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Uri Avnery, Israeli Apartheid…


I read Uri Avnery’s piece in Counterpunch on Israeli Apartheid, cautioning against the use of the Apartheid analogy. Stephen Friedman and Virginia Tilley replied, providing interesting facts from the record on South African Apartheid.

When I read Avnery’s piece I thought it was a good conversation opener. There are things in it I disagreed with, some of which Friedman and Tilley address. And things that I think are good fodder for discussion.

The apartheid analogy has several merits. First, as pointed out by Avnery and by Friedman/Tilley, there are major elements that the systems of South African apartheid and Israeli apartheid share (Avnery thinks of these as methods, Friedman and Tilley argue that there is also substance). Uri Davis’s book, ‘Apartheid Israel’, describes the Israeli system very well. Second, when South Africa claimed that there were plenty of oppressive regimes in the world, the world replied that legally-enforced racism was a special affront that deserved a very high priority of international attention and pressure.

Avnery raises several cautions. One, the demographics are different. This is true, and makes Israel relatively stronger than South Africa was compared to the people it is trying to displace and destroy. Two, South Africa depended on indigenous labor, while Israel has successfully replaced Palestinian labor. Three, and Avnery doesn’t say it quite like this, but Israeli apartheid isn’t a system for exploitation, but ultimately for replacing the Palestinian population. I believe, and Friedman/Tilley may disagree with me, that Israel’s stance towards the Palestinians is fundamentally genocidal and it has opportunities and means for carrying this out that the South African white regime did not. This puts the Palestinians in a more precarious position than Black South Africans were in. And although Friedman/Tilley point out the facts of ethnic cleansing of Africans by whites in South Africa, the usefulness of the apartheid analogy should not blind us to the extra precariousness of the Palestinian situation and the genocidal campaign of Israel, exemplified by what is happening in Gaza.

I agree with Friedman/Tilley about how the limits of the apartheid analogy don’t necessarily lend support to Uri Avnery’s preferred solution to the conflict, a two-state solution. I also agree with Friedman/Tilley that the basis for a binational solution, with the right of return guaranteed (I wrote a little fiction about it a while ago) is not religious fundamentalism, as Avnery argues.

Some other differences. I’d like to remind readers of a nice piece by Joel Kovel in Tikkun arguing about how to end Israeli apartheid, making comparisons to South Africa, from May 2003. Here’s a very nice quote from that piece, on the differences:

There are of course important differences between Israel and apartheid South Africa. The latter was only a secondary (though not insignificant) client of the United States, inasmuch as it lacked strong domestic constituencies in America, and more importantly, was not a factor in controlling an area so strategic as the Middle East. Because South Africa is a wealthy and largely self-sufficient powerhouse, while Israel would collapse like a house of cards without the support of its patron, a much greater role would be given to organizing within the United States in the struggle against Zionism compared to the struggle against Apartheid. At the same time, the depth of the American-Israeli tie makes that organizing much more arduous, even as the present state of war and looming expulsion of the Palestinian people (ethnic cleansing was not significant for South Africa) gives it an immediate urgency. Prevention of the latter catastrophe necessarily provides the entry point into the struggle against Zionism, without altering the long term goal. And this is defined by the deep structural similarities between the two racist states.

Apartheid analysis leads naturally to the idea that the apartheid state should be isolated internationally, economically and politically, until it changes. And as Kovel says, this would lead in Israel to very rapid shifts. On the flip side, Israel is completely integrated with North American power, and will not be so easily isolated. Indeed, isolating Israel means defeating the political elites of the US (and Canada, for those interested, and so on) in a significant way: Israel is not something they will compromise on. That might be the most important thing an anti-apartheid campaigner can remember.

The reason they won’t give up easily is two-pronged. On the one hand, it is because supporting a “western” country like Israel to ethnically cleanse a west asian population comes naturally in the west. Racism means Israel is part of the family, Palestinians are not. On the other hand, it is the use of anti-racist feeling. The very reason that made it possible to isolate South Africa – that racism is a special affront – is a reason for many who don’t fully grasp what is being done to the Palestinians to support Israel. Jews have a long history of being the victims of racism. The struggle against anti-semitism is a moral issue. When support for Israel can be cast as part of that historical struggle, instead of the abomination of that struggle that it is, it can be cast as a moral issue that people will fight very hard for.

The history and even the particular forms that anti-semitism has taken (boycotts, for example) make thinking carefully about the tactics of a boycott/divestment/sanctions campaign against Israel imperative. Tactics that worked against South Africa can’t be adopted wholesale. Mostly white academics telling other white academics that they are not welcome because they represent the South African apartheid state looks different from mostly white academics telling Jewish academics they are not welcome because they represent the Israeli apartheid state. The massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich olympics means that a sports boycott against Israel would evoke very different feelings than the sports boycott against South African athletes.

Having discussed the differences, let me return to Kovel and the similarities by way of conclusion:

Here we need to remind ourselves that we are talking about changing the Israeli state. A state is not a society, a nation or a territory, but a mode of regulation and control, and the disposition of official violence. States control and direct society, contain nations, and command territories. The racist state aggrandizes one group by annihilating others, who essentially stand helpless before it. The Holocaust happened to state-less Jews, Gypsies, etc, who became the victims of the nihilism of a racist, Nazi state; similarly, state-less Palestinians have become victims of the nihilism of the racist, Zionist state. Given the nihilistic violence built into the Zionist state, it is reasonable to say that such an outcome is in the interests of both the bodily and spiritual survival of the Jewish people.

Being “thrown into the sea” is a fantasy of projected vengeance. It is predicated on sustaining a racist state-organization into the future, forever surrounded by those it has dispossessed and humiliated. Therefore the chief condition to strive for is creation of a society in which the wheel of vengeance is put out of commission. And if this seems completely off the scale, especially so given the extreme violence built into the Israeli state, it is most important to recall the bringing down of the murderous apartheid state of South Africa—and to realize that if so great an accomplishment could be done there, then an equivalently great accomplishment can take place in Israel/Palestine.

… (snip) …

In a vision of a post-racist society we find, however, the moral force capable of inspiring and drawing in people of good will from all sides of the conflict. If such people were able to demand the downfall of apartheid, why should they not do the same for Zionism, and unify themselves under this banner? It will be a long and hard struggle, and only a vision worthy of its sacrifices will suffice for the path ahead.

To which I can only add that it will be a long and hard struggle, but one on which we’ll all have to account for the side we were on.

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