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Apartheid and Zionism : Precise Definitions, Visceral Ontologies

Nelson Mandela in 2008
The death of Nelson Mandela has reminded many of the criminal history of the apartheid regime in South Africa. Whilst others have spoken about the personal characteristics of Mandela, and have done so appropriately [1], it is also unsurprisingly to see a debate on the critical fringes of politics debating the role of Mandela and the ANC, noisily challenging the polite and mainstream celebrations of his life. From the left, there has been those who have criticised the disconnect between politicians like Obama who celebrate Mandela's resistance, yet still find need to condemn and jail those who leak evidence of widespread surveillance against their own citizens and unfriendly spying activities [2]. Others have drawn attention to the long-term recognition held by Mandela, Tutu, and other anti-apartheid leaders who saw great similarity between their condition and that of Palestinians in the occupied territories. Ami Kaufman, at 972mag, picked five top examples of Israeli politicians who condemn apartheid and celebrate its fighters from afar, but not those who are too close for comfort [3]. Matthew Taylor, at Mondoweiss, described Obama's speech both moving and hypocritical on his failure to make the same connection between South Africa and Israel as Mandela did [4]. Reviewing the difference between Mandela's politics and those world leaders who sing his praises, Seumas Milne writes [5]:

... history has had to be comprehensively rewritten, Mandela and the ANC appropriated and sanitised, and inconvenient facts minimised or ignored. The whitewashed narrative has been such a success that the former ANC leader has been reinvented and embraced as an all-purpose Kumbaya figure by politicians across the spectrum and ageing celebrities alike.

From the other side of the political spectrum there are numerous attempts to paint Mandela as a communist and even an advocate of genocide. On the former matter it seems that they are correct; at Mandela's tribute, the current general secretary of the South African Communist Party noted that at the time of his arrest in 1962, Mandela was a member of the SACP's central committee [6]. For the latter issue, self-proclaimed paleolibertarian writer Ilana Mercer marked the occassion with a reprinted claim (along with various neo-Nazi groups) from her book [7] that Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the armed wing of the African National Congress, had an anthem which included the words: "We the members of the Umkhonto have pledged ourselves to kill them - kill the whites" which, if the translation was accurate, could certainly suggest a genocidal policy.

But of course reality is a little trickier than ideological assertions. The term used in the actual song is "amabhulu" (Xhosa) or "amaBhunu" (Zulu) which means not "white", but "Boer". In a narrow sense - and as a military song this is about as narrow as it gets - it is referring to the a self-identified group of racist Afrikaners in the apartheid period and quite distinct from the historical Boers, the rural Afrikaans. Even in the broad sense, it would be a statement of identifying a war enemy, not unlike the British Ministry of Information's racist "Anger Campaign" of 1940, which was deliberately designed to instill "personal anger ... against the German people and Germany" [8]. Crucially in this debate is, of course, the ANC's Freedom Charter of 1955 which explicitly stated "that South Africa belongs to all who live in it... without distinction of colour, race, sex or belief", which differed somewhat from the position of the Pan Africanist Congress, which split from the ANC in 1957 and was more influenced by black nationalism and argued that Africa belonged only to the "Sons of the Soil" (i.e,. in the apartheid sense, "Africans" and "Coloureds").

The ambiguities of language and their relationship to facts are the cause of some the most deep-seated political differences. The philosopher Wittgenstein famously argued "the meaning of a word is its use in the language", and indeed that this is the approach that should be taken. But human beings are creature easily enchanted by symbolic values and engage in an irrational love and hatred of the symbolic rather than the real. People lie for symbols, die for symbols, kill for symbols. Friendships end (superficial ones obviously), political parties split, fatwas are issued, and wars declared - all over the irrational attachment to symbolic values. It is little wonder that Wittgenstein gave a particular duty to philosophy and one with clear political implications: "Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language" [9].

So it is with the debate between words such as "apartheid" and "Zionism". Only small number of reactionaries in the advanced economies consider apartheid to be a viable political project, although every decade or so, the far right does bubble up, an apparently troublesome infected wound on the psyche of the species. As a result, supporters of Zionism find the comparison quite objectionable. In 1975 the United Nations General Assembly "determine[d] that Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination" by a vote of 72 to 35 with 32 abstentions. In 1991, the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 46/86 adopted on December 16, 1991, revoked Resolution 3379, by a vote of 111 to 25, with 13 abstentions. The change in vote had much to do with the realignment of the global balance of power following the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite states. For a political philosophy however, the question is not the successes of the resolutions, but rather which of the resolutions are true.

