8.11.2010

is israel an apartheid state? a south african perspective, part one

PLEASE NOTE: Seven comments were removed from this post through a Blogger glitch. I have restored the content of those comments to the best of my ability. They are reposted under my name, but with the original poster's name indicated, along with the time and date of the post.

At the Marxism 2010 conference, I attended a talk called "From South Africa to Israel: Histories of Apartheid". It was given by Joe Kelly, a South African historian and activist who has been living and teaching in Canada since 2002, and Clare O'Connor of the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid.

This talk was compelling to me for several reasons.

I was raised in a Jewish, progressive household; my parents strongly supported Israel, and certainly saw no contradiction in that. In the 1960s and 1970s, this was commonplace. I never encountered the ideas of Zionism or the Israeli/Palestinian conflict (or, as we thought of it in those days "Israel/Arab conflict") from the Palestinian perspective until I was much older. I then had to work through many layers of bigotry, myth, denial and confusion before I arrived at a new understanding. You can be sure of one thing: none of my understanding of this situation is knee-jerk or poorly thought through. Quite the opposite.

At the same time, my first experience of activism outside my original family was in university, around divestment from the apartheid regime in South Africa. I attended university from 1978 to 1982, and divestment from South African was the burning issue of the day. In those days I did not yet understand my potential as an organizer, so I can't truthfully say I was deeply involved in the movement, but I attended rallies, wrote letters urging divestment, participated in boycotts and pickets, spoke about the ideas to others, and in general felt myself to be part of the solidarity movement.

In the 1980s, I read a lot about South Africa, most notably an excellent book called Move Your Shadow by Joseph Lelyveld, which examines the effects of apartheid on every level of society. I remember Nelson Mandela's release from prison and the first real South African election as two of the great political events of my lifetime. As you may know, I frequently point to the dissolution of the apartheid regime as proof that activism can change the world.

In this context, when I first heard the word apartheid applied to Israel, I was shocked. It seemed so extreme. But the more I learned about Israeli society and how the Palestinian people live, the more I understood why the term applies.

Today, I know many Jewish people whose politics are liberal and progressive - people who would normally support the cause of an oppressed people to live freely and autonomously - who cannot brook the idea of Israel as an apartheid state. A blog-friend called it "indiscriminate, loose, misleading, ahistorical, silly, and unreasonably provocative language," which probably sums up all the complaints against using the word in connection with Israel, albeit in a much more articulate fashion than what one usually hears. As another Jewish participant at the talk said, her friends simply shut down at the word. My hope is that at least one or two people who feel that way will read this post.

I took notes at the talk, and recently interviewed Joe Kelly. An audio recording of the talk is posted here; I encourage you to listen if you have the time. It's about an hour long, divided into three segments.

Clare O'Connor's portion of the talk was also very interesting, edifying and well-presented. She explained more about how Palestinians, particularly Gazans, are forced to live. It's the second segment on the audio, and well worth hearing, although most of it is not included in this post.

What follows is a combination of Joe's talk and my interview with him, notes from one portion of Clare O'Connor's talk, plus a bit of the discussion that followed the talk. All words are Joe's unless otherwise noted; portions of my questions are in italics and brackets.

* * * *

Joe Kelly is a historian and an activist who grew up and lived in South Africa, and came to Canada in 2002. Studying for his PhD, he was very interested in slavery and the way issues of colour and class played out in the US South. He developed a specialty in US history with a focus on race and the African-American experience.

He began by saying, "I don't have statistics available, I'm not speaking about studies or anything like that. When I talk about apartheid, I am speaking from my own experience, my own observations, and my own comparisons of the two regimes."

Growing Up Under Apartheid: Some Personal Perspective

In my head, all the comparisons – US, South Africa, Israel – come together. I am reading Richard Wright’s Black Boy, particularly the sections on growing up in the South. It’s striking how many comparisons can be made.

Wright talks about the way, as a black boy, his personality was stifled by racism and the depth of racism in the South, before the Depression.

As I read, I was thinking of my own experiences growing up in South Africa. Richard Wright living right in the face of naked white terror. Within that context, there is a stifling of his personality, and his struggles to grow as a person and to become a real person, and not just a person who whites defined.

