Apartheid 101

Sometimes we’re asked the question: Why use the term ‘apartheid’?  Doesn’t it just make people unnecessarily angry?  Here’s why we choose to call it by that name.


Apartheid literally means separation.  It has its roots in the separation of people based on race in South Africa.  Since then, the application of the word has been made universal, with the adoption of the United Nations “International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid”.


In order to understand the current situation in Israel/Palestine, it is necessary to examine the origins of the Israeli state in 1948.  In that year, which is referred to in Palestine as the Nakba (“catastrophe”), thousands of Palestinians were expelled from their homeland to make way for the creation of Israel.  These refugees remain today the longest standing refugee population in the world.

In 1954, Israeli education minister Ben-Zion Dinur proclaimed, “In our country there is room only for the Jews. We shall say to the Arabs: Get out!  If they don’t agree, if they resist, we shall drive them out by force.”

The motivation for ethnically cleansing Palestine was to ensure that Israel would be a Jewish-majority state.  If Israel’s population included Palestinian refugees, this would be endangered.

To this day, Palestinian refugees are denied the right to return to their homes.  At the same time, citizenship is automatically conferred on any Jewish immigrants — individuals who had never inhabited the territory before.


In the same year that Israel was created, the pro-apartheid National Party was elected to power in South Africa.  In 1951, they began the forced expulsion of over 3 million black inhabitants of the land into reserves known as “Bantustans”, modelled on Canada’s reservation system for First Nations.

The South African government denied citizenship to its black citizens, instead expecting them to exercise their political rights in the Bantustans.

Supporters of South African apartheid justified their policies by pointing to Israel as an example.  Hendrik Verwoerd, Prime Minister of South Africa, said in 1961: “Israel, like South Africa, is an apartheid state.”  The two countries had close diplomatic relations during this period; they shared strategies and the Israeli Defence Forces provided training to the apartheid South African government’s military.

More than a decade after apartheid was abolished in South Africa, Palestinians in the Occupied Territories today live in modern-day Bantustans.  They are essentially open-air prisons, where all borders and the movement of people and goods are controlled by the Israeli military.  Inhabitants are denied citizenship in Israel, despite having their daily lives regulated by the Israeli state.

Over the years, Palestinians have gradually seen the land allocated to them reduced and fragmented, with security measures heightened on their borders.  Villages were cut off from each other, meaning that students attending classes and workers going to their jobs would need to pass through Israeli military checkpoints on a regular basis.

Map of Palestine



In 2003, the Israeli government announced the construction of a wall to separate Israel from the Occupied Territories, ostensibly for security reasons.

Instead of following the existing borders — which were already contentious enough — the wall extended beyond Israel and claimed more Palestinian territory.  Shops, stalls, and homes of Palestinians were destroyed to make way for the wall.  Olive trees, a major source of income for Palestinian farmers, were uprooted.  In some cases, Palestinian villages were encircled by the wall, cutting them off from their neighbours.

The wall has been criticized as a land grab for Israel; a desperate attempt to prevent any possibility of Palestinian self-determination, and a unilateral expansion of Israeli territory.

In 2004, the United Nations General Assembly and the International Court of Justice both declared the apartheid wall to be in contravention of international law, and ordered the Israeli government to stop its construction and dismantle it.

The Israeli government refuses to honour these international orders and continues its construction of the apartheid wall.


There is a growing majority opinion that Israel’s policies and treatment of Palestinians constitute apartheid.  Prominent thinkers have made the comparison, including Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, and former U.S. president Jimmy Carter.  Within Israel, politicians, academics, journalists and activists frequently describe the state’s treatment of Palestinians as apartheid.

South Africans who lived through the apartheid era have also accused Israel of committing the same crimes, if not worse.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “If I were to change the names, a description of what is happening in Gaza and the West Bank could describe events in South Africa.”

The Congress of South African Trade Unions and the Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa both declared that Israel is practising apartheid in the Occupied Territories.

In 2008, the president of the United Nations General Assembly, Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, accused the Israeli government of practising apartheid, and called for boycotts, divestments, and sanctions against the state — the tactics used against apartheid South Africa.

Queers Against Israeli Apartheid is joining a global movement to oppose Israel’s apartheid regime.  Our demands are simple.

We call on the Israeli government to:

  • end its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantle the Wall;
  • recognize the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
  • respect, protect and promote the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties, as stipulated in UN resolution 194.

Frequently Asked Questions

These are just some of the questions we have gotten a lot.


