In recent years, Palestinian sympathizers in the United States have waged a coordinated effort to encourage churches, universities and businesses to withdraw their investments from Israel and boycott companies with ties to the Israeli economy.
This semester the George Washington University became another locus for one such campaign. The rationale for divestment (at GWU and in general) is explained in the GW Hatchet by GWU Law Student, Fadi Kiblawi. He argues that the situation for Palestinians in present-day Israel is analogous to the conditions blacks faced in Apartheid South Africa. As a result, Kiblawi recommends that the international community respond with a boycott like the one waged against South Africa in the 80s.
It's not the first time I've heard the analogy and as a pro-Israel South African, I never fail to find myself disturbed by such comparisons. Countless activists that push for divestment from Israel employ such rhetoric. Their strategy rests on presuppositions of similarities between the oppression of blacks in pre-1994 South Africa and the conditions of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. At its core though, divestment’s basic foundation is riddled with red-herrings and faulty analogies.
In my experience, divestment activists often casually label anything from a fence to a policy, “apartheid.” As someone who grew up in South Africa, I often wonder how many of those who champion the term apartheid could accurately define its meaning or even correctly identify its linguistic origin. To date, I have not even heard the term pronounced correctly (often pronounced apart-hide, the pronunciation that most closely resembles Afrikaans is apart-ate). Too many words have been reduced to catch phrases and sound bites that cheapen their actual meaning and few words have been more abused than apartheid.
South Africa's ambassador to Israel, Major General Fumanekile (Fumie) Gqiba, seems to concur. Ambassador Gqiba, a former commander in the armed wing of the ANC liberation movement recently told a South African paper, “the term 'apartheid' is uniquely South African and devalues the struggle of the black population against one of the worst forms of oppression known to man.”
I'd like just one divestment activist to make the comparison between Israel and Apartheid South Africa to a black South African, such as my friend, Maggie Masipha – a women in her 50s who grew up when apartheid policies were most stringent. Tell her about Israel's "racist" policies that allowed for the appointment of Salim Joubran, an Israeli-Arab judge to its Supreme Court in 2003. Ask her if while she was sitting on the “blacks only” bench she was allowed to go out and vote, let alone play an influential role in her country's judicial process. While Palestinians and Arabs lecture and attend every Israeli University, it was illegal for Mrs. Masipha to attend any South African universities under the National Party's rule. Tell her about how Israel's draconian policies give Palestinian professors like Sari Nusseibeh (who recently opposed the boycott of Israeli universities by the UK's Association of University Teachers) rights to academic freedom. Ask her if these conditions are reminiscent of the oppression she faced.
Divestment activists seem to delight in quoting South African politicians and personalities that agree with their assessment of the situation. All these quotations can be countered by an equal number of quotations from notable pro-Israel South Africans such as Tony Leon, the leader of South Africa's largest opposition party. But quotations and alliances are almost always politically motivated and rarely speak accurately to the situation on the ground. I lived in South Africa for fifteen years (during apartheid and in its aftermath) and I have visited Israel three times.
While people may be eager to lower New York City’s high murder rate, one simply would not compare killings in New York to the Rwandan Genocide. Comparing Israel’s democracy to South African Apartheid is just as baseless.
Jaclyn Schiff is a writer residing in Washington, DC. She is a recent graduate of the George Washington University where she was highly involved in campus Israel activism. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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