Apartheid? Not in Israel

Rev. Kenneth and Esther Meshoe visit the Knesset  (photo credit: COURTESY ILSE STRAUSS)
Rev. Kenneth and Esther Meshoe visit the Knesset
 SEVENTY YEARS ago, the ruling white minority in South Africa implemented an ideology called apartheid. For 46 years, the system of white supremacy, institutionalized racial segregation and gross political and economic discrimination was driven into every nook and cranny of South African society, subjecting the non-white population to a life of repression, poverty and hopelessness.
In 1994, the final bastions of the regime toppled and all of South Africa went to the polls in the country’s first democratic election. After nearly half a century of Apartheid, the people who had lived in “a state of being apart” took their first steps on the road of reconciliation.
Today, 24 years later, South Africans are still to come to grips with their past – and its ripple effect into the present. Yet as the country struggles to heal, anti-Israel advocates work to breathe new life into the memory of oppression and appropriate the term to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
While the epithet is fallacious when applied in this context, pushing the apartheid libel has proven highly successful. The 14th annual Israel Apartheid Week kicked off on February 19, 2018. Like its 13 predecessors, this year’s initiative promised eight weeks of anti-Israel, anti-Zionist and ultimately antisemitic demonstrations, lectures, rallies, marches and a bevy of other emotive activities in cities around the world.
However, two black South Africans, who have suffered the ravages of apartheid, have a message for those gearing up to slam the so-called Israeli abuses: there is no apartheid in Israel. Moreover, forcing the term into the Israel-Palestinian framework insults the true victims and minimizes their pain. Both South Africans thus advise would-be activists to put down their placards until they have personally examined the apartheid allegations.
Where is there apartheid?
Reverend Kenneth Meshoe is well acquainted with apartheid. He spent the first 40 years of his life subject to the regime. Today, this prominent pastor, member of Parliament and president of the African Christian Democratic Party, has visited Israel nearly 20 times. These trips, he says, have given him ample opportunity to examine Israeli society for signs of the ideology of racism and discrimination. His conclusion: “There is no comparison to the life, to the system, I grew up under, and life in Israel.”
Meshoe’s testimony of day-to-day life in apartheid South Africa comprises a long list of separates: segregated beaches, busses, entertainment, education and medical facilities, neighborhoods, livelihoods, opportunities and futures. Amenities reserved for the privileged minority came clearly marked with a sign in both Afrikaans and English: “Whites only.”
Asked how life in Israel measures up to those days, Meshoe answers, “You find none of these things there. On my first trip to Israel, I looked everywhere for a hint of apartheid. I spent 40 years under the system. The evidence would be easy to spot.” Yet instead of the telltale signs of segregation, Meshoe found coexistence.
“I was shocked,” Meshoe confesses. “Not by the absence of apartheid. That I expected. What shook me was the realization that the world would condemn a country guilty of none of the atrocities of the system that oppressed me and my people. I was shocked that the world can be duped so easily.”
Meshoe also speaks out strongly against equating South African freedom fighters with Palestinian terrorists. “The comparison is nonsense. South Africans fought legitimately for freedom we did not have, something that was denied us. Palestinian terrorists fight for destruction. That is the difference. We fought for freedom. They fight for the annihilation of the State of Israel.”
“Look at icons like Nelson Mandela,” he clarifies. “As a black South African citizen, he wanted us to have the same rights and privileges that white people had. But if Mandela lived as an Arab citizen of Israel, there would have been no need for his sacrifices. Why? Because the Arab citizens of Israel enjoy the same rights and privileges the Jewish citizens do. What South African freedom fighters laid down their lives for and went into exile,” he points out, “the Arabs in Israel already have. They can vote – and have their elected representatives in the Israeli government. Arabs can choose where to live, where and how to travel and where to get an education. They can go to top schools and universities, where they share classrooms, lecture halls and cafeterias with Jewish students. For us, that would have been illegal. When Arabs are ill, they go to the same surgeries and hospitals – and use the front door. We had to go to doctors who would concede to treating black patients – and then use the back entrance. Arabs and Jews dine next to one another in restaurants and buy from the same cafés, stores and supermarkets.”
