South African Israelis must lead the fight against the apartheid libel

Expats like me who marched for equal rights should be mobilized to stand up to the abhorrent BDS campaign to discredit – and destroy – Israel

Benjamin Pogrund, center, next to Nelson Mandela (courtesy Benjamin Pogrund)
Benjamin Pogrund, center, next to Nelson Mandela (courtesy Benjamin Pogrund)

Recently, The Times of Israel (and various other publications) published an article with some startling statistics. The article discussed how some 25 percent of American Jewry believes that Israel is an apartheid state. A worrying report indeed. Over the past few years we have seen the chasm between Israel and American Jewry grow wider and the aggressive accusations of apartheid by the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement and others grow louder.

The BDS movement exploded into the global consciousness after the UN Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa in 2001. The launch of BDS in South Africa was not coincidental as the country was both the birthplace of apartheid and its defeat. At the very center of the BDS delegitimization, is the accusation, in fact the charge that Israel is guilty of practicing apartheid. The rationale is that if Israel is labeled as a pariah, as was South Africa, then the Jewish state can no longer be part of the family of nations until it changes its abhorrent policies. And more than this, BDS is also unwavering about their end goal — the end of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. The difference with the South African context, however, is that during the heinous apartheid regime, the global community wanted the racist policies of South Africa changed, but never called for the country to cease to exist.

The Oxford dictionary defines apartheid as “a policy of racial segregation of other groups from the white inhabitants. Adopted by the successful Afrikaner National Party as a slogan in the 1948 election, apartheid extended and institutionalized existing racial segregation. The word is recorded from the 1940s, and comes from Afrikaans, meaning literally “separateness.”

While other countries have often implemented racist laws at some time in their history, apartheid was unique to South Africa and the narrative to her people, because it was the only country in which these laws were legislated. South Africa is the “ground zero” of the BDS movement.

It is a narrative that is being appropriated by a sophisticated anti-Israel element to push an exclusionary, antisemitic agenda.

Israel is by no means perfect. Like every other country, we have our many challenges, including the scourge of racism, but it is not state policy as it was in South Africa.

I grew up in South Africa at the height of the apartheid state of emergency years. I bore witness to the daily humiliation, discrimination and appalling treatment of my black and coloured (a term used for people who were of mixed race) countrymen. Many of you reading this are probably wondering why a white woman is writing about the apartheid experience.

My answer? As a young, proudly Zionist Jew, I learned through belonging to a youth movement that apartheid was not compatible with my Jewish value. It was in this Zionist youth movement that many of us were taught to question the system and subsequently become young activists, often at great risk to our safety. I remember that when I was14 years old, I marched for equal rights and was filmed and questioned by the police. But we were proud because this to us was tikkun olam.

I am not the only Israeli South African with a story to tell. There are many of my countrymen in Israel and if you want to educate people against the apartheid Israel canard, you need to talk to us. It is our lived experience, it is the narrative of the country in which we grew up.

Many of us here have “struggle credentials.” There are those who were forced to flee, those who were arrested and even tortured, those who witnessed unbelievable cruelty, there are those who challenged the government or the legal system. And there are those who chose to leave because they could not live under a regime that persecuted another because we understood all too clearly what this meant.

And yes, ex-pat South Africans have a duty to stand up to this abhorrent canard. We cannot be apathetic or complacent. We must remember as olim, Israel has given us so much and now it is time for us to take the lead in the fight against the exploitation of the narratives of both South Africa and Israel.

The BDS movement and anti-Israel detractors are engaging misinformed South Africans, with little or no understanding of the complexities of the conflict, to give impetus to their agenda. Why aren’t you speaking to those of us who understand and have lived experience in both countries?

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  1. Painting Israel an apartheid state is a racist lie

    Those who parrot this ugly slur should be immediately and loudly condemned for their naked racism

  2. In a sense, it is too stupid to even respond to! If ignored though, any absence of reply, is then regarded as an indication of (contrived premise) hack eyed ‘guilt’. Still damned, either way!