In my own personal experience of apartheid in South Africa, I wasn’t at the cutting edge of white terror, to put it that way. I grew up as so-called "Coloured," so there was that sort of difference. I grew up in a neighbourhood which was segregated, but unlike say, people designated as "Africans" – I'm using these words with quotes – I did not grow up in the "African townships," which were further removed from the city.

I grew up in Durban. The neighbourhood I grew up in was closer to the city, but the physical surroundings in which the neighborhood was located. Surrounding the neighbourhood, there was an oil refinery, a paper factory, and a chemical factory that produced noxious fumes and such.

On the other side was an area called “The Bluff,” a white, working-class neighborhood, which had cleaner air, the way it was laid out was better, the houses were better, and so on.

The thing about the feeling of one’s personality being stifled, it wasn’t so much about white terror for me, personally, it was the physical location of where we lived was enough to give that feeling of being choked, in terms of our personal growth, and our "spiritual growth," if you will, our individuality. Our sense of human-ness, if you want to put it that way.

So thinking about this in terms of Richard Wright, sometimes the effect of apartheid doesn’t necessarily have to be one of naked terror. Sometimes it is just the physical separation and the difference in living standards between people has that effect of dehumanizing people, who are living in the poorer section of town, in the despised section of town.

[wmtc: So put that way, it could sound more like a class issue that we would find in say, London, or New York. In some societies, it corresponds with race, but not only.]

There was a class issue, but it was racialized. There were black communities – and in South Africa when we talk about black, we talk about South Africa Indians, Africans and so-called Coloured people – were segregated from each other. And segregated from whites.

But the common theme is that none of the black communities were allowed to vote. That was the common experience. All lived in neighborhoods that were worse off. These were neighbourhoods that were segregated, as you say, on the basis of class, but there was a deliberate attempt to marshal people and to place them in a certain way that had to do with apartheid, and with race.

It was also to divide and rule. And there were often conflicts between Indians and Africans, Coloureds and Indians, particularly with youth gangs, there was often this animosity that stemmed from the sense of "Who is better?" But interestingly, no one ever attacked whites. There were never any confrontations between any black groups and whites. Always between black groups. I think that was something about the dehumanizing effect. You turned inwards.

[wmtc: When I first learned that under South African apartheid people of colour were divided into further subcategories, I thought, this is the "perfect" - if you will - divide and conquer strategy. It's the perfect example of people who have more in common and could be working together towards fighting the common, repressive power being kept apart and fighting amongst themselves - the very essence of divide and conquer.

When I saw you speak at the Marxism conference, and realized you were South African, I wondered which designation you had been given. It was a horrible thought, I felt disgusting just thinking it. But I realized that designation would have changed your entire life experience – where you lived, what education was available to you, and so on.]


When I was a little boy, for young men in my community at the time, we didn’t have schools that went very far. You were encouraged to finish school early rather than continue to study, because coloured youths would be placed in positions like carpenters and other trades.

By the time I grew up, there had been a school boost. By then, things were beginning to thaw a bit, the apartheid state realized that it needed to draw in more allies, to improve things slightly. One school became a high school, and you had the opportunity to go to university.

But when I was younger, my older brothers, for example, were trapped. That’s all they thought they could do, was to become carpenters and other kinds of tradesmen. That was their horizon. And this was not encouraging to feeling like they meant something in the world. Basically, they fell by the wayside. A lot of youths became involved in criminal activity, and my older brothers did that. And part of the reason was at the time there was no option but to leave school and work in a trade. A lot of youth didn’t want that. They wanted more, but they didn’t know what more they could get.

Next post: Part 2: Comparisons between apartheid South African and present-day Israel

16 comments:

johngoldfine said...

"Comparisons between apartheid South African and present-day Israel"

As always, I'll be interested to read it, but as a wise reader once said, such comparisons are ahistorical. Doing history ought to mean trying to understand particular circumstances, not organizing a parade of heroes and villains.

