Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Franchising "Apartheid": Why South Africans Push the Analogy Part I

Rhoda Kadalie is a former anti-apartheid activist and South African Human Rights Commissioner. Based in Cape Town, she is currently the Director of the Impumelelo Innovations Award Trust and is a widely-published columnist for newspapers including The Business Day and Rapport.

Julia I. Bertelsmann  is the editor-in-chief of New Society: Harvard College Student Middle East Journal.

1st part of 3

ON A COLD NIGHT IN Johannesburg last year, a bus pulled up outside the American consulate. It was the 40th anniversary of the Six Day War in the Middle East-June being a winter month in South Africa-and several dozen activists planned to mark the occasion by protesting U.S. support for "Apartheid Israel." The protest was organized by the Palestine Solidarity Committee and most of the demonstrators were South African Muslims.[1] Among their number, however, were black South Africans who shared the organizers' hostility to Israel.

Or so it seemed. A reporter discovered that some of the black demonstrators "were not pro-Palestinian activists, but homeless people bused in from the surrounding townships," he told Ha'aretz. "[M]ost of them refused to protest, opting to sit on the warm bus. The organizers refused to allow it. When I asked one black 'protester' if he was for Palestine, he replied: `I am for nobody.'" The organizers soon ejected the reporter. [2]

Like the `protester' on the bus, most South Africans feel indifferent towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to a study conducted by the Pew Global Attitudes Project in 2007. Of those with clear opinions on the matter, the majority sympathized more with Israel: 28 per cent of South Africans overall sided with Israel compared to only 19 per cent with the Palestinians. [3]

Nevertheless, South Africa has increasingly become the flash point of virulently anti-Israel demonstrations. Many of the country's leaders routinely compare the State of Israel to the apartheid regime that governed South Africa from 1948 to 1994 and imposed an oppressive system of segregation and discrimination on grounds of race. "End Israeli Apartheid" rallies are usually organized by radical Muslim organizations, but some black South Africans have also entered the fray.

Comparisons between Israel and apartheid South Africa were once a fringe phenomenon. Since the start of the second intifada in September 2000, however, they have become a staple of anti-Israel propaganda. The publication of Jimmy Carter's book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid [4] in 2006 gave the analogy new legitimacy-though, oddly, the word "apartheid" only appears three times in the former US President's text.

In South Africa itself, the analogy was something of a novelty when it emerged in August 2001, at the UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban (although it has been common currency on the extreme left for more than thirty years now and was a standard trope of Soviet-sponsored "anti-Zionism"). The NGO forum at the conference adopted a declaration that defined Israel as a "racist, apartheid state." [5] The document was rejected by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, but the analogy remained when the delegates departed. [6]

However potent the Israel-apartheid analogy, few of those who directly suffered from apartheid have bought into it

Senior members of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) began using the analogy to attack Israel and pro-Israel South African Jews. Ronnie Kasrils, a cabinet minister and communist stalwart, supported the comparison and relied on his "Jewish descent" (as he termed it) to lend credence to the claim. Nobel Peace Prize winner and former Archbishop Desmond Tutu also endorsed the analogy and began traveling the world encouraging people to isolate Israel much as they had apartheid South Africa.

Proponents of the analogy used it to appeal to black South Africans, drawing links between Palestinian suffering and their own. But most black South Africans dismiss the analogy. Outside the small Muslim community (1.5 percent of the population),[7] anti-Israel sentiment is largely an elite phenomenon. However potent the Israel-apartheid analogy, few of those who suffered from apartheid directly have bought into it.

A False Analogy

One reason is that the equivalence simply isn't true. Israel is not an apartheid state. Israel's human rights record in the occupied territories, its settlement policy, and its firm responses to terror may sometimes warrant criticism. And Prime Minister Ehud Olmert himself recently warned that Israel could face an apartheid-style struggle if it did not reach a deal with the Palestinians and end the occupation in the West Bank.[8]

But racism and discrimination do not form the rationale for Israel's policies and actions. Arab citizens of Israel can vote and serve in the Knesset; black South Africans could not vote until 1994.[9] There are no laws in Israel that discriminate against Arab citizens or separate them from Jews. Unlike the United Kingdom, Greece, and Norway, Israel has no state religion, and it recognizes Arabic as one of its official languages.