It is from the insightful classic paper of Abdeen Jabara that some basic definitional assessments can be made. Racism, as Jabara illustrates from the The International Convention on Racial Discrimination, notes that there must be exclusion preferences based on race, colour, descent, national or ethnic origin that have the purpose or effect of impairing the equal exercise of basic freedoms. The segregational aspect of such policies expressed in a inhuman manner constitutes the crime of apartheid [11]. Jabara makes a case that Zionism engages in racism, as it argues that Jews are members of a single nation that requires a single nation-state. Rather sensibly, criticism is made of the implausible claim of Jewish as a nationality, the enormous influence of the exclusive land laws, and the numerous examples of discriminatory laws. A conclusion is reached that Zionism was a colonial force that dispossesed an existing population of their lands in the formation of a new state.

But is this really what Zionism means, and what is required of it? On August 29, 1897, the First Zionist Congress in Basel adopted the definition that "Zionism aims at establishing for the Jewish people a publicly and legally assured home in Palestine". Theodor Herzl wrote in his diary a few days later: "At Basel I founded the Jewish State". But there is enormous difference between "homeland" and "state". Herzl's opinions on the matter are well-known; he certainly wanted a statehood for the Jewish people as a matter of priority [12]. But others disagreed such as the cultural Zionists, led by Ahad Ha'am, who sought primarily a revival of Jewish religious identity and the Hebrew language (the "eastern" Chibbath Zion) over political statehood (the "western" Zioniyuth). Following his first trip to Palestine in 1891, Ha'am had the following to say - one can only wonder what he would think of the situation today:

"We must surely learn, from both our past and present history, how careful we must be not to provoke the anger of the native people by doing them wrong, how we should be cautious in our dealings with a foreign people among whom we returned to live, to handle these people with love and respect and, needless to say, with justice and good judgment. And what do our brothers do? Exactly the opposite!" [14]

From the two fundamentally different orientations, a myriad of variations developed. The majority viewpoint combined both the religious revivialism with nationalism utilising a Statist approach, often with revanchist attitudes of a Jewish State, although rarely to the extremist position of extending over the entirety of Eretz Yisrael Hashlemah ("from the brook of Egypt to the Euphrates", Genesis 15:18-21). From the cultural-religious perspective, emphasis was placed on reviving cultural identification. In some cases that meant a religious rejection of a Jewish state, such as with the small Haredi sect, Neturei Karta. In others, it became a Hebrew (rather than Judiac) nationalism, such as with the Canaanites. Among the more liberal perspectives something akin to the unification of Chibbath Zion and Zioniyuth was sought - a state that would be simultaneously Jewish and democratic.

A smaller tangent developed among those who rejected Jewish statism, but supported the concept of a Jewish homeland in Palestine - a democratic, liberal, secular, and socialistic Palestine. Chief among these advocates are luminary figures such as Albert Einstein, Martin Buber, Hannah Arendt, and Noam Chomsky. Einstein [15] supported a Jewish homeland in Palestine, but opposed the establishment of a Jewish state and the proposals to partition Palestine into independent Arab and Jewish countries, and even moreso, the existence of separate armed forces. Martin Buber, the famous existentalist, agreed. Deeply committed to the Zionist project as a spiritual and anarcho-socialist endeavour, as a member of Brit Shalom, he too argued for a bi-national rather than for a Jewish state in Palestine. The ever-astute Arendt, was of a similar perspective. Her writings in the 1940s predicted the Nakba, an unending conflict, of Israel's dependence on the American Jewish community and a rising conflict with the same as the country trends towards a nationalistic conservatism, and the rise of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism in response - all of which can be summarised with her pithy and tragic brilliance: "... a Jewish state can only be erected at the price of the Jewish homeland" [16].

Finally, it is well known that Chomsky's Zionism is more influenced by labour and socialist perspectives that sought Arab-Jewish working-class cooperation for socialist binational Palestine and that he was associated with groups like Hashomer Ha'tzair [17]. He points out that mainstream Zionism at the time included opposition to the "the deeply antidemocratic concept of a Jewish state". In the 1990's Chomsky argued in favour of a two-state solution for two peoples with aspirations for self-determination [18]. More recently, he has become a stronger advocate for the more principed position of a binational secular state "from the sea to the river" [19]. Of course, as has been pointed out in the past, the issue isn't one, two, or many states, but rather the content of those states - where secularism, civil liberties, and democratic rights equate with the "a zero State solution" [20].

