Occupation, not apartheid
Palestinians are not free. They suffer under an Israeli occupation that is sustained by a regime of violence, surveillance and control.
As well as a military occupation, successive Israeli governments have tolerated and supported the efforts of settlers to take Palestinian land for themselves in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Palestinians and settlers live under unequal legal regimes.
President Mahmoud Abbas is working for an end to the occupation and the creation of a democratic and independent Palestinian state at peace with Israel. But some people choose to express their moral outrage at the injustices of the occupation within a starkly different political framework by insisting that Israel is the same as apartheid South Africa.
The Israel-apartheid analogy expresses moral outrage effectively but it is also counterproductive to Palestinian liberation and it encourages ways of thinking that are threatening to democratic politics. It portrays Israel as evil, like the apartheid regime, and so implies that Palestinian freedom requires the dismantling of Israel—an aspiration that the overwhelming majority of Jews strongly oppose—and with justification.
The analogy is also a short cut to the conclusion that Israelis should be boycotted. In truth a mass movement for the exclusion of Jews, even if not all Jews, from the academic, cultural, sporting and economic life of humanity, resonates with an altogether different memory from the boycott of white South Africa.
There is a temptation to treat the Middle East as an empty vessel that we can fill with our own issues. In England thinking is often influenced by colonial guilt; in Germany Israel is understood through the lens of the Holocaust; in Ireland the Palestinians become Republicans and the Israelis Unionists. In Poland many sympathise with Israel as a small democratic nation threatened by tyrannical neighbours. In South Africa the conflict is increasingly thought of in relation to apartheid.
This kind of analytical self-centredness is disrespectful to Palestinians and to Israelis; our thinking should not be about us but about them. All these experiences and analogies can help us to understand but they can also distort our view, which should focus on the Middle East of today, not on our own preoccupations. We should be suspicious of a movement that seeks to appropriate the memory of the anti-apartheid struggle to do political work elsewhere.
Many people around the world feel themselves to have been part of the anti-apartheid movement and there is a nostalgia for the unity and the certainties of that struggle, as well as for the fantastic result. The project is to recreate the movement but now with Israel at the centre of a global coalition of moral condemnation.
The Israel-Palestine conflict is a small but nasty confrontation between two communities, not a fight between good and evil. Israel does not profit from Palestinians and its oppressive policies neither stem from self-interest nor bad faith; they are products of successive failures, including by Palestinian leaders, to make peace; it is fear, not evil or greed, which fuels the violence.
We should support those within both nations who fight for peace and who oppose the demonisation of the other.
But the apartheid analogy does not encourage us to think in terms of reconciliation and peace. Anti-Semitism has always thought of Jews as being decisive in everything bad that happens in the world. The apartheid analogy now tries to position Israel at the centre of all that is threatening by building a global movement for its destruction. It encourages ways of thinking which see Israel as a keystone of global imperialism, as a block to world peace and even as a malicious force which controls American foreign policy.
The ANC taught us outsiders to listen to the oppressed. The Freedom Charter was a guarantee, given in advance, that black South Africa would not replicate the oppression against which it fought. If we listen to President Abbas then we will support his struggle for peace. But if we listen to Hamas we will be confronted by one key difference between Israel and apartheid. The Hamas Charter sows hatred of Jews and it promises a war against them to the finish. The Hamas Charter is not like the Freedom Charter because the Middle East is not like apartheid South Africa.
Veterans of the struggle speak with a moral authority when they talk about apartheid. It is important that they use that moral authority to help peace, not to single out the Jewish state as a moral evil on a global scale.
David Hirsh is a lecturer in sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London