Apartheid is a potent term and one that occupies a special place in New Zealand’s social and political memory. Many New Zealanders remember the passion of the 1981 Springbok tour protests. Rugby lovers grumbled about sport and politics being mixed, while many students enthusiastically joined the protests. New Zealand has taken pride in the fact that it stood at the forefront of opposition to South Africa’s apartheid regime.
Seeking to exploit the 40th anniversary of that achievement, John Minto, former HART national organizer, is yet again seeking to demonise Israel via the fallacy of false equivalence.
Minto’s claim that Israel practises apartheid is demonstrably untrue. In fact, Judge Richard J. Goldstone (former Justice of the South African Constitutional Court, who led the United Nations 2008-9 fact-finding mission on the Gaza conflict), stated, ‘The charge that Israel is an apartheid state is a false and malicious one that precludes, rather than promotes, peace and harmony’.
Human Rights Watch employed the apartheid accusation in a report earlier this year, prompting international human-rights lawyer Arsen Ostrovsky to label it “Anti-Semitic ‘blood libel’ against the Jewish state”. According to Ostrovsky the report, ‘…is replete with malicious lies and gross distortions of law while peddling in unhinged hate, incitement and racist stereotypes’.
There is in fact a long history of the propagation of the ‘apartheid smear’. It first appeared in the ‘anti-Zionist’ campaigns waged by the Communist states during the Cold War. A second key phase came in 1975 when a coalition between the Soviet Bloc, the Arab states, and the ‘Non-Aligned Movement’ emerged. This bloc used its majority at the UN General Assembly to pass Resolution 3379, equating Zionism with racism. This was rescinded in 1991.
Then in 2001, the Durban Conference, (the UN World Conference against Racism, Racial Intolerance and Xenophobia), ostensibly convened to address racism and xenophobia, turned into an antisemitic hate-fest. Anti-Israel activists organised a parallel NGO Forum and used it to launch a concerted campaign to label Israel a ‘racist, apartheid state’. The international community was called upon to impose a ‘policy of complete and total isolation of Israel as an apartheid state’ and ‘the full cessation of all links (diplomatic, economic, social, aid, military cooperation and training) between all states and Israel’.
New Zealand, in recognition of the contentious, hateful and unproductive nature of the conference, has not supported subsequent Durban conferences and prior to the 20th commemoration this year, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated,
New Zealand remains strongly committed to combatting racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. Consistent with our long-standing position, New Zealand will not attend the 20th anniversary of the Durban Declaration conference in New York on 22 September 2021.
This is an indication of a small shift for New Zealand, in what has been a trend of anti-Israel stances in international fora, since New Zealand’s 2016 co-sponsorship of UNSC Resolution 2334.
Meanwhile there have been seizmic shifts in the Middle East that signal a growing optimism for the region. It’s been just over a year since the signing of the Abraham Accords between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, later joined by Bahrain, with Sudan and Morocco also agreeing to normalise ties with Israel. The change of mood is highly significant. According to key negotiator for the accords, Dr Tal Becker, Arab states are for the first time showing a willingness to acknowledge that Jews are indigenous to the Middle East and that they share a common ancestor in Abraham. He sees the normalisation of the idea that Israel is an integral part of the Middle East as an important pushback against the campaign to delegitimize Israel.
Perhaps it’s time for John Minto and his ilk to ‘read the Middle Eastern room’ and also move on from their fixation with demonising Israel.
While Israel is far from perfect, any visitor to the land will note the remarkable degree of diversity and co-existence. All citizens are guaranteed equal rights including the right to vote. Israel’s robust justice system counters discrimination. The absurdity of the apartheid charge is vividly illustrated by the fact that when Israeli President Katzav was convicted and imprisoned, his trial was presided over by an Arab judge. Israel’s Arab minority participates fully in the political process and the recent elections saw the Arab Ra’am party win four seats – it now participates in the government.
Israel’s universities are integrated and there’s a thriving Arabic media, literature and theatre scene. Many Israeli towns and cities are mixed Arab-Jewish and there are no legal restrictions on movement, employment or sexual or marital relations. Freedom of speech and assembly is upheld and the Government’s opponents may form political organisations. All are free to criticise the authorities and many do so vociferously. Twenty percent of medical teams in Israel – be they doctors, nurses, or paramedics, are Arab. Many Palestinians from the West Bank (and some from Gaza) work and study in Israeli hospitals.
The Israel Apartheid smear is in fact an insult to black South Africans who suffered under that racist regime. In the words of South African MP Kenneth Meshoe, ‘This ridiculous accusation trivializes the word apartheid, minimizing and belittling the magnitude of the racism and suffering endured by South Africans of color.’
Antisemites have long traded in moral inversion and the apartheid charge is a prime example. If anything akin to apartheid does exist in the region it can be found in the Palestinian Territories. Jews are forbidden to enter and do so at risk of their lives. Palestinian negotiators have treated as a given that any future Palestinian state would be free of Jews.
Apartheid can also be found across the border in Lebanon, where Palestinians are refused basic civil rights, barred from numerous professions and from owning land. Many live in ghetto-like settlements, sometimes surrounded by segregation walls, barbed wire and military surveillance. Where is the outcry for these Palestinians? Or for those in Syria, suffering a lack of medical aid, food and water, and caught between Syrian forces, Russian influence and the Iranian desire to build a military zone?
The chasm between reality and the anti-Israel narrative is vast. Ignored, too, are the complex security challenges Israel faces. Iranian-backed Islamic fundamentalist groups are intent on Israel’s destruction yet Minto prefers to ignore Israel’s security needs. Indeed, terrorist attacks are often deemed justified by anti-Israel activists.
Little effort is made to address the real cause of Palestinian woes – the inability or unwillingness of a corrupt leadership to work for a solution for their people. Rather than build a thriving, functioning state, energies are focussed on demonising Israel and cultivating a culture that celebrates death and martyrdom.
The reality is that Jews are the indigenous people of Israel with more than 3,000 years unbroken connection to the land. After banishment from their homeland, centuries of persecution, discrimination, and multiple expulsions from foreign lands, the Jews returned and re-established themselves as a nation. When, in the nineteenth century the Ottoman Empire became open to immigration, persecuted Jews began to join a remnant who had kept ahi kaa (kept the home fires of hope burning) in the land. As an indigenous people, Jews have the right to assert and protect their distinctive identity in their ancestral homeland. Their self-determination as a people and the revival of their ancient language is a remarkable inspiration to indigenous peoples everywhere.
The Jewish people have endured existential threats for more than three thousand years. The apartheid smear is merely one manifestation of ancient Jew hatred, applied to the Jewish state. What scholar Robert Wistrich called “the longest hatred” must be called out whenever and wherever it occurs. It is time for Aotearoa New Zealand to choose the right side of history and say no to antisemitism.