BDS and South Africa, Pt. 2

This is cross posted from the blog, Divest This!

I’ve always been curious whether certain words create their own power or simply draw upon the power of that which they describe. The term “Holocaust,” which starts with soft vowels implying vastness and ends with knife-sharp consonants, seems like it would be evocative regardless of what it describes. Yet once this term came into general use to describe the Nazi’s extermination of European Jewry, it drew upon the massiveness of that event, eventually pushing out other terms (some foreign like “Shoah,” some euphemistic such as “Final Solution” – a simple phrase which itself can mean only one thing to today’s ears) to become synonymous with history’s most horrific crime.

Fights over the term simply demonstrate its unique power to move people emotionally. As horrific, vast and mind-numbing as other historic mass murders have been (such as the Armenian genocide, which many see as an historic “warm up” for other 20th century ethnic exterminations), there is a reason we describe these as the “Armenian Holocaust,” the “Rwandan Holocaust,” etc., rather than describing the Shoah as the “Armenian genocide of the Jews.”

“Apartheid,” meaning “seperateness”, resonates as a word, even to those unfamiliar with the Dutch dialect used by South Africa’s white Afrikaans population, implying as it does the English terms “Apart” and “Hate.” And yet the ugliness of the system it describes, a form of mass racial discrimination masquerading under formal legalism, certainly contributes to this term becoming synonymous with bigotry as state policy.

As with the term “Holocaust,” there are legitimate fights over whether the term “Apartheid” belongs to the world, or just to those who experienced the original phenomenon. Anyone looking over the past century will see enough political murder and racism to shake their faith in humanity. But are all murders of any scale a “Holocaust,” and is all institutionalized bigotry a variant on “Apartheid?” Many (but by no means all) Jews and South Africans would argue that by allowing these terms to be used to describe anything remotely smacking of large-scale killing or racism, one is not universalizing them but draining them of any meaning whatsoever.

In the cauldron of debate over the Middle East, arguments over the use or misuse of these words are particularly acute. While some attempts have been made to describe the Palestinian experience as a new “Holocaust,” this runs into a problem when you realize that, unlike other historic genocides, the Palestinian population has skyrocketed since Israel’s birth (especially in the disputed/occupied territories that are supposed to be serving as stand-ins for Hitler’s concentration camps).

“Apartheid” is by far the more frequent term of abuse hurled at the Jewish state for its alleged “crimes.” Thus the barrier built to stop mass bombing campaigns originating from the West Bank is not a fence, a wall or even “the New Berlin Wall,” but the “Apartheid Wall.” Jimmy Carter’s book “Peace Not Apartheid” has basically been translated to the single phrase: “Jimmy Carter says Israel is an Apartheid State,” (even if the author himself has tried to weasel out of the implication of his chosen title).

Web sites such as It Is Apartheid are dedicated solely to the purpose of making Israel synonymous with Apartheid South Africa (especially in the mind of people too young to remember the original), with BDS itself simply a component of a wider “Apartheid Strategy” whose practitioners believe that by replacing the term “Israel” with “Apartheid Israel” in all of their communication and correspondence they can, over time, turn their preferred version of reality into common wisdom.

But who gets to draw boundaries around where the term “Apartheid” is used, even in debate over the Middle East? Some supporters of Israel have responded to the “Israel Apartheid” slur by charging Israel’s accusers of practicing, supporting or ignoring crimes of “Gender Apartheid,” “Sexual Apartheid” and “Religious Apartheid” within the wider Arab world. And unlike some of the more fanciful charges against the Jewish state, repression of women, homosexuals and religious minorities by Israel’s neighbors is undisputable.

But who gets to decide if they are all variations on “Apartheid?” If enough people started using the phrase “Apartheid Saudi Arabia,” “Apartheid Syria” or “Apartheid Gaza” in their daily communication, does that legitimize an accusation masquerading as a descriptive phrase (a la “Apartheid Israel”)?

