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Against Israeli Apartheid
Desmond Tutu & Ian Urbina, South Africa & USA
July 15, 2002
The end of apartheid stands as one of the crowning accomplishments of the past century, but we would not have succeeded without the help of international pressure—in particular the divestment movement of the 1980s. Over the past six months a similar movement has taken shape, this time aiming at an end to the Israeli occupation.
Divestment from apartheid South Africa was fought by ordinary people at the grassroots. Faith-based leaders informed their followers, union
members pressured their companies' stockholders and consumers questioned their store owners. Students played an especially important role by compelling universities to change their portfolios. Eventually,
institutions pulled the financial plug, and the South African government
thought twice about its policies.
Similar moral and financial pressures on Israel are being mustered one
person at a time. Students on more than forty US campuses are demanding
a review of university investments in Israeli companies as well as in
firms doing major business in Israel. From Berkeley to Ann Arbor, city
councils have debated municipal divestment measures.
These tactics are not the only parallels to the struggle against
apartheid. Yesterday's South African township dwellers can tell you
about today's life in the occupied territories. To travel only blocks in
his own homeland, a grandfather waits on the whim of a teenage soldier.
More than an emergency is needed to get to a hospital; less than a crime
earns a trip to jail. The lucky ones have a permit to leave their squalor to work in Israel's cities, but their luck runs out when security closes all checkpoints, paralyzing an entire people. The indignities, dependence and anger are all too familiar.
Many South Africans are beginning to recognize the parallels to what we
went through. Ronnie Kasrils and Max Ozinsky, two Jewish heroes of the
antiapartheid struggle, recently published a letter titled "Not in My
Name." Signed by several hundred other prominent Jewish South Africans,
the letter drew an explicit analogy between apartheid and current
Israeli policies. Mark Mathabane and Nelson Mandela have also pointed
out the relevance of the South African experience.
To criticize the occupation is not to overlook Israel's unique
strengths, just as protesting the Vietnam War did not imply ignoring the
distinct freedoms and humanitarian accomplishments of the United States.
In a region where repressive governments and unjust policies are the
norm, Israel is certainly more democratic than its neighbors. This does
not make dismantling the settlements any less a priority. Divestment
from apartheid South Africa was certainly no less justified because
there was repression elsewhere on the African continent. Aggression is
no more palatable in the hands of a democratic power. Territorial
ambition is equally illegal whether it occurs in slow motion, as with
the Israeli settlers in the occupied territories, or in blitzkrieg
fashion, as with the Iraqi tanks in Kuwait. The United States has a
distinct responsibility to intervene in atrocities committed by its
client states, and since Israel is the single largest recipient of US
arms and foreign aid, an end to the occupation should be a top concern
of all Americans.
Almost instinctively, the Jewish people have always been on the side of
the voiceless. In their history, there is painful memory of massive
roundups, house demolitions and collective punishment. In their scripture, there is acute empathy for the disfranchised. The occupation represents a dangerous and selective amnesia of the persecution from which these traditions were born.
Not everyone has forgotten, including some within the military. The
growing Israeli refusenik movement evokes the small anticonscription
drive that helped turn the tide in apartheid South Africa. Several
hundred decorated Israeli officers have refused to perform military
service in the occupied territories. Those not already in prison have
taken their message on the road to US synagogues and campuses, rightly
arguing that Israel needs security, but that it will never have it as an
occupying power. More than thirty-five new settlements have been
constructed in the past year. Each one is a step away from the safety
deserved by the Israelis, and two steps away from the justice owed to
If apartheid ended, so can the occupation, but the moral force and
international pressure will have to be just as determined. The current
divestment effort is the first, though certainly not the only, necessary
move in that direction.
From The Nation magazine, July 15, 2002.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his work against apartheid. Ian Urbina, an editor at Middle East Report, is based at the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP) in Washington, DC.