Israel is a country founded on the idea of different rights for different people, based on race. The first difference is that Jews, wherever they live, have the right to “return” to Israel, but the Palestinians who were expelled from their homes in 1948 do not have this right; in fact, they are explicitly denied Israeli citizenship, and denied the right to return to their homes. This is racist.

The second form of apartheid is the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, which denies Palestinians living on those territories full political rights, even while Israelis living there have full political rights in Israel. (The political rights of citizens of the Palestinian Authority, like the rights of apartheid South Africa’s bantustans, are empty and of no effect.) The apartheid wall, which cuts Palestinian communities off from each other and creates tiny Palestinian enclaves; the hundreds of checkpoints Palestinians have to cross to travel their own land; and the different access to highways, water, and land accorded to Jews and non-Jews are all forms of apartheid. Gaza is an open-air prison whose inhabitants live in constant misery because of the illegal Israeli siege.

The third form of apartheid is in the different treatment of Palestinians inside Israel proper. While Jews hold Jewish nationality, so-called “Israeli Arabs” have a separate category of citizenship – Israeli citizenship. Palestinian communities in Israel proper are consistently underserviced by government in relation to the rest of population, and because most Palestinians refuse to serve in the occupation army, they are denied many educational and employment opportunities.

In 1961, former South African prime minister and architect of South African apartheid, Hendrik Verwoerd, stated the obvious: “Israel, like South Africa, is an apartheid state.”  Not coincidentally, Israel and apartheid South Africa cooperated closely; Israel was apartheid South Africa’s last and best friend, right up to the end of apartheid.


Queer and trans people living in the West Bank and Gaza face daily military violence just for being who they are: Palestinian.

There can’t be freedom of gender and sexuality without freedom from daily violence and the right to love who you choose, live where you choose, and attend groups, meetings and political activities without persecution.  Road blocks, military checkpoints, house demolitions, curfews and the apartheid wall are all part of the daily reality for all Palestinians, regardless of their orientation.

Queer rights are not safe until all people’s rights are safe. There was a period of sexual liberation in early 20th century Europe that was destroyed by the rise of fascism. As queers we neglect other struggles and other equality rights at our peril. All our struggles are bound up together. QuAIA is an example of people of different backgrounds working together for the equality of all.


Israel’s latest PR campaign involves promoting itself as an oasis of liberal tolerance, specifically in relation to gay rights, in a “sea of backwardness”. The constant refrain is that gays have no rights in Palestine or elsewhere in the Mideast. While it is true that Israel has repealed some explicitly homophobic laws, it is still an intensely homophobic country with resistance to gay rights in many quarters of Israeli state and society. Moreover, liberal rights granted to some can never serve as a justification for denying rights to others.

Israel’s queer rights are not extended to Palestinians in the occupied territories it controls; and Israel does nothing to support the struggles of Palestinian queers or queers elsewhere in the Mideast. It only uses their experience to promote hatred of all Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims, including queer Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims.

Queer struggles against homophobia in Palestine will never flourish as long as Palestinians live under the intolerable conditions of occupation, violence, and Israeli state terror that disrupt and regulate their daily existence. Supporting queer rights in Palestine means fighting the apartheid system that denies self-determination to all Palestinians.

We stand in solidarity with queers in Palestine, and support their struggles of resistance to homophobia and Israeli apartheid.


We are!  Queers Against Israeli Apartheid aims to address homophobia, and other forms of oppression experienced by queer and trans people, in our actions and education.

Queer Palestinians do face violence and discrimination and it is unacceptable. We oppose homophobia in Palestine, but we oppose it everywhere because it exists everywhere, even here. Queers in Canada have achieved some rights and many people have dedicated their lives to fighting for those rights. Despite what Canadian nationalists want us to believe, we didn’t get these rights because we live in the enlightened, tolerant west — it was not simply the natural course of history here. Social movements achieved these changes through struggle. Anyone engaged in activism knows how hard it is to mobilize people even under the best of circumstances. Now imagine trying to organize under military occupation and apartheid — these are the enormous additional challenges facing Palestinian queer social movements.

Just take for example the fact that there is no place on earth, not one square foot where a queer Palestinian citizen of Israel, a queer from Gaza, the West Bank, and a queer Palestinian refugee could meet. Gazans are under siege and cannot leave, people in the West Bank need permits to travel, Palestinian citizens of Israel cannot go to Gaza or the West Bank and many refugees cannot go anywhere. So before we criticize Palestinian homophobia, we need to look at the challenges facing activists there, and remember that there are activists there. We need to ask how can we best support queer Palestinian social movements? The answer to us is clearly that we fight Israeli apartheid. Ending apartheid is good for all Palestinian social movements — queer and straight.

