From the perspective of a South African, the Israeli state shares the same characteristics of colonialism as South Africa—the systematic dehumanization of the indigenous people for the benefit of an economically advanced settler population.
In December 1997, at an event celebrating solidarity with the Palestinian people, then-South African President Nelson Mandela famously remarked, “We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”
Palestine has always been a cause that is close to the hearts of many anti-apartheid activists, including myself, and reading the latest Human Rights Watch report on the status of Palestinians under Israeli occupation, it is no secret why—what we see in Israel is reminiscent of the abuses we suffered under apartheid. Indeed, according to Human Rights Watch, B’Tselem, and other renowned human rights organizations, Israel is an apartheid regime. It is a state for the Jewish people, at the expense of all other peoples who call the region home. Just as the international community, U.S. based civil and human rights activists, and principled corporations and non-state actors boycotted and sanctioned the apartheid state in South Africa, the time has never been riper for us to join to do the same against the apartheid state in Israel.
At its core, an apartheid state is one that affords different rights to groups based on immutable characteristics such as race, religion, or ethnicity. Today, Israel is lauded as a “Jewish” and “democratic” state. Having grown up in apartheid South Africa, that sounds awfully reminiscent of white South Africans extolling the virtues of South Africa as a “white” and “democratic” state. For a while, this claim enjoyed legitimacy but with the acceleration of the decolonization movement, South Africa was treated as a pariah state. Apartheid South Africa was not defeated on the battlefield. Civil uprisings, boycotts and sanctions delegitimized it and proved its undoing. Israel and its supporters are acutely conscious of that reality.
The creation of Israel in 1948, much like the Union of South Africa in 1931, was, at its core, a colonial and imperial project—it is impossible to reckon with the future of the region without addressing this crucial history. In establishing both these states, Britain, other imperial countries, the League of Nations (League), and the United Nations (UN) at its inception hardly consulted the indigenous populations. Moreover, they treated the colonies with significant white populations such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa differently from the way they treated colonies with brown or black people such as Nigeria, India or Palestine. Those countries with significant white populations were given greater autonomy and ultimately freed of colonial control. The world powers did not believe that nations of colour had the right to self-determination or the right to equality.
After World War I, the League established the Mandate System, later succeeded by the UN Trusteeship system to administer the colonies with people of colour. The Woodrow Wilson administration accused Vladimir Lenin, who called for the independence of the colonies, of wanting to destabilize the world. Despite the real and insidious reality of anti-Semitism in Europe, the world powers viewed European Jewish people as superior to Arabs just as they viewed whites superior to people of colour. In 1937, Winston Churchill said about the Palestinians: “I do not agree that the dog in a Manger has the final rights to the Manger even though he may have been laying there for a very long time. I do not admit that right I do not admit for instance that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly-wise race to put it that way has come in and taken their place.” Racism was entrenched in the colonial vision of law and its international policy.
Much like Jim Crow laws
Apartheid South Africa and Israel, the latter with the assent of the UN, under a completely different power configuration in the UN came to fruition as states under a racist colonial conception. It seems hard to imagine that if the UN were deliberating today, the majority of its members would accept the colonial precepts of racism and sign off on the notion of a Jewish state with the attendant consequences of ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people. Beginning in the 1950s, with the advent of socialist and newly independent countries, there was a change in the composition of the UN. And with it, the concept of self-determination achieved international recognition as a universal principle of the highest standard that is owed to all people within a territory. A subsequent attempt for racist self-determination was rebuffed. Ian Smith proclaimed self-determination for a white minority on behalf of Rhodesia now Zimbabwe. This time, the United Nations called upon member states not to recognize Rhodesia as a state. Whilst South Africa was accepted as a state and participated in the formation of the United Nations, the international community evolved and recognized apartheid as racist, minority self-determination and a form of colonialism. Apartheid South Africa’s legitimacy was eroded. The process of rejecting minority or racist self-determination was a long one, but the tide turned —the same standard must be applied to Israel.
When we think of colonialism, we commonly think about it in terms of the saltwater theory, where a colony and a colonial power are separated by the sea. The “mother” country rules the colony from a distance, and primarily for its own interests, and mostly at the expense of indigenous populations. South Africa was a unique example of colonialism, leading commentators to refer to the apartheid reality as “internal colonialism.” The white settlers denationalized the indigenous Black population, forced them off their land and concentrated the land and wealth in the hands of the settlers. Unlike the classical saltwater colonial setting where the indigenous population and the resources of the colony was exploited in the interest of the colonial power, under internal colonialism, the indigenous population were also treated as inferior, and the resources were exploited in the interest of the white population that settled in the country.
