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Home > English > Alternatives International Journal > 2016 > November 2016 > Settler Colonialisms of a Special Type: Apartheid in Palestine/Israel and (...)


Settler Colonialisms of a Special Type: Apartheid in Palestine/Israel and South Africa

Tuesday 1 November 2016, by Francesco Amoruso and Endika Rodriguez-Martin

A review of Israel and South Africa: The Many Faces of Apartheid. Edited by Ilan Pappé. Zed Books (2015).

If the reader is searching for a thorough academic comparative work on Israel and South Africa, or a guide to help conceptualise their activist commitment to the Palestinian cause of freedom and self-determination, they will find this book a compelling read. Israel and South Africa: The Many Faces of Apartheid explores the apartheid analogy in a way never done before, with the aim to systematise the comparison. The book follows on the heels of a significant tradition of comparisons between the two case studies and establishes once and for all its validity within academia. This is achieved in part thanks to the editor’s choice of asking each contributor to reflect on the general terms of the comparison, and to its corollary – a thorough critique and demystification of most arguments used against the analogy. While virtually closing the debate on the legitimacy of discussions about Israel’s systematic discrimination and oppression of native Palestinians as a form of apartheid, the contributors to this volume open up new avenues and suggest original angles through which to approach the question of comparison. Such is the case of Anthony Löwstedt’s (191-238) chapter on honour killings in Palestine and witch burning in South Africa as phenomena exacerbated by the ‘logic of elimination’ that underpins settler colonial projects, amongst which we find the two locales under comparative scrutiny (1).

As Pappé (1-22) recognises in his introduction, the book deals with a number of thorny issues, such as defining the boundaries of the apartheid analogy, namely if it applies to all the territories controlled by the State of Israel or only those captured following the 1967 war. Further it analyses the relevance of this academic endeavour for moving forward the current impasse and imagining novel paths for decolonising Palestine/Israel. While some chapters focus on Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, there is consensus amongst the contributors that the seeds of Israeli apartheid are to be found in the Zionist ideology (Jewish nationalism) and in its application in the project of settlement in Palestine (settler colonialism). It follows that no just solution can be envisaged without deeply rethinking the ethno-exclusivist roosts of the Jewish state. It is disappointing that none of the chapter offers a thorough comparison between the boycott movement against the South African apartheid state, and the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. This shortcoming, despite making a limited presence in some of the chapters, made the political impact of this book appreciably less powerful. Hopefully we will see a correction to this academic blind spot in the near future.

With the first and final two chapters, written by anti-apartheid activist and former minister in post-apartheid South Africa Ronnie Kasrilis (23-42), and the South African sociologist Ran Greenstein (325-362) respectively, the reader can appreciate the general themes of the comparison and their relevance in advancing the current debate on Palestine/Israel. Kasrilis inscribes apartheid as a political and institutional structure within the historical trajectories of Zionism and white South-African ethno-nationalism. Within this analysis he shows the many similarities between Zionism and what the South African Communist Party referred to as ‘Colonialism of a Special Type.’ The historical comparison, which encompasses both the two settler colonial projects and the narratives employed by both settler communities to justify the dispossession of indigenous people, confers historical contextualisation and justification to most of the arguments put forward throughout the following chapters. This is especially notable with regard to separation as a necessity for settler projects lacking demographic advantage and to the politically difficult issue of international support to brutal settler colonial regimes (notably from other settler states). More specific terms of the comparison are then summarised by Greenstein, who points out the relevance of setting the geographical boundaries of the apartheid analogy. Whether we consider apartheid as applicable to ‘Israel proper,’ to ‘Greater Israel,’ or ‘Greater Palestine’ (the space occupied by all fragments of Palestinian society, including the refugees) carries important consequences on the nature of the comparison. As Greenstein highlights, it is fundamental to examine both similarities and differences of the two apartheid regimes in order for lessons about decolonisation to be learnt from the case of South Africa and translated into political action in the Palestinian/Israeli context.

