Jimmy Carter is wrong to make a direct parallel between Israel and the former South African apartheid system. Most obviously the demographics don’t work. Whites were a minority in South Africa. Jews are a majority in Israel. Unlike blacks under apartheid, Arab Israelis can form their own political parties, are free to vote and have representatives in the Knesset. Arabs are also equal under the law and in most cases Israeli courts uphold their rights.

Another important point to bear in mind is that white South Africans were able to dominate their territory once they became established, whereas throughout the early years the Jews were forced to fight tooth and nail for their survival.

While we can’t say that Israeli society is the same as South African apartheid, ethnic discrimination is nonetheless alive and well. Israel is not unique in this. Arab immigrants in the sink estates of France suffer discrimination. The Catholic minority of N. Ireland suffered discrimination. Many examples exist in democratic societies of minorities getting shafted in one way or another, but nobody raises the term “apartheid” in reference to these conditions. It needs to be dropped also in the case of Israel.

Many friends of Israel though believe that inequalities and discriminatory practices could damage the nation’s future, and possibly even threaten its long term survival. So in raising these concerns, the point is not to attack Israel, so much as defend it by demanding it pays attention to legitimate grievances on the part of its Arab population.

The most obvious symbol of separation is the massive wall that quite literally comes between communities, separating kith and kin in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Some assert that laws in Jerusalem that have long been geared toward population control, have now been re-enforced with a physical barrier. They contend that the wall is not just a security measure but also a tool of segregation. Other examples underline the accusation that Israel engages in deliberate ethnic-based discrimination. For example there is a strategy on the part of the military to segregate West Bank roads.

If you take Jerusalem as a microcosm in this discussion of equality and justice, it becomes easier to get a sense of how the law discriminates against the Arab population. A simple visual tour of Jewish and Arab neighborhoods makes it self-evident that municipal efforts are clearly biased in favor of Jewish areas. A trip deep into Palestinian neighborhoods reveals damaged infrastructure, roads in shockingly bad repair, garbage on the streets and even neighborhoods that aren’t connected to the sewage system. Various explanations for this state of affairs are routinely offered by city authorities. These explanations more often than not end up placing blame for these conditions on the Palestinian residents.

The truth is, this disparity in services is simply the outward example of a much deeper and more pervasive problem.

There has long been a concerted effort on the part of Israeli authorities to control the demographic balance in Jerusalem in favor of Jews. This however doesn’t involve forced removal of Palestinians, so much as the use of rules and red tape to hamper their expansion. The limited amount of Palestinian construction permitted is restricted to Arab areas. Moreover land in East Jerusalem was taken (some 35%) and various financial incentives were then offered to encourage Jews to build there. These policies demonstrate a consistent effort to restrain Palestinian growth, while facilitating Jewish development whenever possible.

To give an example by way of stats … in the 1990’s for every new residence built in Arab neighborhoods, 12 were built in Jewish areas. Building permits are routinely denied on the basis of race. There is no other way to put it. If Palestinians go ahead and build anyway they risk having their homes demolished.

The law also determines where people are permitted to live, on the basis of so-called “heritage concerns”. For example if you happen to be Muslim or Christian forget trying to set up house in the Jewish quarter of the old city.

Hidden land grabs go on and often fly beneath the radar of media attention. If Palestinians forfeit property that has been designated “enemy territory” (a reference to the 1967 war), the state confiscates the land and in most cases it is transferred to Jewish owners. So-called “enemy territory” includes most of the the West Bank.

In the current period, stats show that the Jerusalem council issued 1,695 building permits in 2004. Only a fraction of these – 116 in total – went to Arab areas in East Jerusalem.

The Population Registry Act bears out these discriminatory practices. It discriminates between Jews and Arabs on the basis of nationality, which is signified by means of a numeric code. It is in effect a way of exercising prejudice in matters relating to government programs, living allocations and whether or not a cop decides to serve you with a ticket. On this evidence alone some have and do argue the S. African comparison.

Stats tell the true story most graphically. The foreign and finance ministries employ some 1,700 Jews. By contrast each of these ministries employs only a dozen or so Israeli Arabs. The Jewish population of Jerusalem enjoys 1,000 parks, 36 swimming pools and 26 libraries. The Arab population has 45 parks, no swimming pools and 2 libraries.

The Israeli Education Ministry doesn’t publicly disclose its budget, but it has been estimated that twice as much money is allocated to a Jewish child as to each Arab child (this from a government report of a little over a decade ago).

It is clear that a systemic pattern of discrimination does exist, and it is difficult to deny since many Jewish lawyers and former Jewish employees of the government over the years, have admitted as much to the press. For example Ophir Pines-Paz, one time Labor interior minister, has described the Nationality and Entry law as “draconian and racist”. But then in the context of the Middle East, Israel is by no means the only offender when it comes to rigged rules.

Does this add up to apartheid of the type practiced in South Africa? No, because the bantustans and the general control of population in South Africa was ruthless. Wide open inequality was not only state sanctioned, but was even graced with the blessing of the state church. The sheer divide between white and black was a lot more extreme in S. Africa, amounting almost to polarized solitudes, only transgressed by blacks in a service capacity.

Divisions and inequalities in Israel are more subtle. Many times grievances are contested successfully by Palestinians. Also many Israeli Jews are acutely conscious of these problems, including lawyers and activists in their number who are working to bring about changes.

Israel is a society engaged in a struggle for its soul. It’s citizens experience pain and embarrassment when faced with these hard questions – others react with anger. It is a society in the making and is struggling with these rights issues even as it fears attacks from its enemies. This is quite different from the implacable face of apartheid with its stark divisions and a white populace that was stonily indifferent to the criticisms of the outside world.

Israel and apartheid South Africa represent two separate and distinct realities, and Carter was wrong to try to create a fusion.

Aidan Maconachy is a freelance writer and artist based in Ontario. You can visit his blog at http://aidanmaconachyblog.blogspot.com/

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