In March, the human-rights organization Amnesty International engineered a publicity stunt. It wasn’t aimed at condemning Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which had just sent roughly 150,000 troops into Ukraine to slaughter civilians and swallow up the country. It wasn’t intended as a message for Xi Jinping’s China, where roughly 1.5 million Muslim Uyghurs and other minorities have been detained in internment camps for years. Amnesty’s target was Israel. Again. Activists from the group replaced the road signs outside Israel’s embassy in London with new ones reading “Apartheid Avenue: No Palestinians Allowed.”
While Amnesty enjoys a popular reputation as a serious and esteemed organization fighting doggedly for those trampled underfoot, this tawdry bit of street theater offers a clearer sense of what the group actually is: a mendacious and obsessive band of Israel-haters that disguises its singular passion using the tools of the international human-rights racket. Lest there be any mistake about this, Amnesty’s U.S. director, Paul O’Brien, declared before an audience in March that Israel “shouldn’t exist as a Jewish state” and went on to say that “Amnesty takes no political views on any question, including the right of the State of Israel to survive.”
The street-sign affair was an attempt to capitalize on Amnesty’s most recent deployment of one of those tools: the human-rights report.
In February 2022, Amnesty allocated a portion of its $440 million annual budget to publish a 278-page report entitled Israel’s Apartheid Against Palestinians: Cruel System of Domination and Crime Against Humanity. The document marked the apogee of a years-long campaign by human-rights organizations to cast Israel as an international pariah—a present-day apartheid-era South Africa. Amnesty’s report came less than a year after Human Rights Watch ($97 million annual budget) published its own 200-plus-page indictment: A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution. The foundation for these rhetorical onslaughts had been laid by two Israeli organizations, Yesh Din (June 2020) and B’Tselem (January 2021).
I was born and raised in South Africa during apartheid. Those of us who witnessed that crime up close—to say nothing of our compatriots who were its immediate victims—know full well that the political status of Israel’s Arab citizens bears no resemblance in any imaginable way to that of blacks who suffered for 45 years under a monstrous system. Despite the socioeconomic inequity that exists in Israel (as in every other country), Israeli Arabs are promised by law the full panoply of political and civic rights that were denied non-white South Africans. Any comparison is a perversion of history, reason, and morality. It is an offense to the victims of apartheid. And it is a slander against the State of Israel.
Few countries can claim to have been so persistent or so introspective in their national soul-searching and quest for the moral high ground as the Jewish state, although it’s far from perfect. And yet, Israel still finds itself the perpetual party piñata of international legalists, always conveniently available for another good flogging. With everything else going on in the world, and the egregious human-rights violations of all of Israel’s undemocratic neighbors (and many others further beyond), the human-rights movement—now fully aligned with the boycott, divest, and sanction (BDS) movement—still places Israel at the top of the international human-rights agenda. (A search for “apartheid” on the Human Rights Watch website reveals only one other alleged perpetrator in Israel’s company: the Myanmar military junta, for its treatment of ethnic Rohingya.)
Why such single-minded perseveration? Recall that in 2002, then–Harvard University president Lawrence Summers noted that calls to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel were “anti-Semitic in their effect if not in their intent.” With the benefit of two decades of hindsight, the rise in global anti-Semitism, the frontline battles against Jew-hatred on our college campuses, and yet another Amnesty publication to add to the apartheid file, Summers’s observation now bespeaks quaint understatement. The human-rights crowd charges Israel with apartheid not merely to defame, but to dismantle and destroy.
Amnesty’s report is a case study in this effort. Unfettered by nuance or the constraints of historical context, its anonymous authors embark on an extended serial hit-and-run. Despite Amnesty’s claim that “deeply held core principles of impartiality, independence and accuracy underpin all we do,” the evidence suggests otherwise. Amnesty’s starting presumption is not merely the illegitimacy of the presence of Israelis in Judea and Samaria (in human-rights speak, the “Occupied Palestinian Territories,” or “OPT”), but even within the pre-1967 lines that Israel expanded in the defensive Six-Day War. This central assumption follows ineluctably from Amnesty’s belief that “Israel has established and maintained an institutionalized regime of oppression and domination of the Palestinian population for the benefit of Jewish Israelis—a system of apartheid—wherever it has exercised control over Palestinians’ lives since 1948.” With that as a premise, the remaining pages offer few surprises.
