Israel, boycott, apartheid – the argument

December 20, 2013
Sarah Benton
Tags: ,

Demonstration in Perth, Western Australia, September 2011

Israel inches closer to ‘tipping point’ of South Africa-style boycott campaign

Analogies with apartheid regime in the wake of Mandela’s death could accelerate efforts to ostracize Israel – especially if John Kerry’s peace process collapses.

By Chemi Shalev, Ha’aretz
December 11, 2013

This has happened in recent days: The Dutch water company Vitens severed its ties with Israeli counterpart Mekorot; Canada’s largest Protestant church decided to boycott three Israeli companies; the Romanian government refused to send any more construction workers; and American Studies Association academics are voting on a measure to sever links with Israeli universities.

Coming so shortly after the Israeli government effectively succumbed to a boycott of settlements in order to be eligible for the EU’s Horizon 2020 scientific cooperation agreement, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement is picking up speed. And the writing on the wall, if anyone missed it, only got clearer and sharper in the wake of the death of Nelson Mandela.

There were valid arguments to be made both for and against Prime Minister Netanyahu’s participation in Tuesday’s memorial ceremony for Mandela, but there is no denying that the prime minister’s inept on-again, off-again, too-expensive, leave-me-alone public handling of this sensitive issue attracted unwanted publicity and compounded an already precarious situation.

The embarrassing flap singled out Israel as “odd man out,” fueled media scrutiny of Israel’s past collaboration with the apartheid regime and provided valuable ammunition to those who would equate the two. More ominously, from an Israeli point of view, the analogy between today’s Israel and yesterday’s South Africa could also stoke a belief that the former can be brought to its knees in much the same way as the latter was in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Protest at a Scottish football match

When the United Nations passed its first non-binding resolution calling for a boycott of South Africa in 1962, it was staunchly opposed by a bloc of Western countries, led by Britain and the United States. But the grassroots campaign that had started with academic boycotts in the late 1950s gradually moved on to sports and entertainment and went on from there to institutional boycotts and divestment. Along the way, the anti-apartheid movement swept up larger and larger swaths of Western public opinion, eventually forcing even the most reluctant of governments, including Israel and the U.S., to join the international sanctions regime.

In a 1998 article entitled “International Norms, Dynamics and Political Change,” political scientists Martha Finnemore, now of George Washington University, and Kathryn Sikking of the University of Minnesota laid out the foundations of the “life cycle” by which certain norms develop to shape the behavior of states and then of the international community as a whole. The first step, they claim, is “norm emergence,” when a new norm is championed by NGO’s and “norm entrepreneurs.” The second stage is a “norms cascade,” when states fall into line to embrace the new norm. And a prerequisite for evolution from the first to the second stages is a “tipping point” that occurs when a critical mass of events and opinions converge to create the norms cascade.

Protest in South Africa

In the case of South Africa, the first “tipping point” probably came in the Soweto riots of 1976, which sparked the protest and disinvestment campaigns that ultimately swept American universities, pension funds and multinational corporations. The second “tipping point” came after the black South African rebellion against the racist 1983 constitution and the imposition of a permanent State of Emergency in 1984-1985, which brought the rest of the world into line.

“Tipping points,” of course, are hard to predict, and efforts to do so have been the focal point of widespread, multidisciplinary research in recent years. “You know the edge is out there, but it’s dark and foggy. We’re really great at knowing where thresholds are after we fall off the cliff, but that’s not very helpful,” as lake ecologist and “tipping point” researcher Stephen Carpenter told USA today in 2009.

Israel could very well be approaching such a threshold. Among the many developments that could be creating the required critical mass one can cite the passage of time since the Twin Towers attacks in September 2001, which placed Israel in the same camp as the U.S. and the West in the War on Terror; Israel’s isolation in the campaign against Iran’s nuclear programs; the disappearance of repelling archenemies such as Osama bin Laden, Muammar Gadhafi, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and, to a lesser degree, Yasser Arafat; the relative security and lack of terror inside Israel coupled with its own persistent settlement drive; and the negative publicity generated by revelations of racism in Israeli society, the image of its rulers as increasingly rigid and right wing and the government’s own confrontations with illegal African immigrants and Israeli Bedouin, widely perceived as being tinged with bias and prejudice.

