(reprinted from 1/31/14 NY Times)
I loved South Africa, but I loathed the apartheid system. In Israel, I saw a fresh start for a people rising from the ashes of the Holocaust, a place of light and justice, as opposed to the darkness and oppression of apartheid South Africa.
Now, almost 50 years later, after decades of arguing that Israel is not an apartheid state and that it’s a calumny and a lie to say so, I sense that we may be well down the road to being seen as one. That’s because, in this day and age, brands are more powerful than truth and, inexplicably, blindly, Israel is letting itself be branded an apartheid state — and even encouraging it.
In apartheid South Africa, people disappeared in the night without the protection of any legal process and were never heard from again. There was no freedom of speech or expression and more “judicial” hangings were reportedly carried out there than any place on earth. There was no free press and, until January 1976, no public television. Masses of black people were forcibly moved from tribal lands to arid Bantustans in the middle of nowhere. A “pass system” stipulated where blacks could live and work, splitting families and breaking down social structures, to provide cheap labor for the mines and white-owned businesses, and a plentiful pool of domestic servants for the white minority. Those found in violation were arrested, usually lashed, and sentenced to stints of hard labor for a few shillings per prisoner per day, payable to the prison service.
None of this even remotely exists in Israel, or the occupied territories. But, increasingly, in the mind of the world it does. This is because of Israel’s own actions and a vigorous campaign by those who oppose its occupation of Palestinians’ land and, in some cases, Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. They understand that delegitimization is Israel’s soft belly and apartheid the buzzword to make it happen.
International isolation is potentially more dangerous for Israel than the Iranian nuclear program. The Palestinians and their supporters, particularly the young generation, some of whom have graduated from the best universities in the world, have come to realize that the stones of the first intifada and the suicide bombers of the second are yesterday’s weapons in yesterday’s war.
Boycott, divestment and sanctions are now the way they seek to end the Israeli occupation or Jewish Israel itself (at least an Israel that calls itself a democracy). Their message has started to resonate with trade unions, churches, universities and international companies in Europe and the United States, who see Israel as oppressing Palestinians and violating their human rights.
A Dutch pension giant’s decision last month to divest from Israel’s five largest banks because of their ties to occupation rang warning bells in Israel’s business community and the Treasury. According to the finance minister, even a partial European boycott would cost Israel 20 billion shekels (about $5.7 billion) in exports and almost 10,000 jobs. But the greatest damage is self-inflicted.
The “apartheid wall,” “apartheid roads,” colonization, administrative arrests, travel restrictions, land confiscations and house demolitions are the clay apartheid comparisons are made of, and can be neither hidden nor denied, for as long as Israel continues with the status quo. Military occupation comes with checkpoints, antiterrorist barriers, military courts, armed soldiers and tanks. That’s the reality, no matter what your politics, and just the ammunition the Palestinians and their supporters need in their new war.
In the coming weeks, the United States is expected to put forward a framework for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry. The Palestinians have said that if the talks fail to produce an agreement, they will take the battle against Israel and for their independence to the International Criminal Court and the United Nations and its various organizations, and fight for sanctions and boycotts, which they hope will force Israel, like apartheid South Africa before it, to its knees. As South Africa learned in the 1980s, possessing nuclear weapons may deter foes on the battlefield, but it doesn’t help you win a propaganda war.
Unfortunately, Israel is doing almost everything it can to help its opponents achieve their goal. Instead of focusing on peace talks, Israel continuously signals its intention to build more settlement housing, most recently on Jan. 10, when plans for 1,400 new homes in East Jerusalem and the West Bank were announced. Instead of welcoming Eritrean and Sudanese refugees seeking asylum, the way that a former Likud party prime minister, Menachem Begin, did in 1977 with the Vietnamese boat people, saying they reminded him of Jewish refugees during the Holocaust, Israel is confining today’s asylum-seekers to a camp in the desert, providing reams of footage to those who want to prove Israel is a racist society.
And it didn’t help when, on Dec. 15, a ministerial committee approved a bill that would impose heavy, punitive taxes on groups like B’Tselem, which tracks alleged human rights violations in the occupied territories, and Adalah, the legal center for minority rights in Israel.
As anyone who has bought a “Gucci” bag in a Bangkok market can tell you, it’s all in the label. And the apartheid label is beginning to stick — fair or not. It carries with it huge consequences for Israel, one that the country’s inward-looking leaders seem impervious to. They have yet to understand that on this new battlefield, tanks don’t count and the use of force, sure to be televised, plays into the hands of the enemy. It’s a war Israel cannot win unless it makes peace.