Editor’s note: In the new collection, Apartheid Israel: The Politics of an Analogy, twenty scholars of Africa and its diaspora reflect on the similarities and differences between apartheid-era South Africa and contemporary Israel, with an eye to strengthening and broadening today’s movement for justice in Palestine. Melissa Levin’s essay is an excerpt from that Haymarket publication.
November 1980. The room could be forgiven for its distinctly seventies style. It was hardly into the following decade, and design could still take a deep breath before moving on. It was also small-town South Africa—not known for its capacity to shift with the times. The sunken lounge with its chocolate-brown carpets and heavy cream-and-brown drapes was the adult domain. It was a warm venue, if slightly off-limits to the children.
I must have been nine; always precocious, always delighting in the positive attention of the adults. “Is it,” I asked, “Is it good for us?” The adults paused the conversation to notice me for the first time. They smiled warmly. I smiled proudly back. I had cut to the chase and asked the question that was being skirted—the pivotal question that I’d based on statements I had heard often in the past.
“Yes, my darling, yes, it is good for us.” I breathed deeply, satisfied, that my people were okay in a world that was generally not.
The question was about the outcome of the election in the United States. Ronald Reagan had won against the derisively identified “peanut farmer,” Jimmy Carter. Reagan’s victory ushered in a renaissance for the right wing that would remain secure even, or especially, through the brief interlude of third-way politics in the 1990s, long after he was gone. At the time, Reagan’s victory was deemed “good for us.” “Us” were the survivors of the Holocaust—the children and grandchildren of the slaughtered or near-slaughtered. “Us.” We were the tribe that internalized the message of the Nazis that we were once weak, that we had once walked like lambs to the slaughter; we believed that we had been lulled into a sense of complacency by the liberal emancipation laws of Germany. We were now the “new” Jews who understood that we were despised (always had been, always would be) by the rest of humanity. But we would meet that hatred with a vigilance and determination of reborn Macabees. That’s who Ronald Reagan was good for—those muscular, anti-nebbish, Zionist new Jews in general. And he was very good for the South African new Jews in particular.
The chocolate-brown sunken lounge didn’t survive the twentieth century. But this acute sense of imminent danger was only bolstered by the collapse of apartheid and the post-state twenty-first-century mode of warfare unleashed against the West. Could we be forgiven for this acute sense of danger infecting every which way we see the world? I, too, have inherited the visceral fear of annihilation. There is enough historical evidence of Jews as the perpetual scapegoat to cause some trepidation. This history has been reinforced in everyday confrontations with sometimes subtle and often explicit expressions of anti-Semitism from a variety of sources (including reconstructed and unreconstructed right-wingers and from people I have considered comrades on the left). It is this sense of imminent extinction that perpetuates the nationalist fervor of Israel today. Growing up, I believed that Zionism was the articulation of our deepest longing to return to the land of our ancestors. I thought that this was our only opportunity for Jewish survival.
This idea was bound to the myth that Israel was an empty land, waiting for our return. The accompanying yet contradictory myth was that those who were there wanted our death. The portrait of an unpopulated populated landscape was a narrative I easily understood from the other colonial education I was exposed to in 1980s South African history books. But I was never as invested in the South African story as I was in the Israeli one. South Africa, like any other place outside of Israel, could never be trusted as a refuge for Jews. We grew up with a deep sense of unbelonging and longing for places that have been stolen and other places that had been promised. The nostalgia for the shtetl did not translate into demands for its return but for the possibility of an eternal home for the Jews. And life was only possible elsewhere with the insurance policy that Israel represents.
These days, the idea that what is now Israel was unpopulated is held by only the most unread nationalists. But the notion that only Israel’s existence can secure Jewish life on earth remains steadfast. Indeed, this sense of existential crisis leads latter-day Israeli nationalist historians to embrace Israel even at the expense of its indigenous population. Posing his own question, “Is it colonialism?” Ari Shavit responds, “If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck.” But it is a duck that Shavit is willing to live with because, he argues, there would be no Jews if it weren’t for Israel. For him, the payment in Palestinians is worth it for Jewish survival.
