Israel as an ‘apartheid state’? A response by South African Judge Richard Goldstone

Published: 11 November 2011
Briefing Number 303

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Summary::   The accusation that Israel is an ‘apartheid state’ has become commonplace, not just among extreme critics of Israel, but in wider, mainstream circles. This Beyond Images Briefing addresses the accusation.  Richard Goldstone is a former senior South African judge on its Constitutional Court.  In 2009 he led the fact-finding mission of the UN Human Rights Council into the Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza. He produced the ‘Goldstone Report’, which strongly criticised Israel and generated a storm of controversy (for background see various Beyond Images Briefings on the Report).  In the article which we reprint below,  Judge Richard Goldstone critiques the claim that Israel is an ‘apartheid state’.  Such a critique carries particular weight, as it comes from a South African who is prominent in public life and has a track record of strong criticism of Israel.  The article first appeared in the New York Times ( on 31 October 2011.  We have republished it here on Beyond Images, verbatim.  The only change we have made is to add section headings, for ease of use.

Richard Goldstone writes (New York Times opinion article, 31 October 2011):

The Palestinian Authority’s request for a full United Nations membership has put hope for any two-state solution under increased pressure.   The need for reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians has never been greater.  So it is important to separate legitimate criticism of Israel from assaults that aim to isolate, demonise and delegitimise it.

The latest ‘tribunal’ calling Israel an apartheid state is not really a ‘tribunal’

One particularly pernicious and enduring canard that is surfacing again is that Israel pursues “apartheid” policies.  In Cape Town starting on Saturday, a London-based Non-governmental Organisation called the Russell Tribunal on Palestine will hold a hearing on whether Israel is guilty of the crime of apartheid.  It is not a “tribunal”.  The “evidence” is going to be one-sided and the members of the “jury” are critics whose harsh views of Israel are well known.

While “apartheid” can have broader meaning, its use is meant to evoke the situation in pre-1994 South Africa. It is unfair and inaccurate slander against Israel, calculated to retard rather than advance peace negotiations.

I know all too well the cruelty of South Africa’s abhorrent apartheid system, under which human beings characterised as black had no rights to vote, hold political office, use “white” toilets or beaches, marry whites, lives in whites-only areas or even be there without a “pass”.  Blacks critically injured in car accidents were left to bleed to death if there was no “black” ambulance to rush them to a “black” hospital.  “White” hospitals were prohibited from saving their lives.

Nothing in Israel comes close to the definition of “apartheid”

In assessing the accusation that Israel pursues apartheid policies, which are by definition primarily about race or ethnicity, it is important first to distinguish between the situations in Israel, where Arabs are citizens, and in West Bank areas that remain under Israeli control in the absence of a peace agreement. 

In Israel there is no apartheid.  Nothing there comes close to the definition of apartheid under the 1998 Rome Statute: “Inhumane acts.... committed in the context of an institutionalised regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime”.  Israeli Arabs – 20% of Israel’s population – vote, have political parties and representatives in the Knesset and occupy positions of acclaim, including on its Supreme Court.   Arab patients lie alongside Jewish patients in Israeli hospitals, receiving identical treatment.

To be sure, there is more de facto separation between Jewish and Arab populations than Israelis should accept.  Much of it is chosen by the communities themselves. Some results from discrimination.  But it is not apartheid, which consciously enshrines separation as an ideal.  In Israel, equal rights are the law, the aspiration and the ideal; inequities are often successfully challenged in court.

Far from wanting to dominate the Palestinians, the Israelis seek the creation of a Palestinian state
The situation in the West Bank is more complex.  But here too there is no intent to maintain “an institutionalised regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group”.   This is a critical distinction, even if Israel acts oppressively towards Palestinians there.  South Africa’s enforced racial separation was intended to permanently benefit the white minority, to the detriment of other races.  By contrast, Israel has agreed in concept to the existence of a Palestinian state in Gaza and almost all of the West Bank and is calling for the Palestinians to negotiate its parameters.

But until there is a two-state peace, or at least as long as Israel’s citizens remain under threat of attacks from the West Bank and Gaza, Israel will see roadblocks and similar measures as necessary for self-defence, even if the Palestinians feel oppressed.  As things stand, attacks from one side are met by counterattacks from the other.  And the deep disputes, claims and counterclaims are only hardened when the offensive analogy of “apartheid” is invoked.                

Israeli security measures are not “apartheid”, but self-defence
Those seeking to promote the myth of Israeli apartheid often point to clashes between heavily armed Israeli soldiers and stone-throwing Palestinians in the West Bank, or the building of what they call an “apartheid wall” and disparate treatment on West Bank roads.  While such images may appear to invite a superficial comparison, it is disingenuous to use them to distort reality.  The security barrier was built to stop unrelenting terrorist attacks; while it has inflicted great hardship in places, the Israeli Supreme Court has ordered the [Israeli] state in many cases to reroute it to minimise unreasonable hardship.  Road restrictions get more intrusive after violent attacks and are ameliorated when the threat is reduced.
Of course, the Palestinian people have national aspirations and human rights that all must respect.  But those who conflate the situations in Israel and the West Bank and liken both to the old South Africa do a disservice to all who hope for justice and peace.

Jewish-Arab relations in Israel and the West Bank cannot be simplified to a narrative of Jewish discrimination.  There is hostility and suspicion on both sides.  Israel, unique among democracies, has been in a state of war with many of its neighbours who refuse to accept its existence.  Even some Israeli Arabs, because they are citizens of Israel, have at times come under suspicion from other Arabs as a result of that long-standing enmity.

The Israel–Apartheid comparison “precludes” peace and harmony

The mutual recognition and protection of human dignity of all people is indispensable to bringing an end to hatred and anger.  The charge that Israel is an apartheid state is a false and malicious one that precludes, rather than promotes, peace and harmony.


Here are some related Beyond Images Briefings

Briefing 257 – 8 June 2010
Condemning Israel as an ‘apartheid state’:
A response from the JCPA / Robbie Sabel

Briefing 241 – 10 May 2009
Israel Apartheid Week on campus:
Critique by Israeli bedouin diplomat

Briefing 222 – 19 October 2008
Israeli Arab rights: facts which refute the ‘apartheid’ myth