In recent days, American statesmen seem to be more alarmed about the looming danger of delegitimization than Israelis are. In remarks to both the Saban Forum and the American Joint Distribution Committee this week, Secretary of State John Kerry described delegitimization as “an existential danger.” Vice President Joe Biden, speaking to the same JDC forum, went one step further: “The wholesale effort to delegitimize Israel is the most concentrated that I have seen in the 40 years I have served. It is the most serious threat in my view to Israel’s long-term security and viability.”

One must always take into account the possibility of unforeseen developments that will turn things completely around. Barring that, the only thing that may be keeping Israel from crossing the threshold and “going over the cliff” in the international arena is Kerry’s much-maligned peace process, which is holding public opinion and foreign governments at bay and preventing a “tipping point” that would dramatically escalate the anti-Israeli boycott campaign.

Which only strengthens Jeffrey Goldberg’s argument in a Bloomberg article on Wednesday that Kerry is “Israel’s best friend.” It also highlights, once again, how narrow-minded, shortsighted and dangerously delusional Kerry’s critics, peace process opponents and settlement champions really are (though you can rest assured that if and when the peace process collapses and Israel is plunged into South African isolation, they will be pointing their fingers in every direction but themselves.)

A vigil for Nelson Mandela held by Palestinians and members of the African community in Old City of Jerusalem on December 7, 2013. Photo by AFP

What does ‘Israeli Apartheid’ mean, anyway?

The meticulous sub-division of people in Israel is guided by a principle of inequality that benefits the ruling class.

By Amira Hass, Ha’aretz
December 09, 2013

What do those who say “Israeli Apartheid” mean?

They definitely don’t mean the official and popular biological racism that ruled South Africa. True, there is no lack of racist and arrogant attitudes here, with their attendant religious-biological undertones, but if one visits our hospitals one can find Arabs and Jews among doctors and patients. In that regard, our hospitals are the healthiest sector of society.

Those who say “Israeli Apartheid” refer to the philosophy of “separate development” that was prevalent in the old South Africa. This was the euphemism used for the principle of inequality, the deliberate segregation of populations, a prohibition on “mixing” and the displacement of non-whites from lands and resources for their exploitation by the masters of the land. Even though here things are shrouded by “security concerns,” with references to Auschwitz and heaven-decreed real estate, our reality is governed by the same philosophy, backed by laws and force of arms.

A Palestinian on one side of the separation wall, the Jewish settlement of Modiin Illit on the other.

What, for instance?

There are two legal systems in place on the West Bank, a civilian one for Jews and a military one for Palestinians. There are two separate infrastructures there as well, including roads, electricity and water. The superior and expanding one is for Jews while the inferior and shrinking one is for the Palestinians. There are local pockets, similar to the Bantustans in South Africa, in which the Palestinians have limited self-rule. There is a system of travel restrictions and permits in place since 1991, just when such a system was abolished in South Africa.

Does that mean that apartheid exists only on the West Bank?

Not at all, it exists across the entire country, from the sea to the Jordan River. It prevails in this one territory in which two peoples live, ruled by one government which is elected by one people, but which determines the future and fate of both. Palestinian towns and villages suffocate because of deliberately restrictive planning in Israel, just as they do in the West Bank.

But Palestinians who are Israeli citizens participate in electing the government, unlike in South Africa?

That’s true. The two situations are similar, not identical. Arab citizens vote here, but they are removed from the decision-making processes that deal with their fate. There is another difference. In South Africa, an essential component of the system was a tight overlap between race and class, with the exploitation of the black working class in the interests of white-owned capital. Israeli capitalism does not depend on Palestinian workers, although cheap Palestinian labor played a major role in the rapid enrichment of different sectors in Israeli society following the 1967 war. South Africa had four racial groups (whites, blacks, coloreds and Indians.) Each one occupied a specific rung on the ladder of inequality, in order to perpetuate the privileges of the white population. The white race, English and Afrikaners, was defined as one nation, despite the large differences between them, whereas black Africans were divided into several tribe-based nationalities. This ensured that the whites were the largest group. Here, the separation is supposedly based on geography, designed to maintain and expand the privileges Jews enjoy.

