A few days ago, the author and activist Naomi Klein called for Israel to become the target of a global boycott and disinvestment campaign, modeled on the successful campaign against apartheid-era South Africa.
Those for whom the comparison seems unthinkable should consider Monday’s decision by Israel’s Central Elections Committee to ban Arab political parties from running in next month’s parliamentary elections.
Knesset spokesman Giora Pordes said the election committee voted overwhelmingly in favour of the motion, accusing the country’s Arab parties of incitement, supporting terrorist groups and refusing to recognise Israel’s right to exist. Arab lawmakers have traveled to countries listed among Israel’s staunchest enemies, including Lebanon and Syria. The 37-member committee is composed of representatives from Israel’s major political parties. The measure was proposed by two ultranationalist parties but received widespread support.
The Arab lawmaker Ahmed Tibi from the United Arab List-Ta’al explained “this was a political trial led by a group of Fascists and racists who are willing to see the Knesset without Arabs and want to see the country without Arabs.”
The disenfranchisement of the Arab parties (which may yet be challenged in court) doesn’t amount to the institutionalised discrimination of apartheid. But it does raise some disturbing parallels.
Many Israeli politicians see Arabs as the enemy within, working in concert with enemies without to destroy Israel’s fundamental identity as a Jewish state. Back in the day, White South Africans made exactly the same argument. The world didn’t understand, they said, the existential terrorist threat faced daily by a Western democracy in the midst of darkest Africa and they pointed, as evidence, to acts of violence that in some cases (such as the necklacing of collaborators in the townships) were genuinely horrific.
These days, it’s impolite to recall that the respectably neo-liberal African National Congress was, as recently as the late 1980s, described by the Pentagon as a “major terrorist organisation”. No less a personage than Archbishop Desmond Tutu criticised the ANC for its violence. One ANC leader coined the slogan “Kill the Settler, Kill the Farmer”; the rival PAC famously chanted “One Settler, One Bullet“.
The South African state saw terrorism as justification for both internal repression (with, for instance, the Terrorism Act No 83 of 1967) and for bloody cross border operations into states said to be harbouring ANC and PAC operatives. Underlying both was the fundamental insecurity of a settler state, terrified of losing its identity to the local people it has displaced.
Compare the remarks made late last year by Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni about the growing number of Israeli Arabs. She wanted, she said, to “approach the Palestinian residents of Israel… and tell them: ‘Your national aspirations lie elsewhere'”, remarks seen as an implicit endorsement of the notion of ‘transfer’ espoused by the Israeli extreme right. ‘Transfer’, of course, was a long-standing fantasy of South African state, too, and for exactly the same reasons.
But Klein’s comparison also has some more positive connotations.
Firstly, it suggests that global protests can make a difference. The Israeli offensive in Gaza might seem unstoppable. But so, too, did apartheid at a time when most Western governments hailed South Africa as a reliable buttress against the spread of communism across the continent. In the sixties and early seventies, only a minority protested against apartheid, and South Africa only became beyond the pale after years of patient campaigning. The mass demonstrations against the Gaza massacre suggest something similar might be happening now.
Secondly, South Africa also provides hope that the most intractable conflicts can be resolved. For years, apartheid’s defenders muttered that, yes, the regime might do some terrible things but you had to understand that, without a firm hand, the whites would all be massacred.
Israel’s not South Africa and Hamas isn’t the ANC. But the fall of apartheid does suggest that justice can, sometimes, lead to peace.