Israel and South Africa compared

I wanted to write a bit about one of the conversations I had on Star island last week, one in which we were comparing the issues of Israel and South Africa. The person I was talking with was Heather Gregg, a nearly-done doctoral student at MIT…
(The following is a slight revision of something I put in the latter half of the post I put up on JWN on July 27. But it was kind of buried down there. So I gave it its own post, here.)
The main thing people tend to say when the Israel/South Africa comparison comes up is, “Well, of course, it’s unlucky the Palestinians don’t have a Nelson Mandela.” My main reactions to that are threefold.
Firstly, it is quite true that neither Yasser Arafat nor Mahmoud Abbas is Nelson Mandela. But it’s also true that neither Ariel Sharon nor any other Israeli leader is a Frederick W. De Klerk… Something real and important happened inside the Afrikaaner community during the 1980s that enabled their leaders to accept the hugely radical notion of– hold onto your chairs– human equality, and equal political rights for all of God’s children.
Has this happened n the Jewish-Israeli community yet? I honestly don’t think so.
Secondly, just because the palestinians don’t have a Mandela, does that mean we shouldn’t pay any attention to their claims? Was George Washington Mandela?
And then thirdly, it wasn’t just the personalities of Mandela and Tutu or any other individuals that allowed the ANC to win in its struggle for fully equal political rights for all South Africans. Face it, Mandela was in jail for 28 years, and quite incommunicado there for most of that time.
What it was that brought the ANC’s remarkable victory in the 1990-94 period was the clarity and discipline of the organization itself. It was decades of tireless organizational and political work that brought them victory: work that succeeded in mobilizing people from all sectors of the South African population.
And that was where one important part of the clarity came in. The ANC was quite clear that the South Africa they sought was one that included everyone, even whitefolks, on a basis of real political equality. The ANC had credible whitefolks in its leadership. It walked the talk… And that stance was not uncontroversial in a black community in which “Black Consciousness” ideas were also strong…
So it’s important to notice the huge differnces between the culture of the ANC and that of the PLO or, even more importantly, Fateh. Clarity? Discipline? Where are they?
Obviously, organizations like these are the creations of individual men and women. But rather than focusing on any individual charismatic qualities that Mandela undoubtedly does have (and Y. Arafat notably lacks), I think it’s much more useful to focus on the abilities each of those men and their respective comrades-in-arms showed in the field of building disciplined and ideologically clear national-liberatin organizations… And that’s where the really important difference between them lies.
Having said that, there are still many, many parallels between the actons of successive Israeli governments and that of the apartheid governments in South Africa… Including of course their highly discriminatory practices on the ground, and the attempt that both of those leaderships have sustained over the years to keep their own people, and their supporters around the world, mobilized by reference to the threat of what the Afrikaaners used to call a “Total Onslaught” from the hostile indigenous populatons all around them…
Well, more on this later. Send in some comments!

13 thoughts on “Israel and South Africa compared

  1. Vivion Vinson

    I was under the impression that in the ’80’s, the Israelis carried on a rather persistent campaign against the moderate Palestinian leadership who were working along non-violent lines — and that, with the moderate leadership decapitated, only the more militant were left. I remember this from reading Congressional Quarterly, but can’t find the volume now to save my life. Anyway, thought this might pertain.

  2. Helena

    Yes, Vivion, yr memory serves you well. Back in the first Palestinian intifada (1987-93)the vast majority of the Palestinians’ actions were nonviolent, and thousands of nonviolent community activists were put in jail for extended terms of detention without trial then, as now. Any good accounts of the first intifada can provide details of those actions. One good one is “Living the intifada” by Andrew Rigby. Also, look out on the web for the sites of Palestinian nonviolence organizations like Rapprochement, Nonviolence International, etc.
    It also seems to me that Sharon is doing almost nothing to strengthen the political stature inside the Palestinian community of very moderate PM Mahmoud Abbas. So it continues…

  3. buermann

    One notable difference would be that the US wasn’t single-handedly maintaining apartheid, and eventually ended its support for it, whereas it has been single-handledly maintaining the occupation and hasn’t demonstrated any interest in ending it.
    And it wasn’t only that “only the more militant were left”, which presumes that it occurred through neglect rather willful, active support. Rather, Israel was actively supporting the more militant, fundamentalist groups in order to draw support away from more moderate, secular elements:
    “According to several current and former U.S. intelligence officials, beginning in the late 1970s, Tel Aviv gave direct and indirect financial aid to Hamas over a period of years.”
    “For a time, the IDF made no move to curb Hamas. Indeed, it seemed actually to encourage its activities. The reason for this was that–even in the early days of the intifadah–Hamas fought the PLO and the ‘leftists’; it spent as much time fighting them as it did the occupation authorities.”
    I believe the common parlance is “divide and conquer”.

