Countering Bias and Misinformation mainly about the Arab-Israel conflict

An open letter to Professor Gideon Shimoni

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About Maurice Ostroff
From Maurice Ostroff
In response to the article in the right hand column

March 7, 2011
 
Dear Professor Shimoni
 
First of all congratulations on your leading role in forming the Tzorah group. It shows promise of becoming an important rational pressure group of sincere concerned and highly motivated citizens that can achieve a great deal in improving the quality of government.
 
The reason for this letter is that my enthusiastic support is tempered by a very serious concern that this group may fall into the trap of using the terminology of our denigrators thereby reinforcing their propagandistic slogans that are emotionally appealing, but which on deeper examination, are seen to be obviously flawed.  I refer to expressions like Israeli apartheid, “end the illegal occupation” and “right of return” which have entered the lexicon of conventional wisdom. The call to end occupation without defining the meaning, has come to be accepted  as the self evident cure of all the ME woes.
 
In particular I see only harm resulting from giving the slightest credence to the insulting Israeli apartheid canard and in this connection I refer to your article “The apartheid analogy” in the Jerusalem Post of  February 20.
 
You correctly stated that only hostile prejudice explains the ever-growing trend of comparing Israel with apartheid South Africa. And you eloquently added that “This must be exposed as a malicious slander, and utterly refuted. It is also a crass abuse of the valuable lessons that might be learned from the odious apartheid experience of South Africa. There is no objective basis whatsoever for attributing to Israel the ideology, policies and praxis that were known as apartheid in South Africa” and “Self-evidently, the boycott campaign is aimed less at ending the occupation than at ending the State of Israel itself”.
 
Having said the above, I find it very difficult to understand your subsequent statements that in relation to the occupation, the South African case is instructively comparable to that of Israel and that “the everyday reality of governance, work, protest and suppression in the occupied territory looks a lot like South Africa under apartheid”. Having lived under apartheid as an anti-apartheid activist inter alia in the Springbok Legion I state categorically that while Israel’s domination of our Palestinian neighbors in the West bank is objectionable and that we must make every effort to bring it to an end, the situation bears no resemblance to apartheid. We can justifiably condemn malpractices in our treatment of Palestinians without resorting to what you yourself call the malicious slander of comparing it to South African apartheid and I cannot do better than quote Former US Ambassador to the UN, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. While admitting that occupation is brutalizing and corrupting both Palestinians and Israelis, he declared categorically that it is not apartheid. [my emphasis] “Palestinians are not oppressed on racial grounds as Arabs, but, rather, as competitors, until now, at the losing end in a national/religious conflict for land”. He added that racism under apartheid was skin color. “Applied to Israel that's a joke: for proof just look at a crowd of Israeli Jews and their gradations in skin-color from the blackest to the whitest”.
 
Similarly I respectfully disagree with your claim that the Bantustan policies of the so called enlightened Afrikaners (The Verligtes) are relevant to the situation in Israel. Your comparison of policies proposed by extreme rightists in Israel to the policies of the Verligtes is as tenuous as comparing the initiators of the Geneva Initiative to the Verligtes. After all the Geneva plan (which I consider eminently sensible) includes annexing to Israel large settlement blocks and most of the settlers as part of a land swap. In essence neither has any relevance to South African apartheid.
 
At this moment in time when anti-Israel activists are preparing for the forthcoming Israeli Apartheid Week with events in cities and campuses across the globe advocating BDS, it is indeed disappointing that you provide arguments to support their malicious allegations of Israeli apartheid and their call for BDS by your statement that use of the South African analogy to critique Israel is justified [my emphasis]. I repeat, you wrote  that use of the South African analogy to critique Israel is justified albeit only in respect of analogy with the  Verligte policies.  I am sure that when the Guardian or Electronic Intifada or any speaker at an Israel Apartheid event quotes the Israeli professor’s justification for the South African analogy they won’t heed your caution “that it should not be used as grist to the mill of those who labor to delegitimize and demonize Israel by falsely labeling it an apartheid state and subjecting it to sanctions and boycotts”

This is how you have been quoted in one blog . “Writing in the Jerusalem Post, Zionism scholar and dual Israeli-South African citizen Gideon Shimoni addressed the apartheid ‘analogy’ regarding Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. The article denounces the labeling of Israel as an apartheid state in all but one area of comparison”
 
One must ask why the South African analogy is drawn only with regard to Israel and never in relation to other situations where discrimination actually resembles the SA situation. For example in Lebanon where discrimination is enshrined in legislation that bars Palestinians from 73 professions and allows them only menial jobs. They cannot own property nor use state health care. Or in the USA where a 2005 Associated Press study found that African Americans are 79% more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods where industrial pollution is suspected of causing the greatest health dangers. One could go on citing countless situations of discrimination which are never compared to South Africa.
 
