Monday, October 15, 2007
Jimmy Carter says so. Desmond Tutu says so. Nelson Mandela says so. Israel is imposing apartheid on the Palestinian people. Such a claim brings the usual rushed denunciations from people who know perfectly well the strengths of the comparison. All comparisons contain limits: for example, it is reasonably well known by now that the Palestinians do not fulfil the same function in relation to the Israeli economy as black South Africans fulfilled in relation to the Afrikaaner economy. Tony Cliff drew the conclusion decades ago that Palestinians were thus not well placed to win their struggle alone, and required the support of revolutionary movements across the Middle East, unlike COSATU, the ANC and the South African Communist Party. The obvious analogy between Palestine and South Africa is the distribution of land. The bulk of historic Palestine has been siezed from Palestinians and colonised for the benefit of a non-Palestinian ruling group. One could add the extraordinary restrictions on labour, travel rights, the increasingly extreme racist segregation imposed in laws, in water access, the "Jewish-only" roads and settlements and so on. One obvious difference, however, is that the founders of Israel conceived of it as an ethnic-nationalist state based on the dispossession and exclusion of Palestinians rather than their subordination and exploitation, in the main. It had to have a dominative majority of Jewish colonists, whereas Afrikaaner nationalists were content to have a minority rule of white colonists. Israel does not particularly need Palestinian labour in the same way that apartheid needed black labour. Israeli leaders are obsessed with "the demographic problem" (removing the Palestinian peril), while Afrikaaner racists were more concerned about conserving their control of the labour system and the profits that ensued (removing the 'communist' peril). In this sense, the Palestinians face more than an onerous system of oppression and ritual devastation: they face real attempts to do away with them as a national group, to destroy their life-sustaining systems and throw them off their land inch by inch. We are speaking here of politicide. Given a sufficient crisis for Israel, we could be speaking of genocide: after all, if Israel's existence as a polity were ever seriously threatened, we have it on reasonable authority that the state proposes nuclear annihilation of surrounding population centres. I could be wrong and am open to correction, but I don't think that black South Africans faced that prospect. Another sense in which apartheid and Zionism are similar is, of course, the fact that both result from colonial rule. In the same way that white Europeans guided by pungent racism toward the colonised took control of the 'white republics', so Zionist leaders who had collaborated with the British effective won control of a Zionist republic: a state founded in extreme violence, based both on ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and on racist subordination of those who weren't driven out. The difference here was that while contempt for the colonised applied to European attitudes to the Palestinians (who were not even recognised as Palestinians) the Zionist venture was never recognised as having anything to do with colonialism as such.
However, establishing parallels is less important than understanding the global system of domination that the Zionist movement drew upon, and the racial codes that they accepted. For, to establish parallels with apartheid South Africa, you have to at least begin to answer the question of what apartheid actually was: I mean, we all know the literal meaning in Afrikaaner - 'apartness' - but we also know or sense that simply separating the 'races' was not what was essential about it. It was really about separating the overwhelming majority (70%) of the population from the wealth and land of South Africa. It was about expropriation and exploitation organised on the basis of racist doctrines elaborated when the Portugese and Dutch first touched land in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In addition to the extreme and explicit racism of the Afrikaaner nationalists, apartheid was legitimised with reference to the emerging decolonisation movement, using the language of 'homelands' that the Afrikaaner nationalists maintained were the historic lands of the majority who spoke Bantu languages (the 'homelands' comprised 13% of the land of South Africa when the nationalists took power in 1948 - what else happened around that date?). Beyond this? Well, revisionist historians of South Africa argue that we will have misunderstood apartheid if we think it's something imposed only after 1948 by fanatical racists. The basic structures of the system, though intensified by the nationalist coalition, were put in place by the British colonialists and then by the Smuts government. The pass system was initiated by the British, and the Bantustans were based on the old labour 'reservations'.
The structures of apartheid emerged from the structures of colonial exploitation, not from wicked ideas. A harsh and murderous, even genocidal, racial hierarchy was imposed in every single 'white republic' formed as a result of European colonialism: Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, the United States. However, they each produced their own wicked ideas: as a consequence, the justifying myths of apartheid were frequently remarkably similar to those deployed elsewhere. For example, the myth that southern Africa was barely peopled until the Europeans turned up and - to purloin a phrase - made the desert bloom: it was maintained that the Bantu-speaking peoples swept in to the Eastern seaboard and interior in order to benefit from the colonial ways, and therefore weren't disposessed at all by the colonists. (In reality, the Khoisan had been there for millenia, and the Bantu-speaking peoples had arrived centuries before the Europeans got there). Now, that sounds a lot like the Peters hoax, which expressed decades of official Israeli ideology, but it is also redolent of certain myths about the 'taming' of the West, as if it was a largely barren wilderness with a few tribes hanging around and getting in the way of progress. Another myth deployed in official apartheid history was that the various tribal groupings that supposedly arrived in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were so different, so culturally ill-at-ease with one another, that a restraining European hand was essential to keep order and prevent bloody war. (In fact, as is the case today in Darfur, ethnic designations shaded into economic ones: one could be a wealthy khoi, raising cattle, and lose it all through a catastrophe of some kind, and became a san, living through hunter-gathering; similarly, one could return to khoi status by accumulating sufficient wealth to return to cattle-farming). The myth of 'bitter ethnic divisions' is one that resonates with those used by the British to legitimise continued rule over India and Kenya, for example, and has now been deployed in Iraq. Now, of course, all the myths that were used to legitimise the apartheid regime were dispensed with only at the beginning of the 1990s, and then after some considerable struggle. This raises a point about the connection between power and knowledge: for years, simply because these myths were official, they retained purchase among a substantial layer of commentators despite ample refutation. In the same way, the gulf between what is now conclusively established about the conquest of Palestine, and the almost sixty years since then, and what is generally understood by commentators and the public alike, is massive.
The temptation to compare Israel's oppression of the Palestinians with apartheid South Africa is a result of the fact that they both emerge from the same historical complex of global white supremacy, in its various configurations. The denunciations of comparisons made of Zionism with Nazism, which produce much hysterical comment with little reflection as to why they possess resonance for those who make them, also fit into this matrix. When Norman Finkelstein raises similarities between aspects of Zionist ideology and that of Nazi ideology, he is really raising family resemblances (or relations) between colonialism and fascism. The founders of Israel didn't imitate the Nazis: they imitated colonialism and the apparatus of 'racial' knowledge that went with it. The Nazis radicalised and intensified European imperialist doctrines, whereas the Zionists simply adapted them for their own purposes.