Israel and South Africa: The Many Faces of Apartheid
Edited by Ilan Pappe
Reviewed by Diana Neslen
This is a book for all those wishing to advance their knowledge of the nature of apartheid and colonialism in the 21st Century and above all it is a valuable compendium of arguments against those who, in spite of the evidence, still cling to the belief that Israel is not an apartheid state. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Israel has, since the migration of Zionist colonists to Palestine at the end of the 19th century, discriminated against the indigenous Palestinian inhabitants. Most supporters of Israel are totally sanguine about this discrimination, but cavil at the idea that Israel could be placed in the same category as South Africa and be called an apartheid state.
Some challenge the apartheid analogy from the perspective of their political Zionist background, and their awareness of the damage the designation of Israel as an apartheid state could do to the elaborately constructed image Israel has created. Others challenge the idea from the Left, stating that apartheid South Africa needed Black workers, while Israel only needs Palestinian territory not Palestinians. So they compare Israel’s behaviour to that of America with respect to its destruction of its native populations. They therefore reject the apartheid analogy, preferring an ethnic cleansing one, but the two analogies need not necessarily contradict each other.
The publication of this book, examining the complexities of the issue from all angles, is indeed welcome. This is a book of academic contributors, edited by Ilan Pappe, which deals in forensic detail with the arguments and dismisses the self serving posturing of Zionist propagandists who refuse to recognise Israel’s racist and colonialist credentials.
Some disclosure is relevant here. I was born in apartheid South Africa. My identity was constructed both as a white South African, easily accepting the privileges my skin bestowed on me, and as a Jew in the ashes of the Holocaust, aware of where persecution and racism could lead. I questioned the racism of my birth country and looked for alternatives. I believed with fervour in the promise of the new Israel with its ‘ingathering of the exiles’ and actually thought that Israel could be an example to the world by the way it challenged racism in its own diverse country. Then I visited Israel as part of a Zionist youth group and saw how they treated the Palestinian natives. Instead of acceptance of Palestinians, I found segregation, inequality and not only discrimination but violence towards them. It felt as if I had never left South Africa. In fact, I was in the company here of Dr Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, who in 1963 called Israel an apartheid state.
Clearly while there are many similarities between Israel and South Africa, there are many differences. It is in the interstices of the differences that those who wish to defend Israel try to make a case. This book justifiably has no truck with such apologists. The contributors painstakingly dismember the self serving arguments that Israel supporters use to bamboozle people about the nature of their regime. Israel has tried with some success to defend its position by stating that Palestinians in Israel are entitled to an equality denied to Black South Africans. However contributors like Ronnie Kasrils, Jonathan Cook and Ran Greenstein not only show that this distorted claim reflects the ethnic cleansing of 1948, but also that the framework created by Israel to discriminate against the Palestinians living in Israel is the template for the larger denial of rights to all those under belligerent occupation in the West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem and the Golan. The privilege bestowed on Jews, wherever in the world they live, is contrasted sharply to the denial of rights to stateless Palestinian refugees. Even the much vaunted ability to vote is but a fig leaf which hides the powerlessness of Arab parties and the conditional nature of their status.
Lella Farsakh explores the similarities between the Israeli occupation and the Bantustans created and financed by South Africa to be a reserve of labour, while offering the illusion of self determination. The world refused to accept this mirage and never recognised the Bantustans regardless of any investment by South African in their formation. In contrast the EU, the UK and the US provide the Palestinians with the financial support that is the responsibility of the belligerent occupier, Israel. Thus the occupation, far from being a financial burden, is a financial resource to Israel. The indulgence of the world to Israel’s dishonest commitment to the ‘peace process’ enables it to gobble up ever more Palestinian land.
Since Palestinians under occupation are not Israeli citizens, Israel tends to argue that it has no responsibility for granting them rights. Virginia Tilley reminds the reader that Namibia too was occupied by South Africa but this did not protect South Africa from the charge of operating an apartheid system in that territory.
Apartheid morphs historically and while South African apartheid had a flavour of a specific time, the generic pattern of apartheid persists even as it changes shape with the times. The UN definition of the crime of apartheid easily incorporates Israel’s actions. The old definition of racism is useful here, namely racism is power allied to privilege leading to oppression. It is a definition that makes it difficult for Israel to dispute its recognisable racism.
