Saying that apartheid lives on in Israel could diminish the value of the term South Africa’s apartheid died in 1994, but the word is alive: Israel is accused of being “the new apartheid” while its founding ideology, Zionism, is attacked as “racism.” How true are these accusations? Mere repetition, however frequent, widespread and fervent, does not in itself give them validity.

Describing Israel as an “emerging apartheid” gathered force in the run-up to the UN anti-racism conference in Durban in August 2001 and was given aggressive expression there. However, after pressure by democratic countries, the subsequent conference of governments expunged virtually every attack on Israel from its final document. The Sept. 11 destruction a few days later pushed the “new apartheid” campaign to the back burner. But in Chicago, Ramallah, Johannesburg, London, Cairo, Sydney, the phrase is increasingly heard.

If the apartheid label is appropriate, it provides a potent political weapon. If, however, the usage is wrong it reduces the vile system of racism perpetrated in South Africa to just another swear word. It also raises questions about the motivation of those who apply it. Clear purpose can indeed be discerned in the efforts to make the apartheid stigma stick: To have Israel viewed as, and declared, illegitimate. That is, to challenge its right to existence – and to ensure that Israelis are made unwelcome abroad and that it becomes politically correct to boycott Israeli products and to discourage investment in the country.

The situations inside and outside the Green Line, the borders determined by the 1967 war, are intertwined but separate. First, the West Bank and Gaza. Israel is the occupier and no occupation is benign. Everyone is suffering — Palestinians as victims and Israelis as perpetrators. Everyone suffers deaths and maimings.

The word “Bantustan” is often used in an accusatory way to describe Israel’s policy about a future Palestinian state. Bantustans were the tribal mini-states created as a means of depriving the black population of citizenship in “white” South Africa. The common element between Israel and the apartheid state is control, seen especially in restrictions on freedom of movement so too is the grabbing of land.

But the root causes are different. White South Africans invented the Bantustans to pen black people into defined reservoirs of labor, being allowed to leave only when working for white South Africa. The Israeli intention is the opposite: To keep out Palestinians, having as little to do with them as possible.

Second, Israel inside the Green Line. In South Africa pre-1994, skin color determined every single person’s life: Where you were born, where you lived, which school you went to, which bus, train, beach, hospital, library, park bench and public toilet you used, with whom you could have sex, what you could study, which jobs you had and hence how much you could earn and ultimately, where you were buried.

In Israel, Arabs are approximately 20 percent of the population. In theory they have full citizenship rights but in practice they suffer extensive discrimination, ranging from land use, diminished job opportunities and lesser social benefits, to reports of a family ordered off a beach. None of this is acceptable, and particularly in a state that prides itself on its democracy. Discrimination occurs despite equality in law and is buttressed by custom – but it is not remotely the South African panoply of discrimination enforced by parliamentary legislation. Anyone who says that Israel is apartheid does not appreciate what apartheid was.

Nor does “Zionism is racism” stand up to scrutiny. Israel has a Jewish majority and they have the right to decide how to order the society, including defining citizenship. If the majority wish to restrict immigration and citizenship to Jews, that might be undesirable in universalist terms but it is their right, just as it is the right of Saudi Arabia not to allow Christians as citizens. Yet it is also clearly unfair to give automatic entry to Jews while denying the “right of return” to Palestinians who fled or were expelled in the wars of 1948 and 1967. This unfairness is a tragic consequence of war, which again is anything but unique to Israel.

The Jewish state was born in pain: It was attacked and Arabs suffered mass dispossession in the war for survival. The many thousands of Arabs who remained in Israel now constitute a sizeable minority. Most countries have minorities; the question is how they deal with them. Some, such as Burundi and Rwanda, or India in 1947, erupt into terrible violence. Greece has an estimated 200,000 Roma who enjoy almost none of the benefits that other Greeks take for granted. Christians are targeted for attack in Nigeria, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Indonesia and China.

A crucial indicator of the status of Israel’s minority is that Arabs have the vote black South Africans did not. Certainly, Arab citizens lack full power as a minority community, but they have the right and the power to unite among themselves and to ally themselves with others. Change is possible in Israel, and is happening. One example: Mosawa (The Center for Equal Rights for the Arab Population in Israel), acting on a recent law banning discrimination, has launched court action against a Web site offering jobs to Jews only.

Health is a visible indicator of progress. In South Africa in 1985 life expectancy was 71 years for white people and 61 years for black people. In Israel, the gap between Jews and Arabs in the 1980s was 2.3 years; in the 1990s it was 1.2 years. And life expectancy for Arab males, at 74.4 years, compared with 69.6 for the white majority in European countries.

Critics dub the separation barrier that Israel is building the “Apartheid Wall.” The barrier, supported by most Israelis in the hope of gaining security against suicide bombers, is being used as a cover to seize land from Palestinians — it is the cause of immeasurable suffering. Machiavellian, a land grab, misperceived or thieving the barrier might be, but it’s not apartheid.

Underlying everything is the nature of Israeli democracy. That in turn depends on the conception of the Jewish state. Which in turn depends on the definition of who is a Jew. Each is evolving.

Meanwhile, visionary, courageous leadership is lacking. Palestinians undermined the Oslo accords by continuing violent attacks; Israel undermined the accords by continuing to build on the West Bank and Gaza.

The spurious “apartheid” and “Zionism is racism” accusations confuse and distract. Instead, South Africa’s experience should be put to positive use. What can be learned? For Israel, that armed might and oppression cannot crush a people’s spirit and passion for freedom. For Palestinians, there is the African National Congress’s switch to armed struggle in 1961, with the decision not to kill civilians: This proved crucial in persuading white people that they had nothing to fear in negotiating with the ANC. And the most basic South African lesson of all, contact across the lines of division: To create trust so that an agreed future can be forged between Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis, and between Israelis and Palestinians.

(Originally appeared in The Guardian abridged from a seminar paper)