21 February 2007

20 February 2007 – McGreal and Pogrund revisited

The press release for my debate at Rocky Sullivan’s has gone out, and it appears I am not debating Fahim Barghouti after all, but someone named Hadas Their, who is billed as “Israeli-American, long-time activist for Palestinian rights, member of the International Socialist Organization an endorser of Adalah-NY Coalition for Justice in the Middle East and contributing author to The Struggle for Palestine.”

I’ve ordered the book via Amazon, naturally, and I’ve tried to find other things that Their has written. A Google search revealed that she was arrested two years ago at a protest against military recruiters at City College of New York, and charged with several misdemeanors, including assaulting a police officer. (Their claims it was the officers who attacked the protesters). She was also suspended from the college.

Meanwhile, I’ve continued my preparation today by reading Chris McGreal’s essays on the Israel-apartheid analogy. McGreal acknowledges “conspicuous differences” between Israel and apartheid South Africa, but makes a number of facile comparisons anyway. Both, he says, feature “a web of nationality and residency laws designed for use by one section of the population against another.”

In Jerusalem, he says, there are “attitudes, policies and laws similar to those used against Johannesburg's black population.” He acknowledges that Palestinian residents of the city were offered Israeli citizenship, and that many refused it because they did not want to recognize Israel, but somehow this does not lead him to fully acknowledge the role of ongoing conflict in shaping Jewish-Arab relations.

McGreal’s argument is shot through with doublethink. It is true, he says, that “[s]tepping into modern Israel, anyone who experienced the old South Africa would see few immediately visible comparisons. There are no signs segregating Jews and non-Jews.” But he adds: “Yet, as in white South Africa then and now, there is a world of discrimination and oppression that most Israelis choose not to see.”

It was on this point that Pogrund attacked McGreal in the Guardian: “I do not know why Chris McGreal says the Israeli public is unaware of what is happening: newspapers publish the details in profusion, provoking discussion and action.” He also pointed out: “In South Africa, change for the better was simply not possible: the apartheid system had to be eradicated. In contrast, change is possible in Israel.”

In addition, Pogrund provided evidence that disproved many of McGreal’s claims about differences in education, health care and social services among Jews and Arabs in Israel. On the land issue, he acknowledged historical discrimination in favor of Jewish ownership but also pointed out ongoing changes, such as high court decisions barring discrimination on the grounds of religion or nationality.

Some of McGreal’s points stick—such as the misery of life in Palestinian communities, and the determination of Israelis to maintain a Jewish demographic majority in Jerusalem and elsewhere. He also quotes several left-wing Israelis, such as Alon Liel—who was Israel’s ambassador to South Africa during the crucial years of 1992-94—worrying openly about the suffering caused by Israel’s policies.

Yet it is clear, even from McGreal’s essays, that whatever they may feel about the effects of Israeli actions, none of them believes that Israel is motivated by an ideology of apartheid. Again and again, Israelis who worry deeply about their government’s policies point out to McGreal that these policies are reactions to decades of Arab attacks against Israeli civilians and the legitimacy of the state.

McGreal cites a number of dubious sources, including Ronnie Kasrils and Hendrik Verwoerd, to back up his claims about the parallels between Israel and apartheid South Africa. He discusses the Israeli alliance with South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s, never exploring the connections that Arab states secretly maintained with South Africa during the same period, selling billions of dollars of oil to the regime.

(A really great source on sanction-busting by the Arab states is Arthur Jay Klinghoffer’s Oiling the Wheels of Apartheid: Exposing South Africa’s Secret Oil Trade, which I found buried deep in Harvard’s Pusey library today. I cannot yet find an exact value for this trade, or for Israel’s trade with South Africa during the same time, but it seems fairly clear that Arab oil sales dwarfed Israeli involvement.)

McGreal acknowledges that “Israel faced three wars of survival, and the armed struggle in South Africa never evolved to the murderous tactics or scale of killing adopted by Palestinian groups over recent years.” Yet he still thinks that Israeli Jews are comparable to whites under apartheid, and to back up the point he quotes Kasrils as an authority on the culpability of South African Jews in apartheid.

Most alarmingly, McGreal describes the two-state solution as the Israelis’ way “of ridding themselves of responsibility from the bulk of Arabs. Separation. Apartheid.”
This is really the whole point of the comparison. Almost everyone who invokes the Israel-apartheid analogy in anything other than a purely metaphorical sense, or perhaps in McGreal’s inquisitive fashion, is opposed to the two-state solution.

Take Nancy Murray, for example. Her essay is the last of twenty in the 2001 agitprop anthology The New Intifada: Resisting Israel’s Apartheid, which I first read several years ago. It is also the only essay to address the subject of apartheid, despite the title of the book—yet another indication that the word is just a label for outright hostility to Israel and the two-state solution to the conflict.

Murray admits that the South African anti-apartheid movement had, as the Palestinian movement does not, “a vision of a new society” such as the ANC’s Freedom Charter. But instead of noting that the ANC had to make compromises to achieve its goals, she calls for a “no compromise” approach on Palestinian demands such as the “Right of Return,” which would effectively end Israel’s existence.

Overall, the problem with McGreal’s analysis is that it minimizes the importance of Palestinian-initiated violence in creating the conditions that he refers to as “apartheid.” He allows Israelis to speak in their own defense, but fails to understand that they are not “demanding to be judged by the standards of . . . [their] neighbours”; they are asking that all be judged by the same rules.

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