Re-Claiming the Narratives

South African Israelis must lead the Fight against the Apartheid Libel

By Rolene Marks

A recent poll published by the Times of Israel and various other publications) revealed some startling statistics. The article discussed how some 25% of American Jewry believes that Israel is an Apartheid state. This is an extremely worrying statistic and just recently, Israel’s Minister of Diaspora Affairs, Nachman Shai, warned how we could lose the support of US Jewry if this continues. Over the past few years we have seen the chasm between Israel and American Jewry grow wider and the aggressive accusations of Apartheid by the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement and others grow louder.

Dishonouring Honest Abe. Anti-Israel demonstrators rally at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, May 29, 2021 projecting a false narrative that is finding traction with young US Jews who believe the worst accusations hurled at Israel. (File photo: AP)

The BDS movement exploded into the global consciousness after the UN Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa in 2001. The launch of BDS in South Africa was not coincidental as the country was both the birthplace of Apartheid and its defeat. In the narrative against Israel, optics are important and what could be more symbolic than this? At the very centre of the BDS delegitimisation, is the accusation, in fact the charge that Israel is guilty of practicing Apartheid. The rationale is that if Israel is labelled as a pariah, as was South Africa, then the Jewish state can no longer be part of the family of nations, until it changes its abhorrent policies.  And more than this, BDS is also unwavering about their end goal – the end of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. This has been stated by the founder of the movement, Omar Barghouti and stated on their website. The difference in the South African context however, is that during the heinous Apartheid regime, the global community wanted the racist policies of South Africa changed but never called for the country to cease to exist.

Demonisation in Durban. South African protesters at what became known as the “Conference of Hate”, accuse Israel of Apartheid and ethnic cleansing outside the Durban Conference opening session, August 31, 2001. (Photo credit: Reuters)

The Oxford dictionary defines Apartheid as “a policy of racial segregation of other groups from the white inhabitants. Adopted by the successful Afrikaner National Party as a slogan in the 1948 election, apartheid extended and institutionalized existing racial segregation. The word is recorded from the 1940s, and comes from Afrikaans, meaning literally ‘separateness’.”

These Apartheid laws governed every aspect of a black person’s life – from freedom of movement, the right to equal education, who they could marry all the way to separate amenities for colour groups.

While other countries have often implemented racist laws at some time in their history, Apartheid was unique to South Africa and the narrative to her people, because it was the only country in which these laws were legislated. South Africa is the “ground zero” of the BDS movement, and it is important that if anyone wants to counter BDS and their narrative, that they examine the South African paradigm very closely and understand it.

It is a narrative that is being appropriated by a sophisticated anti-Israel element to push an exclusionary, antisemitic agenda.

Israel is by no means perfect. Like every other country, we have our many challenges, including the scourge of racism, but it is not state policy as it was in South Africa.

I grew up in South Africa at the height of Apartheid and the years of States of Emergency. I bore witness to the daily humiliation, discrimination and appalling treatment of my black and coloured (a term used for people who were of mixed race) countrymen. Many of you reading this are probably wondering why a white woman is writing about the Apartheid experience.

My answer? As a young, proudly Zionist Jew, I learned through belonging to a youth movement that Apartheid was not compatible with my Jewish and Zionist values. It was in this Zionist youth movement that many of us were taught to question the system and subsequently become young activists, often at great risk to our safety. I remember when I was14 years old, that I marched for equal rights and was filmed and questioned by the police. But we were proud because this to us was tikkun olam (Hebrew for ‘repairing the world’). We were speaking up for our fellow citizens who had no voice and no agency under a racist regime.

Authentic Apartheid.  Every aspect of life in Apartheid South Africa required separation of the races including these stairs at a railway station

I am not the only Israeli South African with a story to tell. There are many of my countrymen in Israel and if you want to educate people against the Apartheid Israel canard, you need to talk to us. It is our lived experience, it is the narrative of the country in which we grew up.

Many of us here have “struggle credentials”.  There are those who were forced to flee, those who were arrested and even tortured, those who witnessed unbelievable cruelty, there are those who challenged the government or the legal system. And there are those who chose to leave because they could not live under a regime that persecuted another; because we understood all too clearly what this meant.

And yes, ex-pat South Africans have a duty to stand up to this abhorrent canard. We cannot be apathetic or complacent. We must remember that as olim, Israel has given us so much and now it is time for us to take the lead in the fight against the exploitation of the narratives of both South Africa and Israel.

The BDS movement and anti-Israel detractors are engaging misinformed South Africans, with little or no understanding of the complexities of the conflict, to give impetus to their agenda. Why aren’t you speaking to those of us who understand and have lived experience in both countries?

The contribution made by South African Jews to the fight against Apartheid were extraordinary and disproportionate to the size of the community. We have a wealth of knowledge and experience to share in the fight against the narrative that claims Israel as an Apartheid state. To be reticent about engaging and involving ourselves would be both a missed opportunity – and detrimental to the education of our diaspora communities.

Solidarity with Soweto. During the 1976 Soweto uprising, Jews are well represented in this protest on Jammie Steps at UCT calling for an end to police brutality and Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in Black schools. (Photo courtesy of UCT Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives.)

We owe South Africa so much – we were formed there and given the freedom to speak out and protest against injustice and human rights abuses.  It is therefore our duty never to demean Apartheid and the real devastating consequences it created.  To call Israel an Apartheid state is an abomination.

There is only one answer to this odious comparison is by condemning unreservedly the central charge of Apartheid through engaging its victims as well as those who fought to destroy it.

As the Jewish world gears up for the 20th anniversary of the UN Conference against Racism, you can absolutely place your bets that this charge of Apartheid is only going to gain more momentum. Remember the stated endgame.

The time to engage with us is now – before it is too late.




While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO).

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