The problems with the Amnesty report’s reasoning and conclusions are too numerous to cover comprehensively here. Just three criticisms will suffice: 1) The report evinces a flawed application of the legal concept of apartheid that plainly does not fit Israel’s circumstances; 2) it erroneously conflates the legal status of Arab citizens of Israel with those who do not have Israeli citizenship (all indistinguishable “Palestinians” in Amnesty’s treatment); and 3) it omits, wholesale, a Jewish narrative. Which is to say, there is no account of the ancient historical connection of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel and the attacks on the Jewish state that precipitated the current condition.
Amnesty’s apartheid analogy is wrong both as a matter of fact and as a matter of law. One need look no further than the admission of the report’s authors: The “report does not seek to argue,” the introduction concedes, that “any system of oppression and domination as perpetrated in Israel and the OPT is… the same or analogous to the system of segregation, oppression and domination as perpetrated in South Africa between 1948 and 1994.” (Note, however, the presumption that there exists a “system of oppression and domination” that is “perpetrated in Israel”—i.e., within Israel’s pre-1967 boundaries—separate and apart from the “OPT.”) The concession is compelled, of course, for the reasons noted at the outset and elaborated on below: No one can plausibly claim that Arab citizens of Israel in any way resemble the non-white victims of South African apartheid.
The legal analysis is equally flawed. Apartheid in international law involves, as the report states, “segregation, oppression and domination by one racial group over another.” Furthermore, an accuser must prove this is undertaken with intent: “The system and crime of apartheid is best understood as the intentional, prolonged and cruel control of one racial group by another.” The focus on race is central, given the context in which the term apartheid arose and the events that gave birth to the 1976 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. The convention defined “the crime of apartheid” to “include similar policies and practices of racial segregation and discrimination as practised in southern Africa,” and “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.” The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court likewise defines the term as “in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.”
All of which raises obvious questions. What is the “one racial group” of Israeli oppressors that Amnesty imagines to be subjugating the “one racial group” of Palestinians? Does Amnesty mean to suggest that Jewish Israelis, who hail from North and South America, Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, represent a single monochromatic race? The notion would be humorous to Israel’s Jews of Middle Eastern descent (the one group of refugees always omitted from the Palestinians’ “right of return” discussions), as well as to Ethiopian, Asian, and Indian Jews. The diverse melting pot of modern Israel belies Amnesty’s caricatured depiction of Jews as a homogenous group of European colonizers.
This is to say nothing of Israel’s airlifting persecuted Jews of all races and ethnicities to find a safe haven in the Jewish state. Israel’s extensive record of saving these people from the human-rights violations of their native countries is additional evidence that it lacks the racial animus Amnesty ascribes to it. Would a racist regime have undertaken herculean efforts and dangerous risks to rescue black Africans from persecution in Africa? The historical irony was not lost on the late columnist William Safire, who observed, regarding Israel’s daring rescue of Ethiopian Jews, “For the first time in history, thousands of black people are being brought to a country not in chains but in dignity, not as slaves but as citizens.” That modern-day Exodus motif has been replayed at Ben Gurion Airport repeatedly. This ingathering of exiles and the reverse—Israel’s export of humanitarian assistance all over the globe—offer a more accurate glimpse of the Israeli national soul than Amnesty’s distorted portrait.
The mirror image of Amnesty’s depiction of the Jewish Israeli community as a single homogenous race is its conflation of two very different groups under the category “Palestinians.” Amnesty lumps together both Israeli citizens of Arab descent (whom Amnesty refers to as “Palestinian citizens of Israel”) and Arabs without Israeli citizenship living in Judea and Samaria. But this difference is crucial.
