Israel Cannot Be Compared to Apartheid South Africa

Dennis MacShane
Denis MacShane
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Dennis MacShane
Denis MacShane

Speaking at the Istanbul World Political Forum last week, the Israeli journalist Gideon Levy got at least one listener to his denunciation of Israel as a "tyranny" worked up.

After Levy laid out his charge sheet against Israel, a young Nigerian told him how right he was. Israel, he said, was an apartheid state. That is why the United States supported Israel, just as the U.S. had supported the white minority regime in South Africa, he informed the audience of young Turks and international visitors. They listened gravely to the link between American support for Israel and American support for apartheid South Africa. He told us how the U.S. had vetoed UN resolutions against South Africa then just as Washington stopped all UN criticism of Israel today.

Sitting on the stage was Harvard professor Steven Walt, co-author with John Mearsheimer of “The Israel Lobby”, the bible of Israel bashers around the world. Professor Walt was an academic in the 1980s, so he must have known that far from protecting South Africa, Americans were obsessed with how to dismantle the apartheid regime.

These included the conservative Ronald Reagan who sent an African-American to be U.S. ambassador in Pretoria in 1986. Edward Perkins turned the U.S. embassy into a center of resistance, where black opponents of apartheid could safely meet. Congress banned the sale of Krugerrands, at the time a modish way of investing in gold at a time of high inflation.

There were no UN resolutions to veto as South Africa had long ago left the United Nations. American labor unions, notably the United Autoworkers Union, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars helping the young black independent trade unions in South Africa.

At the time I worked as an international union official in townships and factories to support the nascent black unions. Their strikes and protests grabbed apartheid capitalism by the throat. They forced concessions from white bosses who came to realize that they needed both the labor and consuming power of the black majority more than they needed the racist ideology of apartheid. U.S. trade unions worked with young Jewish labor activists in South Africa, like Bernie Fanaroff and Steve Friedman, as these white South African Jews, like Ruth First and many others, declared their solidarity with the struggle to bring democracy to their nation.

Since neither Mr. Levy nor Professor Walt were willing to discharge the first duty of an intellectual, which is the correction of error, I tried, once the session was over, to explain to the young Nigerian the difference between South Africa then and Israel now.

I told him I could not meet any of my non-white South African friends in a hotel. I contrasted that with my last visit to Israel, where I met Muslim Labour councilors from England who had been invited to see Israel for themselves. I said that in contrast to European states, notably Britain, where Margaret Thatcher rolled out the red carpet at Chequers to greet the apartheid rulers, and where young Conservatives sported badges saying "Hang Mandela", the support of the United States, inspired by its civil rights movement, was a key element in undermining apartheid.

I tried to explain that, unlike the all-white nature of South African institutions under apartheid, if he went to Israel he could meet Arab Muslim parliamentarians or chat with a Supreme Court judge who was an Arab. Whatever criticisms there are to be made of Israel and its treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories, the one charge that is simply untrue is to compare Israel to apartheid South Africa.

But my young Nigerian friend, born after the end of apartheid, was having none of this. Like Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan who rightly demands solidarity in his nation’s conflict with the terrorist PKK group, which wants to destroy Turkey, but describe the Jew-killers of Hamas who want to destroy Israel as "resistance fighters", there is both a double standard and a sheer ignorance of history that is alarming in this growing regional power of the Eastern Mediterranean. I tried to explain to my Nigerian friend that the Palestinians could have had a home or a state both in the 1930s or in 1948 or almost any time up to 1967 had they been better led.

But I could sense he was getting bored. It was much easier to proclaim that America's support for Israel today was the same as U.S. support for apartheid South Africa 25 years ago. No facts could change his view of history. And Mr. Levy and Professor Walt preferred to let a lie live than tell the truth.

Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and a former Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister. He wrote Power! Black Workers, Their Unions and the Struggle for Freedom in South Africa (1984) and is currently updating his book Globalising Hatred: The New Antisemitism.

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