But Jews too have sub-divisions and discrimination?

Definitely, according to origin (European Jews versus Arab Jews,) place of residence (center vs. periphery,) veterans vs. newcomers, or based on service in the military. However, compared to the Palestinians, even the most discriminated against and downtrodden Jews have more rights than the Palestinians living between the sea and the river. For example, the Law of Return applies to Jews of any origin but not to Palestinians, even those who themselves or whose parents were born here, but who now live in exile. Similarly, Jews can change their residence freely. Someone from Tel Aviv can re-locate to the West Bank, but someone from Bethlehem cannot move to the coastal areas.

These days, demands for boycott are almost invariably linked to the charge that Israel is an apartheid state. French protest, photo by AP.

The ladder of inequality has separate rungs for residents of the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Palestinian citizens of sovereign Israel. These groups suffer from different degrees of violation of human and civil rights. There are sub-divisions at play that are designed to further fragment the other nation living here, with different approaches to “C”-designated areas on the West Bank, to Druze citizens, to Bedouin, Palestinians, Christians and Moslems. Any bureaucracy that creates such meticulous sub-divisions and classifications is guided by a principle of inequality that benefits one hegemonic group.

Are there other examples?

One can briefly mention the Afrikaner-style Prawer laws and Area C in the West Bank. From the 1950’s, the Afrikaner-led government in South Africa uprooted black, colored and Indian residents from their lands and homes to make room for white settlers. Everything was done in accordance with the prevailing white laws and legal logic. Those were the colonial underpinnings of the apartheid regime, which was established later. Here, too, the colonial component of uprooting the natives from their lands is proceeding in tandem with the policies of “separate development”.

Is there any hope?

Class-based apartheid in South Africa was not defeated. Critics on the left blame Nelson Mandela and other leaders for reaching an understanding with the previous regime whereby blacks would get the vote but whites would keep the money. While poverty remains “black” in South Africa, there is an alibi group of black Africans who became very wealthy. Nevertheless, one should not dismiss the transition to democracy and the social changes that took place in South Africa, as well as the methods of struggle demonstrated by Mandela and his comrades. That is why Israeli and Palestinian demonstrators last week carried his photos in demonstrations that the Israeli Defence Forces quelled by force.

But Shimon Peres eulogized Mandela warmly?

Mandela was a great forgiver. Peres played a major role in the security and economic ties Israel which established with the racist regime in South Africa and its pro-Nazi founders. As one of the founding fathers of the settlement enterprise in the West Bank and the instigator of the “functional solution,” he bears a large responsibility for the policies of “separate development” that prevail here.

Protest in Michigan, USA, 2012

There’s no bigotry in the boycott

Israel has been singled out for special treatment, not punishment – the rewards of American largesse, despite its predatory occupation of the Palestinians and their land.

By Henry Siegman, Ha’aretz
December 20, 2013

IThe American Studies Association has come under withering criticism for having singled out the State of Israel for a boycott of its universities because of their government’s human rights violations against Palestinians in the West Bank.

The critics charge that not one of the many countries whose record on human rights is no better, or even far worse, than Israel’s has been subjected to a boycott by this organization or by other anti-Israel Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) organizations. Consequently, as argued by Alan Dershowitz in Haaretz and by others, their real motivation must be anti-Semitism.

While I have questions about the wisdom of boycotting Israeli universities some of whose faculties are often among the most vigorous critics of their government’s policies towards the Palestinians, the accusation of anti-Semitism is groundless. Of course, it is possible that anti-Semites can be found among BDS supporters. But just as the fact that Zionists can also be racists (as many unfortunately are, including government ministers and leading rabbis who have publicly urged that Israeli Jews bar Israeli Arabs from their neighborhoods) does not mean that Zionism is racism, a charge made by the UN General Assembly in 1975 that was subsequently retracted, so the BDS movement is not anti-Semitic because some of its supporters may be.

The charge that the BDS movement is guilty of applying a double standard to Israel is equally groundless. For the opponents of Israel’s half-a-century-long occupation of the Palestinians and its denial of the Palestinians’ individual and national rights would not be conducting BDS campaigns against Israel if, to begin with, Israel had not been singled out for special treatment that no other country with equal or even far better human rights records has received.

