painting to protest against "apartheid"in Israel.Picture Zanele Zulu10/03/2013

Beware of defending the lesser of two evils

David Sheen

Is Israel an apartheid state? Is Zionism a form of racism? South Africans will debate these and other questions in the coming days, as Palestinian solidarity activists hold a series of activities under the banner of “Israel Apartheid Week” (IAW).

In its efforts to defend Israel’s image, the South African Zionist Federation has invited Sudanese anti-slavery activist Simon Deng to counter the claims of the Palestinian solidarity activists. Can Deng’s arguments refute the accusations of racism and apartheid?

A year and a half ago, Deng was a featured speaker at the Durban Watch Conference in New York City, a symposium specifically convened to counter allegations of Israeli racism.

There Deng argued that it was wrong to accuse the Israeli government of racist practices, because Arab governments had been guilty of even worse racist practices against African people. He further argued that putting the spotlight on Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians detracted attention from the suffering of African peoples, which he said was far worse.

I can understand his frustration over the racially motivated massacres that have occurred and continue to occur in Africa, and the scant attention they receive in the media and the scarce solidarity their victims get in the West.

But Deng’s anger at Palestinians, who he referred to at Durban Watch as “so-called Palestinian refugees”, is severely misplaced. Palestinians have the right to point accusing fingers at the forces oppressing them and to cry out for help. If the plight of Africans is largely ignored – and it is – it is because of the global system of White Supremacy that power brokers benefit from, not because Palestinians shout louder than they deserve to. Palestinians are not to blame for the West’s pitiful response to the suffering of Africans.

In any case, for all of their protests, Palestinians have not managed to reverse their dispossession. They have not benefited from the increased media attention that their cause receives, they have not achieved justice and equality.

In any case: in recent years, Israel’s oppression of Palestinians has revealed itself to be merely the dominant sub-set of Israel’s more general oppression of all people who are not Jewish.

About 60 000 Africans have entered Israel in recent years, pleading for political asylum. The government has refused to accord them refugee status, prevented them from working, criminalised them, incited racism against them, deported some to their deaths and rounded others into camps.

The Israeli government’s Sofer Report, issued last week, dispenses with the whitewashed term “internment” and now uses the word “concentration” to describe the camps built to contain the African asylum-seekers.

The Israel government’s justification for its refusal to accord refugee status to any of the African people who qualify for it and to allow them to sojourn in the land is what it terms “the demographic threat”.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu openly uses this terminology to demonise African asylum-seekers and Palestinian citizens of Israel. Members of both of these groups, and other assorted non-Jewish people living in Israel, are designated as security threats – not because of any criminal actions they have ever taken, but merely by virtue of not being born Jewish.

It is one thing for a state to create a safe space for Jewish people to live without fear of being oppressed; it is another thing entirely to designate all others as unwanted. From not allowing Palestinians displaced by Israel’s wars to return to their homes, to not allowing Africans displaced by Africa’s wars to find refuge in its northeast corner: Israeli government policies are aimed at engineering a society composed of as few non-Jews as is possible. Is that not racist?

Regarding the Arab states, I cannot and will not contest Mr Deng’s claim that they treat Africans worse than Israel does; I believe many of them do. But acknowledging that fact does nothing to alleviate the suffering of the 60 000 asylum-seekers being persecuted by the government in Israel.

Yet trumpeting that fact in order to silence the voices of Africans suffering in Israel only ensures that their suffering will continue.

If Deng wants to aid all Africans suffering from racist persecution, he should refrain from providing public relations services to one of those persecutors, the Israeli government. And if the South African Zionist Federation wants to support the people of Israel, it should support popular efforts to combat the government’s racism, not whitewash it.

* Sheen is a writer based in Israel. He wrote a report to the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination about African asylum-seekers in Israel

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An open letter to the organisers of ‘Israel Apartheid Week’

This week is devoted to one of sanity’s ignominious lapses – Israel Apartheid Week – an event that not only displays the startling ability of assumedly thinking students to lose all sense of rationality, but to rather exist in a bubble of self delusion, fostered by the blatant lie that Israel is an apartheid state.

The zeal with which these young people throw their weight behind this misguided “cause” is in itself revealing of a malaise, deeper than mere social altruism.

Ask the vast majority of the participants in this self-serving exercise in hypocrisy, ignorance and dishonesty how they reconcile that Israel is guilty of apartheid and they will either mouth the clichéd, irrational platitudes that they have learned to repeat like a bunch of lemmings, or find themselves unable to offer any point of view that will remotely reflect any semblance of reality.

My challenge is simple: just ask yourselves the following two questions and do your very best to provide sensible, logical and, above all, honest answers.

There is no question in any rational mind that Israel is anything but a true democracy. If you don’t believe me refer to the website of Freedom House, (www.freedomhouse.org) the authoritative and independent think tank formed in 1941 on the initiative of Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Franklyn D Roosevelt.

Non-political Freedom House rates Israel as a “Full Democracy” in every sense of the term, and the only one of that stature in the entire Middle East.

So now the question: how is it possible that a country that upholds the principles of democracy in every possible sense (and under the most demanding of circumstances) can also practise apartheid considering that apartheid demands the total absence of democracy to exist?

The fact is, apartheid is anathema to democracy. Please explain.

The second question is a natural follow-on to the first: if all ethnic groupings (including Arab Israelis) in Israel are represented in the Knesset (Parliament) as they are, with the Arabs sporting 14 Members of the Knesset represented within 5 Arab political parties; with serving judges (up to the level of the Supreme Court; with access to the same schools and universities as other Israelis; access to all medical facilities, government departments, buses, taxis, public toilets, park benches, beaches etc, while an Arab represented Israel at the Miss World pageant; an Arab singer represented Israel at the Eurovision Song Contest; while Israeli Arabs Ishmael Khaldi (Read an interview: (tyglobalist.org/onlinecontent/blogs/ishmael-khaldi-an-israeli-arab-diplomat/) and Ali Yahya have represented Israel as full-scale Foreign Service diplomats, how in heaven’s name is Israel deserving of this craze-driven mission to label her as an apartheid state?

Why is there no focus by our dedicated activists on the apartheid in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran where non-Muslims are either prevented from entering the country while apostates commonly face sentences of death?

Ah, you might say – but what about the poor Palestinians who have no access to the positive aspects of this wonderful Israeli democracy?

As far as I recall, the West Bank, which is minimally occupied by Israel to prevent it acting as a springboard for terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians, is not part of Israel and its citizens do not therefore qualify as citizens of that country.

This does not prevent 180 000 Palestinians from crossing into Israel in 2012 alone for treatment at Israeli hospitals or 15 000 Palestinians entering Israel daily with valid work permits.

And correct me if I’m wrong but didn’t Mahmud Abbas succeed in gaining recognition from the General Assembly of the UN for a new, independent Palestinian state? Is this not the same Abbas who has failed to hold presidential elections for the past seven years despite the requirement that he do so every five years, an undertaking to do so which, incidentally, applies to Gaza as well where it has been equally ignored?

So – before you rush off to wave your banner and paint your wall denouncing Israel as an apartheid state, think about these very basic questions and come up with some sensible answers. I am always willing to look, listen and learn.

Victor Gordon

Brooklyn, Pretoria