A crucial theme explored in this book, as previously mentioned, is the correlation between apartheid-like political formations and peculiar kinds of (settler) colonialism. Settler colonialism is a ‘one-way ticket’ form of colonialism. This means that the colonialists do not occupy foreign lands for economic and strategic benefits to European empires, but for the purpose of settling and founding new societies. These processes are characterised by the inevitable dispossession of indigenous peoples. The erasure of indigenous cultures and the physical elimination of indigenous peoples is never a complete act, but on the contrary is a structuring element of settler colonial societies in the past as well as in the present, until decolonisation (2). Apartheid is one typology of settler colonial domination, and occurs where the settlers do not achieve the goal of establishing an overwhelming demographic majority. Separation, as opposed to assimilation, is the instrument that both the South African and Israeli regimes employ(ed) to exclude the natives from the state. This contextualisation is important, as Virginia Tilley (295-324) notes in her compelling chapter, to point out that apartheid does not only apply to indigenous people who have been granted citizenship, but rather to all indigenous people affected by settler colonialism regardless of their status. Tilley’s chapter is outstanding for its depth of analysis and clarity in highlighting the pregnancy of the historical comparison put forward. She compares the structure imposed on the Palestinians living in the occupied territories, to that imposed by the South African authorities onto the indigenous population of Namibia. Her argument is rooted in a critique to the limitations of international law with regards to indigenous rights and to the significance of settler colonial state-formation, and suggests that the question of sovereignty be reframed around ‘empirical’ rather than merely juridical control over occupied populations. The paradox here is evident: the two-state solution is based upon international law, which resides on the belief ‘that the Palestinians’ political rights are ultimately to be satisfied in some mythical state of the future rather than by the state governing their lives’ (298). It follows that Israel’s lack of formal sovereignty over the occupied territories allows it to maintain a de facto apartheid system. Tilley also asks whether the international community push for an Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories must be reconsidered. In theory she argues it should, but in practice Israel’s sovereign capacity must be reconsidered, and the question of ‘address[ing] the real needs of a population that for decades must endure foreign rule by a foreign power that has no intention of withdrawing’ and that has shown the ‘intention to eliminate permanently any possibility of viable independent statehood and self-determination for the territory’s indigenous population’ be forcefully raised (299).

Pappé (43-72) also chooses to compare the two case studies from a novel angle, looking at the dispossessing consequences of the colonising efforts of Christians missionaries in Africa and Jewish settlers in Palestine. A particularly interesting topic, which does not find much space in the book, is the role that Great Britain played in fostering both the ‘return’ of Jews to Palestine and the diffusion of Christianity in Africa. Both ‘satellite movements,’ despite geographical and temporal distances, operated similar colonising and discursive tactics under the auspices of the British Empire, which eventually had to cope with the parting of its settler colonial ‘stepchildren.’

The question of the origins of the Israeli version of apartheid is the concern of Oren Ben-Dor (73-120), whose chapter contains a particularly problematic argument. His rigid understanding of apartheid as inherent in Zionist ideology is misguided by arguing that it derives directly from Judaism. Such an essentialist view, which descends a political structure straight from a religious doctrine, is not only problematic but arguably dangerous. Similar lines of thinking are currently informing a large part of Islamophobic discourses, moreover this argument defeats one of the main purposes of the research agenda behind settler colonial studies, which is to defeat settler exceptionalism claims. Finally, this thesis would seem to support the narrative of a religious conflict that has had a successful role in the Zionist arsenal. The difficulty of this chapter also lies in the defeatism and political immobilism that this discourse would necessarily imply.

Another theme that occupies a central place in the book is the demographic balance between settler communities and indigenous people in both locales. Jonathan Cook (123-160), in his quite anecdotal but nonetheless valuable chapter, addresses the demographic issue utilising the question of (in)visibility of indigenous people and the ways in which it differs in South Africa and Israel. The result of an established settler majority, within Israel’s internationally recognised borders, is the possibility for Israel to portray itself as a democracy. In this respect, Israel is more similar to other settler states (the US, Canada or Australia) that achieved the demographic goal of white majority, than to South Africa. Apartheid, however, contrary to successful settler colonialism is based on the existence of separate sets of rules for different racial groups. Crucially, Cook recognises that this structure of apartheid is ultimately aimed at appropriating Arab land in order to expand settler sovereignty. On a similar topic, Anthony Löwstedt (191-238) analyses the centrality of women’s fertility in the demographic struggle. Honour killings and witch burnings are examples of how the apartheid regimes played on indigenous patriarchal structures to achieve the settlers’ demographic goals.