In his book “The Resurgence of Anti-Semitism: Jews, Israel, and Liberal Opinion”
Philosopher Bernard Harrison wrote that while there are reasonable grounds to criticize Israel for the establishment of settlements in the West Bank, the apartheid comparison is a politically-motivated exaggeration of the situation in Israel, that is intended to undermine its moral basis for existence. It therefore stands to reason that it should never be used by the Tzorah group.
 
In a December 23, 2008 article in Hudson New York,  Simon Deng, a refugee from Southern Sudan criticized Desmond Tutu for referring to Israel as an apartheid state, stating that that Palestinians are only stopped at checkpoints to prevent attacks. If a foreigner makes this highly relevant statement on our behalf surely Israeli organizations should be emphasizing it.
 
Professor Shimoni, I hope you will treat this letter in the constructive spirit intended and as an indication of my high hopes for the Tzorah group as a potential rational force for improving the quality of our government. May I please look forward to your considered reply for open discussion by the group.
 
Sincerely 
Maurice Ostroff
 
 

The apartheid analogy: Lessons for Israel

By GIDEON SHIMONI

Jerusalem Post February 20, 2011

 

 

While Israel's democratic constitution is certainly flawed, only hostile prejudice explains the ever-growing trend of comparing it with apartheid South Africa.

 

 “Apartheid,” today's  prime stigmatic code-word for racist evil, has become a potent weapon for delegitimizing and demonizing Israel, especially since it evokes the precedent of powerful external pressure in the form of boycott and sanctions as was applied against the apartheid regime in South Africa. Hence, in the propaganda war against Israel an equation is fabricated insidiously between the present State of Israel and the former apartheid state of South Africa.

 

This must be exposed as a malicious slander, and utterly refuted. It is also a crass abuse of the valuable lessons that might be learned from the odious apartheid experience of South Africa. There is no objective basis whatsoever for attributing to Israel the ideology, policies and praxis that were known as apartheid in South Africa. The historical context of white-black relations which spawned apartheid differs fundamentally from that in which conflict developed between Zionist Jews and Palestinian Arabs.

 

The essence of Israel's conflict situation has always been a clash of nationalisms; ultimately over the question of who should have primacy in gaining national self-determination in a contested territory. By contrast, the South African conflict evolved out of a centuries-long, near absolute domination exercised by a self-defined racial minority (the whites) over an externally-defined racial majority of the population, which was denied equal civic rights, above all the primary democratic right, enjoyed exclusively by the whites, to elect and be elected to the legislature and government of the state. The Afrikaans term “apartheid” originated during the 1940s to describe an ideological conception and political program that justified, systematized, reinforced and expanded this pre-existent system of racial discrimination and separation.

 

What justified the utter excoriation of apartheid? From a moral point of view, it must be stressed that what was so abhorrent about apartheid as to justify sanctions and boycotts of South Africa, was neither its undemocratic nature nor the severe repression of all resistance, the likes of which could be found abundantly in many other countries plagued by severe ethnic conflict. Rather, valid world condemnation targeted two indefensible wrongs: firstly, the legalized racist basis of apartheid’s enforced inequalities; secondly the adamant refusal of the apartheid regime to cease its unilateral dictates and accept the option of negotiation. Of course, an essential condition for such negotiation was not only the willingness of the dominator to dismantle the apartheid regime but also the willingness of the dominated majority not to resort to reverse domination. When the statesmanship of both Frederik Willem de Klerk and Nelson Mandela ensured that these conditions were satisfied, condemnations of the South African state and boycotts and sanctions against it rightly ceased.

 

Manifestly, neither of the above-mentioned wrongs applies in the case of Israel. Israel’s democratic praxis certainly has faults and moral failings. But apartheid they are not. Any conscionable person, who has lived (as I have) in both apartheid South Africa and Israel, knows this. Only hostile prejudice or rank ignorance can explain the charge that in Israel, as in apartheid South Africa, it is skin color or any statutory race classification that determines every aspect of one's human and civic rights  from birth to death: whether one has the right to vote and be elected or not, live or work in one place or other, study in one institution or other, have one occupation or other, be treated in one hospital or other, eat in one restaurant or another, go to the theater, sit on a particular park bench or ride in a particular  bus.