For starters, if Amnesty views Palestinians beyond the 1967 lines as “occupied,” then Israel’s different treatment of them is expressly permitted under international humanitarian law (the law of armed conflict) applicable to occupying powers. As the report states: “The law of occupation allows, and in some cases requires, differential treatment between nationals of the occupying power and the population of the occupied territory.” Thus, Amnesty recognizes that “the differential treatment is primarily required because international humanitarian law prohibits the occupying power from applying its own laws to the population in the occupied territories and therefore envisages different laws applying to its citizens and the population of the occupied territories.”
One hardly need accept the notion of Israel as occupier to understand that laws apply differently to people living outside a given state than to citizens of it. In any event, stabbings, lynchings, kidnappings, suicide bombings, and rocket attacks against Israeli civilians have earned the Palestinian inhabitants of the “OPT” dissimilar treatment by Israel, precisely as contemplated by international humanitarian law.
In sharp contrast, those whom Amnesty considers “Palestinian citizens of Israel” include people who not only don’t think of themselves as Palestinians and wouldn’t wish to live in a Palestinian state, but who take pride in Israeli citizenship. Among them are those who have reached the highest echelons of Israeli society. It is an odd form of apartheid state that selects as its representative flag-bearers in foreign capitals the very group it purportedly intends to subjugate. Israel’s alleged subjugation has produced such members of its elite foreign service as Ali Yahya, Israel’s first Arab Muslim ambassador (to Finland and Greece); Ishmael Khaldi, Israel’s first Bedouin ambassador (to Eritrea); Rasha Atamny, Israel’s first female Arab Muslim ambassador (to Turkey); and George Deek, Israel’s first Arab Christian ambassador (to Azerbaijan).
“Mere window dressing!” the human-rights cynics may exclaim. If so, it would mark another difference from apartheid South Africa, which, as far as I recall, never appointed a black ambassador for the sake of appearances. Indeed, South Africa wanted to be understood as the apartheid state that it was.
Then there are the domestic achievements of Israeli Arabs within Israeli society. Consider Mansour Abbas, who leads the United Arab List Party (a conservative Islamist party, no less). He sits in the Knesset as a member of the national governing coalition and was the kingmaker responsible for the current premier’s ascension. There are Israeli Arab Supreme Court Justices Salim Joubran, George Karra, and now Khaled Kabub. Major General Ghassan Alian, the first Arab commander of the Israel Defense Force’s Golani Brigade, was embraced at the time of his appointment by now Prime Minister Naftali Bennet as “a brother.”
Sometimes, familial relationships between high-profile Israeli Jews and Arabs go beyond the metaphorical. Tzachi Halevy, a Jewish actor on Israel’s hit Netflix series Fauda, married Israeli Arab TV news anchor Lucy Aharish in 2018. This is a strange expression of apartheid life if ever there was one. The couple had their first child last year.
Down at the level of ordinary, noncelebrity life, victims of South Africa’s old system would be shocked to learn what’s being labeled “apartheid” in Israel. Unlike the Johannesburg General Hospital, where my father was head of the Department of Gastroenterology, Israeli hospitals (staffed by Jews and Arabs alike) admit all, including both terrorists and their victims. Israelis are familiar with stories of organ transplants traversing one side of the national divide to provide life to the other and cases such as the bone-marrow transplant provided to the niece of Hamas terrorist leader Ismail Haniyeh. She was treated in an Israeli hospital during Operation Guardian of the Walls in May 2021, even as Hamas rained down rockets on civilian targets. Haniyeh’s daughter has also reportedly benefited from treatment in an Israeli hospital.
Despite such inconvenient facts, Amnesty accuses Israel of “consider[ing] and treat[ing] Palestinians as an inferior non-Jewish racial group,” with “segregation… conducted in a systematic and highly institutionalized manner through laws, policies and practices, all of which are intended to prevent Palestinians from claiming and enjoying equal rights to Jewish Israelis within the territory of Israel and within the OPT, and thus are intended to oppress and dominate the Palestinian people.”
This is, as we’ve seen, self-evidently false. As for Palestinians living “within the OPT,” it is true they do not share the rights and privileges of Israeli citizenship because, well, they are not Israeli citizens. Furthermore, unlike Israeli citizens, those Palestinians are, generally speaking, ideologically committed to Israel’s destruction with varying degrees of fervor. This, along with the Palestinians’ existence under an entirely different legal regime, means that Israel does, appropriately, treat those Palestinians differently than her own citizens. If this is apartheid, then so too is the United States’ failure to extend citizenship to the Taliban.