Leila Farsakh (161-187) takes the question of the boundaries of the comparison further by focusing on the centrality of the notion of ‘separate development’ for both the South African and the Zionist colonising projects. In her chapter, Farsakh focuses on the role of the Oslo Accords in shaping the present apartheid reality in the West Bank, while also acknowledging that apartheid should not only refer to the territories occupied in 1967. In fact, her contribution is extremely valuable as it contextualises the Oslo Accords and current Israeli occupation policies within a broader history of apartheid in historic Palestine. The central argument is that Israeli apartheid is, similarly to South Africa’s, a result of the need to ‘’resolve’ the question of the indigenous population’s political rights without compromising the settlers’ political and economic supremacy’ (163). She does so by analysing the limitations of Palestinian self-rule in the territories vis-à-vis the colonisation project (theft of land, restrictions to freedom of movement, fragmentation, economic dependency).

As mentioned above, the book is also concerned with the issue of political change and the relevance of the apartheid analogy for supporting such efforts. Amneh Badran (239-274) presents a concise overview of settler protest groups in Israel and South Africa. The difference between the two is remarkable. While white South African movements challenged the Apartheid regime, the Zionist left does not challenge the foundations of Zionism. It is no surprise that while a great number of white South Africans joined the indigenous resistance structures, only a handful Jews historically joined the Palestinian Liberation Organisation.

Steven Friedman (277-294) compares Zionism and Afrikaaner nationalism as two political movements claiming that ‘the survival of a group can be secured only by a state defined in ethnic or cultural terms’ (278). From the Israeli perspective, it follows, ‘a ‘two-state solution’…is the limit of the possible since a single state is a recipe for national suicide’ (279). Friedman, however, also explains how the white South African leadership reached the conclusion that the safeguard of a settler national collective does not necessarily depend on maintaining that group’s supremacy within a political regime dominated by separation and exclusion (‘ethnic state’). Indeed, the South African leadership understood that ‘The system could not survive without reform – but it could not survive reform’ (281). Three sets of reasons are behind this realisation. First, ‘objective constraints’, i.e. need for black skilled labour, which increased blacks’ bargaining power; second, ‘contradictory goals’, i.e. lack of viability of the Bantustans; and third, ‘subjective constraints’, i.e. black resistance.

Objective constraints, as Friedman notes, are absent in the case of Israel, but the growing BDS movement worldwide might pose significant pressure on the Israeli state for dismantling its apartheid regime. A two-state solution oriented reform is compared by the author to the South African attempt to reform the apartheid system in order to maintain the ethnic character of the state while lifting the pressures from inside and outside. The limit of Friedman’s otherwise impeccable chapter is the overlooking of the post-apartheid high economic inequality, that still sees the concentration of the country’s wealth in the hands of the white minority. Friedman brushes the question away as a ‘blemish’ of post-apartheid reality, whereas a deeper conversation on the economic dimension of decolonisation is much needed.

In conclusion, this book is an indispensable read for making sense of the historical predicament of the Palestinian people. Additionally, it fills a long over-due academic gap in the efforts of a comparative understanding of Zionism. In this case, it is important to recognise, as Pappé honestly does, academia followed activist groups who have utilised the apartheid paradigm to gain political ground in their struggle for justice in Palestine. This book has the power to make us all reflect on the dialogical relationship between academia and activism. In addition, it also has the potential to empower those groups around the world who, with events such as Israeli Apartheid Week, continue to maintain that if apartheid fell in South Africa, there is no reason why it should not be forced into doing so in Palestine/Israel as well.


1. Patrick Wolfe, “Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native,” Journal of Genocide Studies 8, n. 4 (2006): 387-409.
2. Wolfe, ibidem. Lorenzo Veracini, Settler Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

Francesco Amoruso and Endika Rodriguez-Martin are PhD Candidates in Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter, UK