  4. Adam in Montreal

    Hi, first-time poster.
    I have to say, I find the recent spate of Israel/SA comparisons to be pretty spurious. For one, within Israel proper I can’t see how the comparison can be made even remotely. Israeli Arabs vote, own property, serve in their nation’s armed forces, etc. This is not apartheid, this is existing as an ethnic minority in a liberal democracy.
    In the occupied territories such a comparions might make sense, if it weren’t for the fact that Israel is not, as SA was, in a peacetime situation. Since at least three seperate Palestinian groups are in an open state of war with Israel (Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade), the severe restrictions and punitive measures visited on the Palestinian population (however self-defeating and/or brutal) are in keeping with a defensive strategy in a guerilla war.
    Suggesting that the Israeli population hasn’t accepted “the hugely radical notion of– hold onto your chairs– human equality, and equal political rights for all of God’s children” is really insulting, on top of being wrong. A majority of Israelis supported the creation of a Palestinian state throughout the 90’s. That they may not be so sure after two years of guerilla war isn’t surprising, unless you expect Israel to behave in some manner unlike any other nation in human history.
    Finally, unless my history is completely wonky, I don’t recall that SA was 1) attacked the day of its founding by its neighbours, and 2) attacked three more time in the next thirty years (56, 73, 91), and forced to launch a pre-emptive strike in the face of another looming attack, (67). So in this case the “Total Onslaught” fear seems a wee bit justified.
    Israel’s been at war for the last two years. You can’t call it anything else, and you certainly can’t expect them to behave as if they weren’t. I don’t support the interminable holding of the occupied territories. I don’t support the continued building of settlements. I don’t support those policies of Israel that are racist. But neither do I expect it to behave in any way other than a nation under continual attack by groups who not only claim the right to their own homeland, but deny that right to their enemy.
    The Palestinians don’t need a Mandela. They need a leader who’s actually interested in building a country. The leader who decides to talk borders, security, and economic relationships (as opposed to security fences, the releasing of prisoners and other symbolic pieces of theatre) will be the leader who finally founds Palestine.
    At least, that’s how I see it. Thanks for the opportunity to express it.

  5. buermann

    I suppose you could say that South Africa at the time wasn’t being attacked: it was rather busy attacking other nations. Mozambique being a case in point, among others.
    The fact that there isn’t, in your list, a concerted attack on Israel since 1967 that would justify the occupation it would be worth bearing in mind that the vast majority of Palestinians weren’t even born at the time, and were thusly raised in a state of ongoing aggressive oppression and attack, which makes it hard for me to agree with the idea that Israel has been somehow been persuing “defensive strategy in a guerilla war”, when they’ve been persuing an aggressive campaign of colonization in the territories for some 35 years. A “strategy of retalliatory, cyclical violence” might be a better description.
    “Suggesting that the Israeli population hasn’t accepted…”
    Helena referred to leaders accepting such radical notions as a consequence of public opinion that lead to an organized political movement for change in leadership. This quite clearly hasn’t occurred yet within Israel, and it’s easy enough to find reasons why. At the very same time that a majority of Israelis support the ideas of a Palestinian state, decolonization, and a complete withdrawal and deconstruction of the settlements (even after 2 years of “guerilla war”), you can find large pluralities of Israelis who support ethnic cleansing, and clear majorities that support “voluntary” transfer. The parallel mindsets get polled on the Palestinian side with similar numbers. Yet while it’s easy enough to find Palestinian leaders like Abbas that can be more or less appointed by Washington to “talk borders, security, and economic relationships” there hasn’t yet been an Israeli PM who will take seriously the proposition of doing the same.

  6. Jez

    When, like Nazi Germany, will France stop wanting Jews dead? When, like Nazi Germany, will France learn that it is neither a world power nor a moral arbeiter? When, like Nazi Germany, will France learn that unfounded finger pointing gets them in trouble?

