike in the 1980s, when university investments were often made directly in companies doing business with South Africa, universities now channel most of their money through index funds which spread investments across a wide range of companies for the greatest return. [9] Current UC investments are also intentionally tied to pension funds for 136,000 employees as well as operating budgets for some of the major research facilities, which means campus officials can always pit students and activists against pensioners and researchers.

Nevertheless, the globalized economy offers potential points of grassroots pressure. Arms contractors always make good targets. Divestment from weapons manufacturers and popular pressure on governments to implement a freeze on military sales is a tactic that was used with good effect against apartheid South Africa. Many European countries are considering this approach toward Israel. After selling an estimated $170 million worth of military equipment to Israel in 2000, Germany announced that it will suspend further arms sales. The embargo will hurt Israel’s plans to begin production next year of its top-of-the-line Merkava tanks. [10] Belgium, which supplies light weapons for security forces, also decided that it would end all military export to Israel. France and Italy are considering similar measures. Britain, which shipped over $25 million worth of arms to Israel last year [11] has a de facto arms embargo in effect. Though Jack Straw, Britain’s foreign secretary, rejected the call from members of Parliament to impose a full embargo, instead opting to consider military exports on a case-by-case basis, industry sources report that permits are being blocked virtually across the board. [12]

The US, Israel’s largest weapons supplier, remains conspicuously silent on the issue — no surprise considering the money at stake. In the last four years, the US delivered over $5.2 billion worth of arms to Israel, all financed with taxpayer funds and approved by Congress. In May 2001, the General Accounting Office announced that it was doing an audit of the transfers to ensure that all were in compliance with the Arms Export Control Act, which stipulates that US-made weapons can only be used for “legitimate self-defense.” The GAO report was toothless.

During the 1980s divestment efforts, South African diamonds were boycotted as well as gold krugerands. Diamonds represented the pinnacle of colonial repression, running back to the DeBeers company and its founder, Cecil Rhodes, whose penchant for dynamiting Zulu tribes off their land was notorious. Currently, the diamond trade is Israel’s second largest industry. Before the eruption of the intifada, Tel Aviv was poised to elbow Antwerp from its spot as the world’s traditional diamond capital. The Israeli industry brings in $13 billion a year, and Israel buys some 50 percent of the world’s unpolished diamonds. At the helm of the massive Israeli trade is a family whose patriarch, Moshe Schnitzer, remains tight-lipped when it comes to questions about their nickname, “the fighting family,” which in part stems from their roots in Irgun, a Zionist militia that killed hundreds of British soldiers and Palestinians and blew up markets and buses in the mandate period. More recently, the family’s ties to the training of militias in the Congo and the arming of Medellin drug cartel forces in Colombia have brought it bad press. An interested party would not have to look far to find points of political leverage on this influential business interest in Israel with far-reaching ties to the US. [13]

Leveraging Trade

International trade blockades, which played an important role in isolating apartheid South Africa, have shown mild signs of rebirth vis-a-vis the Israeli occupation. The European Parliament, the only directly elected body in the European Union governmental structure, passed a strongly worded resolution to end trade relations with Israel since products coming from illegal settlements are in clear violation of the Euro-Med trade agreements. In theory, the resolution could exert significant pressure since the European Union is Israel’s largest trading partner, claiming 27 percent of Israeli exports and 43 percent of Israeli imports. [14] But the decision will most likely gather dust since resolutions of the European Parliament are non-binding for the 15 member states. [15] Had they been binding, the resolutions would surely have been blocked by Britain and Germany.

Non-governmental organizations in Europe have taken a stronger stand. The General Workers Union in Denmark canceled a preliminary order of computer hardware from an Israeli firm, Radix Technologies. The union also called for its rank and file to boycott Israeli products. Despite an angry letter-writing campaign on the Internet and direct pressure from the Israeli ambassador, the union refused to change its position. [16] Norway’s second largest store chain, Coop Norge, announced a boycott of all products from Israel, which is a major provider of produce to Norway. Celery, avocadoes, oranges and other fruits and vegetables typically arrive in Norwegian stores in the summer. The chain’s decision to boycott was probably helped along by the country’s Transport Workers’ Union which announced two weeks prior that its members would block any Israeli products that came through their hands. Sweden’s Foreign Minister, Anna Lindh, announced that if she couldn’t convince her government to boycott Israeli products, then at least she could do so herself. She strongly advised all other Swedish citizens to follow suit. For weeks, many on the streets of Stockholm were wearing “boycott Israel” pins.

