Liberal Zionists have adopted the same arguments in defense of Israeli occupation that conservative opponents of sanctions on South Africa’s apartheid regime used in the 1980s. (Najeh Hashlamoun / APA images)
“While the majority of black South African leaders are against disinvestment and boycotts, there are tiny factions that support disinvestment — namely terrorist groups such as the African National Congress,” libertarian economics professor Walter Williams wrote in a 1983 New York Times op-ed.
Williams’ claim was as absurd then as it appears in hindsight, but his sentiment was far from rare on the American and British right in the 1980s.
Yet today’s so-called progressive and liberal Zionists employ precisely the same kinds of claims to counter the growing movement, initiated by Palestinians themselves, for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) on Israel.
Indeed, looking back, it is clear that Israel’s liberal apologists are recycling nearly every argument once used by conservatives against the BDS movement that helped dismantle South Africa’s apartheid regime.
In a 1989 op-ed for the Christian Science Monitor, University of South Africa lecturer Anne-Marie Kriek scolded the divestment movement for singling out her country’s racist government because, she wrote, “the violation of human rights is the norm rather than the exception in most of Africa’s 42 black-ruled states” (“South Africa Shouldn’t be Singled Out,” 12 October 1989).
Kriek continued, “South Africa is the only country in Sub-Saharan Africa that can feed itself. Blacks possess one of the highest living standards in all of Africa,” adding that nowhere on the continent did black Africans have it so good. So, “Why is South Africa so harshly condemned while completely different standards apply to black Africa?” she asked.
Divestment opponents in the US provided similar justifications. In 1986, for instance, Gregory Dohi, the former editor-in-chief of the Salient, Harvard University’s conservative campus publication, protested that those calling for the university to divest from companies doing business in South Africa were “selective in their morality” (“I am full of joy to realize that I never had anything to do with any divestment campaign …,” Harvard Crimson, 4 April 1986).
Divestment was wrong not only because it would “harm” black workers, Dohi claimed, but because it singled out South Africa.
Where have we heard these kinds of arguments before?
Arguing against BDS, The Nation’s Eric Alterman writes, “The near-complete lack of democratic practices within Israel’s neighbors in the Arab and Islamic world, coupled with their lack of respect for the rights of women, of gays, indeed, of dissidents of any kind — make their protestations of Israel’s own democratic shortcomings difficult to credit” (“A Forum on Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS),” 3 May 2012).
Alterman’s only update to Kriek’s logic is his mention of women’s and gay rights, a nod toThe Nation readers’ liberal sensitivities.
Alterman’s sometime Nation colleague, reporter Ben Adler, has also reprised Kriek’s and Dohi’s 1980s-style arguments: “If you want to boycott Israel itself then you need to explain why you’re not calling for a boycott of other countries in the Middle East that oppress their own citizens worse than Israel does anyone living within the Green Line” (“The Problems With BDS,” 31 March 2012).
A scary brown majority
The late neoconservative war hawk, and long-time New York Times columnist William Safire — who in 2002 insisted, “Iraqis, cheering their liberators, will lead the Arab worldtoward democracy” — also sympathized with white supremacist anxieties about the implications of a single democratic South Africa.
One person, one vote “means majority rule, and nonwhites are the overwhelming majority in South Africa,” Safire wrote in a 1986 column. “That means an end to white government as the Afrikaners have known it for three centuries; that means the same kind of black rule that exists elsewhere in Africa, and most white South Africans would rather remain the oppressors than become the oppressed” (“The Suzman Plan,” 7 August 1986).
Almost thirty years later, liberal Zionists exhibit the same empathy with racists in their own hostility toward the Palestinian right of return, which BDS unapologetically champions.
Such a scenario would spell the end of Israel’s Jewish majority, a horrifying prospect for ethno-religious supremacists who, like whites in South Africa did, fear the native population they rule.
Cary Nelson, a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, well-known in academic circles for his left-liberal activism, conveyed the same fears in a recent anti-BDS tirade. He argued that “nothing in decades of Middle East history suggests Jews would be equal citizens in a state dominated by Arabs or Palestinians” (“Why the ASA boycott is both disingenuous and futile,” Al Jazeera America, 23 December 2013).
Nelson’s racism-induced panic is further distilled in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, where he argues that the BDS movement seeks “the elimination of Israel,” after which, “those Jews not exiled or killed in the transition to an Arab-dominated nation would live as second-class citizens without fundamental rights” (“Another Anti-Israel Vote Comes to Academia,” 8 January 2014).
Of course he wouldn’t put it this way, but Nelson fears, in effect, that Palestinians might do to Jews what the Israeli settler-colonial regime has done to Palestinians since its inception.
Relying on puppets
Last December, Mahmoud Abbas, the autocratic puppet leader of the Palestinian Authority, and chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), declared his opposition to BDS, leaving Israel and its apologists predictably overjoyed.
In The New Republic, Leon Wieseltier chides pro-BDS academics for speaking on behalf of Palestinians. “Who is Abu Mazen [Abbas] to speak for the Palestinians, compared with an associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, San Diego?” he quipped (“The Academic Boycott of Israel Is a Travesty,” 17 December 2013).
