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I won’t stay silent as Israel becomes an apartheid state

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WARREN LEWIS

As a young football player, I dreamed of playing professionally, but never at the World Cup because we had been banned. As the country became more stigmatised and isolated, I recall friends in high school talking about starting their lives in other countries once they left school. Some of my favourite artists and bands demonstrated and wrote songs about this unjust system. Finally, when I travelled abroad to study in the United States, it really hit home, as people asked me if I hated black people, and made fun of me by quoting lines from Lethal Weapon 2 and asking if I had “diplomatic immunity”.

Then an amazing thing happened. In 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison and two years later, after years of continued internal struggle and international pressure, the white minority voted to end white minority rule and allow South Africa to become a fully-fledged democracy. Suddenly it was “cool” to be South African. I would happily go on to achieve my dream of playing professional football and representing my country at international level.

Five years ago, I brought my family on aliyah. I believed in the project of creating a homeland where Jewish people of all persuasions could be free to live and practice their religion in the face of growing antisemitism around the world. I was proud of what the Jewish people had accomplished just 70 years after the Holocaust, and held it up as an example to my South African friends.

I vehemently defended Israel to acquaintances and friends around the world when asked about Israeli occupation of the West Bank or our treatment of the Arab minority who are citizens of this country. I was quick to refute the commonly used argument that Israel was an apartheid state. Whatever your views on occupation or the standing of our fellow Arab citizens, I argued that you could not compare that to the state-orchestrated oppression of black people in South Africa, where there was no vote, the Group Areas Act, poor access to quality education and healthcare, separate transport, and more. Regarding the West Bank, you might call it occupation, but you couldn’t call it apartheid as by definition, that refers to separate laws for inhabitants within your own country.

I can’t claim that I played any role in the downfall of apartheid. Yes, I may have attended the odd protest as a student, I may have argued my position in opposition at family occasions and amongst friends. Feeling opposed to the system, I readily jumped at the opportunity of a scholarship abroad to avoid compulsory military service with the plan of not going back, but I certainly don’t think I had the courage to become a conscientious objector and spend years in prison.

Most white South Africans my age claim that we were born into the system. We didn’t create it, and after all, what could we do to change it as young people? Over the years, I realise I could have done more.

A week ago, I read an insightful article by a fellow South African oleh, Benjamin Pogrund, a real fighter against the injustice of apartheid. It expresses everything I feel. If Israel annexes territory and forces Palestinian people to live in enclaves so as to navigate the issue of withholding citizenship whilst taking their land, we will become no different to apartheid South Africa. If we don’t grant people full rights, or force them into homelands and steal their hopes of being full citizens – be it in Israel or by taking their hopes of their own viable state – like Pogrund, I can no longer defend this country as not being an apartheid state.

As he says it, the word “apartheid” is emotive, and carries a lot of weight around the world. Until now, I feel it has been misused by those who would oppose Israel. If we continue with unilateral annexation, this is no longer the case. We will become a pariah state like the country of my birth, isolated by other democratic nations, and perhaps able to garner support only from other rogue nations.

“Ah,” we boast. “But Israel is a leader in technology. The world needs us.” You are wrong. We are not the only budding tech nation in the world. There are other countries who will develop the technology and take the opportunity to usurp us as the “start-up nation”. Our gifted young people will jump at the chance to work abroad and leave these shores. Businesses will take the millions – if not billions – to relocate, and rob the country of much-needed foreign investment.

I will not abide this culture of omerta, where it is frowned on as Jews to criticise the wrongs of Israel because we are afraid to be seen to be giving ammunition to our enemies. I want to live in a country where I proudly send my children off to compulsory military service to defend this country from those around us that would unjustly seek our destruction, but not to help take away the dignity of other human beings. I may not have a loud voice in this country – I can’t even speak the language properly – nor have any platform, but I will add my voice to the multitude of those who oppose it. I will not be guilty of the sin of apathy. As the 18th century Anglo-Irish philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke once said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

  • Warren Lewis was a professional soccer player in South Africa. He played for Orlando Pirates, Moroka Swallows and AmaZulu, as well as for Bafana Bafana. He now lives in Israel. This letter has been shortened for editorial purposes.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Jill Timoney

    Jun 19, 2020 at 12:50 pm

    ‘White guilt playing out in a totally different scenario.  What does the writer feel about the horrendous murders by the so-called "Palestinians" against innocent Jewish civilians, including children, in Israel?  He wants to give terrorists dignity?  Judea and Samaria are not "occupied territories", they belong to the Jews and were won fair and square in a defensive war.  Restore to Israel what belongs to Israel: all of Judea and Samaria,  and most importantly, the Temple Mount.  The "Palestinians" can go to Jordan, with appropriate compensation.  ‘

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