The white sector displayed the features of an advanced capitalist state, whilst the indigenous people were subject to the most extreme oppression and human rights abuses in the interests of the white sector. Under the Group Areas Act, the property of Blacks was confiscated and made available to the white population, something multiple members of my family experienced firsthand. The white minority instituted a program of separate rights for whites and Blacks. Whites enjoyed superior access to housing, education and a panoply of civil and political rights. Blacks were denied access to basic facilities including water, electricity and adequate housing. Whites enjoyed “democracy” so long as they did not contest the legitimacy of separate development.
On multiple levels, the Israeli example shares the same characteristics of internal colonialism as South Africa—the systematic dehumanization of the indigenous people for the benefit of an economically advanced settler population. Israel engages in widespread Palestinian land dispossession, exploitation of resources including water and other resources from the occupied territories to advantage Jewish settlers, disparate infrastructure, denationalization and stripping Palestinians of citizenship, and other widespread human rights abuses. Noam Chomsky characterizes Israel as “the last phase of European colonization”. Just as racist internal colonialism and minority self-determination came to be rejected in South Africa, it must be rejected for Israel. The international community came around to rejecting the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa that used odious religious rationale calling Blacks the cursed children of Ham to justify white supremacy and Black land dispossession. Neither should the world bend to religious leaders in Israel or anywhere else that say Arabs are genetically inferior or that God gave the territory of Palestine to Jews.
Under apartheid and internal colonialism, the freedom of movement of Blacks was severely circumscribed and controlled through the pass system. Similarly, the rights of Palestinians to travel even in Palestinian territory is severely circumscribed, whilst Israeli settlers, like white South Africans, can move about freely. Palestinians in the occupied territories enter through different and often repeated check points and have separate designated vehicle number plates, much like Jim Crow laws in the United States. Palestinians are prevented from travelling on certain roads throughout the occupied territories that are reserved exclusively for Israelis. South Africa had the Immorality Act and the Group Areas Act, which made it impossible for a Black and white couple to live together. The Citizenship Law of Israel denies Palestinians who marry Israeli citizens the right to citizenship and residency permits that are otherwise automatically granted to spouses of Israeli citizens. Just as in South Africa, under the Pass Laws Act where families were forced to live separately, Palestinians right to movement is severely circumscribed.
A colossal double standard
Israeli authorities control where Palestinians can live depending on the type of identity document granted to them. Racism is embedded into the law and fabric of Israel. Under Israeli law, a political party that demands equal rights for all citizens of Israel, regardless of ethnicity, is prevented from taking its seat in the Knesset. Netanyahu has stated that African refugees fleeing conflict and seeking refuge in Israel constitute the greatest threat to Israel. The mythology of Israel as an egalitarian democracy must be deconstructed.
South Africa created a separate white state (with some Blacks living in “white” South Africa) and “independent” Black states for the indigenous majority. Blacks living in “white” South Africa did not enjoy equal rights. Similarly, the Zionist project allows some Palestinians in Israel proper, and the rest confined to the West Bank and Gaza. The term “nationality” denotes the link that an individual has with a state. The term “citizenship” denotes the sum of rights that an individual enjoys within a state. Non-Jews residing in the territory of Israel have Israeli nationality, but like Blacks in apartheid South Africa, they are not accorded the same citizenship rights as Jewish persons. Jewish communities under a 2011 law are legally entitled to exclude Arabs from their neighbourhood under the criteria of “unsuitable” to the community’s “social characteristics”. If you are a Jew, you are automatically entitled to Israeli nationality, denied to Arabs whose ancestors have been forced into exile by expulsions. Israeli Arabs can be dispossessed of their land in ways a Jewish citizen cannot. This is remarkably reminiscent of the experiences of so many Black South Africans. Non-Israeli Arabs face the worse of land dispossession with even less legal protection. In the latest flashpoint, a settler (who is American, no less, and was recruited by a US-based settler organization seeking to change the demographics of East Jerusalem) scouting a Palestinian property in Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem was captured on social media where he was asked by a Palestinian how can you steal my property to which he replied, if I do not steal it someone else will.
We must rationally engage the question—can a state that elevates a racial, ethnic or religious group above all others and be called democratic? International law and mainstream democratic practice do not condone the de jure superiority of a single religious or ethnic group over another in any national state. Discrimination is inherent if a state favours one group over another, which is what apartheid represented. But Israel is given a pass, even though religion, ethnicity, or race cannot be the criteria for the according of rights under the nation-state paradigm. Recent history has evidenced states that made a claim for religious or ethnic purity. Apart from South Africa, Pakistan, Serbia after the breakup of Yugoslavia, and currently Myanmar come to mind. No one labels any of these examples as democratic. There is a colossal double standard when it comes to Israel.
