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Chas Freeman: This time apartheid has western complicity

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Impolitic as it is to mention this, in rejecting the analogy with apartheid in South Africa, the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen is not only denying realities on the ground in Palestine but also the principal and most awkward difference between the two cases.  South Africa’s whites did not have a dedicated cadre of coreligionists or ethnic kin abroad who labored to protect them from the consequences of their deviance from the norms of humane behavior as defined by Western civilization at large.  Nor, despite open sympathy for South African whites in the American South and among ardent anti-Communists, did apartheid enjoy international ideological support outside the neo-Nazi fringe.  Israel’s policies are supported morally, politically, and financially by large Jewish communities and a vocal minority of Christians abroad, especially in North America, which is where global power remains concentrated.  Without that support and those subsidies, Israel manifestly could not act as it does.  The dependence of South Africa on external factors was far less direct or clear.

These differences between South Africa and Israel seem to me to be crucial both morally and politically.  Cohen is clearly in denial not only about the realities of the Israel-Palestine situation but more importantly about the moral question raised by his support and that of so many other Jews who identify with Israel not just for the existence of Israel but for for whatever it does: is Israeli pseudo-apartheid entitled to and does it enjoy the approval and support of world Jewry regardless of how inhumane it is to others?  If the answer to either question is yes, it follows that the Jewish Diaspora and its Christian camp followers are as responsible as Israel itself for the Jewish state’s increasingly blatant racist outrages against Palestinians and other Arabs.  The corollary to that is that the Diaspora has a responsibility to prevent actions by the state of Israel that threaten the moral standing of Jews outside as well as within Israel.  (The Christian Zionist element is relatively immune to such discredit.)

At some level, Cohen undoubtedly realizes that "whateverism" on the part of the Jewish Diaspora sets up a dynamic in which global anti-Semitism and the extension of the violent struggle against Israeli policies to world Jewry, not just antipathy to Israel, are the eventually inevitable results.  Thus, having been established to protect and secure the world’s Jews from harm by others, the aggressive amorality of the Israeli state is now the source of an accumulating threat to Jews everywhere–not to mention others who support the Jewish state, like Americans in general.  Cohen’s reaction to this irony is denial, but widening recognition of it, consciously or subconsciously, seems to me to account for the fact that the most courageous and outspoken protesters in the West against Israel’s behavior are — with few exceptions — Jews.  To declare "not in my name" is to assert the values of Judaism and to deny that Israel is acting on behalf of either oneself or the world’s Jews.  Doing so recognizes that Israel is a foreign country and affirms self-respect that accords with the strategic interests of world Jewry.   In a just world that would count for much.  But in the unjust world in which we live, irony will surely become tragedy — unless the moral flaw it embodies is overcome.

This brings me to what presumably agitated Cohen in the first place: the movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel to combat "apartheid" there.  The arguments against boycott, disinvestment, and sanctions in the case of South Africa reflected very significant differences in the South African and Israeli situations and would be hard to make with respect to Israel. 

Afrikaner society was ingrown and largely detached from the broader world of the West; to boycott it was arguably to shame its amour-prôpre at the cost of deepening its isolation and reducing the active challenge to its erroneous policy premises.  Israeli society is among the most cosmopolitan and connected in today’s world; the impact of ostracism on it would be far less problematic.  In South Africa, under the Sullivan principles, foreign investors were committed to affirmative action programs to erode apartheid; their withdrawal had the immediate effect of worsening things for the individual victims of apartheid.  In Israel, there are no affirmative action programs to speak of, nor do foreign investors act to frustrate the expansionism of the settlers or to dissuade the state from supporting them. On the contrary, many of them are among the most vigorous supporters of the state’s abuses of its Palestinian subjects.  South Africa enjoyed no foreign subsidies. In South Africa, sanctions (outside the sports arena) were incremental and largely ineffectual until they finally embraced the financial sphere. Uncertainty about loans and the value of the rand had a sharp effect on business confidence and the lifestyles of the rich, which depended on access to foreign banking services that came to be seen as in jeopardy.  Israel is far more dependent on foreign financing, including subsidies.  The impact of carefully designed sanctions would be far more immediate.  That would not incidentally mitigate the negative effects of sanctions on the long-term economic structure, a problem that has bedeviled the ability of post-apartheid South Africa to compete internationally and to provide the growth in employment necessary to overcome past injustices.

Finally, had apartheid ended in tragedy, as it might well have, Euro-Americans could justly have been accused of a moral error of omission, in that we had failed to intervene to prevent our wayward offspring in southern Africa from perpetrating gross injustices that were ultimately intolerable to the region’s indigenous peoples as well as to the world at large.  But, if Israel’s policies are self-destructive and ultimately menacing to those who back them, North America and Europe are guilty of errors of commission.  We do more than wring our hands while sitting on them.  We are fully complicit in these policies.  Should tragedy ensue, what would those who actively aided and abetted Israeli conduct offer by way of an excuse?

For all these reasons, it seems to me, the case for both the appropriateness and the efficacy of foreign pressure for change on Israel is very much stronger than it was in the case of South Africa.  The question remains, however, at what point will those with the greatest stake in the reemergence of a humane Israel that burnishes rather than blackens the moral standing of Judaism and that discredits rather than invites anti-Semitism recognize that stake and act to secure it?  That’s such a tough question that I confess to a bit of sympathy for Cohen and others now so obviously struggling to sustain the comfort of collective denial.

Chas Freeman
About Chas Freeman

Chas Freeman is a former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, co-chair of the U.S. China Policy Foundation, and a past president of the Middle East Policy Council. He is also the author of two books on foreign policy, "Interesting Times" and "America's Misadventures in the Middle East," published by Just World Books.

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