Jeffrey Goldberg is just as derisive, writing in his Bloomberg column that the American Studies Association — which voted to boycott Israeli institutions — “is more Palestinian … than the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization” (“Some Lessons in Effective Scapegoating,” 16 December 2013).
These and other liberal Zionists insist that the Israeli- and US-approved Abbas is the only authentic representative of Palestinian sentiment. They ignore the overwhelming support for boycotting Israel among the Palestinian people.
But for many Palestinians, an apt comparison for Abbas is with Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the black leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party.
Buthelezi was often denounced by black South Africans as a collaborator with the white apartheid regime and lauded by British and American conservative opponents of sanctions as the true voice of black South Africa.
In a 1985 address to representatives from US companies operating in South Africa,Buthelezi insisted that the majority of South African blacks firmly opposed sanctions because they would “condemn a great many millions and a whole new generation to continue living in appalling slum conditions.”
In 1990, Buthelezi came out against an ANC-led campaign of mass civil disobedience — marches, boycotts and strikes — throwing his weight instead behind “cooperation” and “negotiation” with the white regime.
This offers a striking parallel to the present-day Palestinian Authority which continues to give legitimacy to the endless “peace process” while suppressing direct action against the occupation.
Buthelezi was only the most prominent of a handful of black apologists and collaborators with the apartheid regime. Others included Lucas Mangope, puppet leader of the Bophuthatswana bantustan who also fiercely opposed sanctions that would isolate his white supremacist paymasters.
Mangope cringed at the idea of a one-person, one-vote system in South Africa and spent the last days of apartheid desperately clinging to power over his “independent” island of repression.
Yet it wasn’t uncommon for US media outlets — including The New York Times — to label Mangope, and others like him, “moderate” black leaders.
Israel, it seems, has taken its cues directly from the apartheid playbook, cultivating a small circle of Palestinian elites willing to maintain the occupation in exchange for power and comfort.
And liberal Zionists are more than happy to bolster the ruse by using these comprised figures’ words against Palestinians who still insist on their rights.
Think of the workers
When Mobil Corporation was forced to shut down its operations in South Africa in 1989 due to what it called “very foolish” US sanctions laws, its chief executive, Allen Murray, feigned concern for the impact on black workers.
“We continue to believe that our presence and our actions have contributed greatly to economic and social progress for nonwhites in South Africa,” the oil executive declared (“Mobil Is Quitting South Africa, Blaming ‘Foolish’ Laws in US,” The New York Times, 29 April 1989).
Before finally giving in to boycott pressures, Citibank also justified its refusal to divest by citing its obligation to the South Africans it employed.
Last month, SodaStream chief executive Daniel Birnbaum echoed this transparent posturing when he defended the location of his company’s main production facility in the illegal Israeli settlement of Maaleh Adumim.
The only thing keeping him from moving the factory, Birnbaum claims, is his loyalty to some 500 Palestinian SodaStream employees. “We will not throw our employees under the bus to promote anyone’s political agenda,” he told The Jewish Daily Forward (“SodaStream Boss Admits West Bank Plant Is ‘a Pain’ — Praises Scarlett Johansson,” 28 January 2014).
“Constructive engagement” again?
Scarlett Johansson, the Hollywood actress who resigned from her humanitarian ambassador role with the anti-poverty organization Oxfam in order to pursue her role as global brand ambassador for SodaStream, applauded the company for “supporting neighbors working alongside each other, receiving equal pay, equal benefits and equal rights.”
Such appeals for cooperation with an oppressive status quo in the face of growing support for BDS mirror President Ronald Reagan’s insistence on “constructive engagement” with apartheid South Africa.
While asserting in 1986 that “time is running out for the moderates of all races in South Africa,” Reagan opposed sanctions that could foster change. Today, supporters of the endless Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” also regularly insist that “time is running out,” while fiercely opposing BDS.
Reagan praised his British counterpart Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for having “denounced punitive sanctions as immoral and utterly repugnant.” Why? Because “the primary victims of an economic boycott of South Africa would be the very people we seek to help,” the president argued (“Transcript of Talk by Reagan on South Africa and Apartheid,” The New York Times, 23 July 1986).
The Reagan administration even funded a survey of black South African workers to prove they loved working for benevolent American corporations and adamantly opposed divestment, never mind the fact that advocating for sanctions under apartheid was aseverely punishable offense.
Fast forward to 2014 and Jane Eisner, editor of the liberal Jewish Daily Forward publicly hails SodaStream as the solution to the conflict, using her newspaper to portray Palestinian workers as grateful to be employed by the settlement profiteer, sentiments they expressed while being interviewed under the watchful eyes of their supervisors.
Taking racism a step further
Today, twenty-first century liberals and progressives who are ideologically invested in Zionism have embraced the rationales of racist right-wingers from a bygone era.
What’s more, liberal Zionists have taken the racism a step further than Reagan and Thatcher ever dared to go with South Africa.
Although they opposed sanctions, Reagan and Thatcher regularly denounced apartheid as an unjust system that needed to be dismantled.
Israel’s apologists, by contrast, firmly support the maintenance of Israel’s discrimination against Palestinians with their insistence that the country remain a “Jewish state” and their continued denial of the Palestinian right of return.
*Rania Khalek is an independent journalist reporting on the underclass and marginalized.