A Jewish girl I know, after her final year of school in South Africa, went with her classmates to Israel for an extensive cultural encounter. At some point she learned that Jews and Arabs cannot marry there. “But isn’t that like apartheid?” she asked bravely.
She was told that this was because of a complicated ancient religious law but people could marry outside Israel and that their marriages were recognised legally on their return, as are foreign marriages (and same-sex marriages); this was nothing like apartheid’s Immorality and Mixed Marriages Acts.
Despite this logical explanation, something disquieting, a sense of something wrong, lingered in a girl born and raised in South Africa’s democratic, secular dispensation.
Comparing Israel with the apartheid state has been going on for perhaps 20 years. Now a new documentary film, Roadmap to Apartheid, directed by Ana Nogueira and Eron Davidson, and languidly narrated by Alice Walker, explores the comparison in disturbing detail. It is exceedingly uncomfortable to watch.
The long title sequence is in split screen: on the left images from apartheid South Africa, on the right almost exactly mirrored footage from Israel — soldiers checking passes, tear gas and sneeze machines, police beating unarmed civilians with batons, soldiers blocking the cameras with their hands, youths throwing stones at armoured cars, naked backs showing the wounds of torture, the dead bodies of rioters, burning tyres, bulldozers demolishing houses, evictions, tent camps, political funerals, weeping women — ubiquitous images found anywhere a state maintains its authority by violence.
At the World Conference against Racism, held in Durban in 2001 under the auspices of the United Nations, delegates singled out Israel and drew the apartheid comparison. The United States and Israel left the conference as a result.
But former Israeli prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert have warned that Israel is on the road to an “apartheid state” and former United States president Jimmy Carter wrote a book, Palestine: Peace not Apartheid. Ben Yair, former attorney general under former prime ministers Yitzak Rabin and Shimon Peres, wrote: “We established an apartheid regime in the occupied territories immediately following their capture.”
Although accusing Israel of apartheid is commonplace in the activist community, there is a long list of Israelis who have made the same comparison. Sasha Polakow-Suransky’s The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa shows the close historical relationship between the two regimes, adding weight to the branding.
Roadmap draws parallels between the Boer War concentration-camp survivors and Jewish settlers, between Afrikaner nationalism and Zionism (Israel received independence in May 1948, a few days before the National Party came to power in South Africa).
The analysis is led largely and expressed articulately by Ali Abunimah (author of One Country). Journalist Allister Sparks makes the connections from the South African perspective based on his personal experience of both countries.
It is hard to make a case for equating Israeli laws with petty apartheid. Israel’s Arab minority suffers racial discrimination (as Muslims experience in many Western democracies) but their status as second-class citizens is not law.
The apartheid branding gains resonance when applied to the occupied territories. Here there are highways between settlements that are for Jews only (and Jews are not allowed to give Palestinians lifts in their cars). There is the wall of separation that, by not following the “green line” defined by the 1949 armistice, has brought into existence Kafkaesque categories of people (such as “present absentees”), who need permits to go to their own homes and whose movements are controlled by young conscripts with guns.
The barrier is perhaps closer to the Berlin Wall with its grey military watch towers and barbed wire than anything built by apartheid. To argue these are temporary security measures against suicide bombers and not an attempt to establish a permanent state is merely to quibble about the day-to-day reality of the millions living in its shadow.
In the end the argument boils down to the right to land, which even South Africa has still not settled post-apartheid. As Sparks puts it, both countries “opted for a grotesquely unfair partition”.
Palestinians currently have about 12% of the land.
Millions of Palestinians find themselves disenfranchised, having no Israeli citizenship or a state of their own. In the West Bank they live in balkanised lands guarded over by Jewish-only settlements — great gated citadels. The inequality between the 500?000 Jewish settlers and the 2.5-million Palestinians who surround them is as stark as it ever was in South Africa. Per capita, a settler uses six to seven times more water than a Palestinian. Access to basic rights, health and education is similarly inequitable. Gaza is even worse.
The film presents the two-state solution as the creation of a Palestinian bantustan, quoting former South African president FW de Klerk: “What apartheid originally wanted to achieve is what everybody now says is the solution for Israel and Palestine.”
Roadmap has a clear agenda: “If it [Israel’s policies] is apartheid, why is the world not as outraged now as it was then?” Branding Israel an apartheid regime risks delegitimising its existence and this is where even left-leaning Jews become incensed by the label.
But whether one uses the label apartheid or not, clearly injustice and cruelty are at work in the occupied territories and in the forced removals of unrecognised Palestinian settlements (like apartheid’s “black spots”) inside Israel and the demolition of Israeli Arab homes in East Jerusalem.
The film doesn’t live up to its claim that “we break down the rhetoric into a fact-based comparison, noting where the analogy is useful and appropriate and where it’s not”. It does not note the limits of the comparison, which is a pity. It would be far more convincing if it did.
What it does explain is why many prominent South African Jews are deeply outraged and shrill in their criticism of the policies of successive and increasingly right-wing governments in Israel, whose defence of the indefensible, whose cynical policies, human rights abuses and disproportionate means of repression cannot but resemble the desperate measures of the apartheid regime.
For a schedule of screenings go to the website: bdssouthafrica.com