Israel Apartheid Week
Ronnie Kasrlis and Tariq Ali
28 February 2009
One of the things I really appreciate about SOAS is that it is so fiercely pro-Palestinian. SOAS gives a lot of space for events which keep alive the issue of Palestinian suffering, culture, the Israeli occupation and so on. It is great to be in such an atmosphere. At the other end of it, very little is going to change given the current situation and as it has been for the past 60 years or so.
I do not know whether it was because it was a Saturday, but the audience was pretty small and, as such it was not as much of an electric ambiance that is built up with a larger group of people and with such a potent topic as this. Therefore, I imagine the audience was mostly sympathetic. In fact, when Ronnie was speaking a certain degree of gloom seemed to have settled into the room as the picture he was describing was so grim.
And, because my boyfriend is from South Africa I have even more of an interest in the comparison that is often made between Israeli occupation and the apartheid regime in South Africa. I remember when I first met him, I was so intrigued about asking him what it was 'like' to live under apartheid because I just knew of it so remotely. All I knew was that it was pretty nasty and Mandela was one of the greatest men there was, a freedom fighter who was imprisoned for 27 years. Needless to say, the more time I have spent with my boyfriend, the more I have realised how bloody awful and dehumanising that regime was.
I also learned that a lot of South Africans have been traveling to Palestine and, coming back with terrible stories of the humiliation that Palestinians have to suffer. I remember watching some random documentaries on SABC* and was horrified at what these people had to say first hand. And then, of course, we know of how Desmond Tutu was treated when he told the Israelis that they were racist, that Palestinians were suffering the same kind of racism at roadblocks, being denied equal rights, especially the right to dignity. He told them that they should know better given the Holocaust. What do they Israelis tell him? That he is anti-Jewish and was insulting the memory of the Holocaust.
"Israel is an apartheid state." Who stated this? Not Mandela nor Tutu. This was observed by Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, way back in 1963. This was said in response to world opinion of what was going on in South Africa. As Ronnie stressed, this was a shrewd, very shrewd, observation.
So how is the South African and Israeli apartheid similar?
- citizenship only for Jews and whites, exclusive citizenship- racism- preservation of racial purity, marriage- dispossession, mass ejection
In South Africa, townships and black spots were developed to separate the races. Peoples' homes were bulldozed and people were relocated to these townships. Businesses were destroyed so that white businesses could move in.
Israel's place regionally and internationally - it acts with total impunity from Western powers and is, in fact, supported by the US and the UK. Churchill famously said, 'What's good for the Jews is good for the British Empire.' It became a client state of the US against Arabs and rising nationalism under Nasser. After the Six-Day War, the successor of Verwoerd, Voerster, said that if the Israelis had beat the Arabs by 'lunchtime,' they would have the African states by 'breakfast.' Hence, their adventures in Rhodesia, Mozambique, Angola, etc.
There is a biblical narrative associated with the creation of Israeli with its roots in 19th century Zionism. It was a movement actually developed by agnostics and atheists and manipulated the Jewish faith. Similarly, the Dutch Afrikaaners believed they were 'pioneers' and they were on God's mission in Africa. They had a covenant with God. They were certainly industrious people (but kookoo in the head). History books up until the 1990s went around saying ** that African tribes only arrived in the 16th, 17th centuries at the same time the Dutch arrived. The Israelis pretty much say the same thing.
Israel and apartheid South Africa have had very strong links. In the October '73 war, Voerster rushed to Israeli with support in terms of arms. Ronnie said this was a real 'axis of evil,' two racist states helping to build each others' armaments and defense, including nuclear devices.
When it comes to methods and measures, Israel is 'far, far worse.' He said he could never believe it when black South Africans even said that as horrible as apartheid, it was a 'picnic' compared to what the Israelis are doing. The townships were not under siege, attacked by bombs and aerial bombardment. He said that after an incursion/attack on Lebanon in '69, the Israeli commander had said they had behaved like the Nazis. Ronnie started talking about the Israeli spokeswoman that was being seen at the time of the war on Gaza who he said was just like a Nazi, blonde, blue yes, and cold.
He asked, if Holocaust is at the top of tragedy in modern times, how do we evaluate Gaza? As a Jew himself and his heritage with its remembrance of the Holocaust, he said he was reminded of gas chambers when the Israelis were dropping phosphorous on Gaza. He called it 'infernal instruments of death.'
He said Israeli was nothing less than a fascist state which if not stopped would attack Iran?
The lesson of South Africa is that the anti-apartheid struggle was not anti-white and nor is the anti-Israel struggle anti-Jewish. An international solidarity movement for a mass struggle is possible. South Africa faced an enormous amount of pressure in the end. What is vital is unity. He said the factions of Palestine must and will sort out their differences and civil society will breathe life back into the struggle.
Israel did not win the war on Gaza. The world is alert, awake. Jewish women in Toronto staged a sit-in. Dockers in Durban, South Africa refused to offload an Israeli cargo ship. Universities in the UK are hosting the Israeli Apartheid Week.