The argument that the existence of Jews everywhere is so intimately tied to the existence of Israel as a Jewish state has cemented a support base the world over. This is what Zionism as a nationalist project cultivated that other settler-colonialisms never had—a “diaspora.” The very idea of a diaspora as a given rather than a construct of political necessity has fueled the ferocity with which Israel is shielded from criticism. It produces an “us” that extends far beyond the (unfixed) boundaries of the state. And while deep divisions mark the polity; while the seculars and Haredis fight each other, and while the right and left schism deepens; while racism is pervasive in the state (including, but not limited to the abduction of Yemeni Jewish children in the early 1950s as a project of Ashkenazi power); while prime ministers are assassinated and everyday politics of venality and corruption threaten the unity of the state, exile’s purity sustains the narrative of the international obligation for a Jewish state to exist. The narrative is steadfast, and no matter what happens, how it happens, why it happens, the default set of assumptions and arguments establishes itself quickly. Only a Pavlovian narrative would be able to answer in the affirmative that the current dispensation in Israel is good for “us,” that the colonization of others is the only way to resolve the historic denigration of the Jews. For that set of assumptions functions to dehumanize Palestinians, and, in turn, to dehumanize the “us.”
Edward Said has thought about the invidious position of Palestinians in the global imaginary. Palestinians struggle to find a place within a narrative of liberation in part due to the impossibility of being a victim to the ultimate victim. Auschwitz fixes the status of Jews as definitive of the wounded and, in so doing, vanishes the trauma of those who would claim to be injured by them. There are additional ways in which Palestinians’ victimization is discursively refashioned into the perpetual nonvictim of the perpetual victim. Golda Meir’s refrain about how Israel can never forgive the Palestinians for making them kill their children is often rehearsed as justification for what would otherwise be regarded as the use of brute force. It’s a rather cynical move to steal their land, force them into exile, and suggest that they bear responsibility for their pain. A recent incarnation of this is the “human shield” defense for the massacre of civilians. Even worse is the line from the summer of 2014 that calls on peaceful people the world over to “Stand with Israel. Mourn with Gaza.” No land, no freedom. And those who maintain the landlessness and incarceration even steal their dead. The only way for Palestinians to be viewed as victims is if they suffer at the hands of the fighters. The image of the victim here is the silenced, acquiescent, immobilized, and harmless. The victim does not fight back. The victim does not lob Katyushas into Sderot. That person resides in the domain of co-conspirator in an existential battle of wits. But the ambiguity of victimhood remains the lifeblood of the Israeli state—to be a Jew is to be the ultimate victim in perpetuity and only the nonvictim (but also nonperpetrator) state can shield her from harm.
But there is also another way in which Palestinians are denied their victimhood. Religiosity has played a large part in the colonizing impulse. In South Africa, the Calvinists established a system of capitalist white supremacy that subscribed to the idea that Black people were designed as the biblical “hewers of wood and drawers of water.” Their own version of the promised land divinely endorsed special privileges for the settlers and destined all who were in their way to their ordained hell on earth. While the religious right-wing fundamentalists in Israel and the “diaspora” may be unexceptional in regard to invoking subjugation justified by the heavens, they stand alone in their impulse to obliterating the subjugated. The battle for the so-called land of Israel is denied its politics, its history, its conjunctural determinants and read as a biblical battle. Palestinians in particular and Muslims in general are cast in this script as a contemporary manifestation of biblical foes—much like the crusaders or Nazis have been. In this sense too then, Palestinians can only ever be aggressors.
So every second summer, when Israel “mows the lawn” in Gaza, it can count on its diasporic army to impulsively support its aggression as defensive. That same army turns a blind eye to continuous expropriation of Palestinian land for settlement in the West Bank. Absent Pavlov, this perpetual colonization leaves open three options for Jewish life in that land:
1. A unitary, binational state in Israel/Palestine (increasingly, a two-state solution is rendered impossible by the tactics of the Israeli state); or
2. The expulsion of Palestinians from the land; or
3. The genocide of Palestinians.
And beware the person who suggests that the first option is in the interest of humanity in general and of Jews in particular. For suggesting much less—that “we” ought to consider what “we” would do if we lived our entire lives under occupation—I was recently subjected to vitriol, shaming, name-calling antidemocratic bullying that descended even into the attempt to invoke the perspective of my beloved father, who died not too long ago from a rapacious illness. The invocation of the dead is a tactic familiar to nationalism everywhere. It is obscene in its compulsive repetition of the harm done to them. We can mostly ignore the rantings of those who pit their lives above the lives of others. But what was compelling in numerous hate letters I received (for the “self-hating” imagining of Palestinians as human beings) is the argument that what Palestinians need is a Nelson Mandela.
