‘I will not allow my commitment to Israel to be questioned by anybody,” said John Kerry in defending himself following his use of the word “apartheid” in relation to Israel. He misses the point.
Consider a South African perspective. Just a few days ago, on April 27, 2014, South Africa marked its 20th anniversary of freedom and democracy since emerging from the tyranny of apartheid. On that day my wife and I took our children to visit Robben Island, the home of the most infamous apartheid-era jail. Visiting Robben Island on this historic occasion was very sobering, and it gave our children the chance to see, among other monuments of apartheid history, the tiny jail cell of Nelson Mandela, and the oppressive prison quarters that held some of the other heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle, including Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and many others.
Robben Island, with its bleak and harsh environment and grim prison, symbolizes the brutality and evil of the apartheid regime.
The visit moved me to reflect on what apartheid really was, and it was in the context of these reflections that I first heard of John Kerry’s use of the word “apartheid.”
Simply put, the word “apartheid” is sacred, and to use it inappropriately is a desecration of the memory, and a trivialization of the suffering of the victims of the real apartheid. If everything is apartheid then nothing is.
In its essence, apartheid was a stateplanned, state-enforced national system of racial discrimination – the oppression of people and the denial of their basic human rights on the basis of the color of their skin.
The apartheid system was devised and put into practice using all of the levers of government power – parliament, judiciary, police and military – and resulted in a slew of oppressive laws aimed at obliterating the economic, political and cultural freedoms of an entire race of people.
To hear John Kerry use the word “apartheid” in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict felt jarring and offensive, especially this week as we reflect on where South Africa has come from.
It is a callous insult to the sacrifices and bravery of Mandela, Sisulu and Oliver Tambo; an insult to the memory of Steve Biko, who was murdered by the apartheid police, and Hector Pieterson, who died in his mother’s arms during the Soweto Riots; and an insult to the fearless opposition of Helen Suzman, who alone faced off against an overwhelming National Party majority in parliament.
It betrays in Kerry an awful ignorance of the apartheid system. No one who truly understands the brutality and the systematic racism and denial of basic human rights that made apartheid nefarious could possibly use the word in a discussion relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – a territorial, political, religious, cultural dispute concerning national identity and borders.
John Kerry’s threat that Israel’s departure from his negotiations will lead to apartheid is an appalling abuse of the word, which represents so much suffering to so many people.
As the historical record clearly shows, Israel has displayed maximum commitment to achieving peace. Kerry has given the Palestinian leadership the power to turn Israel into an apartheid state. All they need to do is to scupper the negotiations through intransigence, as they did at Camp David with president Clinton and on many other occasions, and then leave it to people like Kerry to label Israel as an apartheid state.
As a rather desperate defense, Kerry has drawn attention to the fact that Justice Minister Tzipi Livni as well as former prime ministers Barak and Olmert have “all invoked the specter of apartheid to underscore the dangers of a unitary state for the future.” Yet for these Israeli leaders to have used the word “apartheid” in reference to Israel is just as unforgivable, and in doing so they display the same scorn for historical precedent and the same insensitivity to those who suffered under the real apartheid. To utter the word “apartheid” in the context of Israel is beyond the pale and desecrates the sacred memory of the victims of the real apartheid. And it places Israel in grave danger.
The Mishna in Pirkei Avot warns leaders: “Be careful with your words, lest you become liable for exile.” This is a timely warning to leaders like Kerry, Livni, Barak and Olmert. To carelessly fling around baseless epithets can do great harm and can even lead to exile.
Indeed, to mention “apartheid” – the systematic, cruel racism implemented by a police state for the purpose of destroying human dignity and freedom – in the same breath as “Israel” – a beacon of commitment to human rights, freedom and equality in the Middle East – is to falsely libel and delegitimize the Jewish state and its right to exist.
Such talk promotes a boycott campaign against Israel, which, if it reaches its goal, will ultimately lead to the exile of the Jewish people from their land and, God forbid, the destruction of the State of Israel. We dare not underestimate the danger of the apartheid label.
Leaders have to be people of responsibility.
And part of this responsibility is realizing the power of words. Another Mishna says that God created the world with 10 statements.
Words create worlds. And words destroy worlds. Words can build and uplift, and words can denigrate and destroy.
This one word “apartheid” is so powerful because it symbolizes evil tyranny and international sanctions, and to use it falsely in respect of Israel is grossly immoral and dangerous.
Make no mistake, the apartheid label can destroy the State of Israel. I lived through the era of sanctions against, and international isolation of, evil apartheid South Africa.
When a country is treated as a pariah by the nations of the world, the morale and will to continue of its people is completely sapped.
If the apartheid label, God forbid, sticks to Israel, it will prove far more lethal than any of the enemy missiles aimed at its citizens.
So Mr. Kerry, this is not about your personal commitment to Israel. It is about morally responsible leadership. You wistfully expressed the childish wish “to rewind the tape.” As a responsible leader, your moral duty is to repent for your sins. You and Barak, Olmert and Livni have desecrated the memory of the victims of the real apartheid, and you have jeopardized the position of the Jewish people in their ancient homeland.
Repentance for such terrible sins, our sages teach, demands confessing to the wrongdoing, asking forgiveness from the victims and then from God, and finally repairing the damage your sins have caused.
Kerry and his Israeli cohorts must humbly and sincerely beg the forgiveness of the people of South Africa and the people of Israel.
They must show the sincerity of their repentance by leading the fight against the international boycott campaign and by speaking against anyone who would dare abuse the sacred word “apartheid.” They must now make it clear to the world that the “apartheid” word must be expunged from any civilized conversation about Israel, that its use is beyond the pale of morally acceptable behavior of any decent person.
Anything less is not true repentance – and is unforgivable.
The writer is chief rabbi of South Africa.