I challenge critics of the BDS movement to identify another democracy from among those that do not hold another people under near-permanent occupation (no other democracy does) that receives the massive economic, military and diplomatic support lavished on Israel. I challenge them to identify another country, no matter how spotless its human rights record, about which America’s leaders—its president, vice president and secretary of state—repeatedly declare “there is no daylight between our countries,” even as they warn—virtually in the same breath—that Israel’s policies are leading the Jewish state to apartheid.

Yes, there was a time when Israel needed and deserved that assistance because it was uniquely exposed to existential threats from its neighbors, but that time is long gone. Today, Israel is the regional hegemon, while its neighbors are in a state of radical upheaval or disintegration. Neither individually nor collectively, in the judgment of former heads of Israel’s Shin Bet, Mossad, and Military Intelligence, do these neighbors pose an existential threat to Israel. And every living former head of the Shin Bet, as well as former heads of Israel’s other security organizations, have insisted that Israel’s failure to strike a fair peace agreement with Palestinians constitutes a far greater existential threat to the country than do Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

As to Israel’s democratic credentials, there is no more egregious violation of elementary democratic norms than a predatory occupation that denies an entire people all individual and national rights, confiscates their properties, bulldozes their homes and dispossesses them from their internationally recognized patrimony east of the 1967-border.

Even worse are the democratic pretensions by which Israel seeks to justify this behavior. Even Tzipi Livni, who has been a faithful advocate of a two-state solution, told Mahmoud Abbas in 2009 that there could be no Israeli compromise over the status of Jerusalem, for Israel’s decision to deny a Palestinian state its capital in any part of East Jerusalem “is within the Israel consensus.”

One might have thought that a democracy understands that a consensus of its own citizens cannot determine what it is free to do to a foreign population. After all, Germany’s eliminationist policies against the Jews in the 1930’s and 1940’s may have been within the German consensus, but that did not constitute a democratic mandate.

There is something particularly offensive about such attempts to give outrageously undemocratic behavior the gloss of democratic legitimacy. It is precisely such phony pretensions of democratic behavior that the BDS movement objects to. Countries that make no bones about their despotism and their contempt for human rights do not require that kind of exposure. They also do not require it because none is a beneficiary of the largesse that the State of Israel receives, which makes the donors accessories to the beneficiary’s bad behavior.

The reason for that largesse, as explained repeatedly by America’s political leaders, is supposedly not an efficient pro-Israel lobbying operation, but “deeply shared values.” It is an explanation that becomes increasingly embarrassing when it comes from political leaders who also warn that Israel’s policies are creating an apartheid society.

Those who have not challenged the singling out of Israel for the unprecedented support it is receiving from the United States have no ground for their challenge of the BDS movement’s singling out of Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians. BDS supporters would have had no reason for their initiative if Israel had not been favored for that support even as it disenfranchises and dispossesses another people under its occupation.

It is the critics of BDS who have been applying a double standard.

Protest, Vancouver, Canada, June 2013

Why the boycotters are on the wrong side of history

Pro-boycott activists leading campaigns against Israel will not be the reason the country eventually changes course.

By Anshel Pfeffer, Ha’aretz
December 19, 2013

This hasn’t been an easy period for obituarists and eulogizers in the Hebrew press. There just doesn’t seem a way for an Israeli writer to put Nelson Mandela’s life and record into a context without coming up against a wall.

You will all have read the same quotes over and over again. How he saw justice for the Palestinians as part of his own nation’s fight for freedom, called Israel a “terror state” and demanded it relinquish its weapons of mass destruction. And then you will have read those quotes of his about how Israel deserves to exist in secure borders, and how it shouldn’t be forced to relinquish territory unless it is assured that its neighbors are not seeking its destruction. Of course, you will have read in the past about the shameful alliance between Israel and the apartheid regime in South Africa, and then seen today’s scoop in Haaretz on how the Mossad trained him back in 1962.

