Attacks on Israeli Apartheid Week often claim the apartheid analogy is inappropriate and inaccurate. So I thought I’d put the analogy to the test, and it passed.
The analogy between the modern State of Israel and apartheid South Africa is a highly controversial one. This week has seen another scandal ignite, with Labour Party personalities signing open letters condemning Oxford University Labour Club for its endorsement of Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) – not to be confused with the separate, highly concerning allegations about anti-Semitism at the Club. In a letter published on the website LabourList, a host of former OULC co-chairs declared, “It is wrong to contend that Israel – a multiracial democracy – even remotely resembles the horrors of South Africa’s racist dictatorship.”
I was genuinely curious, then, about what the reaction might be when I changed the words “South Africa” for “Israel” in a 1980s pro-apartheid screed, and submitted it to The Oxford Student. Surely, they wouldn’t fall for it? Surely, we would have made some progress since the 1980s, when the defence of racist chauvinism was commonplace?
In the end, they published it largely unchanged.
The original version of the article is here, in a 1,300-word essay from 1989 for the US-based Christian Science Monitor. I’ll leave it to readers to judge whether the argument was faithfully compressed in the shortened version I submitted to The OxStu, but I believe that most fair-minded observers would say it was. (The editors made a couple of tweaks – a long paragraph denying the historical reality of black people/Palestinians having been driven from their lands was cut, though few would dispute that such denials are, indeed, commonplace in pro-Israel discourse). Barring the opening sentence, there is nothing in this defence of Israel – a cogent, typical and superficially quite compelling one – which was not cribbed directly from the racist diatribes of pro-apartheid white South African academic Anne-Marie Kriek.
Of course, there are differences between Israeli apartheid and its South African counterpart. The key difference is that Israel does give the right to vote to a small sub-section of the Palestinian population, namely the 1.5 million Arabs who reside within ‘green-line’ Israel. This allows liberal apologists for Israel to argue that, despite the oppression of 4.5 million Arabs in the occupied territories, “Israel proper” is nonetheless a “multiracial democracy”.
But Arab-Israelis are allowed to vote solely because there aren’t enough of them to make an impact. When asked about the Palestinians expelled in 1948, Israeli authorities are perfectly explicit: they and their descendants are not allowed to come home, because if they did, they might vote the wrong way (i.e. for Arab, rather than Jewish, leaders). A ‘democracy’ that gerrymanders its own electorate at gunpoint to ensure an ever-lasting ethnic monopoly on politics is no democracy at all.
Then there are the 4.5 million Arabs, second-class, non-voting Israeli citizens in all but name, who live in the occupied territories. These people rely for everything, even drinking water, upon a state that openly regards their very existence, their very ability to reproduce, as a threat. No wonder South African anti-apartheid leaders like Desmond Tutu and Dennis Goldberg have concluded repeatedly that Israel’s system of race management is, if anything, more brutal than classic apartheid.
But if The OxStu’s decision to print the article demonstrates anything, it’s that the parallel is at its most visible in the discourse of these systems, the arguments they deploy in their defence. We are told that the natives are barbarians who will slaughter their former rulers as soon as they get freedom; we are invited to look at a troubled region, and then at the little island of repressive stasis under discussion, and draw the conclusion that oppression works better than freedom in such a savage, unruly part of the world. The OxStu published my/Kriek’s article with a picture of glittering Tel Aviv harbour, and the caption, “Israel has one of the highest standards of living in the Middle East.” It’s an achingly beautiful photograph, but the message couldn’t be uglier: “Look at this civilization; look at everything colonialism has built. If the natives take over, they’ll run it into the ground.”
These are the arguments used today to justify Israel’s system of oppression. They are precisely the same ones that were used to justify South Africa’s system of impression, utterly indistinguishable to a student editor, not because that editor was at all incompetent or was dozing on the job, but because they are the exact same thing.
My little experiment is hardly the final word in the debate over the nature of Israeli apartheid, but it did help underscore that, sensible and mainstream as it feels to us now, making excuses for Israel’s systematic racial oppression is something that few people will feel proud of in 20 years, 30 years, 40 years or whenever it is that justice and equality are instituted in Palestine, as they surely will be. If you want to know about that struggle – if you want to know how you can be on the right side of it – come to our events at Israeli Apartheid Week, running Monday to Saturday of 6th week.
NOTE: This project was undertaken on the sole initiative of the author, and was subsequently presented to Cherwell. The editors of The Oxford Student have submitted the following statement in response:
“We have been made aware that the article submitted to us, ‘Criticism of Israel is disproportionate’, was heavily based on a pro-South African apartheid article. We were unaware of its source, and must conclude that it was written as an act of provocation which we do not endorse.
“We also observe that Cherwell received no such article. We heavily edited the article, even removing entire paragraphs of content which we viewed as particularly problematic, but felt that the article should be published in order to voice both sides of the argument and avoid prejudice or bias on the part of our publication.
“The content in Comment in no way reflects the views of The Oxford Student. We were disappointed to note the article in Cherwell, which seems like a blatant attempt to politicise the role of our respective newspapers, even as we attempt to include both often unbalanced perspectives on this issue to synthesise them into a balanced overall discourse, which is especially important considering the topical nature of this debate within Oxford.
“However, we apologise for printing false statistics which present a distorted picture of the Israel / Palestine conflict.”