What can we learn from the Israel apartheid analogy?

Although there is room within the legal definition of apartheid for Israel/Palestine, that does not mean it fits the South African model, both in its characteristics and in resistance against it. Only by fully understanding those core differences can Israel/Palestine draw valuable and useful lessons from South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle.

By Ran Greenstein

What can we learn from the Israel apartheid analogy?
Demonstrators sit in front of the “Skunk” water canon, during the weekly protest against the occupation in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, May 18, 2012. (Photo by: Oren Ziv/ Activestills.org)

In a previous post I argued that the Israeli regime between the River and the Sea is a form of apartheid as defined in international law (“an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial  group over any other racial group”). This refers to the regime as an integrated whole, ruling both Israel ‘proper’ and the Occupied Territories. It  includes or excludes and allocates or denies rights to different groups in the population in a differentiated manner, based on ethno-religious affiliation.

Read part 1: If this isn’t apartheid, then what is it?

Having established the apartheid ‘credentials’ of the Israeli state, we must note it is different in important respects from historical apartheid in South Africa. This difference is related both to the nature of the regime and the possibilities for resistance and change. It is tempting but misleading to assume that ‘family resemblance’ leads all oppressive regimes in identical directions. Their specific historical legacies shape their current and future prospects in different ways. What are these legacies then and how relevant are they for analysis and activism in Israel/Palestine? To answer that we have to look at the South African experience.

Apartheid in South Africa was the product of a centuries-long history, which saw colonial forces (the Dutch East India Company and the British Empire, Afrikaner and English settlers, Christian missionaries, big landlords and industrial capitalists), collaborate and compete with each other over land and labour resources, and political control over indigenous groups. Both settlers and natives were highly diverse populations, and their encounters – spread over a long period and large territory – created a multi-layered system of domination, collaboration and resistance. Apartheid was a link in this historical chain, seeking to close loopholes and entrench white domination. During that period, the nature of indigenous resistance also changed, from attempts to retain or regain independence in the 18th and 19th centuries, to a struggle for civil and political equality in the 20th century, based above all on the thorough incorporation of indigenous people into the white-dominated economy and society.

The legal foundation of apartheid in South Africa was a racial distinction between white and black people (further divided into many racial and ethnic sub-groups), rather than a dichotomous ethno-religious distinction. Racial groups were not homogeneous, but internally divided on the basis of language, religion, ethnicity, and political affiliation. And, people forged important links across the color line. For example, white people were divided between English and Afrikaans speakers, and many black people too speak one of these as a mother tongue. Christian churches brought together some white and black believers in some churches (though usually not worshipping together), and separated them from other mixed groups of white and black believers. In contrast, lines of division in Israel/Palestine usually overlap. Potential bases for cross-cutting affiliations – anti-Zionist orthodox Jews, Arab Jews, indigenous Palestinian Jewish communities – were undermined by the rise of Zionism and Arab nationalism in the 20th century. This left no space for people straddling multiple identities.

Under South African apartheid, the central goal of the state was to ensure that black people performed their role as providers of labor, without making disruptive social and political demands. The strategy used to achieve that focused on externalizing them. Although they were physically present in white homes, factories, farms and service industries, they were absent – politically and legally – as rights-bearing citizens. They were expected to exercise their rights in the rural ‘homelands.’ Black people employed in the urban areas were supposed to commute regularly between the places where they had jobs but no political rights, and the places where they had families and political rights but no jobs.

This system of migrant labor opened up a contradiction between the ideological and economic imperatives of the apartheid regime. It broke down families and the social order, hampered efforts to create a skilled labor force, reduced productivity, and gave rise to crime and social protest. To control people’s movements, it created a bloated repressive apparatus, which was a constant burden on state resources and capacities. Domestic and industrial employers faced increasing difficulties in meeting labor needs. From an economic asset (for whites) apartheid became a liability. It had to go.

The economic imperative of the Israeli system, in contrast, has been to create employment for Jewish immigrants. Palestinian labor was used at times, but was never central to Jewish prosperity in Israel. After the first Intifada, under conditions of globalization, it was replaced by politically unproblematic foreign workers. In addition, a massive wave of Russian immigration in the 1990s helped this process. The externalization of Palestinians, through denial of rights, ethnic cleansing and ‘hafrada,’ has not been problematic for Israeli Jews. There is little evidence of the contradiction between economic and ideological imperatives that undermined apartheid South Africa.

Apartheid was the latest in a chain of regimes in which white settlers dominated indigenous black people in South Africa. People of European origins were always in the minority, relying on military power, technological superiority, and divide and rule strategies to entrench their rule. Demography was never an overriding concern. As long as security of person, property and investment could be guaranteed, there was no need for numerical dominance. When repression proved increasingly counter-productive, a deal exchanging political power for ongoing prosperity was acceptable to the majority of whites. Can such a deal be offered to Israeli Jews, for whom a demographic majority is the key to domination and the guarantee of political survival on their own terms?