In contrast, the Israeli state engages in the most perplexing discriminatory practises within its official borders. It does not seek to assign the same civil rights to citizens, but rather differentiates between some one hundred and thirty "nationalities", using archiac notions of Blut und Boden ethnic rights, and continues to reject the right for anyone to declare themselves an "Israeli" [21], the modern implementation of nationality, where equates equal rights to all citizens. Whilst in theory non-Jewish citizen are meant to have equality, at least according to the interpretations of the Basic Laws by the Israeli Supreme Court, the religious-selective benefits of the Law of Return, and especially the management of the Israel Land Administration (which manages 93% of the land in Israel, and 10 of the 22 members of the Land Council is appoined by the Jewish National Fund) point to particular discriminatory practises within Israel [22].

In reference to the the two UN General Assembly resolutions it should be evident that Zionism as such does not equate to racism, let alone a form of colonialism. It can represent the legitimate desire of a dispersed and ethnically varied religious community to a spiritual and even linguistic reawakening and to identify with a geographical area as their historically meaningful homeland after centuries of extreme persecution. But it has also been most certainly in the name of Zionism that racially-inspired policies of violent invasions, dispossessions, and continuing oppression continues to this day against the Palestinian Arabs (not to mention the apocalyptic visions by Christian Zionists). But by the same token, in introducing the revoking resolution to the General Assembly, George W. Bush commented to equate Zionism to racism is to reject Israel's right to exist [23]. How extraordinary it is to think that "nations", those "imagined communities" to use Benedict Anderson's phrase, or even "States", have rights when the rights of real flesh-and-blood human beings are quite forgotten.

So if Zionism is not intrinsically racist and colonialist, but has been used to inspire racist and colonialist attitudes and policies, then what then of accusations of Israeli apartheid? Again, the answer is mixed. The practical policies within Israel itself, whilst often discriminatory, do not constitute apartheid. It cannot be doubted that Israel is a majoritarian democracy, which does allow citizenship for Arabs, who can and do vote and hold seats. The racial (or national, or religious) segregation in public spaces, the so-called "petty apartheid", does not happen either. However, that is within Israel proper. Outside of Israel, in Gaza and the West Bank, the situation is quite different. On the other side the bluntly named apartheid wall on the West Bank (the Afrikaan word is apartheid, the Hebrew hafrada) and in Gaza (the Gaza Strip barrier), like the apartheid-era "bantustans", the 1993 Oslo Accords led to the formation of the Palestinian National Authority, providing the 'right' for Palestinians to police their own imprisonment in their own inevitably corrupt, factionalised, and discriminatory manner. Within the occupied territories, there is the Jewish-only settlements, separate roads, ID cards with hundreds of checkpoints with their ritual humiliation for the occupied and restrictions on their freedom of movement [24].

Is it any wonder that South African visitors to the occupied territories in Palestine draw the analogy? Bishop Desmond Tutu, Willie Madisha, President of COSATU, Farid Esack, Denis Goldberg, Sam Ramsamy, Kgalema Motlanthe, Arun Manilal Gandhi, and other high-profile anti-apartheid activists recognise the similarities. It was from visits like these that the The Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa found the Israel, on the basis of definitions in international law, practised both colonialism and apartheid in the occupied territories [25]. Unlike their critics, the anti-apartheid activists and the authors of the study recognise the distinction between the lack of apartheid within Israel (although many say it is "creeping"), and its definite existence in the occupied territories. Of course there are mealy-mouthed apologists, such as those who claim that is a real distinction between South African apartheid being inspired by racial policies and Israeli by national ones, or that one is post-colonial and the other colonial [26]. Such pathetic hair-splitting make no difference at all to a generations old-Palestinian household being expelled from east Jerusalem for a recently arived immigrant with no historical connection but a particular religious belief.

It from following a path of seeking the most precise definition of words that falsehoods can be avoided, but also to the extent that ultimately the meanings that are used have a visceral relationship to being. Zionism, when it refers to seeking a Jewish homeland in Palestine and a spiritual and cultural revival of the Jewish people, has nothing to do with racism or colonialism. It is however colonial and racist when it seeks a religiously exclusive state over and above the rights of other original inhabitants. Israel, with a formal democracy and typical principles of equality, is not an apartheid state within the borders of Israel proper. But the daily experience on the ground within the occupied territories is fundamentally an example of that ideology and practise. Which brings us to return to the words and deeds of Nelson Mandela, who argued that we must transcend our racial, religious, and political identities and those other socially-constructed loyalties, to cease engaging in collective punishment of others, in favour of the desire for peace, understanding, and justice for all. One may excuse the religious overtones of these words in appreciation of the irony of their location.

