The term "apartheid" is often used purely for propaganda purposes. Apartheid, like racism and fascism, is a rhetorical term one uses to denigrate one's opponent.
But apartheid is also a term with a precise content. It applies to a specific regime. Equating another regime to it may be accurate, partly correct or just wrong. So, necessarily, will be the conclusions drawn from the comparison.
RECENTLY I had the opportunity to discuss this subject with an expert, who had lived in South Africa throughout the apartheid era. I learned a lot from this.
Is Israel an apartheid state? Well, first one must settle the question: which Israel? Israel proper, within the Green Line, or the Israeli occupation regime in the occupied Palestinian territories, or both together?
Let's come back to that later.
THE DIFFERENCES between the two cases are obvious.
First, the SA regime was based, as with their Nazi mentors, on the theory of racial superiority. Racism was its official creed. The Zionist ideology of Israel is not racist, in this sense, but rather based on a mixture of nationalism and religion, though the early Zionists were mostly atheists.
The founders of Zionism always rejected accusations of racism as absurd. It's the anti-Semites who are racist. Zionists were liberal, socialist, progressive. (As far as I know, only one Zionist leader had openly endorsed racism: Arthur Ruppin, the German Jew who was the father of the Zionist settlements in the early 20th century.)
Then there are the numbers. In SA there was a huge black majority. Whites were about a fifth of the population.
In Israel proper, the Arab citizens constitute a minority of about 20%. In the total territory under Israeli rule between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, the numbers of Jews and Arabs are roughly equal. The Arabs may by now constitute a small majority -- precise numbers are hard to come by. This Arab majority is bound to grow slowly larger as time passes.
Furthermore, the white economy in SA was totally dependent on black labor. At the beginning of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza strip in 1967, the Zionist insistence on "Jewish Labor" came to an end and cheap Arab labor from the "territories" flooded Israel. However, with the beginning of the first intifada this development was stopped with surprising speed. Large numbers of foreign workers were imported: Eastern Europeans and Chinese for the building trade, Thais for agriculture, Philippinos for personal care, etc.
It is now one of the main jobs of the Israeli army to prevent Palestinians from illegally crossing the de facto border ... into Israel to seek work.
This is a fundamental difference between the two cases, one that has a profound impact on the possible solutions.
Sadly, in the West Bank, the Palestinians are widely employed in the building of the settlements and work in the enterprises there, which my friends and I have called to boycott. The economic misery of the population drives them to this perverse situation.
In Israel proper, Arab citizens complain about discrimination, which limits their employment in Jewish enterprises and government offices. The authorities regularly promise to do something about this kind of discrimination.
On the whole, the situation of the Arab minority inside Israel proper is much like that of many national minorities in Europe and elsewhere. They enjoy equality under the law, vote for parliament, are represented by very lively parties of their own, but in practice suffer discrimination in many areas. To call this apartheid would be grossly misleading.