Equating the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories to South African Apartheid does a disservice both to the Palestinian cause and to the progressive movement.
As a young Jewish human rights activist growing up in Mexico in the 1980s, I cannot remember a greater victory for the global human rights movement than the fight against Apartheid in South Africa. The world united in a wide-ranging boycott against a regime driven by a racist ideology of white supremacy, ultimately forcing a victory for the democratic movement of people like Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. Today, as a university professor in the U.S., many of my progressive colleagues are trying to rally the movement once more. This time, they explain, the fight is against the injustice of the Israeli “Apartheid” towards the Palestinians, and should be fought by supporting economic, academic and political sanctions against Israel.
This time, they are entirely misguided, though. The Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, like any other military occupation, does indeed oppress the occupied people, denying them many basic human rights, fertile ground for abuses and discrimination. However, confusing the occupation and treating it the way we fought against Apartheid is not only a mistake and an oversimplification, but ultimately a disservice for the cause of the Palestinian people. Instead, a successful approach would be one that promotes dialogue and reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis.
It is important to bear in mind some major differences between South Africa and Israel. First, the root of apartheid was a white-supremacist racist ideology that enabled the Afrikaans movement to settle and displace the Black inhabitants of South Africa because they saw them as inferior. In contrast, the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories was driven by military considerations, and at least initially, the settlement enterprise was seen as a security, not ideological, issue. The Israeli government supported the “Allon Plan,” which proposed to settle areas of the West Bank and Gaza to create “buffer zones” that would ensure secure borders and strategic advantages over any attacking armies. Even today, when the security rationale seems ambiguous, the vast majority of the Jewish settlers in the occupied territories are still not there for ideological reasons, but for economic ones, as housing is cheaper and they receive government subsidies and tax breaks. The leadership of the settlement movement has certainly been religious, but they never espoused a racist-supremacist ideology, but rather a “divine” territorial claim.
The second major difference is that Apartheid presumes a common citizenship. Two ethnic groups within the same state receive different levels of rights because of their ethnicity, not unlike the U.S. before the civil rights movement. The solution to that problem is to find a formula for a successful “marriage,” i.e., desegregation, equal rights under the law, etc. The Israeli-Palestinian issue is entirely different: both groups view themselves as peoples, or nations, desirous of their own independent nation states. Palestinian citizens of Israel do enjoy de jure civil and legal rights at par with those of the Jewish citizens, even if there is de facto discrimination analogous to that which minorities in the U.S. endure. On the other hand, Palestinians in the occupied territories are considered foreign nationals both by Israel and by international legal standards. In this case, the best solution is not marriage, but divorce.
The situation is analogous to an abusive marriage in which both parties cause, and suffer, tremendous physical and emotional damage. The original 1947 UN Resolution 181 calls for two separate states because the international community understood there were two peoples each with national aspirations who could not live together. Current opinion surveys also show that the vast majority of both Palestinians and Israelis support a separation between two states. Just recently, the majority of Israelis voted for the Olmert government because he offered a formula for Israel to exit the majority of the territories; neither the Palestinian Authority nor the PLO have ever called for a single bi-national state. The problem, then, is that the Palestinian territories are under an Israeli military occupation in a foreign land that should be a sovereign Palestinian state.
One more problem with the Apartheid analogy is that it alienates progressive Zionists like myself, who support Israel but criticize the occupation. Moreover, it is reminiscent of the Zionism = Racism charge of the 1970s. Any party espousing such a view automatically disqualifies itself as a possible mediator in the conflict. Now that the apartheid analogy has been used by Jimmy Carter, the man who brokered the first peace treaty between Israel and an Arab neighbor, and who had the credibility and the credentials to bring both sides together in dialogue, Israelis, even the liberal left, would not accept him as an impartial arbiter.
Further, there is a problem with the tactic of the struggle against Apartheid. South Africa was not a state which had to fight an endless series of wars with his neighbors. It was not born out of a bloody military conflict, and populated by hundreds of thousands of refugees who saw it as a last shelter, as Israel was and is. Israelis see their struggle against the Palestinians and the Muslim world as existential, rendering them highly unlikely to yield in the face of economic threats like boycotts or divestments. On the contrary, under economic sanctions Israelis are more likely to become more radicalized, and to make the situation worse for the Palestinians. In a region as explosive as the Middle East, all bets are off.
To begin to comprehend the problem, we need to recognize that the basis for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is psychological. If, as numerous surveys by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research and the Israeli Steinmetz Center for Peace Research show, most Israelis and Palestinians agree on the broad parameters of a peace agreement, then the obstacles are likely to be fear, mistrust, stereotypes, hate and prejudice. And if that is the case, the solution must begin by fostering mutual dialogue and understanding.
By treating this as a one-sided conflict, by laying blame solely on Israel and calling for boycotts and divestment from the Jewish state alone, leftists of this stripe are displaying a lack of understanding and engaging in gross oversimplification. Calls for boycotts and divestment are not helping; they make matters worse. The international community can help, by facilitating dialogue and promoting encounters, by insisting on diplomatic contacts and initiatives. To find a solution, it is vital to recognize that the mistakes and the responsibility fall on both sides of the conflict. Truly progressive people can make a difference not by condemning one side, but by validating both peoples’ basic human right for self-determination, and promoting a civil separation that will improve the odds of a better life for future generations of Israelis and Palestinians alike.