Calling Israel “apartheid” puts the BS in BDS
As a South African, it was a privilege to visit UC Berkeley on 7 April as part of the American tour of Africans for Peace. I was able to get a sense of the scholarship and the history, as well as the activist focus of many students on Berkeley campus.
This sense of social justice is something that I recognise from my own time studying for a law degree at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg.
These were all positive emotions, but I sensed something else that I recognised. In speaking to some of the UC Berkley students, I often heard that Israel was an apartheid state.
This is familiar.
When I started at university, I joined the youth league of the African National Congress. I became involved because I believed in advocating for the rights of the poverty-stricken, marginalised black majority in our country. However, I also found myself caught up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and particularly the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. It started when I was elected to the Student Representative Council at Wits.
I didn’t have much information on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so I attended workshops and movie screenings hosted by the BDS movement. I went to these because I was told Israel mirrored the system of apartheid that had oppressed my parents, grandparents, and all black South Africans. I didn’t think any other people should suffer the injustices imposed on black people during the apartheid era in South Africa.
After being involved in militant BDS activity on my campus and in the rest of the country, I eventually ended up with a disciplinary action against me from the university. I helped to storm the recital of an Israeli pianist on campus. This led to troubling questions about the motives of the BDS movement, its goals, and tactics.
These thoughts persuaded me to visit Israel and Palestine in 2015. I expected that I would arrive in a country exactly like South Africa during the long years of apartheid.
To my surprise, I didn’t find any of the aspects that every South African knows about when they think about apartheid (literally an Afrikaans word meaning separateness). I didn’t find signs and boards separating Jews and Arabs, nor Jewish or Arab-only colleges, schools, and beaches like we had in South Africa.
It was even more shocking to find that Israeli Arabs are entitled to vote and serve in the parliament and judiciary, even as members of the governing coalition. In South Africa under apartheid, such a situation would have been unimaginable.
So the question arises, why claim that Israel is an “apartheid” state?
The answer is clear – BDS uses this terminology to attract black South Africans. BDS understands very well that any black South African, and indeed some African Americans that I met on my trip, know that those interested in the anti-apartheid struggle will be attracted to a campaign that claims to oppose apartheid elsewhere in the world.
I came to understand that the analogy of apartheid in Israel is an abuse of the memory of apartheid, just as it’s possible to abuse the memory of the Holocaust or slavery in a similar manner.
South Africa faces different challenges to Israel. Many of the challenges originated from English and Dutch settlers colonising South Africa and turning the indigenous inhabitants into virtual slaves. Israel isn’t a settler state. The Jewish population is indigenous to Israel, and are the descendants of refugees who were cast out centuries ago. It’s irreconcilable to brand original inhabitants returning to their ancestral homeland as participating in a settler-colonial project.
To BDS supporters, Israel was born in 1948 in a state of “original sin”. The centuries before 1948 are never mentioned. The complex history of Jews and Arabs, along with the Jewish return from Europe and elsewhere in the Middle East to their homeland, is ignored completely. Those involved in BDS need to know that both sides have legitimate rights.
As South Africans, we know that what ended apartheid was ordinary people and enlightened leaders realising that if we wanted peace in our country, there was a need to sit down and engage with one another and find a way forward.
The BDS policy of shutting down these engagements by using and abusing other peoples’ historical narratives will ultimately not bring results, just more conflict.
- Klaas Mokgomole is head co-ordinator of Africans for Peace and a former BDS activist. He lives in Johannesburg.
- Published with permission from J. The Jewish News of Northern California, jweekly.com