Soweto on the Jordan

Elaine C. Hagopian, Sunday 14 May 2023

In the first of a two-part series on the lessons for the Palestinian struggle to be drawn from black liberation struggles in the US and South Africa, Elaine C. Hagopian* explains why identifying Israel as an apartheid regime will not be enough to set international public opinion against the Zionist project

crucial factor ... in the demise of the apartheid state in South Africa was that the West had an internationally respected, popular and strong Black leader whom it could depend on not to threaten existing domestic and international interests ... neither Israel nor the United States need or want to deal with a strong and widely-respected Palestinian leader, since Israel is able to act as a guarantor of its own domestic interests and shares responsibility for US strategic interests in the area


From Al-Ahram Weekly archives: Fifty years of dispossession 1948-1998

Issue: 2 July 1998

The Oslo "peace" process was doomed to failure from its inception. Its flaws have become quite clear, even though there will be those who feel that the real problem is Netanyahu, not Oslo. Some may even claim that the major obstacle is Palestinian terrorism.

Suffice it to say that Oslo was an attempt to dissolve -- not resolve -- the Palestinian national question and the demographic problem Israel had recreated for itself as a result of the 1967 War.  Madrid/Oslo became the vehicle for consolidating not only US interests in the region, but also Israeli control of the territories captured in 1967 and their resources. By establishing dependent, apartheid Palestinian entities, the option of Israeli citizenship was canceled and the occupiers thus no longer had to bear the burden of occupation.

Oslo has not worked and cannot work. Why? There are two basic reasons.

The first is that Israeli policy toward the Palestinians has been "residual". Israel has always insisted on keeping land, resources and allegedly strategic sites that it defines as essential to maintaining a powerful and secure state. Hence, what is left over, ie., residual, can be "leased" to Palestinians in the occupied territories under a limited autonomy arrangement in non-contiguous enclaves.

The second reason is that the Palestinian leadership, and even a significant segment of the Palestinian intelligentsia, have allowed their role as actors on behalf of the Palestinian people to be diminished. Instead, the leaders have developed a mind-set that has "accepted", for the most part, to negotiate within the limits of what Israeli leadership and society will tolerate -- the current Palestinian Authority "rejection" of Netanyahu's disingenuous proposal for withdrawal from a small portion of the West Bank notwithstanding.

A number of observers have assumed that if it could be shown that Israel's current policies towards the Palestinians were similar to the policies of the pre-1994 South African apartheid government, then American policy toward Israel would be forced to change under public pressure, and the Palestinian cause would be warmly embraced by Uncle Sam. However, while it may be important and helpful to make this demonstration, we should not expect any radical change in American and Israeli policy as a result, even if the analogy were to become widely accepted. Indeed, exploring the correlations between the two racist regimes will above all help us to understand how Israel gets away with all it does, and why the Palestinians have let them.


Israel has often been compared to pre-1994 South Africa. In so many ways, the comparison holds true. Yet pre-1994 South Africa differed from modern Israel in four important ways. First, the white settlers had no historical roots in the area.

Second, they were a numerical minority in the country they ruled. Thirdly, they did not systematically attempt to transform the country's demographics. Fourthly, while the West had significant interests in South Africa, it was not ultimately and irrevocably committed to an Afrikaner-dominated white state. Another crucial factor that should not be underestimated in the demise of the apartheid state was that the West had an internationally respected, popular and strong Black leader whom it could depend on not to threaten existing domestic and international interests.

The situation in Israel with respect to these points could not be more different. The Jews did have historical roots in Palestine. Israeli Jews are now a majority in Israel. They did transform the country demographically, though not as yet decisively, given the consequences of the 1967 War. Moreover, while the West, and in particular the United States, does have a strong coalescence of interests with Israel, the existence of Israel as a Jewish state is not based on those interests alone.

