South African academics debate Israel, apartheid and the truth

A few weeks ago, the University of Johannesburg took the extraordinary step of severing relations with Ben Gurion University in Israel. It was probably the first, and certainly the most significant, university to take such a step.

The academics who took that decision are convinced that Israel is an apartheid state. They believe that tactics which helped to isolate the racist regime in South Africa should be applied to the Jewish state as well.

In an extraordinary online debate, one of the academics at the University of Johannesburg, Kim Berman, whose anti-apartheid credentials are impeccable, has challenged the boycott decision. Her open letter has been published and answered on the University’s “Transformation Forum” blog.

In reading both Berman’s original open letter and the response by Salim Vally, what strikes me is not so much what is being said, as what is being left out.

It’s as if we’re hearing bits of a conversation, broken sentences, missing key parts which would make everything clearer.

For example, Berman writes that during her experience living the USA in the 1980s where she joined the ANC, that “academic boycotts did not feature as a strategy at the time.” Vally challenges this, saying there was an academic boycott, and somewhat patronisingly mentions “numerous other references and a vast number of articles on the academic boycott which can be made available to you”.

But that’s not the point, is it?

If Israel were an apartheid state, then every means used in the struggle to overthrow the apartheid regime in South Africa would be relevant.

If Israel were an apartheid state, why not have an academic boycott?

The point — the only point worth making, really — is that Israel is NOT an apartheid state.

There are long articles by academics and politicians arguing both sides of this question. But let me add my own personal experience to the debate.

I visited South Africa twice in recent years, both times as the guest of the trade union movement. On my second visit, to Cape Town, I found myself walking along a beautiful beach with a leader of South Africa’s Communication Workers Union. He told me that under apartheid, if he’d be found walking on this beach, he could have been shot. This was a whites-only beach. That’s what apartheid means. It means you can be shot for walking on the wrong beach.

As for “apartheid Israel,” suffice it to say that my two sons were born in a hospital that serves the residents of the Jezreel Valley — Jews and Arabs. The staff, including doctors and nurses, were a mix of all ethnic groups and religions, as were the patients. There was no segregation, no separate facilities, no differences at all in how Jews and Arabs were treated.

Does this mean that Israel is a perfect society, a real paradise on earth for everyone? Of course not.

But if one cannot see the difference between running the risk of being shot for being on the “wrong” beach — and having your child born in a hospital full of Jews and Arabs working together — if you can’t see that difference, you understand nothing at all.

Context is everything. One cannot speak about Israel or South Africa without knowing anything about its history. If you do, you run the very real risk of getting it all wrong.

In his response to Berman, Vally writes of the enormous suffering of the Palestinians. The suffering is, of course, very real. He says that the Palestinians have no academic freedom. He says that “they run a gauntlet of soldiers, checkpoints, and the threat of arrest in order to be able to get to their institutions to perform basic tasks like teaching and researching.”

That is certainly true, and it is certainly a bad thing, and it is good news when Israel removes some of those checkpoints and makes travel easier within the occupied West Bank.

But where’s the context?

Why are there checkpoints and soldiers? Why is there a separation barrier between the West Bank and Israel?

Vally writes as if the two peoples have been happily living side by side, each minding its own business, and then one day the Israelis decided to become nasty.

It is as if there is no history of violence, wars, terrorism. As if none of that happened.

And yet there are soldiers, and checkpoints, and sometimes even arrests.

The occupation itself is treated as something permanent, that has always been there and that Israel at least seems committed to maintaining.

You’d never know that before 1967, the Israelis didn’t occupy the West Bank and Gaza — and yet there were still wars and conflict and violence and terror. You wouldn’t know that the occupation was the result of a war of self-defence, as Israel battled against Arab armies on three fronts, fighting for its survival.

And as for the permanence of the occupation, you would never know from reading Vally’s essay that Israel has offered – repeatedly – to completely withdraw from the occupied territories in exchange for peace. It did so at first in 2000 when Barak accepted the “Clinton parameters” (which Arafat rejected), it did so again under Olmert, and even Netanyahu has offered to negotiate a two-state solution to the conflict including Israel withdrawal from occupied territories.

From reading Vally’s answer to Berman, you’d never know there was such a thing as Hamas (never mentioned), nor Iran, nor Hizbollah, nor terrorism of any kind. You’d never know that Israel has been repeated attacked, invaded and threatened with destruction — and as a result has genuine security concerns.

All of that is left out, as if it doesn’t matter. And as a result, in a world in which there is no Hamas, no fascist regime in Iran seeking to build nuclear weapons to destroy the Jewish state — in that world, and only in that world, Vally’s article makes sense.

He accuses Israel of “violent occupation, apartheid, genocide and gross human rights abuse” — no less. The Palestinians, of course, are just victims. The Israelis — the aggressors.

I’m arguing for the importance of context, of seeing Israel as an embattled state with genuine security concerns. The vast majority of Israelis want a two-state solution and an end to decades of conflict. Probably most Palestinians want this as well. Labelling one side as perpetrators of apartheid and genocide hardly helps matters.

Calling Israel an apartheid state is the core of the problem, because it’s a lie.

It’s a potent lie, particularly in South Africa — and it must be challenged, every day, everywhere it is used.

Kim Berman has done a brave thing by speaking out in a South African academic framework, in defense of the truth.