Words are my treasure and my pleasure, so it is surprising to find myself newly amazed at the power which can be packed into a single word. Case in point: “Apartheid.”
Supporters of Israel’s current policies are up in arms over Jimmy Carter’s new book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. They find it too critical of Israeli policies, too pro-Palestinian. But, as the New York Times reported last month, “the bulk of outrage has come from his use of the word apartheid in the title, apparently equating the plight of today’s Palestinians to the former victims of government-mandated racial separation in South Africa.”
“Apartheid” has a narrow description stemming from its original Afrikaans use in describing the system of racial separation instituted by the old South African government. That structure of apartheid is over now, but the word casts a very long and wide shadow. What its shadow means is this: a system of pure, unmitigated evil, in which nothing nobler than the greed and privilege of one group drives the bitter and violent oppression of another. When I think of it, it calls to mind the extraordinary words of David Walker’s 1829 appeal to the world against slavery, in which he repeatedly references scripture to make his case, finally saying
I call upon the professing Christians, I call upon the philanthropist, I call upon the very tyrant himself, to show me a page of history, either sacred or profane, on which a verse can be found, which maintains, that the Egyptians heaped the insupportable insult upon the children of Israel, by telling them that they were not of the human family.
In much the same way as David Walker’s characterization of slavery, the word “apartheid” conjures unspeakable evil. The reason that many Israelis and defenders of current Israeli policy resist its application to their own actions is easy to see: they find it literally unthinkable to equate a nation founded in large part by refugees from the Holocaust, an inconceivably monstrous expression of ethnic cleansing, with one founded on brutal conquest of a vast majority by a technologically advanced minority.
And so we have a global war of words fought in an arena an inch wide, the space of 9 letters: apartheid.
Is Israeli policy toward the Palestinians a form of apartheid? Yes and no. The reasons to say yes are plentiful enough to impel change; the reasons to say no are significant enough to compel attention.
Long before Carter’s book was published, the British newspaper The Guardian featured an excellent two-part special report by correspondent Chris McGreal, comparing Israel and South Africa, drawing on many voices. This is a highly detailed, nuanced, comprehensive report. In many places, McGreal points out the differences:
Israelis are genuinely bewildered that anyone might see similarities between their society and the old South Africa. Where, they ask, are the signs directing “Jews” and “non-Jews” to match the “petty apartheid” of segregated buses, toilets and just about every other facility in Pretoria and Johannesburg.
There are conspicuous differences, of course. Arab Israelis have the vote, although they were prevented from forming their own political parties until the 1980s. They are mostly equal under the law and these days the Israeli courts generally protect their rights. Jews are a majority in Israel; white South Africans were a minority. And Israel spent the first decades of its existence fighting for its life.
And in many others, the similarities:
Others see the common ground in the scale of the suffering if not its causes. “If we take the magnitude of the injustice done to the Palestinians by the state of Israel, there is a basis for comparison with apartheid,” said the former Israeli ambassador to South Africa, Alon Liel. “If we take the magnitude of suffering, we are in the same league. Of course apartheid was a very different philosophy from what we do, most of which stems from security considerations. But from the point of view of outcome, we are in the same league….
“I am certain that it was in the minds of many in the leadership of this country that what we needed to do was make this place Arab-free. Mandela said to me once at Rivonia [a farm in South Africa where the ANC’s banned leadership, including Liel, met in secret], ‘You know, they want to make us unpeople, not seen.'”
One of the most interesting parts of Chris McGreal’s piece is his reporting on the views of progressive South African Jews. He writes that most of the white fighters against apartheid in the sixties were Jews (for example, that 5 of the 17 activists arrested in a key 1963 raid on Rivonia were white, all of them Jews, many who’d learned guerilla tactics fighting against the British in Palestine). It is well worth reading what these veterans have to say today. And also sobering to read of the many South African Jews who failed to challenge apartheid and of Israel’s relationship with the old South African arms industry beginning in the 1970’s, certainly no better than the U.S.’s.
Tactically, Jimmy Carter blundered in using the word “apartheid” in his title. The book would still have upset opponents, but faced less blanket dismissal, if he’d consulted a focus group and dialed down the title a notch, perhaps to Palestine: Peace Not Dispossession or something like it. He fell into the characteristic trap of today’s mass media, which is to reduce all things to simple yes or no questions. He gave the talk shows what they crave, one hot-button word to bat around, and now he can’t get off the subject no matter how hard he tries.
Too bad, because many words are needed to understand and resolve this complicated, achingly human story. Chris McGreal’s special report ends with a stark portrayal of the horrific option being espoused by an increasingly vocal Israeli minority: “ethnic cleansing” on a huge scale. As I sit and read those words, I think of the United States’ own heritage of dispossessing and destroying in pursuit of land. There is no question that the brunt of pain and terror was borne by the people native to this North American territory. But all of us are still paying a price for the blood this nation was built on. If we could see the world of 300 years ago with today’s eyes, what would we do differently? An honorable answer to this question would help heal the world.