Israel’s not an apartheid state – it welcomes people of all hues

Equal: Ethiopian Israelis demand that the government keeps its promise to bring their families from Ethiopia. Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP

Equal: Ethiopian Israelis demand that the government keeps its promise to bring their families from Ethiopia. Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP

“Israel Apartheid Week [IAW] will be a trap for Israel and will move us closer to the liquidation of the Zionist entity.”

Thus did Radio Islam announce the launch of IAW this week and, in all honesty, it was refreshing to hear the purpose of that initiative presented in such unambiguous terms.

For IAW’s proponents, the key to Israel’s demise lies in pushing a global boycott campaign against it. As the thinking goes, just as white South Africa was brought to its knees in this way, so will “Apartheid Israel” eventually be consigned to history.

Amid all the triumphalist rhetoric, it is easy to miss how geopolitical realities contradict this sanguine view.
In terms of concrete achievements, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has failed thus far to make real headway, despite its worldwide reach and the resources at its disposal.

Since BDS’s launch in 2005, Israel has experienced an extraordinary surge in economic growth, the most impressive in its history and, in foreign policy terms, it has diplomatic relations with more countries than ever before. Regarding the cultural, academic and sporting boycotts, BDS has little to show beyond a few isolated, largely symbolic, successes.

BDS’s failure to date might be a result of its central premise — that Israel is an apartheid state — is so obviously false.

Apartheid in South Africa constituted racial discrimination by whites against people of colour. In Israel, by contrast, racial discrimination is not only prohibited, but sustained efforts are made to enable Jews of all hues and cultures to settle in the country.

More than 60% of Israeli Jews are not from Europe, but from North African and other Middle Eastern countries. Most Ethiopian and Indian Jews are Israeli citizens. The obvious question this raises is what kind of “apartheid state” goes out of its way to increase its nonwhite population (by encouraging immigration, that is, not importing slaves)?

Under Israeli law, being Jewish means that one was either born into the Jewish faith or has converted to Judaism. Whatever discrimination exists, therefore, is based on religious identity, not race. If the issue is “religious apartheid”, singling out Israel for special sanction in this regard, over and above Saudi Arabia, Iran or any other Middle Eastern state would be deranged.

One genuine parallel one could make between Israel and apartheid-era South Africa is in comparing the latter’s occupation of Namibia with Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. Both entailed the capturing, during wartime, of territory from an occupying colonial power (respectively, Germany and Jordan) that was subsequently retained in the face of international opposition.

In opposing South Africa’s occupation, Namibians wanted only their independence. They had no wish to take over South Africa as well, nor did they consider whites living in the country to be “illegal settlers” for whom there would be no place in a future Namibian state.

In the Palestinian territories, a diametrically opposite situation applies. There is no Palestinian “Freedom Charter”, no vision of a shared democratic future in which Palestinians and Jews coexist in mutual respect, peace and friendship.

In Gaza, Hamas demonstrates in word and deed its commitment to Israel’s violent destruction. Even the relatively more moderate Fatah faction in the West Bank persistently conveys to its own people the message that Israel is an aberration whose long-term existence can never be countenanced.

A core aspect of the inherent dishonesty of the BDS approach is in the way it persists in depicting one party to the conflict as innocent, helpless victims rather than as active agents in their own destiny who can, and must, play their part in bringing about a lasting peace settlement.

Israel’s continued presence in the West Bank and the blockade it is compelled to maintain against Gaza are issues that need urgent remedy, but only with a genuine commitment by both peoples to live in peace alongside one another can this ever come about.

David Saks is associate director of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies

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