 

As for refusal to negotiate a settlement, no Israeli government, not even the present hyper-nationalist one headed by Binyamin Netanyahu, has refused this option. Self-evidently, the boycott campaign is aimed less at ending the occupation than at ending the State of Israel itself.

 

There is, however, a sense in which the South African case is instructively comparable to that of Israel. It relates to the reality of Israel's decades long occupation regime over the post-war militarily occupied territory known as the West Bank, or in Jewish tradition as Judea and Samaria. No military occupation can be morally benign and this one is undeniably no exception. Manifestly, its paramount tasks are not only to administer the region but especially to protect the Jewish settler population as well as the security of Israel proper. It fosters Jewish settlement while subjecting the Palestinian majority to a wide range of administrative and legal discrimination and hardship, including the severely damaging effects of sections of the security barrier, and limitations on freedom of movement and housing development. Arbitrary military suppression of resistance is ameliorated or stemmed only by the Israeli political system's inbuilt democratic inhibitions, especially interventions by Israel's Supreme Court, and monitoring by Israeli human rights associations.

 

Thus it is that the everyday reality of governance, work, protest and suppression in the occupied territory looks a lot like South Africa under apartheid, especially when depicted on TV screens, mostly tendentiously and devoid of context. Yet, no matter how morally deplorable, this is not apartheid: it simply is not the same phenomenon. If one is to draw lessons, Israel's occupation regime is equally comparable to the situation in any number of other cases of post-war occupation or ethnic domination in deeply divided and conflict-ridden countries, not least of all in the Arab world.

 

If, however, one does choose to make South Africa the comparative model,  it is important to know that, in the course of the apartheid regime's evolvement, the strategic goal of white ethnic supremacy acquired a rationale that professed to be independent of racist premises. Its proponents were a stratum of Afrikaner intelligentsia and clergy (known at the time as verligtes, meaning "enlightened ones") who spoke of "separate development" and sought to undo the racist underpinning of apartheid policy by discarding its "petty apartheid" manifestations, such as legalized prohibition of any inter-race intimacy and racial separation of public amenities. The revised rationale was survivalist; born of the whites’ conviction that this was a zero-sum game; a case of dominate or be dominated!

 

The most notable measure of this "reformed apartheid" praxis was the ruthless enforcement of the homelands ("Bantustans") policy.  Only in their own homelands were voting rights to be granted to the blacks, including those domiciled in white areas. This ensured continued white supremacy. Another measure was the 1983 tri-parliamentary constitutional reform aimed at co-opting those racially classified as Coloured and Asian (Indian).  They were to have their own separate legislative assemblies, calculatedly subordinate to the purely white parliament. Eventually, when the bleak realization dawned that, apart from moral considerations, even this modified strategy was not viable, the path of negotiation was adopted, culminating in the dismantling of the entire edifice of white supremacy.

 

Herein alone lies the relevance of comparison with Israel, for it must be acknowledged that there is a large political and civic sector of Israel which, for reasons of fundamentalist religious faith or zero-sum survivalist strategy, is obdurately intent on perpetuating and buttressing this occupation regime as a permanent de facto annexation. This sector is assertively represented by several ultra-nationalist and national-orthodox religious parties in the present government. Theirs is manifestly a policy and vision that replicates the theory and praxis of the reformed phase of South Africa's apartheid policy,  which was adopted as a survivalist strategy but  ultimately abandoned  out of enlightened realism, if not moral compunction. Characteristically, they too cast about for spurious arrangements calculated to ensure Jewish control and privilege – for example non-sovereign cantonized autonomy, devoid of Israeli political rights, or relegation of citizenship and electoral rights to the adjacent Kingdom of Jordan.

 

It is in this respect alone that use of the South African analogy to critique Israel is justified, and importantly so. Never as grist to the mill of those who labor to delegitimize and demonize Israel by falsely labeling it an apartheid state and subjecting it to sanctions and boycotts, but certainly as a warning cry lest perpetuation of the occupation regime cause Israel to replicate South African reform-phase apartheid; a strategy which proved to be not only morally reprehensible but also realistically untenable.

 

The writer is Professor Emeritus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, whose published works include Community and Conscience: The Jews in Apartheid South Africa.  

 

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