I often use the situation in Southern Africa in, say, the 1970s to illustrate points regarding Israel today. Israel is not a mirror image of Apartheid South Africa. There were important tactical differences between how in the late 1940s Jewish people in Israel engineered a political majority on territory that until that time had a non-Jewish demographic majority and how the whites of South Africa engineered a political majority for themselves. But the existence of differences does not invalidate analogies. However complaints that analogies are invalid can be the impetus for taking a closer look, which I'll do now.
I am often amazed though, that people who claim analogies between Apartheid South Africa and Zionist Israel are a priori misleading or propaganda are extremely comfortable analogizing any rival or threat to Israel as Nazis. This is an important point because various examples of these analogies between current parties that threaten Israel and Nazis can be instructive as to the uses and limits of analogies in explaining present phenomena.
Here is Israel's prime minister comparing Iran to the Nazis:
"It's 1938 and Iran is Germany. And Iran is racing to arm itself with atomic bombs," Netanyahu told delegates to the annual United Jewish Communities General Assembly, repeating the line several times, like a chorus, during his address. "Believe him and stop him," the opposition leader said of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "This is what we must do. Everything else pales before this."Netanyahu's analogy is an appeal to the emotion of his audience. Iran is not racing towards atomic bombs but is building a capacity that it could use build one in theory if it was to leave the NPT. This is a threat to Israel because Israel's survival depends on Israel being able to issue threats against its neighbors of catastrophic losses while an Iranian ability, even after the fact, to retaliate for such a catastrophe weakens Israel's threat.
But Nazi Germany did not have nuclear weapons or a capability to make nuclear weapons. Ahmadinejad has never said or implied that Jewish people are defective in any way as individuals or as a group, and he often specifically distinguishes between Zionism, which he says is a political philosophy that he considers evil and Jewish people. While Nazis did clearly believe in ethnic differences between Jewish people and Aryan people, Ahmadinejad does not.
As far as I can tell, the analogy is that the Nazis threatened the interests of Jewish people through a program of liquidating their population while Ahmadinejad and Iran, in Netanyahu's opinion, threaten the interests of Jewish people in two ways: First by advocating that Palestinians be able to participate in a referendum that could determine that there should not be a majority Jewish state; and second by overcoming the current situation in which Israel can credibly threaten nuclear attacks on other states in its region without a credible possibility of response.
Netanyahu is drawing a parallel between death camps and a situation where 5 million Jewish people choose to either live in Palestine without a Jewish majority or leave the territory. How the analogy works in this case is that the parallel is drawn but not examined openly enough that the audience asks if these are really parallel situations. Which means, fortunately for Netanyahu, that he gets to avoid making a case that death camps are in some way comparable to a referendum. That would be an extremely difficult argument for him to make if he was to try.
I find myself drawing the parallel between Israel and South Africa to make one of four points. The first is that it is possible for the people of a region, even if they are reasonable and not in any way bigots, to reject a state that is accepted by the United States or by the United Nations. The second is that a state that is rejected by the people of its region has unusual security requirements that stem from that regional rejection. The third is that meeting the unusual security requirements of a rejected state imposes heavy costs on the state itself, on the region that rejects it and potentially on its supporters. The fourth is that it is possible to construct arrangements that protect individual rights and interests without imposing or guaranteeing an ethnic majority in some territory.
These are all points that I could make without South Africa, but when my argument is that something is not impossible, an actual example can lend that argument a very strong element of support.
None of these points requires that South Africa be exactly like Israel. However Apartheid's supporters did plan to offer multiple states to Black people, each to be dominated by the White state which, for security reasons, would withhold aspects of normal state sovereignty to the non-White states. Apartheid's supporters had even found leaders of some of these states who were Black people and who expressed support for the plan. Maybe a fifth point is that rejection of a multiple state plan can be reasonable and admirable, as Africans, led by the Nelson Mandela's ANC, rejected any partition plan for South Africa.
As far as the emotional content of the analogy, Black South Africans in their struggle against Apartheid are nearly universally seen in the West as in line with Western values (even as the West was their primary enemy for the entire conflict) and morally upright. An argument that rejection of two states in Palestine is inherently depraved can be validly neutralized by the example of the Black South African rejection of multiple states.
I'm not inordinately threatened by Netanyahu's analogy of Iran to the Nazis. Hiding behind that analogy is an argument that I don't think he'd even attempt to make directly. There is a degree of intimidation and manipulation, as Netanyahu is attempting, without argument, to smear the idea of anti-Semitism around and create an environment in the West where it is not polite to disagree with him. Netanyahu and his country have done a lot worse things than that though.
Supporters of Israel do not like analogies of Zionism to Apartheid. Each analogy stands on its own argument. Maybe the arguments are flawed, I think they are not. Superficial differences between Israel and Apartheid South Africa do not, in reasonable discourse, invalidate the arguments or the analogies.