This is why the involvement of South Africa and South Africans in this debate is so significant. Absent the ability to characterize the Middle East conflict in Apartheid terms, it becomes a less charged (and, as an aside, potentially more solvable) political dispute. That being the case, is it as clear as BDS advocates would like everyone to believe that South Africans who participated in the fight against the original Apartheid see the Arab-Israel conflict in the same terms as their own struggle?

Sun (and sons) getting up. More later…

4 replies »

  1. For all you Tutu ranters barking down a false trail double standards trail: here is the real mcCoy. I was shocked to read this about the saintly Mandela and even more startled that it was none other than Pilger in an interview with Mandela while he was still President:

    “I was surprised that the president failed to see the irony in his
    statement that an ANC government, brought to power partly as a result of
    boycotts and sanctions, was willing to “do business with any regime
    regardless of its internal policies”. The west, he said, had no monopoly
    on human rights, which were also the rights to health care and
    education. Amazingly, he gave as a model Saudi Arabia “where students
    enjoy benefits I have not seen anywhere in the world”.

    Saudi Arabia and Algeria, both of them serious human rights
    violators, are current clients of the billion dollar white-run South
    African arms industry, the source of death and suffering in the
    region, and which has been reinvigorated under the ANC. On one of his
    visits to see the dictator of Indonesia, General Suharto, Mandela
    offered to sell him arms, too.”

    Tutu of course has the luxury of condemning these human rights breakers (and he does) as he is not running the country whereas Mandela was succumbing to realpolitik. But I wonder how many BDSers know about this ANC policy.

  2. I comment on this very issue in Part 3 of this series which appears here: and will likely be reposted at CIFwatch which has been nice enough to cross-post the first two parts.

    To be fair, Mandela, the ANC and other SA institutions need to be judged as one would judge other states that have real political and economic interests and cannot make every decision based purely on moral reasoning. The point of my most recent piece on this subject, however, is that once you start treating SA leaders as political actors with real strengths and frailties, you cannot then turn around and claim that Tutu (or even Mandela) be treated as saints whose opinion on any subject (including the Middle East) cannot be subjected to scrutiny in any way.

  3. Mandela had, or has, in a sense tunnel vision – developing South Africa for the benefit of its huge underprivileged population as the primary objective, no matter what. As such, he probably oversteps the mark sometimes in drawing a line between what he views as policies to achieve that goal vs the morality of what he might be willing to do.

    He probably has a blind spot regarding some of the countries mentioned as long as they cannot be accused of discriminating against a group inside their borders, even though, in fact, of course they all do on the basis of religion and ethnicity – they are just never involved enough with the West, having thrown off the colonial powers, for it all to register on the loony left conscience.

    There is a weirdness about human rights violations that runs deep – as long as a country is violating the rights of a group perceived as part of their own population, they are left out of the sort of attacks launched at Israel for far less significant offenses – e.g., the Copts in Egypt, the Ahmadis in Pakistan, Bahai in Iran, various similar issues in Latin America, etc. I daresay that if there was a case of, say, Zulu or Xhosa in SA vs some smaller tribe or group, it would never register on the international pages of the MSM.

  4. Akus: What you say about a blind spot relating to internal rather than cross border human rights violations is true, but with Mandela his big blind spot is his unwavering loyalty to any country which supported the ANC during the struggle, no matter what their human rights violations, even extraterritorial. Hence his constant devotion to Ghaddaffi, even naming his grandchild after him. (I happen to have been involved in Mandela’s legal representation back in the day.)

    Jon: “Once you start treating SA leaders as political actors with real strengths and frailties, Tutu (or even Mandela) be treated as saints whose opinion on any subject (including the Middle East) cannot be subjected to scrutiny in any way.

    Exactly. And this is the inverse of the point I have been making in the comments to your previous posts, namely that it does not serve us well to demonise the likes of Tutu as out and out villains and incorrectly use the “double standards” accusation to try and nullilfy him as it is just factually wrong. In the case of Zim, certainly he does not argue for sanctions and commissions of inquiry- that’s because he has bypassed this step to another level to call for armed international intervention there. And he was in the Observer this weekend campaigning for Burma.

    I know I am labouring the point, but the nuance and knowledge you bring to this issue is refreshing.