Yet all these examples are surface issues, Meshoe admits. What distinguishes Israel today from apartheid South Africa is that Arabs are free to pursue the future they desire. “They can decide to become a doctor, a judge or a politician and operate on a Jewish patient, preside over a Jewish defendant’s case or serve in government. In apartheid South Africa, that was unheard of. At times, black people were not even allowed to study for doctors or lawyers. And when they later could, no black doctor would have treated a white patient and no black judge would have had any say over a white person’s case. Moreover, you would not have found a black lawmaker in apartheid South Africa’s government. Even the idea is absurd. In Israel, that is a given, the norm. So where are the similarities? Where is there apartheid?”
Appropriating the term to the Israel-Palestinian context, Meshoe charges, offends the true victims. “Those who push this lie trivialize our pain. And that is insulting. When the Palestinians claim they are going through what we went through, it reduces us to crybabies. They have every opportunity we did not have. They have rights and freedoms we could only dream of – and still want to say they suffer like black South Africans did? It reduces our painful past to something tedious.”
Meshoe has a message for those who plan to participate in Israel Apartheid Week: skip the lecture, forego the rally and miss the march. “Why settle for being spoon-fed propaganda? I challenge you to find out for yourself. Go to Israel. Go experience what it is really like and see if you can find any instances of apartheid.”
In search of the truth
Tshediso Mangope’s beliefs about Israel are not the product of political, religious or popular propaganda. His convictions stem from personal experience. This was not always the case. As a black South African born from generations of oppression and a member of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party, Mangope believed that Israel is an apartheid state, subjecting its Arab citizens to the same practices of segregation and suffering that South Africa once did. “The ANC has a commitment to international solidarity,” he explains. “Members of the ANC are taught that Israel practices apartheid and that we should support the Palestinian people.”
With no reason to question what he was told, Mangope joined the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement in a bid to stand against the supposed subjugation, racism and tyranny. Yet the activist was forced to reassess his convictions when a friend with similar beliefs returned from a trip to Israel with his point of view changed entirely. “He suggested that I too had to see for myself, to step into the shoes of those affected and to experience firsthand the facts of the conflict so that I could move forward from an informed premise instead of relying on the information I got from the ANC or the South African media.”
Mangope followed his friend’s advice. The trip was an eye-opener. “I was shocked by the amount of falsehoods on which my beliefs about Israel were grounded,” he confesses. Amenities and facilities were there for everybody’s use, be they Jewish, Arab, Druze or any other race, culture or religion. Moreover, he holds, “there is a coexistence among the people that I did not expect. On the contrary, I was told explicitly that such coexistence does not exist. Some Arabs believe that Israel stands between them and freedom,” he admits. “Others feel that the conflict is exacerbated by corrupt Palestinian leaders who benefit from the hostilities and do not want it to end. All too often, the latter group, the group that wants to live side by side with their Jewish neighbors in peace and prosperity, is being persecuted.”
The eight-day trip, Mangope clarifies, was not a propaganda exercise where issues and problems were glossed over and participants spoon-fed pat answers. The aim of the initiative, he argues, was to highlight intricacies and give a firsthand experience of what life on the ground is like. “We visited many parts of the land and met with numerous Israelis and Palestinians. We listened to their points of view and their stories. We could then draw our own conclusions.”
The facts, stories and testimonies all pointed to one truth: the situation is much more complex than what the South African and world media portray. Moreover, Mangope realized that what he had been taught as fact was a lie. Israel is not an partheid state.
Today, the former BDS activist makes a convincing case on Israel’s behalf. Applying the apartheid label to the Israel-Palestinian context, he points out, does not only speak of gross naiveté, it also aggravates an already grave situation. “In my opinion, Israel has done a number of things wrong, things they should have done differently. The Palestinians have also done a number of things wrong, things they should have done differently. The biggest lesson I have learned is that the conflict is much less black and white than what the world wants to believe. It is not a matter of one side being right – the victims of oppression – and the other side being wrong – the perpetrators of oppression. When the world portrays and deals with the conflict in this way, when they take sides, point fingers and level inaccurate accusations, they simply make things worse, which is counterproductive to finding a resolution.”
“I believe that the Arab world’s persistence in denying the Jewish people – the indigenous people of Israel – the right to exist is one of the main reasons why the conflict has lasted so long,” Mangope concludes. “The Jewish people have suffered thousands of years of persecution. Everybody who loves peace and justice has a responsibility to defend the right of the State of Israel to exist, in the same way they are responsible to defend the right of any nation to exist.”
Born and raised in South Africa, Ilse Strauss has a background in media and public relations, and currently volunteers for Bridges for Peace in Jerusalem as a news correspondent.