The international community is strongly committed to Israel as a Jewish state. Although the international community, minus the United States, has also come to support the notion of a two-state solution, to date it has not known how to promote it. In addition, neither Israel nor the United States need or want to deal with a strong and widely-respected Palestinian leader, since Israel is able to act as guarantor of its own domestic interests and shares responsibility for US strategic interests in the area.

The similarities between Israel and pre-1994 South Africa lie rather in the ideological underpinnings of Jewish and Afrikaner nationalism, and in the consequent apartheid systems each has deployed in order to assure purity of and power through their respective nationalisms.

Afrikaner Calvinist belief that Afrikaners were predestined to settle and develop the land of South Africa, along with a strong exclusive national culture fostered through the Afrikaner language, gave justification and legitimacy to their expropriation of the land. There was simply no moral space in Afrikaner thinking for indigenous Africans. Apartheid was embraced as a way to ensure white survival, and was rationalised as providing an opportunity for Black development in tribal Bantustans.

The South African National Party believed political power to be an essential safeguard for Afrikaner survival as a nation, just as the major Israeli political parties believe Jewish power is necessary to Israeli survival and security. Zionist exclusivism, based as it has come to be on Abraham's covenant with God and the notion of redemption, has its own agents of intellectual legitimisation. Afrikaner intellectual Van Wyk Louw castigated his fellow intellectuals who formulated and accepted Afrikaner exclusivism and rationalised racist laws and practices as absolutely necessary for white survival and security over the decades. What Van Wyk Louw said of South Africa then is equally true of Israel now: "Any threat to it instantly call[ed] for resistance which [could] be stirred to fantastic vehemence by the urge for national self-preservation."

From the inception of Zionism, the Zionist leaders developed a vision and action plan that defined Jewish nationalism in the most symbolically potent and cohesive way possible. Rooted as it was in the recreation of ancient history and the horrors of the Jewish experience in Europe, it offered a highly emotive account of how the Jewish problem could be solved.

Only a Jewish state could combat the twin concerns of the Jews: on the one hand, assimilation, and the threat assimilation was thought to pose to Judaism and Jewish community solidarity; on the other, anti-Semitism. The Zionists understood, as too many Black Americans and Palestinians have not, that they have to combine a strong cultural/ideological vision of identity and society with political strategy and a community controlled economic resource base to support political action without compromise. The Zionists achieved this integrated programme in a way so compelling to Jews that no moral space was left for Palestinians in Israeli thinking.

This is not to say that there were no Israeli intellectuals to protest against the projected fate of the Palestinians under Zionism, nor is it to say the state of Israel has no internal critics today. There are in fact many Jewish voices raised both in the West and in Israel in support of Palestinian national sovereign rights. But as a society, Israelis are unable to break out of the narrow, hermetically-sealed ideological definition of themselves and of their Palestinian neighbours. As such, the internal challenge by Israeli Jewish intellectuals has never achieved anything like the scale and importance of white South African protests against apartheid.

Threats to Israel's survival and security are assumed and anticipated. Draconian measures are taken to respond to Israeli asserted Palestinian threats to Israel's security without ever linking Israeli measures to suppress and oppress Palestinians as causal. This can help us understand why even Israeli intellectuals who are aware of the consequences of the establishment of a Jewish State at the expense of the Palestinian people, believe the imperative of Jewish nationalism is more important than Palestinian rights.

For example, Hebrew University Professor Yehezkiel Dror offered the following response to a lecture given by Professor Noam Chomsky at Ben Gurion University on 8 June 1997 in which Chomsky had urged the need for an overriding commitment to justice:

"As to mending the world, not yet. This is my starting point, that I want a Jewish state here. We are either going to accept this value, or not. If we accept this starting point, as I do, and as I recommend my fellow Jews to do, we have to dirty our hands. This requires regret, but not repentance. We would do it again. Hopefully better, maybe more effectively, but fundamentally, there is no doubt that the Palestinians lose because Zionism is here. I accept that they pay and we get our values."