Meanwhile, grassroots efforts to boycott American products have also gathered steam throughout the Arab world, delivering a blow to industries such as fast food whose sales have dropped between 30 and 50 percent since the start of the intifada. [17] Microsoft sparked a firestorm of criticism after it posted a large billboard in Tel Aviv supporting the Israeli Army. Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz also won his company a place on the boycott list after he was quoted suggesting that Jews do more to confront anti-Semitism while Palestinians do more to confront terrorism. A growing boycott on Marlboros has the R. J. Reynolds Corporation very nervous. Ultimately, Arab consumer boycotts hold important symbolic value, but they will likely go unnoticed on Wall Street since the bulk of US sales to the Middle East consist of big-ticket items like airplanes, and since exports to the region only amount to 2.5 percent of the US total. [18]

In May, 19 Arab governments agreed to reactivate an economic blockade of Israel, but a boycott of American products was not discussed. [19] Egypt and Jordan excused themselves from the pact on the basis of their peace agreements with Israel. Mauritania also bowed out. Consumer boycotts may help US-allied Arab regimes to deflect public anger, but they also embolden domestic pressures for an increase in democratic accountability and a decrease in military dependence on the US.

Steep Challenges

Aside from the draft resistance, campus sit-ins and massive street protests against the Vietnam War, the 1980s movement against apartheid is the only other example of such a major grassroots victory over a US foreign policy agenda. A similar international grassroots movement is currently taking shape around Palestinian rights, but it will likely face far steeper challenges. Yasser Arafat is not Nelson Mandela. Corruption, repression and internal divisions are far more pronounced within the Palestinian organizational structure than inside the old South African resistance, despite its flaws. The PLO’s on-again, off-again relationship with Washington, not to mention its embrace of the deeply flawed Oslo process, left US supporters of the Palestinian right to self-determination with their hands tied behind their backs when it came time to criticize the US government and its role in the conflict. An international solidarity movement for the Palestinians cannot expect the sort of leadership from the PLO that the African National Congress provided to those who struggled overseas on its behalf.

One of the foremost shortcomings in the analogy between the anti-apartheid and the anti-occupation movements is that it does not begin to capture the organized resistance faced by current US activists. The South African divestment campaign was sown on fertile soil in the US, where the memory of the civil rights movement fed directly into outrage over apartheid’s explicitly racial caste system. The Palestinian struggle against the occupation faces a far less hospitable environment. Throughout the 1980s, few students on campuses were lining up to defend the Afrikaner perspective, yet the campus dissemination of the pro-Israel perspective is unrivaled in its sophistication, reach and funding. For every divestment petition, counter-petitions have collected signatures at almost double the speed. For virtually every anti-occupation rally, there has been an equally large or larger demonstration, candlelight vigil or film series in support of Israel and its policies. Pro-Israel students show no bashfulness in getting their views across. Recently a Jewish student at New York University dressed up as a suicide bomber to raise awareness of the fear in which Israelis live daily.

For better and for worse, the anti-occupation movement is largely sui generis, whereas the pro-Israeli efforts draw significant support from the scaffolding of numerous campus-based networks. Hillel, the national program for Jewish students with several hundred chapters on campuses in almost every state, sends several hundred students to Tel Aviv every year on a mission to “improve their Israel advocacy skills.” AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobby in Washington, tutors hundreds of student affiliates in lobbying techniques. The Caravan for Democracy, a new group underwritten by Ronald Lauder and other conservative Jewish American philanthropists, is bringing Israelis to campuses to discuss, as the publicity puts it, “the challenges Israel faces as the only democracy in the Middle East.” The Caravan’s promotional materials warn, “We cannot allow the enemies of democracy to win the battle for the minds of young Americans.”

In the anti-apartheid efforts, African-American and faith-based communities served as an almost immediately available auger. Arab-Americans voted three to one Republican in the last election, and in the post-September 11 political climate, they face rejuvenated racism and legal intimidation that discourages any sort of political activism critical of the US government. Nevertheless, many Arab organizations put numbers on the streets in protests across the country over the past months, including the April 20 march in Washington which turned out more than 75,000, by conservative estimates, and began an important process of linking the causes of Palestine solidarity and global economic justice. Only with these sorts of bridges will the anti-occupation movement have any hope of surmounting the huge obstacles in its path. A careful application of the lessons from the anti-apartheid fight may be a step in that direction.


[1] Guardian, April 29, 2002.
[2] See Jeff Halper, “The 94 Percent Solution: A Matrix of Control,” Middle East Report 216 (Fall 2000).
[3] Contra Costa Times, April 24, 2002.
[4] Associated Press, April 23, 2002.
[5] San Francisco Chronicle, May 21, 2002.
[6] Christian Science Monitor, April 9, 2002.
[7] The Tech (MIT), May 9, 2002.
[8] Boston Globe, March 12, 1989.
[9] Jerusalem Post, April 16, 2002.
[11] Guardian, August 17, 2001.
[12] Guardian, April 13, 2002.
[13] Christian Science Monitor, February 21, 2002.
[14] Deutsche Presse-Agentur, April 11, 2002.
[17] Christian Science Monitor, May 7, 2002.
[18] New York Times, May 10, 2002.
[19] Inter Press Service, May 2, 2002.

How to cite this article:

Ian Urbina "The Analogy to Apartheid," Middle East Report 223 (Summer 2002).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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