A view of the Dome of the Rock on the compound known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif, and to Jews as Temple Mount, is seen from the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City January 24, 2011. Palestinian negotiators secretly told Israel it could keep swathes of occupied East Jerusalem, according to leaked documents that show Palestinians offering much bigger peace concessions than previously revealed. REUTERS/Baz Ratner (JERUSALEM - Tags: POLITICS IMAGES OF THE DAY)

A new divide-and-rule labour law that assists minorities has strong echoes of South Africa’s apartheid era, writes Heidi-Jane Esakov.

Rethink 2014, a campaign launched by pro-Israel activists to counter Israeli Apartheid Week, received a stinging blow just days after its launch. The blow to the campaign, whose aim is to challenge “the apartheid smear”, did not come from Palestinian activists, however. The blow came from the Knesset.

Just over a week ago, the Knesset enacted a law that will see the expansion of the advisory committee for equal opportunity in the Employment Commission. The law ostensibly looks to assist minorities disadvantaged in the labour arena.

Its intended aim, however, was made clear by the law’s sponsor, Yariv Levin of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-Beteinu Party. Levin unabashedly explained that the law would be used to distinguish between Christian and Muslim Arabs. According to Levin, the law further hoped to de-Arabise Christians.

A law that accrues material benefits to one group over another – here Christian over Muslim Palestinians – in order to maintain the privilege of the dominant group is not an “apartheid smear”. Rather, this is precisely the sort of law that served as the cornerstone for apartheid in South Africa.

Apartheid was not just about enacting laws to maintain white domination and privilege. It was a carefully crafted system of social engineering that attempted to reify difference through policies and laws.

The divide-and-rule objective of the new law was unequivocally underscored by Levin himself.

The law would grant separate representation and separate treatment to the Christian community, which would be distinguished from the Muslim Arabs, he said.

“We and the Christians have a lot in common,” he added. “They’re our natural allies, a counterweight to the Muslims who want to destroy the country from within.”

He makes no effort to hide his antipathy towards Palestinians or conceal his attempt to drive a wedge between Christian and Muslim Palestinians by saying about Christians: “I take pains not to call them Arabs.”

As a South African who grew up under apartheid, I see strong echoes of laws and policies used to implement and sustain apartheid here. In a striking parallel, the Coloured Labour Preference Area Policy of 1955 sought to privilege “coloured” South Africans over “black Africans”.

This policy decreed that no “black African” could be employed over a “coloured” person in certain parts of South Africa. The policy was not aimed at privileging “coloured” South Africans, but rather at extending limited privilege to one discriminated group over another to further assert white domination and privilege.

Laws and policies such as the coloured labour preference area were clearly intended to divide South Africans and hinder a collective struggle against apartheid. What is of particular concern is that the ramifications of this sort of policy are still being felt today – 20 years after the official termination of apartheid.

Last year a case against affirmative action policies, policies aimed to implement redress, was brought against the Western Cape’s Correctional Services Department for allegedly discriminating against “coloured” South Africans. Some of the protesters outside the court argued that they were not “white” enough under apartheid, and now not “black’’ enough.

In a country where whiteness still holds privilege, the irony was that the case was brought to court by Solidarity – a trade union with a predominantly white membership.

Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, has pointed out the latest law will have minimum impact.

But it suggests the lengths many Israelis will go to avoid accepting a Palestinian identity and dealing with the grievances Palestinians – both Christian and Muslim – hold against Israel.

“It is a dangerous attempt by the state to distort the Arab identity of Palestinians in Israel,” the group said.

What is of even greater concern is the normalisation of the mind-set that facilitated the passing of the law. This is evident in its lopsided 31 to six passing in the Knesset. It suggests that the Israeli government and public sees no moral or sociological problem with embarking on a campaign of social engineering in order to protect Jewish dominance in Israel.

Dismantling legislation does not neatly coincide with the dismantling of the psyche of a nation. We South Africans remain a painfully divided nation.

Anyone familiar with the textures of apartheid can attest that it is nearly impossible to escape the real legacy apartheid left; the burden of living in a world defined and divided by difference. With Israeli Apartheid Week kicking off this week across campuses in South Africa, it concerns me how polarised and divisive the issue has become within the South African context.

I suspect articles like this will sadly generate less engagement around the issues and are more likely to be used by polemicists to justify their positions. Anyone challenging Israeli policies is called an anti-Semite, and anyone who identifies as Zionist is simply deemed a racist and an “apartheid apologist”.

Such name-calling is not only puerile and ignores the spectrum of positions, but is divisive in the South African context. While I understand the emotions that underpin the debate here, what is more concerning is that this approach does very little to alter what is happening on the ground there.

* Heidi-Jane Esakov is a PhD student and independent researcher.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Cape Argus