By James McLoughlin
CNI Citizen Diplomat
One of the reasons I went on the recent CNI political pilgrimage was to see just how valid and extensive the comparison is between South Africa’s apartheid era and present day Israel. During the height of apartheid in the 80’s, I spent well over a year of my life in South Africa as a banker. While there, I used all of my free time to explore firsthand the suffering and despair under that system.
Not only are the comparisons valid, they are appalling. I’ll detail some of these but for those readers in a hurry, my impressions can be summarized by quoting a colleague on the trip: “Israel gives apartheid a bad name!”
Both Israel and the former South Africa are based on a religious/messianic orientation. In the case of the Jews, their claims are rooted in Scriptures and Moses’ parting of the Red Sea (signs from God!) They see Israel as an answer to their persecution and the stateless society they endured for so long. Likewise, The Afrikaners (Dutch and French Huguenots) fled to South Africa to escape persecution in Europe. They saw their victory over the Zulus in the Battle of Blood River as a sign from God that South Africa was meant to be theirs. (In fact, they called themselves the “twelfth tribe.” Sound familiar?) History is full of these claims and orientations. Invariably, they cause war and suffering because those adapting such ideas feel they are largely exempt from society’s efforts at secular law; they answer only to a higher calling. At the risk of simplicity, I would posit that more people have been killed or suffered in the name of religion than any other cause. (Muslims are not exempted from this – either as aggressors or victims.)
The most important comparison is the extent to which both systems go to ensure separation of people their architects simply don’t like. Yet, even here Israel fares far worse. The cornerstone of the South African system was the Group Areas Act. (Coincidentally, this idea was born at around the same time as the state of Israel.) It resulted in the infamous “Bantustans” and townships - large impoverished areas –both urban and rural- where blacks were officially confined and which had very little economic opportunity. However, they could move within these areas and could often find jobs in the more prosperous white districts for farming, mine work and service jobs. In Israel, a comparable act would have simply mandated Palestinians to keep a home in the West Bank but Israelis have taken matters much further. Indeed, they do not want Palestinians even to move from town to town and certainly not to travel to Jerusalem or between the West Bank and Gaza. There are now over 700 “checkpoints” to restrict freedom of movement among Palestinians. Unlike South Africa there is also an effort to replace Palestinian workers with more Jewish immigrants.
Then we have prisms. South Africa’s was color based; Israel’s is a religious one. Both are near perfect markers of prejudice and hope. In South Africa the lighter one’s skin, the better he did. The blacks of course fared the worst. They were followed by the “coloureds,” the Indians, the Cape Malay, the Portuguese labor class and finally the whites. Even at the top, there was a sharp distinction in values and income status between British whites and Afrikaners. It’s much the same in Israel. Muslims are at the wrong end of the prism but Christians are slipping as well as evidenced by efforts to get them out of the Old City. Jews have full protection under the law but there are class and economic distinctions between groups such as the Maghreb Jews, Sephardim, Mizrahi and Ashkenazim.
Like South Africa, the Israeli version of apartheid comes with the usual pre-packaged excuses and justifications from many government and corporate people who benefit from that system. Those on the “left” make apologies but still enjoy the good life; those on the right make no excuses and enjoy it more.
Finally, we should compare the likelihood that South Africa and Israel would end their occupation and brutality without outside pressure. Here the score could not be more equal. The white South African regime was at its most intractable just before sanctions and worldwide pressure were brought to bear. Based on what we saw on the pilgrimage, I feel Israel is in much the same spot. The entire political spectrum has moved sharply to the right and it was abundantly clear that it will take enormous pressure from the US just to get the smallest improvement in life for the Palestinians – and then only grudgingly. Obama has seen this all too well after just a few months in office.
As a nation, the US should let go of the totally unjustified collective guilt - and its resulting fear - in candidly discussing the atrocities of Israeli occupation. Americans need to get used to words such as colony, apartheid, racism, ethnic cleansing, state sponsored terrorism, and the like in discussing Israel. We had no problem using these terms for South Africa and they are equally applicable here. There will not be peace in the Middle East until Americans - particularly their congressman – begin to talk openly and frankly about Israel. Just like in the fight against AIDS: Silence=Death, especially for Palestinians and Gazans.
The brutal occupation of Palestine will be a bigger black mark on Israel (and on the US for allowing it) than apartheid will be for South Africa. While there is no excuse for the behavior of the occupying party in either case, the Afrikaners were largely poorly educated, parochial, insular farmers. By contrast, Jews had an enormously prolific and enlightened history. They made countless contributions in politics, human rights, the arts, science and literature almost wherever they went. In fact, those wonderful traits still apply; one need only look at the efforts American Jews made for the civil rights movement in the US. Also, Jews were at the forefront of efforts in South Africa to end apartheid and some, like Helen Suzman, risked their lives doing so. It is only a revival of that spirit among Israelis that will bring peace to the Middle East – not the Likud.