You will also be aware of how many of Mandela’s colleagues in the movement equated present-day Israel to the South Africa of those days (though apparently Desmond Tutu also said in 2011 that the current ANC government is “worse than the apartheid government,” so those comparisons are pretty fluid), and the current de-facto boycott of Israel by South African ministers.

It seems that every analogy made on the late Mandela’s actions is too superficial and biased to allow for any context – no more so than when trying to draw any lessons to our corner of the globe and specific conflict.

But it’s not just in eulogizing Mandela where history defeats any serious attempt at context. Try saying something intelligent about the ham-fisted way the government has been dealing with the migrants issue and you are almost immediately defeated the moment someone calls it apartheid. How can you seriously criticize anything and try and propose alternatives once the standard has been set so high, or low?

The same goes with the Prawer-Begin plan. There is a whole lot wrong with the plan and the paternalistic attitude toward Israel’s minorities which engendered it, but the moment many of its opponents brand it as “ethnic cleansing,” any considered debate is immediately drowned out.

This love of spurious historical usages is, of course, not only prevalent on the left – the most obvious being the way Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has constantly been using and abusing the memory of the Holocaust in his, overall, justified crusade against Iran achieving nuclear weapons. The use of Holocaust imagery by right and left is a time-honored custom in Israeli politics, sprung in almost Pavlovian fashion.

Following last week’s decision by the American Studies Association to boycott Israel (that’s Israel, mind you, not just the settlements), there has been a torrent of columns written in response by some of the top Jewish (and non-Jewish) American pundits, explaining why the decision is a travesty.

All the reasons listed are valid: the boycott unfairly singles out Israel; it targets only the Jewish state; and, since it will cause Israel no harm (after all, how could a bunch of woolly brained professors damage anyone by not cooperating with them?), it will only serve to strengthen Israeli hardliners.

But these reasons are beside the point. If you really need a reason for why it’s wrong to boycott a country that was created to serve as the only haven for the world’s most persecuted people, you have learned nothing from history.

I don’t think this lack of any real historical understanding is due to anti-Semitism, because there’s no such thing as anti-Semitism in polite Western society anymore. There can’t be, since anti-Semitism is unfashionable.

Sure, many (though not all) of those hiding today behind the mantra of “not every criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic” would certainly have been proud anti-Semites had they been living 70 or 80 years ago, when to openly hate Jews was fashionable. But it’s pointless trying to diagnose which of the haters are Jew-haters and which are Jewish-state-haters; we can never know for sure, and it’s beneath us, anyway.

Hating Israel today is radical chic, whether it comes from the ranks of the no-logo-99-percent-vegan-“paci-militants” or the paleo-conservative-ultra-libertarian-isolationists. They are the descendants of those who 70 years ago were idolizing Stalin or Mussolini, and a few decades later Mao, Castro or Pinochet.

They were wrong about history then and they are wrong now. They may have been right about apartheid, but besides that proving as much as a broken clock twice a day, it only shows that sometimes Western democracies get it badly wrong for decades, while despotic regimes – much beloved of the radical chic – can posture as moral for their own interests.

I am not going to insult any readers by repeating all the many reasons why the Israel = apartheid analogy is totally false. Such a comparison both demeans the memory of the victims of apartheid and makes it totally impossible to comprehend and confront the very real racism which exists in Israeli society. As an Israeli, I find that particular racism no less abhorrent and worthy of campaigning against for being less severe and cruel than racism in other countries and societies.

For Israelis, calling out racism in their midst is a civic duty. I would also argue that for Jews who feel responsibility and affinity to Israel, it also a duty.

As regards activists, journalists, politicians and diplomats who think Israeli racism is more deserving of their opprobrium and action than that of their own countries or any of the other member-states of the United Nations, it is a matter for their own conscience.

Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk were among the rare leaders who understood what history demanded of them.

History demands the same of Israeli and Palestinian leaders today, but the boycotters are just a distraction from history, blinded by the Jews’ historical success in making the transition from being the most hunted-down and persecuted nation in the world to one thats human-rights record is under a higher degree of scrutiny than any other.

History will compel Israel to correct its course, hopefully sooner rather than later, and it will be stronger and more self-confident as a result. No one will remember the boycotters by then.

Protest, Dublin 2010

© Copyright JFJFP 2024