Queer Palestinians are oppressed by Israel as Palestinians, not just as queers. We cannot choose to support them as queers, but not as Palestinians or vice versa. Real support comes through solidarity — it can and does effect change. In South Africa, alongside queer mobilizing there, international queer anti-apartheid activism shifted the ANC’s position on queer issues and to this day, South Africa has some of the most progressive gay rights in the world. This can happen in Palestine if we work alongside queer Palestinians through genuine solidarity. You can see that happening already. When queer filmmaker John Greyson pulled his film from the Toronto International Film Festival in protest over the city-to-city spotlight on Tel Aviv, he was attacked in fiercely homophobic ways. In response, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) put out a statement condemning the homophobia of those attacks. In early 2010, Judith Butler, one of the most famous queer theorists taught guest lectures at Bir Zeit University near Ramallah. When QuAIA was banned from the 2010 Toronto Pride parade, the Boycott National Committee of Palestine issued a public statement affirming our right to march in the parade. How does this happen? It happens because Greyson, Butler and QuAIA stand with Palestinians, support their campaign for boycotts, divestments and sanctions, and our solidarity is clearly having an impact.


It’s hard to answer this question without making clear what exactly it means. For example, when apartheid ended in South Africa, did South Africa cease to exist? Or did only apartheid South Africa cease to exist? Did apartheid South Africa have a right to exist? Does Canada have the right to exist? Do states, in general, have the right to exist? Or is this a right that only people and peoples have?

It is a strange and specious wording, superficially plausible, that originates with and is used by defenders of apartheid Israel to frame the debate in a tendentious way. The phrasing does not come from any left-wing group that criticizes Israel on the basis of human rights, justice, and equality. The question is, does Israel recognize the Palestinians’ right to exist as a people? The answer reflected in Israel’s every deed on the ground seems to be NO.

We support any solution in which all citizens — Jewish, Arab, Christian, Muslim, or otherwise — have full legal and political equality in a secular democracy, and in which Palestinians have the right to return to their homes. We do not support any state in which different people have different rights based on their race or religion. That is why we are called “Queers against Israeli Apartheid”.


No. In the Ottoman Empire in the centuries prior to the 19th century, there was official discrimination against non-Muslims in the form of the dhimmi and millet systems, but Muslims, Christians, Jews, and others coexisted for long periods, largely without violent conflict. (During the same period, there was official discrimination against other faiths in Christian Europe.) There were Jewish Palestinians and other Arabic-speaking Jewish communities throughout the Middle East. Many Jews living in the Middle East and North Africa were descendants of refugees from religious persecution in Spain. Jewish-Muslim conflict and Jewish-Palestinian conflict were not important dynamics in the Middle East before the late 19th century.

Historical anti-Semitism was largely a European phenomenon, and it was in Europe that the worst persecution of Jews took place, including centuries of pogroms and racial segregation, culminating in the Holocaust.

Although the current conflict is often portrayed as a religious battle between Jews and Muslims for control of their holy lands, this does not reflect the reality of the situation.  Many Palestinians are Christian, yet they are still victims of Israeli apartheid.

The conflict we see today has its roots in the late 1800s, with the rise of an organized Zionist movement in Europe, which emerged as a response to Europe’s entrenched anti-Semitism. Although there was vigorous debate within the Jewish communities of Europe about Zionism, with most of the Jewish left opposing it, Zionist European Jews began settling in Palestine in the late 1800s. At this time it was part of an overall pattern of European settler colonialism, with large numbers of people migrating from different regions of Europe to flee persecution or seek better living conditions by settling elsewhere, on other people’s land. Canada, the United States, Algeria, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa are other examples of European settler colonialism.

In many cases, settler populations were fleeing hardship in their home countries, and probably knew little or nothing of the people already living in the lands they settled. But in every case, the process of colonialism and settlement produced racist ideologies that justified colonialism and racist legal regimes that controlled the Indigenous populations. Colonialism produces and requires racism.

After the Holocaust, Zionism gained more supporters, including the United States and the major European powers. It was only with Al Nakba, the expulsion of over 700,000 Palestinians from Palestine and the creation of apartheid Israel, that the conflict between the Jewish state of Israel and Arabs took its present shape.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is largely a product of European anti-Semitism and European settler colonialism.


Of course there are differences. However, there are more than enough similarities to meet the definition of ‘apartheid’ under international law, which is: “inhumane acts… committed in the context of an institutionalised 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.”

The Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa used this definition to assess whether Israel was practising apartheid, and concluded that the ‘three pillars’ of South African apartheid are present in Israel’s treatment of Palestinians: (1) demarcation of the population into racial groups, and according superior rights, privileges and services to the dominant racial group; (2) segregation of the population into different geographic areas, which were allocated by law to different racial groups, and restrict passage by members of any group into the area allocated to other groups; and (3) a matrix of draconian ‘security’ laws and policies that were employed to suppress freedom of opinion, expression, assembly, association and movement, with the underlying intent of reinforcing the system of racial domination.


No. That’s like the neoconservative line that opposing the war in Iraq makes you anti-American, except it goes even further to say that opposing Israeli policy means you hate a whole people: you’re either with Israel, or you’re an anti-Semite (or a self-hating Jew).

The pro-Israel lobby aggressively brands any criticism of Israel, its actions, and its policies as anti-Semitic, generally without citing evidence of this supposed anti-Semitism. Recent examples include the efforts by the Canadian Jewish Congress and B’nai Brith to exclude QuAIA from Toronto Pride; the pulling of queer Jewish artist Reena Katz from an art show because of her previous anti-apartheid work; and the attempt to prevent a peer-reviewed academic conference, mostly organized by Jewish academics, called “Israel/Palestine: Mapping Models of Statehood and Paths to Peace”.

Most Jews live outside Israel. Although the pro-Israel lobby claims a monopoly on Jewish identity, the Israeli state does not represent all Jews, and neither do pro-Israel lobbyists. Apartheid Israel’s militarism and ethnic chauvinism, and its extremist defenders’ stifling of criticism, go against long-standing Jewish traditions which cherish dissent and debate and support the rights of the oppressed everywhere. We celebrate those traditions and many other contributions of Jews and Jewish cultures over the centuries, and we stand firmly and fearlessly against anti-Semitism wherever it exists.

Since the late 19th century, there has always been vigorous debate about Zionism in Jewish communities.  Even some early Zionists, like the spiritual Zionist Ahad Ha’am, were conscious of the fundamental problem of Zionism: the presence of an indigenous population in Palestine, which he wrote about in his 1891 book, The Truth From Palestine. Later, writing about the Zionist labour movement’s racial boycott of Arab labour in 1913, he said: “Apart from the political danger, I can’t put up with the idea that our brethren are morally capable of behaving in such a way to men of another people.”

In 1919, prominent American Jews wrote a letter to President Woodrow Wilson, arguing that “whether the Jews be regarded as a ‘race’ or as a ‘religion,’ it is contrary to the democratic principles for which the world war was waged to found a nation on either or both of these bases.” Albert Einstein was also an anti-Zionist Jew, and was one of many prominent American Jews who, in 1948, publicly denounced Israel’s Likud party and such leaders as Yitzhak Shamir and Menachem Begin as “fascist”, describing their ideology as “an admixture of ultra-nationalism, religious mysticism and racial superiority.”

Today also, many of the leaders of the movement for justice in Israel/Palestine are Jewish, and QuAIA is no exception: about half of QuAIA’s organizers are Jewish, and Israeli Jews are among them.


Pride is an intensely political space, and always has been. It started as a protest movement and has always been a space for political expression. Many of the people involved with or supporting QuAIA were involved in organizing early gay rights struggles, including the first Pride Toronto in 1981, after bathhouse raids by Toronto Police mobilized the anger of the gay community. During the 1980s, the Simon Nkoli Anti-Apartheid Committee marched in Toronto’s Pride against South African apartheid and in solidarity with the struggles of queer South African blacks. Some of its members will be marching with QuAIA, as will many Jewish, Israeli, Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim queers who support queer rights and do not support Israel’s system of apartheid.


In retrospect everyone says “I was against South African apartheid,” though only a few in Canada actually fought it at the time, and they were attacked and marginalized.  All the arguments we hear now about Israel were made by those defending apartheid South Africa: the whites will be driven into the sea; you are supporting terrorists; South Africa is surrounded by backward, undemocratic regimes; South African society is the only society in Africa with liberal freedoms and the rule of law. Even the appeal to the relative freedom of gays in South Africa was made to justify apartheid: apartheid may be unpleasant, but please understand, we have to do it because of all the backward, violent, terrorists who surround us.

The same people who attack anti-apartheid activists today were attacking anti-apartheid activists in South Africa. The Toronto Sun critiqued the South African ANC’s call for universal franchise in 1992, saying that “to do so now would guarantee a horrible civil war in which both black and white would be consumed.”

Of course, when apartheid ended, whites were not driven into the sea. And the significant gains for queers in post-apartheid South Africa, including the enshrining of sexuality rights in the constitution, happened in part because of queer solidarity movements working with queer South Africans who were fighting apartheid. This is the history we have learned from in our work.