Israel and the apartheid mindset

Arthur Goldreich died in Israel a few weeks ago. I only met him a couple of times over the years, but he was a formative figure when I was growing up, as the Rivonia detainee who, along with Harold Wolpe,escaped from detention in Marshal Square (I think) and miraculously managed to get out of South Africa.

The Pimpernel-like escape of Goldreich and Wolpe was one of the few rays of light during a very dark period for the opposition to apartheid. The Nationalist regime was rampant, and its inability to catch the two (Jewish) escapees was a vicarious victory for those of us who hated the Nats. That, at any rate, is how I remember it.

An obituary to Arthur Goldreich in Ha’aretz quoted his close friend Shimshon Zelniker as saying:  “He was a staunch supporter of withdrawing from the occupied territories, as he called them, but he was also a staunch member of a small group of South African liberal anti-apartheid movement leaders who fought against this facile and stupid equation between Israeli foreign policy vis-a-vis apartheid.”

I’m not certain which facile and stupid equation Shimshon is talking about, though I assume it’s the equation that is summed up in the statement “Israel is an apartheid state,” to which I happen to subscribe. So, that makes me facile and stupid, I guess, at least as far as my attitude to the Israel-apartheid connection is concerned.

Shimshon, who is also a good friend of mine, has impeccable anti-apartheid credentials and has spent his life on the left of the Israeli political spectrum. Which is why his statement pissed me off so much. I have read similar sentiments from Benjy Pogrund, another anti-apartheid figure now resident in Israel. And, of course, the apartheid analogy is anathema to mainstream zionists, who regard it as being anti-semitism, no less. That was the gist of a recent op-ed in Yediot Aharonot by the appalling Robert Wistrich.

I have yet to debate the issue with Shimshon, so I don’t presume to know how he would argue his case. And I never discussed it with Arthur Goldreich. But most of the apartheid-denial arguments that I have read are based on points such as:

  • There are Arabs in the Israeli Knesset while there were no blacks in the apartheid parliament;
  • In Israel, there are no “whites-only” park benches or separate toilets or any of the other accouterments of classical apartheid;
  • Israeli law does not discriminate between Arabs and Jews.

Well, of course there are bloody differences! No-one is saying that Israel in 2011 is  a carbon copy of South Africa circa 1970. Just like Stalin’s Russia and Nazi Germany differed enormously, yet both were totalitarian dictatorships bent on mass murder.

I remember apartheid in South Africa well, and it looked very different from zionist, colonialist Israel. In many superficial – and in some essential – respects they are worlds apart. And, yes, apartheid was far more palpable in the streets of the white cities than the occupation is on the streets of Tel Aviv. Similarly, the vibrant, even anarchic cultural scene in Israel bears no similarity to the frosty and anal Lutherism of my youth in South Africa.

Of course, pointing out the differences can work both ways. Even the brutal and racist apartheid regime never went as far as deploying fighter jets against its colonial subjects; nor did it launch massive military attacks against civilians like those Israel has unleashed on Gaza and Jenin. In some ways Israeli colonialism is friendlier than apartheid and in other ways it is more noxious.

But such tit for tat comparisons are not the point. When I and others say that Israel is an apartheid society, we mean that Israel is displaying what my friend David “Feig” Richardson calls the apartheid mentality. The apathy of most Jewish Israelis towards what is happening in the territories; our ability to absolve ourselves of any responsibility for the crimes the state is committing; the ease with which we accept our social superiority in an unequal society; the equanimity with which we ignore the rabid racism in Sefad and just about everywhere else; our knee-jerk and brain-dead justifications (“terrorism” and “they want to drive us into the sea”) – all these, and many, many more social and psychological manifestations are the hallmarks of the apartheid mentality.

They are part of the mindset that gave fertile ground to a mad, racially-exclusive ideology and helped it grow. Apartheid was not simply a legal and administrative construct that separated between people and allowed the minority to dominate; it was, above all, a way of thinking – a selfishness – in which the vast majority of whites were complicit.

That is why Israel is an apartheid society. Because most Jewish Israelis are prepared to accept their domination over, and subjugation of, another people. Because most Jewish Israelis don’t really care what is happening only kilometers from where they live. Because most Jewish Israelis actually believe that they are superior to Arabs.

Because Jewish Israelis organize boycotts when the price of cottage cheese goes up but don’t bat an eyelid when their prime minister and foreign minister tell them that Israel will continue occupying and dominating the Palestinians until kingdom come. White South Africans were just as blind and just as oblivious. That’s why it’s called the apartheid mentality.

I don’t know if Arthur Goldreich would have agreed with me, but I certainly hope so.  He was one of my childhood heroes. Rest in peace, Arthur.

4 replies on “Israel and the apartheid mindset”

I agree about the lunacy of the cottage cheese protest — not much else. You people from South Africa are so heavily colored by the evolution of your political consciousness that the A word is the nuke of political discussion. End of debate, yes or no.
Badness and evil are not equal, unless you happen to believe that Satan is out there linking chains of sin towards his ultimate monolithic goal. Badness is local and happens in everyday choices. The fact that badness X does not equal badness Y does not exonerate badness X.
Which leads me to the subject of Tel Aviv. I feel the exclusion and delegitimization of Arabs as human beings far more strongly in Tel Aviv than I do in my home in the western Galilee. It’s a state of affairs that should make Liberman very happy. The few Arabs one meets north of Jaffa are usually in menial positions. It’s not deliberate, of course; it’s the result of so called market forces that make Tel Aviv far too expensive for anybody except rather affluent liberals. In fact there aren’t enough Arabs to maintain a suitable level of polite racism, which why there was such an urgent need to import Eritreans and Sudanese to keep the xenophobic engines of fear and disdain in working order.
The mentality that David rather cleverly referred to is a matter of choice. It’s a very depressing time and with the lack of any reasonable political horizon it’s a matter of whom you chose to meet and work with. That’s something all you South Africans can understand because racism always starts at home.

I love your writing. Your melody is so soft inspite of the loud drums. Kibbitzer: Keep kibbitzing. To me it sounds like TAM TAM TAM TAM

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