Israel: Beware the Rorschach effect

Terence Corrigan says Israel is by all accounts a fractious, divided and challenged society, but apartheid appellation is misplaced

Israel: Beware the Rorschach effect

16 March 2023

Israeli Apartheid Week, currently under way on South Africa’s campuses, is the latest note in the staccato of anti-Israel activism that must be one of the longest-standing and most recurrent themes in our politics.

Parliament recently passed a resolution demanding the ‘downgrading’ of South Africa’s embassy in Tel Aviv. This came shortly after South Africa led the charge against Israeli representatives observing an African Union Summit in February. An Israeli rugby team was disinvited from a local tournament. The Minister of Higher Education punted a book damning Israel. And so it goes on, wending its way through international institutions, parliamentary delegations, street protests and even beauty pageants.

For the Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, condemning Israel is part of her stock repertoire.

As its name indicates, IAW is part of the dubious legacy that South Africa’s own sad history has given to the world. ‘Apartheid’ – sometimes, I’ve noticed, pronounced with visceral stress on the final syllable, or its homophone, ‘hate’ – is a symbol of much of what the modern world reviles. It’s about domination and subjugation, the callous disregard of people’s dignity. It was what the late Samuel P Huntington termed a ‘racial oligarchy’, a system in which one’s skin tone denoted one’s provenance, which determined one’s eligibility to hold rights and access life opportunities.

This has rightly left an imprint on South Africa’s (and the world’s) consciousness and conscience; though as with anything that provokes strong feelings, there is a danger of a Rorschach effect, seeing what is expected rather than what may be accurate.

Israel is by all accounts a fractious, divided and challenged society; but the apartheid appellation seems to me wholly misplaced. Apartheid was a uniquely South African institution. It was based on ‘race’ – not ethno-cultural identity, although that played some political role – and was totalising in the sense that it struck at the heart of citizenship. Apartheid was not only about separate and unequal recreational, educational or living spaces, but about denationalising the African population through the fanciful Homelands system and creating separate societies.

Whatever its faults, Israel does not discriminate on ‘racial’ bases and accords its non-Jewish citizens the rights of citizens, most significantly the franchise.

A few years ago, Israel’s Nation State Law defined the country as one in which Jewish people exercised self-determination. This provoked consternation, some of it warranted (including by myself as a distance observer), for it suggested that some were linked more closely to the state than others. But it is also not unusual globally, as many countries – from Liberia to Malaysia to Latvia – are constituted around dominant ethnic, historical or religious identities. Sometimes these are fraught with tension, and alienate minorities. If one is to criticise Israel on these grounds, one might spare a thought for the numerous other societies in which this occurs. Neighbouring Egypt, for instance, relegates its Coptic minority firmly to second-class status; China in practice does likewise to its non-Han minorities. There are, however, no weeks devoted to castigating Egypt or China for their failings,

Incidentally, based on its existing constitutional provisions, ethno-religious identity would be the foundation of a Palestinian state: it would be explicitly ‘Arab’, with Islam as its official religion and Sharia as the basis for law.

Much, too, has been said of the situation in the Occupied Territories – a situation different from what takes place within Israel proper. There is much to be criticised. It is a militarised situation that restricts liberties, is profoundly discriminatory towards the Palestinian population and inevitably fosters hardships and abuses. There is no real dispute on this. But, to quote Benjamin Pogrund, a South African journalist now resident in Israel (and frequent critic of its actions): ‘It is an occupation, it is repression, but it is not Apartheid.’

More importantly, South Africa has as good as nothing to offer in resolving the impasse. Our transition holds few applicable lessons. A conflict of rival nationalisms over the borders and character of states is beyond our experience. South Africa did not have to deal with territorial claims. Rather, the focus was on the terms for a common citizenship. South Africa had a widespread Christian religious tradition as a unifying force; in Israel and Palestine, religion is a source of profound division. (I recently took issue with a prominent local supporter of Israel for suggesting that South Africa could bring its experiences to bear in this conflict. It’s a mistake made on both sides.)

Nor does South Africa’s government have anything to induce or coerce the parties. No aid packages, no security guarantees. And no capacity for persuasion, since it transparently loathes Israel and sides uncritically with the Palestinians.

And by all available evidence, this is not of much interest to most South Africans anyway. A 2017 survey by the Kaplan Centre at the University of Cape Town found that close to three quarters of respondents (Africans living in urban centres) had never heard of the conflict. Among those who had, over a third couldn’t say which party was responsible for it.

So, what does IAW really mean? At best, it’s about extending ‘solidarity’. Most of those involved are doubtless sincere in this. But it’s a meagre, performative gesture offering nothing of value. Above all, it’s not about ‘peace’, even if that word is mangled into it sometimes.

It’s about demonstrating support for a Palestinian ‘victory’ – ‘from the River to the Sea’. This isn’t realistic, but no matter. It scratches something in South Africa’s political psyche. It harks back less to history than mythology. Gestures of this nature are a signifier of what their celebrants imagine the country to be, or as it might have been – particularly for those in the country’s political elite associated with the ANC.

‘Taking a stand’ offers the satisfaction of a clear moral and ideologically ‘progressive’ position on an issue of global import. Of uncompromising struggle. It is the stuff of a liberation movement, rather than a government. None of the complexity and frustration of running a power utility, or keeping tik off the streets.

Thus, back in 2017, an ANC international relations officer Sisa Njikelana told a seminar that to counter Israel’s pernicious influence in Africa, South Africa should offer its peers the same technology and expertise. For a country showing the wear-and-tear of failure, that was (and is) squandering its potential, the unreality and hubris on display was glaring.

It also sustains a fantasy about South Africa’s geopolitical weight, that it really is what former ambassador to Washington Ebrahim Rasool called a ‘moral superpower’. When Parliament passed its resolution on the embassy downgrade, the National Freedom Party referred to ‘our ability to act as neutral mediator in the conflict.’ If anyone thinks this, it’s beyond delusional, rather like South Africa mediating between Russia and Ukraine.

It’s all a glaring illustration of the estrangement from reality that afflicts our politics, a parochial and self-referential worldview with aspirations beyond capacity and ideology beyond reality.

Never mind Israel. This week says a great deal about the state of South Africa.

Terence Corrigan is the project manager at the Institute of Race Relations