The reason "particular circumstances" are so important is that circumstances alter cases, as the lawyers say. That is, comparisons become less and less meaningful as the details of a particular picture are revealed. Comparisons are odious because they tend to suggest connections that aren't really there and so distort thinking.

I promise you, l-girl, whatever you write, I won't get into one of those debates I know you hate and I won't be 'offended' or stalk off in high dudgeon. I'm still honestly trying to get myself to understand something that on the face of it makes very little sense to me at all.

L-girl said...

Thanks, John. I'll hold you to the promise, because I won't debate you or anyone else on this - or anything!

Doing history ought to mean trying to understand particular circumstances, not organizing a parade of heroes and villains.

Exactly. We agree on that.

Doing history also involves placing specific circumstances within larger frameworks, in an attempt to understand the dynamics and systems that shape the world.

Where some see "greed," I prefer to call it "capitalism". I use that only as an analogy: I think it's more useful and more important to talk about systems than individuals.

I'm not interested in the story of one person's triumph over adversity. I want to talk about what prevents more people from achieving that triumph more often.

That's where I feel "particular circumstances" are not very useful. You're right, comparisons become less meaningful as more details are observed.

When we stand too close to a painting, we see only a meaningless mush of colour. When we step back, we can see the whole picture.

We might disagree on how to interpret that picture that is revealed, but neither of us would stand with our noses to the canvas in order to see it.

johngoldfine said...

Where some see "greed," I prefer to call it "capitalism".

Oooh, if only I hadn't promised....

;)

Nitangae said...

Dear Mr. Goldfine:


I myself am still trying to sort out the meaning and purpose of historical research. So the following comments are meant as critical reflections, not as attacks (just in case the impersonal nature of the internet makes my comments seem harsher than they were intended):


1. Comparisons may be odious, but they are hardly ahistorical, as a quick review of the AHA will reveal. It is very hard to find any historian who does not engage in comparison on some level. Thus, the question why China did not industrialize in the 18th century, or even during the Song, implies a comparison with the industrialization of England. In fact, the reverse, "why did England industrialize" also implies a comparison with other countries which did not initiate the industrial revolution. Many scholars, such as Goldstone, make this comparison explicit - as, on the whole, I think they should. Indeed, there has been some bad research, caught up in some of the problems which you suggest (see much of the Naito school, and a great deal of popular history on the absence of an industrial revolution in China). But of course much of it is excellent.

2. The very terms historians use often imply comparison. Thus if we refer to as slaves a diversity of groups including Choson Korean "nobi", Roman "servi," 19th century American "slaves" from Africa and Ghanan slaves (don't know the Akka word) from further inland we have already brought together a series of very different categories and treated them as equivalent. Comparison becomes vital, in order to recognize genuine differences between these groups - even, as some scholars do with Choson Korean nobi, question the value of the term "slave." Failure to make comparison risks the very problem you associate with comparison, as it causes us to assume connection were none may exist. There has been some excellent work recently in the AHA engaged in just such an explicit comparison (most recently between slavery in Ghana and slavery in the US)

3. Similarly, the work on the industrious revolution of early modern Netherlands is an explicit comparison to the industrial revolution of England in the 18th and 19th centuries. I could, of course, go on.

Nitangae said...

My comment is getting too long, so I thought I should break it into more than one section:
Further thoughts for Mr. Goldfine

4. The question: "Is Israel an apartheid state" is not a pure comparison in the sense of the comparison between economic development in Britain and China. In fact, the discussion involves a consideration of actual connections. Those who engage in this research point to interaction between the architects of apartheid in Israel and South Africa. In this sense, it is no more illegitimate to ask "is Israel an apartheid state" than it is to ask (as people do) the question: Were Japan and Spain inthe 30s and 40s Fascist? How similar are Italian Fascism and German Nazism?

5."Doing history ought to mean trying to understand particular circumstances, not organizing a parade of heroes and villains."

