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

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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

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