Whereas apartheid was established through a series of oppressive laws that governed which park benches we could sit on, where we could go to school, which areas we were allowed to live in, and even whom we could marry, Israel was founded upon a liberal and inclusive Declaration of Independence. South Africa had a job reservation policy for white people; Israel has adopted pro-Arab affirmative action measures in some sectors.

Israeli schools, universities and hospitals make no distinction between Jews and Arabs. An Arab citizen who brings a case before an Israeli court will have that case decided on the basis of merit, not ethnicity. This was never the case for blacks under apartheid. Moreover, Israel respects freedom of speech and human rights. Its newspapers are far more independent, outspoken, and critical of the government than our newspapers in present-day, post-apartheid South Africa, let alone those of old.

Israel is the only country in the Middle East rated as "free" by Freedom House. [10] The apartheid label is more appropriate for many of Israel's neighbors, which have appalling records when it comes to the treatment of minority groups, political dissidents, and women, and which have explicitly discriminatory policies in operation, ranging from the Saudi ban on non-Muslim religions to the suppression of Kurdish activists in Syria, Turkey and Iran. It is telling that Israel has done more for black Muslim refugees from Darfur than has any Arab or Muslim country, granting hundreds citizenship. By contrast, Egypt's government has persecuted and killed Sudanese refugees, with little international censure.

In the West Bank, measures such as the ugly security barrier have been used to prevent suicide bombings and attacks on civilians, not to enforce any racist ideology. Without the ongoing conflict and the tendency of Palestinian leaders to resort to violence, these would not exist.

Even so, Israel must bear some of the blame for the apartheid analogy. Its not-so-secret military alliance with South Africa from 1973 to 1987 cemented the two countries together in the minds of a generation of anti-apartheid activists. But the relationship is often blown out of proportion and considered in isolation; Arab states carried out billions of dollars in sanctions-busting trade with the apartheid regime during the same time, [11] as did several European countries. Furthermore, Israel never endorsed South Africa's apartheid policies and frequently criticized them at the United Nations, even if it belatedly joined sanctions only in 1987.

Like those who demonize Israel by exaggerating its ties to the old South Africa, proponents of the Israel-apartheid analogy often bend the facts to fit their propaganda. In March 2001, Arjan El-Fassed, founder of the anti-Israel website Electronic Intifada, published a "memorandum" purportedly from former president Nelson Mandela, comparing Israel to apartheid South Africa. [12] The fake memo was reprinted around the world, including in the Arab media, and passed off as Mandela's words. Carter even cited it in a speech at Brandeis University in 2007. [13]

In fact, Nelson Mandela had many positive dealings with Israel. He was encouraged to start Umkhonto weSizwe (MK), the military wing of the African National Congress (ANC), after learning about Israel's liberation movement from his reading of former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin's memoir, Revolt. When he decided to set up MK, Mandela received considerable assistance from former Palmach fighter Arthur Goldreich. (The Palmach was one of the predecessors of the Israel Defense Forces).

Like those who demonize Israel by exaggerating its ties to the old South Africa, proponents of the Israel-apartheid analogy often bend the facts to fit their propaganda

The ANC has re-written much of its own history, however, and removed positive references to Israel. In 1953, for example, ANC secretary-general Walter Sisulu visited Israel on an historic tour that included China, the USSR, the UK and Eastern Europe. The trip was transformative, leading him to moderate many of his black nationalist views and embrace multi-racial opposition. When Sisulu died in 2003, however, the ANC's obituary omitted his visit to Israel, while mentioning the other stops. [14] Such manipulation threatens to degrade the legacy of the anti-apartheid struggle.

The Prophets of Prejudice

Not only has the ANC begun to distort the history of its relations with Israel, but several former anti-apartheid activists in the party have joined a cottage industry that exploits the Israel-apartheid analogy for personal and political gain. Troublingly, their anti-Israel diatribes are sometimes barely distinguishable from antisemitism. Foremost among these prophets of apartheid is Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who has energetically supported the campaign to demonize Israel as an apartheid state.