I have to confess I don't know what this comment has to do with the topic. Obviously apartheid is a loaded term. But it also describes a way of structuring race-relations and organizing society, and I see no reason why it should be illegitimate to ask the question "should the term apartheid be used to describe Israel?" We should be cautious of organizing a parade of heroes and villains, for a whole range of reasons, but I hope that this is not meant to imply that we should treat the past history simply as dead time, no longer subject to moral judgment and with no connection to the present. I disagree with this approach to history and morality when we discuss the 18th century, and would be shocked to see it imposed on the study of apartheid, a system of government which only fell very recently and which continues to survive as economic apartheid in South Africa to this very day. This would dangerously restrict the scope of the discipline of history, IMHO.

Thank you for letting me sound off

Cheers.

L-girl said...
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redsock said...
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David Cho said...
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L-girl said...
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johngoldfine said...
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David Cho said...
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David Cho said...
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L-girl said...

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L-girl:

Nitangae, thank you muchly for expanding on my thoughts in a way I could not have done myself. I much appreciate it.

Posted by L-girl to we move to canada at Thursday, August 12, 2010 9:27:00 AM


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redsock:

Oooh, if only I hadn't promised....

No need to play games. I'm fairly certain L would allow you to state your feelings on the matter (I could be wrong), though there would likely be very little, if any, back and forth.

Posted by redsock to we move to canada at Thursday, August 12, 2010 12:15:00 PM

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johngoldfine:

Nitangae--I can't concede the original point that Israel is an apartheid state (the term remains for me totally wrenched out of time and place.)

But you are very persuasive in demolishing my other little points. Your post was very humbling, but even in the midst of that humbling, I had to appreciate your handsome and elegant prose style and compliment you on the care you put into the comment.

Posted by johngoldfine to we move to canada at Thursday, August 12, 2010 11:55:00 PM

L-girl said...

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David Cho:

Crap. This is what happens when I have not logged onto bloglines for awhile. Now I have you on Google Reader which is a lot better.

What an informative series. I will go on reading, and comment as I go. You know that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is near and dear to my heart. My concerns about the role of fundamentalist Christians are only growing. Israelis are more and more willing to embrace them because they feel under siege and can use all the friends they can get.

I hope you will address practical concerns for an average Israeli who may be sympathetic to the Palestinians, but also gravely concerned with Israel's survival.

Posted by David Cho to we move to canada at Thursday, August 12, 2010 8:06:00 PM

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L-girl:

David, thanks for reading and please do share your thoughts.

I hope you will address practical concerns for an average Israeli who may be sympathetic to the Palestinians, but also gravely concerned with Israel's survival.

I'm afraid this post doesn't cover anything like that.

I am personally not concerned with Israel's survival. Israelis' survival - the survival of all people - concerns me. But if the State of Israel (the state, as opposed to the people in it) can exist only as an ethnically-exclusive (i.e. racist) state, then I believe it cannot survive, as apartheid South Africa couldn't survive, as Jim Crow could not survive, as British India could not survive.

But this post doesn't address practical issues of how. It focuses on why Israel can justly be called an apartheid state.

Posted by L-girl to we move to canada at Thursday, August 12, 2010 8:40:00 PM

L-girl said...

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David Cho:

Your point brings to my mind some conversations I share with my friends.

My conservative friends love to say they "love America," and loathe the government. Okay fine. I won't argue with that.

Why can't you apply the same concept to Israel, I challenge them. Why should I be called anti-Semitic for calling into question Israeli policy? Why can't I love the Jewish people in Israel, but dislike the Israeli government?

When it comes to Israel, how you feel about the government reflects your sentiment of Jews. Israeli government = Jews. Here, government =/= Americans. Weird.

Posted by David Cho to we move to canada at Friday, August 13, 2010 5:45:00 AM

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David Cho:

It didn't take very long after I posted my comment to see the scope of this series.

You are right. A repressive state cannot and should not "survive." The repressed should, but not the state.

Posted by David Cho to we move to canada at Friday, August 13, 2010 5:40:00 AM

Nitangae said...

L-Girl and johngoldfine: Thank you very much for your kind comments. It was actually very useful for me to sort out some of my own thoughts on the study of history. As it happens, I was just reading Benjamin, which meant that I was thinking more than I usually do about the importance of moral/emotional responses to the past.

Benjamin is popular these days with post-structuralists, but don't hold that against him:

http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/benjamin/1940/history.htm