19 February 2007 – Plumbing the polemics
I have spent part of the day reading through Uri Davis’s radical anti-Israel polemic, Apartheid Israel: Possibilities for the Struggle Within. I first encountered Davis in South Africa in August 2001, when he was touring the country as a guest of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) ahead of the UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban, promoting the Israel-apartheid analogy.
Davis was treated as a phenomenon. Here he was, an Israeli citizen and a Jew, claiming that Israel was as bad as apartheid South Africa had been! He flogged his 1987 book Israel: An Apartheid State, which had been written before the first intifada and was partly an attempt to stake out a position more radical than the strident yet patriotic dissent that had been adopted by the Peace Now movement.
Rabbi David Hoffman, then the leader of the Green Point Hebrew Congregation, a Reform institution in Cape Town, invited Davis to address the Jewish community at his synagogue—not to endorse what he was saying, but in an attempt to defuse it and to give people a chance to react. The event drew hundreds and kicked off a ferocious debate in the community, which was to continue in the Kasrils Affair.
Davis proved to be a buffoon. When faced with opposing arguments, his face flushed a deep red, his neck tensed and he began to chant, almost shouting, at his interlocutors. Psychologist Theo Schkolne summed it up when he told Davis that he lacked basic empathy for the suffering on both sides of the conflict. But Davis found an eager audience in the Muslim community, prompting him to republish his book.
Apartheid Israel is basically an update of his earlier work. I checked it out of the Harvard library because I thought it might represent the most detailed and strident defense of the idea that Israel is an apartheid state, and that I should study it in order to prepare counterarguments for next week’s debate in New York. However, the book is poorly written, badly argued, devoid of nuance and argumentative force.
Davis starts out by assuming what he intends to prove: that Israel is an apartheid state. He bases his claim on the fact that Israel aspires to be a “Jewish” state, and eschews the supposedly universalist ethos of western Europe and the United States. He laments the revocation of the UN’s “Zionism is racism” resolution in 1991, and celebrates the World Conference Against Racism as a harbinger of things to come.
Those things include sanctions against Israel, and the creation of a single, unitary state in mandatory Palestine. Like many anti-Israel Jews, Davis seems obsessed with debunking the notion that anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism. In place of that canard, he imposes his own: that Judaism is merely a “confessional” matter, and that at the same time to be a “good Jew” actually requires one to be anti-Zionist.
This is drivel, and highlights the point that the primary purpose of the Israel-apartheid analogy is to delegitimize Israel and end any peace process that aims at a two-state solution. Davis’s lack of empathy (and coherence) shines through, as he imposes his concrete, absolutist definition of Judaism in terms that few Jews would recognize (referring to Israeli Jews as the “Hebrew” population, for example).
Davis is fairly easily dismissed; less so Chris McGreal, the Guardian correspondent who published two essays last year—“Worlds Apart” and “Brothers in Arms”— arguing the parallels between Israel and apartheid South Africa. Benjamin Pogrund responded in an updated version of his earlier essay in Focus, and a rebuttal was also published on the web by HonestReporting.com, a media advocacy website.
I’m going to examine these writers more closely in the coming days, as well as the issue of discrimination against Arabs in Israel, which is coming before the United Nations this week. The great Muslim lesbian feminist critic Irshad Manji wrote a strident defense of Israel two weeks ago which specifically attacks the notion that Israel is an apartheid state; I’ll take a closer look at that as well in the coming days.