He started by saying that the BDS (the Boycott, Disvestment and Sanctions) movement is a real opportunity for mass politics let alone Middle East politics.
There has been a 'rupture' in the 'liberal' mind, breaks in the Jewish communities. For example, 96% of young Jews interviewed in the US did not seem to 'give a damn' about Israel i.e. their identity.
He said mass media is not really a useful tool in any mass politics or struggle - it's campaigning which ultimately proves to be powerful and brings about change.
The real tragedy here is the lack of solidarity in the Arab world. The prime example is Egypt under the Mubarak regime. He said the Arab world is a 'mess.' He said even the Saudis are better than the Egyptians (that says a lot!).
He said that when the Americans invaded Iraq, the Israeli ambassador to the US said why stop here, on to Damascus and Tehran.
The Latin American countries had at least shown some guts by temporarily breaking off ties with Israel such as Bolivia and Venezuela (big surprise) after the war on Gaza. *** It is not a declaration of war but a stand.
He said any opposition to Israel and the US has become difficult after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Palestinians have not known any 'respite' under Israeli occupation. The notion that they do not know what they are doing should be thrown out. This is an intelligent enemy. In the wake of the offensive in Gaza, the Israelis have destroyed the two-state solution. The Palestinians are not even living in bantustans, these are shriveled up bantustans not even linked together, permanent ghettos.
However, this should not be seen as defeat but should open up discussion.
Tariq spoke a little about history and, said that more or less Jews and Muslims have always co-existed. Palestinians today are paying the price for European genocide. The creation of a settler, colonial state made the lives of Jews in Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo, for example, very difficult even though these are some of the oldest Jewish communities in the world.
He asked that if the Soviet Union had not collapsed, would US still have made a deal with Israel? The 1992 Oslo Peace Accords were a sort of Treaty of Versailles for the Palestinians. The West ended up treating the PLO like an NGO which created corruption and division.
With reference to the ANC and PLO, he said the ANC was hegemonic.****
Tariq was a lot more pessimistic than Ronnie which can be understood to some degree. He said that examples such as the strike of Egyptian textile workers or train drivers taking one minute in Norway or the dockers refusing to offload an Israeli cargo ship in Durban are great but not going to be important because there is no political organisation behind these acts which can take things forward.
He had two very entertaining anecdotes:
i) He said there was no real opposition in Egypt. Take the Muslim Brotherhood - know what their problem is? They are too 'moderate!' He met them in Damascus before the Iraq invasion and it was clear the Americans were bent on doing it. He asked them what they were going to do? They claimed 'gates of hell' would be opened. Of course, nothing happened. The Brotherhood is limited to giving proclamations on what women should wear or not wear instead. He said basically, the government retained power while the Brotherhood was free to control 'cultural' aspects. He said the Six Day war wiped out Arab nationalism and only Baa'thism was left.ii) Chavez and Al Jazeera! He said that Chavez was in Qatar for an OECD meeting. While in town, he was interviewed by Al Jazeera for an hour. He said Chavez was even more anti-American than usual. Did I crack up when I heard this - how could he have scaled the heights he had already set in insulting the US? He must have had to take a rocket ship into space! Ha! Ha! Anyway, back to the story. Al Jazeera could not handle the load of mails and responses and calls they received. From who? Arabs. Saying what? When are the Arabs going to get a Chavez?!
* South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC)
** I love going around saying, 'they went around saying'....
*** In fact, I looked this up and Mauritania under a military junta did the same.
**** There is a brilliant essay by Eqbal Ahmed, "The ANC and the PLO: Painful Contrasts" which Eqbal wrote in 1994.
I really appreciated this lecture. I appreciated Ronnie's deep sense of empathy and sincerity while he was talking. Tariq Ali was a little bit more explosive - his voice would gradually rise and explode in a boom. It was a pleasure to hear him speak. I wanted to go say hello to him afterwards but I was a bit star struck!
I de-briefed my better half after the lecture. He said that he feels bad for Jews because Israel is completely destroying Jewishness being the world's only Jewish state and its antics. He said that in South Africa it was the Jewish doctors and lawyers who would come to their rescue! Man, I feel really bad when I heard that because for the past 60 years or so, Jews have been reviled and especially by Muslims. I don't need to tell Pakistanis for example - the amount of e-mail forwards one receives alone on what Jews are doing to the poor Muslims.
It was a stupendous lecture but a bit depressing as well. Palestine is such an 'issue' something to talk about and vent out frustrations with the US. It is something around which we can talk and appear intellectual and morally right. I asked a classmate who is quite an activist whether she had been to the lecture or not. She said that she gets too frustrated in lectures and, believes we should be doing something. She said she was involved in obstructing a shop that sells Israeli goods and has also been to Palestine. I also asked someone from Gaza I met in the SOAS bar what they thought and that person was pretty much uninterested in speaking because nothing changes. I guess it's too close to home.