International Bodies Politics War & Peace

Can Israel Be Called an Apartheid State?

News sources have been toying with the idea of calling Israel an apartheid state for years. Ever since the U.N. released a report in 2017 calling Israel an apartheid state, which has since been withdrawn, there have been even more sources putting this label on Israel. This leads to the question of whether or not it is appropriate to call Israel an apartheid state?

Definition and origins of the term “apartheid”

The word “apartheid” means separateness in Afrikaans. It is rooted in the Dutch words “apart”, meaning “separate”, and “heid”, meaning “of”. Most dictionary definitions of the word apartheid include that it is specific to a South African context in that it defines a specific period in South African history.

The UN Apartheid Convention on November 30, 1973 declared apartheid as “a crime against humanity and that ‘inhuman acts resulting from the policies and practices of apartheid and similar policies and practices of racial segregation and discrimination’ are international crimes (art. 1).”

The UN definition of apartheid then goes on explain the details of the “inhuman acts” that are committed under an apartheid regime.

“These include murder, torture, inhuman treatment and arbitrary arrest of members of a racial group; deliberate imposition on a racial group of living conditions calculated to cause its physical destruction; legislative measures that discriminate in the political, social, economic and cultural fields; measures that divide the population along racial lines by the creation of separate residential areas for racial groups; the prohibition of interracial marriages; and the persecution of persons opposed to apartheid.”

Why is Israel being called an apartheid state?

Calling Israel an apartheid state has given anti-Israel activists even more reason to protest. Didn’t international bodies learn from the human rights violations in South Africa? How could other nations allow another apartheid state to appear

According to The War on Want, a site that reports and fights against the “root causes of global poverty, inequality, and injustice”, Israel violates the UN Apartheid Convention in multiple ways:

  • First, though the forced removals of Palestinians.
  • Second, by preventing Palestinians from returning to their home and land.
  • Third, through the denial of human rights towards Palestinians.
  • Fourth, by denying Palestinians the right to their freedom of movement.
  • Fifth, through the murder, torture, and imprisonment of Palestinians, especially in Gaza.
  • Finally, through the persecution of Palestinians because of their opposition towards the actions of the Israeli government.

All of these actions are violations of the UN Apartheid Convention, but can the term apartheid be used outside of a South African context?


Based on the UN definition, the crimes of an apartheid state originated in a South African context, but can extend to other nations who are committing crimes similar to those in apartheid South Africa.

According to the UN Apartheid Convention, “…Article 2 defines the crime of apartheid – ‘which shall include similar policies and practices of racial segregation and discrimination as practised in southern Africa’ – as covering ‘inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them’.” This statement clearly says that the term apartheid can be used in contexts outside of South Africa.

The major complication when deciding whether or not Israel can be called an apartheid state is that the South African government has explicitly called Israel an apartheid state.

This statement was made by a South African representative in a speech to the UN and has since received mixed reviews from South African citizens. Some believe that South Africa has a duty to protest all apartheid governments while others find it insulting that this comparison would even be made. It is this criticism of the idea of Israel being called an apartheid state that is critical to listen to.


Maybe Israel is an apartheid state by definition, but we cannot associate the human rights violations of the current Israeli state with those of apartheid South Africa.

Are international bodies afraid to label Israel as an apartheid state because of the potential ramifications?


Does the UN have a history of not calling out human rights atrocities for what they are? Do they have a history of tiptoeing around human rights violations?


The UN did not begin to recognize the Armenian Genocide (1915-1923) until 1985, and even now they are hesitant to call it a genocide because of fears of clashing with the Turkish government. The UN also did not recognize the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya ethnic group in Myanmar until the most recent attacks in 2015, even though they have been persecuted by the formerly Burmese state since at least 1978.

Not all segregated states from now on can be called an apartheid state. The crimes can be similar to those under the apartheid regime in South Africa without being labeled as an apartheid state.

Apartheid is a term that is too closely tied to a South African context. It is a term that has not been used historically to describe the status of any other nations. Calling Israel an apartheid state allows people to make comparisons between the human rights atrocities in South Africa and the actions of the Israeli government, which could lead to a slippery slope of “my human rights are being violated in a way that’s worse than yours.”

Comparing human rights violations is never a fair comparison and thus the term “apartheid” should not be used as a label to describe the actions of the government of Israel. What is happening between Israel and Palestine, as well as the actions of the Israeli state in general, is something different than apartheid and should be labeled as such. It is fine to recognize that Israel is separating people in a similar way to the separation in pre-1994 South Africa, but it is occurring in a significantly different social context. International bodies and news sources should coin a different term to describe current Israeli government in order to be respectful of the human rights violations that occurred under the apartheid regime in South Africa.