At the end of 2007, Tutu was the keynote speaker at a conference on "The Apartheid Paradigm in Palestine-Israel" at Boston's Old South Church. Tutu addressed his remarks entirely to Jews (few of whom were actually present, since the conference was held on the Jewish Sabbath.) He warned: "Don't be found fighting against the God, your God, our God who hears the cry of the oppressed." Tutu made no appeal to Arabs or Palestinians to do their part. Nor, in fact, did he refer to Israelis. He referred only to Jews, eschewing the standard distinctions made by anti-Zionists who want to avoid accusations of antisemitism. [15]

Ronnie Kasrils has similarly exploited his anti-apartheid credentials to achieve celebrity status in the anti-Israel movement and send his self-serving memoir, Armed and Dangerous, into a second printing. [16] He was embarrassed by reports last year in the Palestinian press that he had told an audience at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank "that the guns should be pointed towards the enemy,"[17] though he disputed the accuracy of the quote.

Another South African who has staked his reputation on the Israel-apartheid analogy is John Dugard. Dugard, who carries considerable weight in certain human rights circles, serves as the UN special rapporteur on human rights in the occupied territories. He was appointed in 2001 by the discredited UN Commission on Human Rights, which has since been replaced by the Human Rights Council. Despite initial optimism about the Council among democratic member states, it has repeated some of the mistakes of its predecessor by remaining fixated on Israel while ignoring truly malevolent dictators.

Last year, Dugard told the Council that Israel's policies resembled those of apartheid South Africa and that its aim was to secure "domination by one racial group (Jews)." [18] He admitted, however, that the terms of his investigative mandate prevented him from considering human rights violations by Palestinians-whether against Israelis, or against each other. [19] These limitations did not prevent him, in February 2008, from issuing a report which declared that Palestinian terrorism was a consequence of Israeli policies. [20] Dugard also said that a distinction had to be made between acts committed by Al Qai'da and those by Palestinian terrorists, leading Israel's UN Ambassador to retort angrily that both sets of terrorists were united by their intent to kill civilians.

These three detractors - Tutu, Kasrils and Dugard-share two traits. One is their neglect of human rights elsewhere. They behave as though human rights violations and terror do not matter unless there is an Israeli nearby on whom the crime can be blamed. Indeed, Tutu was present last year when Carter declared that the word "genocide" had a narrow "legal definition" which the Sudanese government-sponsored onslaught in Darfur did not meet.[21]

Just as Carter lost his sense of moral indignation when talking about horrors perpetrated in Darfur, so did Dugard when talking about Palestinian suicide bombings. Speaking to students at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, he declared: "Without justifying it [suicide bombing], I think one can understand it."[22]

Kasrils is similarly hypocritical on the question of human rights. In his book and speeches, he frequently glorifies Josef Stalin's Soviet Union-one of the most repressive and murderous regimes in human history. As Intelligence Minister, he signed an agreement to cooperate with Zimbabwe on defense and security matters and crudely scolded a journalist who raised questions about Zimbabwe's record on human rights under the regime of Robert Mugabe.[23]

Tutu, Kasrils and Dugard...behave as though human rights violations and terror do not matter unless there is an Israeli nearby on whom the crime can be blamed

The second trait common to these self-appointed prophets of apartheid is that they have been sidelined in the new South Africa. Kasrils, for example, was recently voted off the ANC's national executive. His anti-Israel activity is the only way for him to preserve his diminishing political relevance. Nobel laureate Tutu has similarly used the issue to maintain his political relevance on the international scene. He has been sidelined in South Africa ever since President Thabo Mbeki publicly questioned his anti-apartheid credentials and accused him of dishonesty in comments made in 2004.

Responding to criticisms Tutu had made of the ANC, Mbeki wrote in his weekly online letter: "The Archbishop has never been a member of the ANC, and would have very little knowledge of what happens even in an ANC branch. How he comes to the conclusion that there is "lack of debate" in the ANC is most puzzling. Rational discussion about how the ANC decides its policies requires some familiarity with the internal procedures of the ANC, rather than gratuitous insults about our members . . . The Archbishop proposed what our nation needs to do to determine its agenda. But as we have said in this Letter, to succeed in this task, all of us must educate ourselves about the reality of South Africa today, internalise the facts about our country, and respect the truth."[24] Tutu responded: "Thank you Mr President for telling me what you think of me, that I am - a liar with scant regard for the truth, and a charlatan posing with his concern for the poor, the hungry, the oppressed and the voiceless. I will continue to pray for you and your government by name daily as I have done and as I did even for the apartheid government. God bless you." [25] (The ANC, on Mbeki's behalf, apologized soon thereafter, but added: "[W]e do recognize that even someone like yourself has the capacity to err."[26].) For Tutu, then, the Israel-apartheid analogy may partly be an attempt to sustain an international profile.

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.


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