The South African experience of constitution-making is often proclaimed as a constitutional miracle. South Africa prior to 1994 was described as a plural society hopelessly divided along racial and tribal grounds. Similarly, the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis is described as a conflict between two groups that cannot live side by side. As was the description for South Africa, it is often proclaimed that forcing Israelis and Palestinians to live in one state would result in a great and prolonged friction. The international community rejected the proposition that Blacks and whites could not co-exist in a unitary state and that South Africa should be divided between white and separate disparate states consisting of non-contiguous Black territories.
Many in the international community, including the United States and the United Nations Security Council, believe that the road to peace requires an embrace of a two-state solution, accepting the idea of a Jewish state and a non-contiguous Palestine. However, Israel has annexed large swaths of Palestinian territory, while giving outward expression to the idea of a two-state, but effectively negating the possibility of a two-state solution. The untenability of a two-state solution in the face of Israel’s land grabs was recently recognized by the Parliament of Ireland. It is worth mentioning that Ireland took the principled lead in imposing sanctions against apartheid South Africa. The international community must come to grips that a Palestinian state is no longer viable, and the idea of a Jewish state is a racist construct. Adhering to this construct is a legitimation of racism and the land dispossession of the indigenous population, built on a malevolent colonial proposition exemplified in the views of Winston Churchill.
Under the 1994 constitution, South Africa integrated the various territories into a unitary state for the benefit of everyone. The idea that whites and blacks in South Africa, because of some primordial notion cannot get along, or that Arabs and Jews have been fighting from time immemorial is ahistorical and a lie. It also projects a dim view of the human condition. South Africa demonstrates that society can transcend the divisions of the past if everyone is accorded respect for human dignity, especially equality.
The South African constitution affirms the centrality of equality. Every group and individual are given the right to practice their culture, religion and language in an equal manner. Over and above dealing with the injustices of the past including the return of refugees and land restoration, South Africa demonstrates that institutionalized and uniform conditions of civil and political equality are essential in the eradication of strife. Too often, divisions in society are a defensive reaction that could resolve when fears of inequality disappear. There must be equal educational and occupational opportunities for all.
Under apartheid, as in Israel, the best opportunities are reserved for a preferred group, which leads to internecine conflict. South Africa further demonstrates that conflict produces racial strife versus racial strife producing conflict. The South African experience over the past two decades informs us that group identities are not static and can be changed over time to create overarching commonalities and a sense of nationhood. It is a tough and ongoing struggle with ups and downs. Overall, South Africa has disproved the notion of an impending bloodbath with different groups prone to conflict in some sort of primordial way requiring them to be kept apart.
If Israel has the right to promote the interest of Jews over other groups because of religious justifications or for that matter Hamas has the right to promote the interests of Muslims over other groups because of its interpretation of scriptures, this undermines the core principle of equality. Events in Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo in the 1990s and increasingly India under the BJP party reaffirm the critical problems associated with a state premised on furthering the interests of one particular group over other groups. In order to sustain the dominant position of the favoured group, resistance must be stifled and ethnic cleansing, which is recognized as a crime against humanity, is likely to follow.
About four decades ago, a friend made an observation that three problems will not be solved in our lifetime - South Africa, Northern Ireland and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Northern Ireland pursuant to the Anglo-Irish Peace Agreement has made considerable strides in realizing peace in that strife-torn society. All sides to the conflict in Northern Ireland called upon the experiences of the parties that negotiated South Africa’s constitution. They introduced a power-sharing mechanism as in South Africa. The Anglo-Irish Peace Agreement incorporates the European Convention of Human Rights, as a supra positivistic Bill of Rights under which they enshrine equality as a cardinal norm to ensure equal treatment for Roman Catholics and Protestants. In divided societies, a lot of communal conflict is conducted by communities vying for scarce resources and control over property. No one would countenance the kicking out of Protestants from Northern Ireland, whites from South Africa, or Jews from historic Palestine. Like in South Africa, the architects of the Northern Ireland accord recognized the right of everyone to live on the land-based on the guarantee of equality and human dignity for all. Equality is critical for legitimacy and in engendering a belief, particularly in a society characterized by mutual suspicion and mistrust that the institutions and norms are in the interests of everyone.
To assert that white South Africa achieved self-determination and democracy under apartheid, or that Israel represents the fulfilment of self-determination and democracy is to affirm a racist paradigm for self-determination. Both were flawed in conception, design and implementation. The international community must transcend colonial ideas of race and racism in approaching Israel. A nation-state that seeks the mantle of democracy is incompatible with notions of superiority for any racial, linguistic or religious group.