  7. jolly

    beurmann writes:
    “Yet while it’s easy enough to find Palestinian leaders like Abbas that can be more or less appointed by Washington to “talk borders, security, and economic relationships” there hasn’t yet been an Israeli PM who will take seriously the proposition of doing the same.”
    Yes, Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak are fictions of everyone’s imagination.
    They might not have made the “dream proposals” you would have liked, but in the real world there are (and should be) some consequences to launching 4 wars of aggression (plus the ’67 pre-emptive attack when the Arab armies were about to strike). The Sinai was given back, so can all of Gaza and most of the WB if the terrorism stops. Honestly, after a 3 year suicide bombing campaign, I think the Israelis would be silly to even offer the Camp David II/Tabah agreement. Rewarding terrorism sets a horrible precedent.
    As for the South African connection, the reason the world was behind the ANC and the non-whites is because they weren’t engaged in the wide scale attacks on innocent civilians. Palestinians stop that, and they get a state.
    beurmann also writes:
    “The fact that there isn’t, in your list, a concerted attack on Israel since 1967 that would justify the occupation…”
    1973 Yom Kippur war. Israel attacked on holiest day of Jewish calendar.

  8. Ariel

    Some of your statements are almost comically inaccurate. Here’s my top picks:
    1) Israel funded Hamas in the 1970s. (In real life, Hamas wasn’t founded until the late 1980s.)
    2) There hasn’t been a concerted attack against Israel since 1967. (In real life, there was the Yom Kippur war. There’s also been a virtually non-stop flow of terrorism [i.e. concerted war by proxy], part of which caused the 1982 war in Lebanon. The first stupidfada, after an initial local bent, was taken over as a PLO operation coordinated from Tunis.)
    3) Large pluraties of Israelis support ethnic cleansing. (Could you source this? Which political party calls for this?)
    4) A clear majority of Israelis support “voluntary” transfer. (Could you source this? If this is true, can you explain Moledet’s lack of a Knesset majority?)
    5) A majority of Israeli supports withdrawal; simultaneously a majority supports transfer, while a plurality supports ethnic cleansing. (How do the nefarious Jews, er Israelis, have majorities supporting mutually contradictory policies?)
    6) There hasn’t been an Israeli PM willing to talk borders, security, and economic relationships. (Did Camp David II and Taba happen?)
    I’m not even beginning to address the less comically inaccurate parts of your posts, such as Israel being considered a “colonial” power.

  9. Jax

    So if the Pals had a Mandela that would be a GOOD thing? Mandela was a lifelong terrorist, supported communism, still shills for totalitarian dictators, and… oh, wait. I guess I do understand why you want the Pals to have a Mandela. Too late, they’ve already got one, and his name is “Arafat”.

  10. lone voice?

    So, let me get this straight:
    If only the Palistinians had a prominent personality behind whom to rally (Mandela), that would void and nullify the inhumane and genocidal tactics used by them?
    If only a person of clear moral terpitude stepped forth from exile (Mandela), that would bring the Arab community together to accept the Palistinians back into the fold as Jordanians?
    If only someone stepped forward to coalesce the forces of the truly oppressed into a majority willing to peacefully call attention to thier legitimate issues (Mandela), the arab world would accept a jewish state in the midst of thier muslim country, and furthermore would live in harmony with them?
    What have you been smoking?

  11. zapatista baby

    Helena the problem with your articles is that they contain tossed-off sentences that will infuriate people who are pro-Israel (when they find your site).
    And since you offer so little in the way of hard facts or substantive opinion (just these tossed off remarks that blame Israel for whatever Palestinians do that’s objectionable, or these facile S. Africa comparisons) the ensuing discussions will not be productive at all.
    I suggest that you try to reassess your starting points and try to present arguments in ways that might speak to people who disagree with you (ie. presenting hard facts is a good start).

  12. Letter from Gotham


    Oh, lookit. Helena Cobban has a website. Earlier I expressed my disdain for the quality of most blogs. Let me not mislead: this doesn’t mean I like most journalism. Most of it is perishable garbage, good only for sopping up…

  13. Rhodan

    the main problem is that israel hasn’t taken the necessary step toward its salvation. deliver the arab squatters to the palestinian state which has existed since the last century, i refer of course to jordan. there is no viable other state that will not prove a thorn in israels side. i would have a lot more respect for israel if they would just bight the bullet and relocate the arabs who want autonomy.

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