As noted, entirely absent from Amnesty’s discussion of occupation is reference to the ancient historical connection of those who experienced the first dispossession of the Land of Israel: the Jews. The archeological evidence alone makes clear that present-day Arab settlement rests on the foundation of the Jews’ biblical birthright. There is no starker reminder of this than the Mosque of Omar’s construction on the ruins of the ancient Jewish Beit Hamikdash, the Second Temple.
In Amnesty’s telling, the Palestinians’ territorial claims are untethered from the circumstances that have produced their serial losses, retreats, and defeats: their persistent rejectionism at every opportunity to reach a compromise. Abba Eban’s old saw remains as true today as it was at the time of the Partition Plan: “The Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”
It’s tempting to dismiss entirely the work of Amnesty and similar organizations, but neither Israel nor other states can afford to do so. Non-governmental organizations such as Amnesty occupy a prominent role in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), as they can refer a matter for the prosecutor’s investigation. That statute empowers the ICC prosecutor to initiate an investigation on the basis of “information from…intergovernmental or non-governmental organizations,” even though neither Israel nor the United States is a party to it.
In the absence of a cadre of investigators akin to a domestic law-enforcement agency, an “independent” human-rights organization’s assessment is potentially significant for the ICC prosecutor and judges. The organization’s views may influence the course of a prosecutor’s investigation, be relied upon as evidence, and ultimately influence the opinions of the judges. As the Rome Statute states: “The Court may ask any intergovernmental organization to provide information or documents. The Court may also ask for other forms of cooperation and assistance which may be agreed upon with such an organization and which are in accordance with its competence or mandate.”
Thus, Amnesty’s report and others like it add to the impression of a body of evidence and legal analysis supporting a warped view among the international legal elite that the Jewish State of Israel, like apartheid South Africa, is illegitimate and unwelcome in the brotherhood of nations. From this presumption of illegitimacy, a cascade of conclusions follows. Amnesty suggests “dismantling this cruel system of apartheid” by:
- extending to all Palestinians “in Israel and the OPT” “equal and full human rights … without discrimination”;
- extending the “right of return” to all “Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to homes where they or their families once lived in Israel or the OPT”;
- providing “full reparations” to the alleged “victims of human rights violations, crimes against humanity and serious violations of international humanitarian law—and their families”;
- encouraging countries to “pressure Israel into dismantling its apartheid system” through investigation of individual criminal liability of those who have committed the crime of apartheid;
- inviting the ICC prosecutor “to consider the applicability of the crime against humanity of apartheid within its current formal investigation” of Israel’s activity in the OPT;
- inviting the UN Security Council to either “refer the entire situation to the ICC” or to establish “an international tribunal to try alleged perpetrators”;
- inviting the UN Security Council to “impose targeted sanctions, such as asset freezes, against Israeli officials implicated in the crime of apartheid, and a comprehensive arms embargo on Israel”; and
- “calling on states to institute and enforce a ban on products from Israeli settlements.”
Any differences between this platform and those of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine are purely cosmetic, not substantive. Amnesty’s recommendations come packaged in a glossy and colorful report, but this is legal warfare (“lawfare,” as some have aptly called it) against the Jewish state. The goal, unmistakably, is the destruction of Israel.
Finally, the human-rights organizations that have internalized the Palestinian narrative, and now aid and abet international lawfare, do the Palestinians more harm than good. If Amnesty lived up to its own mantra (“deeply held core principles of impartiality, independence and accuracy”), it might facilitate a more honest reckoning that could pave a pathway for peace. Instead, it furnishes maximalist Palestinian leaders with sham legitimacy and institutional cover to wage war and keep their people in misery.
If and when the peace we pray for finally blooms, it will be no thanks to Amnesty and its fellow travelers who have played the roles of obstructionists rather than facilitators, a crime greater than any charge they level against Israel.
Justin C. Danilewitz is a former federal prosecutor who lives in Philadelphia.