Iraqi-Israeli Professor Ella Shohat tries to explain why Jewish nationalism has remained so exclusive and why Jewish power is exercised in such a disproportionate way. Commenting on Edward Said's work on Zionism as seen from the point of view of its victims, she says, "[His work] testifies to a [sic] historical irony by which the cultural signifiers of Jewishness -- exile, diaspora, wandering, homelessness -- have become applicable to the Palestinians themselves."

She goes on to say: "The question of vitimisation is crucial for the representation of Jewish experience and identity and for the liberationist Zionist project. The suggestion that a history of other victims might be told, that there might be victims of Jewish nationalism, leads to violent opposition, or in the case of liberals, to epistemological vertigo. Zionist discourse betrays the symptoms of acute discomfort with the very idea of a Jewish victimiser, since Jewish popular tradition characteristically narrates its suffering at the hands of the oppressors."

Shohat identifies the ways in which Israeli and other Jewish intellectuals circumvent discomfort by drawing attention to the Holocaust, trying to associate all Arabs with Nazis, and by pointing to the case of Arab Jews whom they claim to have saved from the Arabs. These reference points are offered to negate the reality of Palestinian victimisation and allow the intelligentsia to feel at ease with injustice.

Given the powerful ideological traits described above, the residual policy of the Israeli state can be understood, but not accepted. In a cynical sense, it represents progress compared to the earlier policy of denial and the disingenuousness of the early autonomy proposals. The Israelis have always focused on those things they feel are essential for them to maintain a powerful and secure Jewish state. Hence what is left over, i.e. residual, can be "leased" to Palestinians in the territories under an autonomy formula.

The result is Bantustan enclaves without even the South African rationalisation that Israeli apartheid would allow Palestinian self-development to proceed at its own pace. The Israeli Labour government was allegedly willing to offer more autonomous areas than the Likud. But the point is not a matter of how much more or less. The point is that very little attention is paid to the Palestinian side of the equation. No one asks the question: What are the basic conditions of justice required and due to a wronged people?

In all of this, Israel has the support of the United States.

Apartheid did not work for South Africa, and it will not work for Israel, but for different reasons. Aside from the fact that Afrikaner apartheid policy was understood by the world as racism and colonial oppression, demographic reality and the continued dependency of white society on Black labour were the major factors that told against the continuation of white supremacy. DeKlerk was able to perceive the implications of this in advance of reaching a full crisis point, and in hopes of salvaging a powerful position for whites in a Black-led South Africa.

The apartheid system being established by Israel in the Occupied Territories is still not fully understood by the world as racism and colonial oppression. At the same time, Israeli dependency on Palestinian labour is gradually being dismantled. Palestinian labour is being replaced by foreign labour. Steps are constantly being taken to try to limit any potential demographic reversal. Palestinian labour can still be exploited, but in situ in the autonomous areas, and in collaboration with Palestinian elites who seek to profit from it.

Focusing on apartheid alone will not do it for Palestinians, and the Palestinians should not rely exclusively on this approach. Israel's status in the international community is different from that of pre-1994 South Africa under the Afrikaner regime. Moreover, it should not be forgotten that the "Zionism is Racism" UN General Assembly resolution was overturned at a time when the present Israeli apartheid system had already been forecast and was being visibly put in place.

Therefore, the first lesson Palestinians have to learn from the South African Black experience is that while their situation is similar, there are substantial differences that will checkmate any analogous path to a negotiated solution. It is these differences which allow Israel to feel justified in blindly pursuing its residual policy. Indeed, we should never forget that there are many Israelis, and some overseas Jews, for whom the greatest fault of this policy is not that it is unjust, but that it is too generous to the Palestinians.

Nonetheless, Israeli apartheid will fail because the area is too small. The Palestinians are encaged in enclaves where they have no access to sufficient resources. The result is to produce rage and violence on a daily basis. Even though Israelis outnumber Palestinians in the immediate area -- but not by much, being approximately five million to three and a half million Palestinians, including Palestinian citizens of Israel -- the task of constantly repressing and containing a population will one day mak the justification of this violence in terms of assuring one's own survival and security ring empty, as the quality of Israeli life declines.