Yes! We affirm it and we shall proclaim it from the mountaintops, that all people – be they black or white, be they brown or yellow, be they rich or poor, be they wise or fools, are created in the image of the Creator and are his children! Those who dare to cast out from the human family people of a darker hue with their racism! Those who exclude from the sight of God's grace, people who profess another faith with their religious intolerance! Those who wish to keep their fellow countrymen away from God's bounty with forced removals! Those who have driven away from the altar of God people whom He has chosen to make different, commit an ugly sin! The sin called Apartheid.

(Speech at the Zionist Christian Church Easter Conference (1992))


[1] Desmond Tutu, "Thank God for this unique gift to the world", The Age, December 9, 2013
[2] For example Mike Kuhlenbeck made this point prior to Mandela's death: Mike Kuhlenbeck, "Obama's hypocrisy regarding Nelson Mandela", Intrepid Report, July 26, 2013
[3] Ami Kaufman, "The top five most hypocritical Mandela eulogies by Israeli politicians", December 6, 2013
[4] Matthew Taylor, "Obama's Mandela eulogy - moving, and hypocritical", Mondoweiss, December 6, 2013
[5] Seumas Milne, "Mandela has been sanitised by hypocrites and apologists", The Guardian, December 12, 2013
[6] Blade Nzimande, "SACP Official Tribute to Madiba", Speech at Moses Mabhida Stadium, 13 December 2013
[7] Ilana Mercer, "Into the Cannibal's Pot", Stairway Press, 2011
[8] Ian McLaine, "Ministry of Morale: Home Front Morale and the Ministry of Information in World War II", Alan and Unwin, 1979 p.143
[9] Ludwig Wittgenstein, "Philosophical Investigations", 1953, s. 43 and s. 109
[10] Abdeen Jabara, "Zionism and Racism", Association of Arab-American University Graduates, 1976
[11] Compare the 2002 Rome Statute with the 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid.
[12] Theodor Herzl, "The Jewish State", 1896
[13] Ahad Ha'am, "The Jewish State and Jewish Problem", 1897
[14] Ahad Ha'am, "A Truth from Eretz Yisrael", 1891
[15] Fred Jerome, "Einstein on Israel and Zionism: His Provocative Ideas About the Middle East", 2009
[16] Hannah Arendt, "To Save the Jewish Homeland", 1948. See also the collection "The Jewish Writings" (edited by Jerome Kohn and Ron Feldman), 2007
[17] Noam Chomsky, "Personal Influences" from "The Chomsky Reader", 1983
[18] Noam Chomsky, "Israel, the Holocaust, and Anti-Semitism" in "Chronicles of Dissent", 1992
[19] Noam Chomsky, "The one state/two state debate is irrelevant as Israel and the US consolidate Greater Israel", Mondoweiss, October 24, 2013
[20] Lev Lafayette, The Country of Palestine: A Zero State Solution, The Isocracy Network, July 18, 2010
[21] Jonathan Cook. "Court nixes push for 'Israeli nationality'", Al Jazeera, October 13, 2013
[22] Numerous other examples could be cited. Even symbolically, it is certainly impossible to suggest that Hatikvah or the star and and tallit on the flag are representative of ethnic equality - although Israel is hardly alone on the world stage on this matter and indeed, some of the most liberal-democratic countries in the world refer to their past religious heritage in such a manner (e.g., the Nordic cross).
[23] George W. Bush, Address to the 46th Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City, September 23, 1991
[24] John Duggard, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, United Nations Human Rights Council, 29 January 2007
[25] Virginia Tilley (ed), Beyond Occupation: Apartheid, Colonialism and International Law in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Pluto Press, 2012 [FP 2009]
[26] Frederic Giraut, "Apartheid et Israel-Palestine : enseignements et contresens d'une analogie", Cybergeo : European Journal of Geography, 15 november 2004

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Even within the World Zionist Congress Theodore Herzl who, without a doubt wanted a Jewish State; his pamphlet was entitled as such, was in a minority on this matter.

The programme of the first World Zionist Congress made no such declaration for a Jewish state. Instead it said: "Zionism aims at establishing for the Jewish people a publicly and legally assured home in Palestine."

In 1919 the general secretary (and future President) of the Zionist Organization, Nahum Sokolow, published a "History of Zionism (1600-1918)". He stated:

The object of Zionism is to establish for the Jewish people a home in Palestine secured by public law. "... It has been said and is still being obstinately repeated by anti-Zionists again and again, that Zionism aims at the creation of an independent "Jewish State" But this is wholly fallacious. The "Jewish State" was never part of the Zionist programme. The Jewish State was the title of Herzl's first pamphlet, which had the supreme merit of forcing people to think. This pamphlet was followed by the first Zionist Congress, which accepted the Basle programme - the only programme in existence."