ISRAEL: An Eskimo in Bantustan
Uri Avnery «View Bio
An Eskimo comes to town and sees a piece of glass for the first time in his life. The glass looks to him like ice. Ice is transparent, and so is glass. Ice can be chewed. So the Eskimo puts the glass in his mouth and starts to chew.
This is quite logical behavior. It is a warning against the over-simple use of analogies. Analogies are a useful device in many instances, but one must always check how far the similarity goes. They should not be applied blindly, because they may lead to a fallacious conclusion.
A case in point is our application of the term ‘apartheid’ to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in the hope that world public opinion will put pressure on the Israeli government as it did on the racist regime in South Africa.
In Afrikaans, the language of the Dutch settlers in South Africa, ‘apartheid’ means apart-ness, keeping apart. The apartheid policy was, in theory, designed to keep the races separated, but in practice it served to deprive South Africa’s black population of all their rights.
In the pursuit of this policy, the white racist regime kept much of the black population in reservations, where they were given a make-believe autonomy. Such enclaves were officially entitled ‘Bantu homelands,’ after the black Bantu people of South Africa. Thus the odious term ‘Bantustan’ was born.
It is easy to find similarities between the Bantustans and the enclaves in which Ariel Sharon intends to imprison the Palestinians via his “unilateral steps.”
The path of the ‘separation barrier’ that is going up in the West Bank creates some dozen large and small Palestinian Bantustans. Therefore, it may well be called the ‘apartheid wall,’ especially as ‘separation’ and ‘apartheid’ mean almost the same thing.
The reality in the occupied Palestinian territories is in many respects similar to that under the apartheid regime. There are (good) highways reserved for settlers and soldiers, and other (poor) highways for the Palestinians. The checkpoints and roadblocks, where Palestinians are held up while Israelis pass freely, fit into this picture.
But one should not extend this comparison ad absurdum and reach false conclusions, because the differences between the two conflicts are no less important than the similarities.
First of all, relations of size. In South Africa, the whites were barely 10 percent of the population, the blacks were 77 percent, and the rest was made up of people of mixed race, ‘coloreds,’ Indians, and others. (Mahatma Gandhi, it should be remembered, started his career as a young lawyer in South Africa, where he fought his first battles for the rights of Indians and blacks.)
In the area of Israel-Palestine, between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan, the Israeli Jews constitute a majority of about 60 percent. In Israel proper, the Jews are more than 80 percent. Even if this proportion changes in future, owing to the high Arab birthrate, it will not reach South African proportions.
Second, even at the height of racist supremacy, the South African economy was based on black labor and could not have existed without it. True, after 1967, the Israeli economy also used cheap Arab labor, but when this became problematic during the intifada, foreign labor, which was even cheaper, was imported.
Third, and yet more important, is the difference of perceptions.
Neither whites nor blacks ever questioned the territorial unity of South Africa. The struggle was about power in the state, not about its integrity.
There were some suggestions that the whites should concentrate in the southern part of the country and set up a separate white state, but this was rejected – by the whites – out of hand. They had land and enterprises all over the country and had no intention of giving them up.
(Such suggestions were sometimes made by Israelis, who proposed that the Israeli experience be applied to South Africa. In much the same way, David Ben-Gurion suggested to Charles de Gaulle a policy of concentrating the French colons in a part of Algeria and setting up a separate French-Algerian state. De Gaulle, too, politely declined.)
Both the whites and the blacks defined themselves as South Africans. Even at the height of the bitter struggle, the declared aim of the black freedom fighters was to establish a multi-racial regime in the country.
And, indeed, this solution was accepted by the majority on both sides and, so far, it does seem to function.
The Israeli-Palestinian reality is quite different. No reasonable person would deny that here there are two separate nations with different and contradictory national perceptions. An artificial effort to transplant the South African experience here will be as unsuccessful as it would have been to try and transplant the Israeli-Palestinian experience to South Africa.
A fourth major difference lies in global attitudes towards the two conflicts.
The South African racist regime never enjoyed international sympathy. The chiefs of the Afrikaner National Party who coined the slogan “apartheid” in 1948 cooperated with the Nazis in World War II and paid for this with time in prison.
Israel, by contrast, presented itself from the beginning as the ‘State of the Holocaust Victims’ and attracted the admiration of the entire world.
Successive Israeli governments have succeeded in squandering much of this capital, but even now many good people around the world shrink from criticizing our actions, partly for fear of being considered anti-Semites. And, of course, South Africa could not call on the support of six million American citizens of Afrikaner descent.
The attitude towards Israel is slowly becoming more negative. Not much is left of the image of ‘the brave little state surrounded by enemies’ and ‘the only democracy in the Middle East.’
We are seen more and more as a brutal occupier, a state that violates international law and moral standards. The separation wall, the checkpoints and all the other elements of the occupation are destroying our good name, and the summons to the International Court over the barrier will do us no good at all.
But all this is still a far cry from the world’s attitude towards racist South Africa. People who believe that world public opinion will bring down the Israeli regime as it did that of South Africa are deceiving themselves.
Outside forces can and must play an important role in putting an end to the occupation and establishing peace on the basis of ‘Two States for Two Peoples.’
In the long run Israel cannot afford to continue to disregard international opinion. As Thomas Jefferson said, no nation can conduct its affairs without a decent respect for the opinion of the world.
But the main struggle is within the Israeli public, and the main burden must be shouldered by peace-lovers and justice-seekers within Israeli society itself.
Uri Avnery is a journalist, peace activist, former member of the Knesset, and leader of Gush Shalom. Courtesy of Media Monitors