Helen Suzman, the Jewish anti-apartheid activist who died earlier this month, was long critical of South Africa’s organized Jewish community for its policy of political non-involvement during the apartheid years. When the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) gave her a humanitarian award in 2007, she accepted the honor with the words, “It’s about time.”
As Claudia Braude points out in her appreciation of Suzman in this week’s Forward:
“For decades, the SAJBD maintained a cordial relationship with the apartheid government. Believing that Jews should not compromise their group interests by opposing the ruling powers, the board’s leaders discouraged criticism of apartheid. This contrasted strikingly with the stance that American Jewish organizations took, in varying degrees and forms, toward racial segregation in the American South during the 20th century. Civil rights was a cause they embraced, even at the cost of discomfiting Jews living in areas where Jim Crow laws reigned.”
Not that it’s clear-cut. Over the past century, the relationship between black Americans and Jewish Americans has been alternately symbiotic and fraught; that relationship is the subject of a spectacular photo essay in the most recent issue of Moment magazine. The feature comprises, among other photographs, images of Jewish academics who found work at historically black colleges after fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe; Reform movement leaders carrying Hebrew-language signs while partaking in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famed March on Washington, and scenes from the riots in Crown Heights (and those from the cross-cultural reconciliation forums that the violence eventually spawned). Four pages are devoted to the President-elect, and his high-profile supporters and advisors. The prose that accompanies the photo essay ends with a quote from the speech Obama gave at last year’s AIPAC conference:
“There is a commitment embedded in the Jewish faith and tradition to freedom and fairness, to social justice and equal opportunity, to tikkun olam, the obligation to repair the world. I will never forget that I would not be standing here today if it weren’t for the commitment that was made not only in the African-American community, but also in the Jewish-American community. In the great social movements in our country’s history, Jews and African-Americans have stood shoulder-to-shoulder.”
Last month, a British Zionist group sparked a big brouhaha when it withdrew a speaking invitation to Ha’aretz columnist Danny Rubinstein after he described Israel as an “apartheid” state at a U.N. conference. Today, however, it is a Ha’aretz editorial that is trotting out the a-word.
Lamenting the situation in the occupied territories, the editorial says:
The de facto separation is today more similar to political apartheid than an occupation regime because of its constancy. One side — determined by national, not geographic association — includes people who have the right to choose and the freedom to move, and a growing economy. On the other side are people closed behind the walls surrounding their community, who have no right to vote, lack freedom of movement, and have no chance to plan their future.
Sure, there are similarities between the lives of Palestinians under Israeli occupation and those of black South Africans under apartheid. Indeed, in certain respects, the conditions Palestinians face are arguably even worse. But while the Palestinians’ circumstances may in some ways resemble those once faced by blacks in South Africa, the apartheid analogy ignores crucial context for why this is the case.
Unlike South African blacks, Palestinians bear no small share of the responsibility for their plight. If not for repeated Arab threats and efforts to destroy the Jewish state, there would have been no occupation in the first place. And if not for wave after wave of terrorism, there would quite possibly be an independent Palestinian state today instead of a West Bank security barrier. And, it goes without saying, constant rocket barrages from post-disengagement Gaza do little to encourage Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank.
But Israel’s foes do not deploy the “apartheid” analogy for reasons of descriptive utility. It is a term of moral opprobrium, a cudgel used to beat up and de-legitimize Israel in the court of world opinion. If Israel is like apartheid South Africa, then it is an evil regime that should be boycotted and ostracized, or so the analogy goes.
Ha’aretz, too, is using the word as a cudgel: not as a cudgel to beat up Israel before a world audience, but rather as a cudgel to beat Israelis out of their apathy about the very real pain and injustice that the occupation inflicts upon Palestinians. Ha’aretz is trying to tell Israelis that they need to do everything in their power to bring about the end of a morally corrosive occupation, that they must stop turning a blind eye to the dangers of settlement expansion and seize diplomatic opportunities to advance the cause of peace — above all, that they mustn’t be complacent. This is a message that needs to be heard.
Nevertheless, Ha’aretz is playing a dangerous game with its reckless use of the a-word. Ha’aretz may have decent aims, but Israel also has indecent enemies. And for these enemies, the a-word is a key weapon in their arsenal. Now, when Israel’s friends abroad seek to counter the campaigns of demonization and divestment, the Jewish state’s foes will have a ready retort: “Even Ha’aretz says it’s apartheid.”