Nonetheless, Israel seems bent on pursuing its present policy in one form or another, and the United States keeps looking for the sugar coating to make it palatable, Secretary Albright's criticism of Netanyahu's policies notwithstanding. What is needed now is not more confrontation, but a credible Palestinian vision backed by a systematic and effective strategy to offer an alternative which the world can embrace and support as best for both peoples and for stability in the area.

Over the past years, Israeli and American thinking has been neither generous nor innovative. True, Israel clearly tips the scales in terms of the balance of power. But if it wishes to exist in the region and enjoy real security and good relations with its near neighbours, it needs to find an act of generosity that would enable it to go far beyond its present residual policy. Although inadequate to resolve Palestinian national grievances comprehensively, a real two-state solution as an historic compromis might have worked, but Israel seems to be essentially incapable of forfeiting either real land or the control over it.

Engaged as they are in a strategy to dispose of the Palestinian claim to national sovereignty, Israel and the US keep reverting to failed policies from the past -- as witness the search for the ever-mythical projects which by providing employment for people might absorb their anger and neutralise their motives for political action. This tactic failed in the 1950s, and it has failed again today, in spite of the innovation of engaging profit-seeking and often corrupt elements in the Palestinian elite in joint projects, while simultaneously repressing and restricting the Palestinian people's movement and activities.

This is the same strategy that was earlier used against Palestinian refugees as a means of permanent resettlement. It is now being tried (to even less effect) on the Palestinians in the territories. Today, Israeli strategy for refugees is not even projects, but the reduction of UNRWA and "forced resettlement" in the Arab world. Even with the addition of an airport, seaport and new hotels in Gaza, there will never be enough sugar-coating for so bitter a pill, even though the Clinton administration keeps pressuring for these "extras", as if they were the key to getting the Palestinians at last to accept injustice.

Given the tenacity of Zionism and its adherents -- in spite of the existence of a small, liberal post-Zionist voice -- Palestinians and other Arabs must recognise that Israel will refuse to yield to the establishment of a fully sovereign Palestinian state as long as the imbalance of power favours Israel, and the United States still stands 100 per cent behind its Zionist allies. Israel, backed by the US -- failing a miraculous and sudden enlightenment on the American side, for which there is no historica precedent -- will continue to bring forward untenable proposals as at present, and the residual approach will persist.

The Palestinians therefore cannot wait for Israel and the US to wise up and take the long view. They need to develop, independently, a long-term strategy as subjects of their own fate. In addition to bringing Israeli apartheid racism to the attention of the world, as did the ANC, they must also develop an inclusive democratic vision of identity and society that can challenge the narrow exclusivist ideology of Zionism, and the exploitative policies of the American/Israeli alliance.

Interestingly enough, when the PLO adopted the notion of a democratic secular state in all of Palestine for Palestinian Arabs and Jews, it found no real international support. Separation by partition or agreement was what the international community supported. And this is because they were committed to a Jewish state, whereas the African National Congress could refuse separation, and the world accepted that.

Now, because of the failure of Oslo to produce a viable two-state solution, the international community may come to support a democratic secular state for Arabs and Jews in all of pre-state Palestine. This can only happen if the Palestinians can offer a credible inclusive, democratic and secular vision of that state. With this message and the exposing of Israeli apartheid, the Palestinians have a real alternative to present to the international community, and the conditions are such that the world will listen.

* The writer is a Boston-based professor Emerita of Sociology and a former president of the Association of Arab-American University Graduates. (An expanded version of this article was presented to the Middle East Seminar, Centre for Middle East Studies, Harvard University, on 25 September 1997).


* This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly’s special pages commemorating 50 years of Al-Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe when Israel was created on 15 May 1948. These pages, published in 1998, were part of a year-long series of articles documenting the history and nature of the Arab-Israeli struggle, as well as that of Palestinian dispossession and exile.

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