South Africa's Passover Lesson for Israel

Spending the holiday in the former Apartheid state was a dumbfounding experience.

Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart
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Palestinians holding a flag and an olive tree, walk through rows of greenhouses on 'Land Day' in Gaza, March 29, 2014.
Palestinians holding a flag and an olive tree, walk through rows of greenhouses on 'Land Day' in Gaza, March 29, 2014.Credit: AFP
Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

I’ve spent Pesach in South Africa, the country where my parents were born and where I spent large chunks of my youth. I’ve been here three times since apartheid fell. Each trip has left me dumbfounded.

If, like me, you forged your relationship to South Africa during apartheid, arriving here today is a little like meeting an old friend after a long absence. He looks the same; speaks with the same accent; wears the same clothes. You ask what he’s been doing for the last 20 years and he announces that he’s learned to fly. Then he sprouts wings and flutters away.

The change is that astonishing. From the moment you board South African Airways, and hear stewards and stewardesses chatting to one another in Zulu and Xhosa, you understand why Allister Sparks titled his chronicle of South Africa’s transformation, "Tomorrow is Another Country."

The South Africa I visited as a child was a brutal, isolated place. There was one television station, which aired programming for only a few hours a day. So many books were banned that I worried that if I packed the novels I was reading for school in my suitcase, they might be confiscated at the airport.

In today’s South Africa, by contrast, multiculturalism is a state religion. The country is awash in tourists and has become a kind of global mascot for the values of equality and reconciliation. Of course, profound racial disparities remain. But had you described today’s South Africa to the South Africans I knew as a child, they would have laughed in your face.

What does this have to have with Israel? Nothing and everything. Israel, as I’ve argued repeatedly, is not an apartheid state. If it were, Ahmed Tibi would be in jail, not in the Knesset. Nor is South Africa’s transformation a model for Israel’s. In South Africa, whites and blacks negotiated the terms of a marriage. Israelis and Palestinians, by contrast – at least at this stage of history – must negotiate the terms of a divorce.

But for all these differences, one simple lesson remains. When members of one racial, religious or ethnic group grant themselves due process, the right to vote and the right to free movement while denying those same freedoms to members of another racial, religious or ethnic group (as Israeli Jews do in the West Bank), the people in power develop myriad, often complicated, sometimes ingenious, justifications.

White South Africans said black South African culture was pathological. Blacks, I was told again and again in my youth, were disposed to terrifying acts of violence: Just look at the necklacings occurring in the townships. Black South Africans had no tradition of democracy: Just look at the dictatorships dominating the rest of the continent. Black South Africans were bitterly divided: Just look at the way members of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress and Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party butchered each other. The black South African struggle was a Trojan horse for dictatorships waging war against the West: Just look at the Soviet Union’s support for the ANC. Black South Africans were an invented people: They had only migrated to the country from central Africa a few centuries ago.

I heard these arguments from well-educated, well-meaning people, some of whom I loved. And in their particulars, the arguments weren’t all wrong. Post-colonial Africa’s experiments with democracy had been mostly a disaster; the ANC and Inkatha were bitterly divided; communists did play a major role in the anti-apartheid movement; the black-on-black violence in the townships was frightening to behold.

And yet, ultimately, it was all beside the point. Denying people the basic rights necessary for a decent life because they are of a certain race, ethnicity or religion is wrong. Period. The people being denied those rights may not be angels. Their leaders may be divided, corrupt, hateful or violent. (For what it’s worth, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is far more committed to nonviolence than Nelson Mandela, the man who helped turn the ANC toward armed struggle). Their foreign backers may be cynical and noxious.

But denying millions of people basic human dignity, generation after generation, does not solve any of these problems. It exacerbates them all. After all, nothing fuels hatred like oppression. Nothing breeds violence like violence.

I don’t think a Palestinian state will entirely end the struggle between Palestinians and Jews that has for more than a century bloodied the land between the river and the sea. I don’t know if an Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution will prove as successful as South Africa’s one-state solution.

What I do know is this: The longer the status quo continues, the more painful the transformation will be. And, one day, when Palestinians are free, Jewish children will ask their parents and grandparents, perhaps especially around Pesach time, how they justified a system in the West Bank that, in retrospect, looks so manifestly unjust.

By then, there will be no good response. The time to respond is now.

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