I have thought hard about what is meant by that. The assumption must have been that I do understand, since there was no explanation forthcoming. But I don’t know for sure. I have worked for Mandela, I have been an activist in the organization that he led, and I was very present as a participant in the early transition from apartheid to democracy in South Africa. So it is incredibly compelling for me to understand what that transition has meant to the many adults I shared space with in the brown, sunken lounge.
The obvious response to such a stand-alone, noncontextualized call would be: “Well, there may be dozens of Mandelas languishing in Israeli prisons. Because, recall that Mandela, too, was regarded as a terrorist who was locked away for the whole of his mid-life.” But to deconstruct that further: What do previous apartheid citizens and current Zionists mean when they say we need a Mandela in the Middle East? I think they are not saying the following:
1. We need a Mandela who will fight for freedom for the oppressed masses.
2. We need a Mandela who will fight for freedom against colonial settlers.
3. We need a Mandela who will radicalize the youth movement and build the ANC into a fighting force for change.
4. We need a Mandela who will build a people’s army.
5. We need a Mandela who will stand up in solidarity with the oppressed people of the globe (including the Palestinians).
6. We need a Mandela who will be nurtured by, and in turn help build a revolutionary anticolonial movement.
7. We need a Mandela who will negotiate a unitary, nonracial and democratic state relegating the Bantustan system to the scrap yard of history.
8. We need a Mandela who is eventually released from prison along with his comrades and his organization (and others) unbanned through the combined pressures of internal mobilization (like, for instance, the intifada) and international mobilization (like, for instance, BDS).
I think maybe they do want the Mandela who tentatively birthed the post-colony. And in that cautiousness left so many of its institutions intact. They want the Mandela who stretched out his arms to embrace us all and helped us believe the fiction that apartheid was just about people not being nice to each other. That Mandela who expected nothing from the oppressors and everything from the oppressed, is the one my “interlocutors” want in the Middle East. By insisting on the magnanimity of the oppressed for any kind of conciliation to occur suggests a singular refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of their claims or the illegitimacy of colonial counterclaims.
There were many other conversations from the chocolate-brown sunken lounge that I recall—the demonization of the ANC fighters, the “why are we singled out when everyone is racist” talk, the “Blacks have so many other countries to go to” talk, the conversation about how awful the rest of Africa is and how much better off Blacks in South Africa are. Currently, the perspectives that reject the analogy of Israel–apartheid misrecognize not only the colonial project in Palestine, but also the character of South African apartheid itself. Ethiopian Jews are often paraded as evidence that Israel is not an apartheid state. Or the outspoken collaborator will speak to the vicious character of Palestinian liberation organizations. These may rather be evidence of the significant reversal for the decolonization project in South Africa. Parading Blacks whom we hold hands with and who speak on our behalf says nothing about institutions of racism and settler-colonialism that dispossess people of land, curtail their freedoms, actively endeavor to underdevelop them, and seek to redefine and limit their cultural horizons.
So is it apartheid? A little bit, but not quite. It is settler-colonial. Of that, the historical record is clear. But it is characteristically settler-colonial in a post–Cold War, postcolonial world. It is the last direct colony—a twenty-first-century aberration of a twentieth-century form of governmentality. It finds itself justified by a formidable global arms industry, its war economy holding it tightly together. It has cultivated a distinct hatred for the Other that apartheid South Africa never needed to produce. It has made nonsectarian, nonracial organizing an impossibility, in a way that could only be a wet dream of the South African white supremacists but unfeasible for its pragmatists. In that case, the colonized were disposable, but not in their entirety. This is where Israel departs from the apartheid South African experience and probably resembles more the colonization of places like Australia and the early colonization of the Cape.
Of course, settler colonies themselves have historically been produced for multiple reasons, an important one being how to dispense with Europe’s own disposable people without resorting to the unhappy extreme of extermination.
And Jews, we must acknowledge, have been rendered by Europe as superfluous of a special type. The unfortunate response of Zionism to the trauma of the Shoah is that it replicates the very forms of being that sustain the modern European state’s incapacity to accommodate life for too long. The terms of the oppressors become rearticulated as our terms. Some place like Zion, after all, was the solution before the final one: before Wannsee, there was expulsion. We use their solutions in an attempt to secure our own right to be in the world. It is a fool’s endeavor. Because as they produced us, so we will and must produce an Other. Someday, this conflict too will end.
And when it’s all over, my dear, dear reader,
on which benches will we have to sit,
those of us who shouted “Death to the Arabs!”
and those who claimed they “didn’t know”?
—Aharon Shabtai, “Nostalgia”