Running like a thread through the book is the question as to why Israel does not merit the same response from the international powers as South Africa did. South Africa was more candid about its racism. Israel is more dishonest. I have lived in both countries and in my opinion, in spite of Israel’s lack of petty apartheid, its electronic surveillance systems, its violations of family life and its periodic killing sprees make it a far crueller oppressor than South Africa ever was. Two small examples may suffice. Under the Group Areas Act, Black and minority people were removed from their homes to make way for whites. But they were allowed to salvage their personal belongings. Palestinian homes are destroyed without mercy, together with their belongings. The South African state demolished the homes of Black and Brown people. Israel, with sublime cruelty, actually demands that Palestinians pay for the demolitions of their own homes. Alternatively they can demolish their homes themselves. Many Palestinians choose this option in the hope of salvaging possessions. States of Emergency in South Africa were temporary. Israel has been in a perpetual state of emergency since its inception.
Many reasons have been advanced for the free pass given to Israel. Some of the speculations include Western guilt for the Holocaust. Another reason could be what Jeff Halper has described as the dependence by the West on Israel’s military and security apparatus to enhance governments’ control of their populations. In this Israel has been helped significantly by the violent response to 9/11 which created security and military openings that Israel was only too happy to fill. Finally there are the Zionist lobbyists, both Christian and Jewish, who are active throughout the world and who can rely on ample financial support to act as Israel propagandists.
What was important about the South African anti-Apartheid struggle was the unity of disparate groups under the leadership of the ANC. Because this was considered a rights based struggle as opposed to a nationalist one, the ANC was able to consolidate its leadership within the South African mosaic. It is also easier for the general public to identify with universal rights. A national struggle is more complex and by enabling Israel to buy into the ‘Jewish self-determination’ mantra, plays into its narrative. Unfortunately Oslo made Palestinian nationhood dependent on the goodwill of Israel, thus turning the oppressor into the arbiter.
Ultimately it would seem that Israel has been far more effective in the colonising tactic of divide and rule. It encouraged the growth of Hamas as an alternative to Fatah and has, through the Oslo process, co-opted the PA into policing the West Bank on its behalf, a situation which undermines any form of Palestinian collective endeavour to challenge Israel’s hegemony. The so called ‘peace camp’ in Israel is interested mainly in cementing their Jewish national privileges rather than accepting modern notions of equality between citizens. This explains their continued commitment to an agenda of ‘two states for two peoples’ even as it vanishes into the mists of time.
The contributors to this excellent compendium show how effective Israel has been as a coloniser on the ground, expropriating and dispossessing the lands of the indigenous population. Perhaps, though, because the book is missing the voice of non-Israeli Jews, Jews still steeped in a Jewish tradition on life support, a useful perspective is omitted. This is the perspective of Israel as the coloniser of Jewish life outside the country. Since its inception, Israel has been a supporter of Jewish education and communal activity, to the extent that it has seamlessly incorporated its nationalist standpoint into Jewish life and created a Jewish identity fashioned into an image acceptable to a Zionist narrative. Many Jewish people find it impossible to separate their political Zionism from their Jewish heritage. They are thus easily persuaded that anti Zionism is the same as anti Semitism. They therefore insist that they are part of an indivisible Jewish nation with its heart in Israel, something that was once an anti-Semitic trope. People whose identity is under threat will defend it with an intensity and passion that will brook no challenge. Israel has, in so doing, created its own international band of foot soldiers.
Israel has also successfully used its wherewithal to colonise non Jewish opinion formers into distorted beliefs that this is a conflict about religion, between two equal adversaries, one of whom, namely Israel, wants peace and makes all the concessions, while the other indulges in ‘terror’, anti Semitism and rockets. This is of course the inverse of reality.
The book stresses the importance of fundamental human rights for all as a starting point. Israel seems increasingly incapable of seeing its own shortcomings in this regard, while its people see little wrong in their frank racism. Increasingly international civil society feels great discomfort at Israel’s violence and racism, which undermines the image of openness and modernity that Israel tries to convey. Thoughtful people are no longer willing to be bullied into silence by meretricious accusations of ‘anti Semitism’. In every generation a cause captures the imagination of the youth. Today that cause is that of the Palestinians and all the accusations of anti Semitism by Israel have no purchase as long as the country indulges its own racism and colonialism – its own version of apartheid.
This book is replete with insights that can only enhance the reader’s understanding. It covers areas overlooked in other books, like the dual discrimination meted out to women in both oppressed societies. I cannot recommend it highly enough.