Real Justice Requires Honest Reflection


It is odd to condemn an event before it even occurs, to react to it without examining its substance, but sadly uncritical supporters of Israeli policy have used this tactic before to malign Justice for Palestine’s events at HLS. Regardless, JFP continues to value honest, academic, and legal discourse over misinformation, invective, and baseless accusation. There is no excuse for the gross human rights abuses occurring in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) and the discrimination against the Palestinian minority in Israel. As students of the law, we have an obligation to search for truth and justice, even if that entails challenging an entrenched status quo.

Last Friday,(1) JFP held a panel discussion exploring the analogy sometimes drawn between Apartheid South Africa and Israel’s policies in the OPT and towards its own Palestinian citizens. International human rights activists have increasingly drawn on this analogy over the last few years.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, speaking at a conference on ending the occupation held in Boston in 2002, stated, “I’ve been very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land; it reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa. I have seen the humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like us when young white police officers prevented us from moving about.”(2) Tutu also wrote the following in 2002 in The Nation: “Yesterday’s South African township dwellers can tell you about today’s life in the occupied territories. To travel only blocks in his own homeland, a grandfather waits on the whim of a teenage soldier. More than an emergency is needed to get to a hospital; less than a crime earns a trip to jail. The lucky ones have a permit to leave their squalor to work in Israel’s cities, but their luck runs out when security closes all checkpoints, paralyzing an entire people. The indignities, dependence and anger are all too familiar.”(3)

Ronnie Kasrils and Max Ozinsky, two Jewish veterans of the South African liberation struggle, issued a Declaration of Conscience on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict by South Africans of Jewish Descent in 2001, which noted agreement with the following statement of a fact-finding report by South African Parliament members who visited the Middle East in July 2001: “It becomes difficult, particularly from a South African perspective, not to draw parallels with the oppression experienced by Palestinians under the hand of Israel and the oppression experienced in South Africa under apartheid rule.”(4)

John Dugard, South African legal scholar and current UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories, wrote this year in his report to the UN that “Israel’s laws and practices in the OPT certainly resemble aspects of apartheid . . . and probably fall within the scope of the 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid.”(5)

B’tselem, a well-respected Israeli human rights organization describes the extensive checkpoint system in the OPT as “the only of its kind in the world…bring[ing] to mind dark regimes of the past, such as the Apartheid regime in South Africa.”(6) The analogy has also been used in Israel by political leaders, like former Education minister Shulamit Aloni (“through its army, the government of Israel practises a brutal form of Apartheid in the territory it occupies”)(7) and former attorney general Michael Ben-Yair (“In effect, we established an apartheid regime in the occupied territories immediately following their capture. That oppressive regime exists to this day.”).(8) Perhaps the most famous use of the analogy appears in the title of former President Jimmy Carter’s 2006 book, Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid.

It should be clear by now that the comparison between Apartheid South Africa and Israel’s policies is one of increasing importance in the discourse on Israel and Palestine. JFP does not endorse one reading of the analogy; rather, we are interested in promoting debate over the comparison, and this is why we organized last Friday’s panel. Our panelists agreed. Henry Steiner, HLS Professor Emeritus and founder of the Harvard Human Rights Program, thanked JFP for bringing the debate to campus and described the endeavor as “worthwhile” and a “real contribution to the school.” Steiner vehemently rejected applying the Apartheid label to Israel’s violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention, arguing that the legal, factual, and moral circumstances are dissimilar, and questioning the pragmatic value of using such a term in the already tense discourse surrounding the conflict. He nonetheless saw value in discourse on the analogy.

Our other panelists further explored the relevance of the analogy. Farid Esack, a South African veteran of the struggle against Apartheid and visiting professor at Harvard Divinity School, conveyed to the ninety people in attendance the “unmistakable sense of deja-vu” experienced by veterans of the liberation struggle who, like himself, have visited Israel and the OPT. He recalled the fact that Israel has never joined the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, and that Israel in fact was one of the only states in the world to officially recognize the creation of the Bantustans. Professor Esack also challenged the audience to name one veteran of the organized liberation struggle in South Africa who visited the OPT and did not then describe the Occupation as either similar to Apartheid or worse than it.

Leila Farsakh, Professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, argued that although Apartheid South Africa and the Israeli Occupation had different origins, they converged in several important ways in practice, e.g. the OPT’s territorial fragmentation as compared to South Africa’s Bantustans.

Nimer Sultany, an S.J.D. student at Harvard Law School and lawyer active in the Palestinian civil rights movement inside Israel, extended the analogy to the treatment of Palestinians inside Israel, where several laws discriminate between Jewish and Arab citizens. Sultany also described the institutionalized exclusion and discrimination vis-à-vis Israel’s Palestinian citizens, their dire social and economic conditions, and the widespread racism they face within society.

The panel on Friday featured substantial, informed, productive, and critical engagement on a complicated but important aspect of the ongoing conflict in Israel and Palestine. This is the opposite of what our critics argued the panel would inspire. JFP makes no apologies for its support of free and open dialogue by informed individuals on controversial topics. We will continue to organize public forums in the spirit of free speech to discuss issues relevant to peace and justice in the Middle East, and we invite the entire HLS community to join us in this noble democratic endeavor.

Arsalan Suleman and Erin Thomas are co-chairs of Justice for Palestine at HLS.


1 The panel was originally scheduled for Thursday but was then postponed to Friday due to a conflict with another Palestine-related event at HLS and prior engagements of the panelists. 2 Desmond Tutu, Apartheid in the Holy Land, THE GUARDIAN, Apr. 29, 2002, available at,10551,706911,00.html.3 Desmond Tutu & Ian Urbina, Comment, Against Israeli Apartheid, THE NATION, July 15, 2002, available at Declaration of Conscience on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict by South Africans of Jewish Descent, Oct. 23, 2001, available at John Dugard, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories Occupied Since 1967, A/HRC/4/17, Jan. 29, 2007, at 23, available at B’Tselem, Map of the Separation Barrier in the West Bank, available at
aps/Index.asp .7 Shulamit Aloni, This Road is for Jews Only – Yes, There is Apartheid in Israel, COUNTERPUNCH.ORG, Jan. 8, 2007, Available at Michael Ben-Yair, The War’s Seventh Day, HAARETZ, Mar. 3, 2002, available at

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