In summary, Apartheid in Israel is different then from South African apartheid in three major respects:

1. At its foundation are relatively consolidated and mutually-exclusive ethno-religious identities, with no cross-cutting affiliations across the principal divide in society;

2. It is relatively free of economic imperatives that run counter to its exclusionary thrust, because it is not dependent on the exploitation of indigenous labor. This means that Palestinians cannot use the crucial strategic weapon of South Africans – the ability to bring the economy to a halt and threaten white prosperity. And;

3. Its main quest is for demographic majority as the basis for legal, military and political domination.

In all these respects it is a system less prone to an integrative solution along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa. This has implications in particular for the debates around the question of one/two states and the strategies to be used in the struggle to change the regime. Without providing an overall analysis, here are a few reflections on the relevance of the South African experience.

Why the differences are important

The starting point is the co-existence of two ethno-religious groups in Israel/Palestine. Israeli Jews are unified by their legal status as full citizens. Palestinian Arabs are divided by their legal status into citizens in Israel proper, resident non-citizens in Greater Israel, and non-resident non-citizens in the Palestinian Diaspora. The two groups are distinct by virtue of their language, political identity, religion and ethnic origins. Only about 10 percent of the entire population (Palestinian citizens) are fully bilingual. Many Jews have Arab cultural origins, but that legacy has been largely erased through three generations of forced and voluntary political and cultural assimilation. As a result, they are not different politically from other Jews in the country.

Given these conditions, the South African one-state ‘rainbow nation’, based on the multiplicity of identities and the absence of a single axis of division to bring them all together and bind them – unity in diversity – is unlikely to be replicated in Israel/Palestine. Elements such as the mutual dependency between white business and black labor, the use of English as the  medium of political communication, business and higher education, shared by all groups, and Christianity as a religious umbrella for the majority of people from all racial groups, do not exist in Israel/Palestine. These features of the situation emerged in South Africa through a long process of territorial expansion, conquest of indigenous people and their incorporation as ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’ in the growing economy. Such features cannot be created from from scratch by using attractive slogans that are not grounded in history.

This difference aside, if we consider ‘Israel proper’ in isolation, elements similar to the South African experience are evident. People of all backgrounds – Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews, new Russian and Ethiopian immigrants, and Palestinian citizens – use Hebrew in their daily interaction and largely share similar social and cultural tastes. In mixed towns, such as Haifa, Jaffa and Acre, there are neighborhoods in which Jews and Arabs live together with little to distinguish between their life styles except for their home language and religious practices. Without idealizing the situation, they have much more in common with one another than white suburbanites have with rural black South Africans, during apartheid or today.

What lessons can be learned?

Politically, this means a focus on working for a ‘one-state solution’ within pre-67 Israel as a state of all its citizens, at least in the immediate-medium term. Not an easy task in light of the recent right-wing campaign to enhance the Jewish character of the state, bolstered by this week’s ruling of the Supreme Court against recognition of a unified Israeli nationality. This means making Israel a democratic state in which ethno-religious affiliation confers no political privileges. Socially, the tent protests of (northern) Summer 2011 showed positive  but largely unrealized potential in identifying common economic interests and concerns of all people, as expressed by the Jaffa-based Tent 1948 for example. Activists could pursue this focus, guided by the Vision Documents of Palestinian citizens, and envision how these could be linked to the struggle against the occupation.

Can the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa provide lessons for the struggle to democratize Israel, terminate the occupation and extend equal rights to all Israelis and Palestinians?

Yes, provided we understand the core strength of the movement: its grounding in local conditions and reliance on mass mobilization in the streets, factories, schools, townships and communities. The ability to generate support overseas was based on the movement’s widely-recognized claim to represent the masses and lead them in struggle, above all through the multi-racial UDF (United Democratic Front), which brought together hundreds of community organizations, labor unions, women and student constituencies, progressive religious movements, white draft resisters and so on. The slogan ‘one person, one vote’ provided a banner behind which people inside and outside the country could march together.

The Palestinian solidarity movement sets out to replicate the achievements of the anti-apartheid  movement, but with no equivalent mass movement. In a sense, it acts as if the cart could pull the proverbial horses. Activists must consider the implications of the absence of a grounded mass movement in Israel/Palestine, when aiming to build on the South African experience. The key difference between the South African apartheid regime with its massive dependence on black labor power, and the Israeli regime which has relied historically on the labor power of immigrant Jews, is behind this contrast. Labor exploitation in South Africa led to the creation of a mass movement of workers and township residents, willing and able to overturn the apartheid regime from within, while Palestinians have been restricted to a large extent to struggling against the oppressive regime from without. Uplifting slogans asserting similarity of conditions and strategies cannot disguise this deep socio-political difference.

Identifying Israel as an apartheid regime, then, is just the beginning of the task. It is not a substitute for an analysis of the specific features of the regime, its strong and vulnerable spots, its allies and opponents. Strategies used successfully in South Africa may be irrelevant to the Israel/Palestine struggle if they are applied in a different context. Perhaps the most important lesson of the South African movement is its originality, having worked with no preconceived models in order to develop a unique combination of passive resistance, mass defiance, marches, popular mobilization and militant resistance. What activists should ‘copy’ is this creative attitude rather than any fixed set of tactics (such as the BDS) regardless of the concrete historical circumstances.

Ran Greenstein is an Israeli-born associate professor in the sociology department at the University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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