By: Richard L. Cravatts
South African archbishop and Nobel Prize winner Desmond Tutu, who died on December 26th at the age of 90, was justifiably hailed as a champion of racial equality, especially related to his role in helping to dismantle South Africa’s system of apartheid. But while he is widely recognized for his commitment to human rights, his relationship with Jews and the Jewish state has been more troublesome, particularly his role in helping to legitimize and prolong the slander that Israel itself has established a system of apartheid in its oppression of the ever-aggrieved Palestinians.
In a 2002 speech he gave in Boston (the transcript of which also appeared in The Guardian), in one of many instances, Tutu pointed to what he perceived to be parallels between racist South Africa and Israel. “I’ve been very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land,” he said; “it reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa. I have seen the humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like us when young white police officers prevented us from moving about.”
And in a 2014 statement in which he lent support to the toxic BDS campaign to delegitimize Israel among the community of nations, Tutu was at it again, suggesting that there was a similarity between South African apartheid and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and that the tactics to end that misbehavior could be similar.
“In South Africa,” he said, “we could not have achieved our democracy without the help of people around the world, who through the use of non-violent means, such as boycotts and divestment, encouraged their governments and other corporate actors to reverse decades-long support for the Apartheid regime.”
Tutu, of course, was not alone in propagating the apartheid slur against Israel, even though he possessed a particular moral authority on that topic. Others in the cognitive war against Israel regularly use the charge of apartheid, and racism, against Israel, framing the conflict as a dispute by “white” Jews and “brown” Arabs in terms with which Western audiences, highly sensitized to and obsessed with matters of race, can easily relate.
One particularly egregious example was the publication by Human Rights Watch (HRW) of a 2021 report, titled “A Threshold Crossed,” in which the obsessively anti-Israel organization, in accusing Israel of “apartheid and persecution,” mendaciously redefined what apartheid actually is to make its argument against Israel. “On the basis of its research,” the report read, “Human Rights Watch concludes that the Israeli government has demonstrated an intent to maintain the domination of Jewish Israelis over Palestinians across Israel and the OPT [Occupied Palestinian Territories, itself a political, not legal, designation since those lands were never under Palestinian sovereignty]. In the OPT, including East Jerusalem, that intent has been coupled with systematic oppression of Palestinians and inhumane acts committed against them. When these three elements occur together, they amount to the crime of apartheid.”
But apartheid—state instituted racial separation and denial of human and civil rights to minorities—of course, does not exist in Israel at all, something that HRW knows but ignores in arguing the existence of de facto apartheid under the flawed definition they have maliciously constructed.
In January, the notoriously self-hating Israeli human rights group B’Tselem published a similar report, “A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is apartheid,” with a similar conclusion: Israel, in subjugating the Palestinians, was an apartheid state. “A regime that uses laws, practices and organized violence to cement the supremacy of one group over another is an apartheid regime,” the report proclaimed, ignoring the actual legal definition of apartheid.
On university campuses, where the charge of racism is the most damning and serious charge one can make against an individual, organization, or state, the apartheid slander against Israel has been a core part of the ongoing campus campaign to malign the Jewish state. Last May, for example, when homicidal Hamas terrorists were lobbing some 3400 rockets into southern Israeli towns for the purpose of murdering Jews, dozens of statements were issued from university students and faculty, academic departments, and even academic groups in solidarity, not with the beleaguered Jewish state, but with the Arab psychopaths attempting to murder Israelis in their homes. And in oddly identical language, almost all of the statements included a reference to the HRW and B’Tselem reports, serving to affirm the lie that apartheid exists in Israel and that the Palestinians are the current victims of this form of racial subjugation and inequity.
In fact, of the many libels from the world community against Israel, perhaps none has gained such traction on race-obsessed campuses as the accusation that the Jewish state now practices apartheid, that the checkpoints, security barrier, Israeli-only roads, barricades, and other elements of the so-called occupation are tantamount to a racist system which victimizes the indigenous Palestinians, just as South African apartheid oppressed and devalued indigenous blacks while stripping them of their civil rights.
This chorus of denunciation against Israel’s alleged apartheid regime has been given ideological and moral support, as well, by such high-visibility figures as Tutu and this kind of language helps reinforce the Left’s notion that the imperialism of Western nations is once again responsible for setting up racist, oppressive caste systems in developing countries, systems that have to be dismantled through protest, resistance, and divestment campaigns.
Abetted by the Arab world, which has also perennially defined Israelis as European interlopers with no racial or cultural connection to the Levant, campus Leftists are now willing to sacrifice the very survival of the Jewish state because they feel that charge of racism against Israel is more incompatible with their closely-held beliefs in a perfectible world than the rejectionist and genocidal efforts of the Arab world which, in fact, have necessitated Israeli security measures—the separation wall, indeed, the occupation itself—all of which are pointed to as indications of exactly how racist Israel’s behavior against the Palestinians actually is.
The much-reviled security barrier, which Israel began building around the West Bank in 2005 as a tactic to reduce terror attacks on its citizenry (and which has been successful in reducing the frequency of those attacks by some ninety percent) is, in the eyes of Israel’s critics, not a means of defense, but what is promiscuously termed the “apartheid wall,” a type of racial fence built merely to create Palestinian “Bantustans,” which segregates Jews from Arabs, and which, for many, is emblematic of Israel’s never-ending ambition to “steal” Arab land, disrupt Palestinian life, and expand its supremacist Zionist dream to ever-broader borders.
Even before the death of George Floyd last spring in Minneapolis, campuses were obsessed with the issue of race, and pro-Palestinian groups have been very strategic in positioning the conflict between the Jewish state and the Palestinians as being, at base, about race. Those who called for boycotts against South Africa for its actual inhumane system of apartheid, now draw comparisons between Israel and South Africa, falsely claiming that Israel has constructed an analogous system of racial subjugation, the same mendacious view that Archbishop Tutu and HRW, among many others, have helped reinforce.
And the apartheid comparison is a simple and powerful way for Israel’s campus enemies to heap yet another moral condemnation on the Jewish state, particularly because it reenergizes the campus liberals who made South African apartheid their cause of the moment during the 1990s. Even though Arab citizens of Israel (one-fifth of the population) enjoy more human and civil rights than their brethren in any other Arab nation, the apartheid accusation is effective because it once again points to the social disparity between Israelis and Third-world Arabs, Israeli citizens or not.
On university campuses, Jews have been successfully cast as white, and, the slander goes, Zionism itself is fundamentally racist, so that white supremacy and Zionism are conveniently, though disingenuously, conflated. At the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign’s SJP chapter, for example, this hateful ideology was on full display when, in a September 2017 Facebook post, the group announced that since “there is no room for fascists, white supremacists, or Zionists at UIUC,” they had organized a rally called “Smashing Fascism: Radical Resistance Against White Supremacy.”
And this assumption is dangerous because, since it is accepted widely by the hate-Israel crowd, it has meant that, as the UN infamously achieved in 1975, Zionism again will be equivalent to racism, and any supporters of Israel can thereby be condemned and thrown into that ideological bucket of white supremacists, racists, and neo-Nazis that now seem to so animate the imaginations of Democrats, liberals, and marginalized and oppressed minorities.
Using the slander of apartheid against Israel—even if it is understood to be false—has long been a successful tactic for Israel’s ideological enemies. For example, Fighting the New Apartheid: A Guide to Campus Divestment From Israel, which was published over a decade ago by Fayyad Sbaihat of the University of Wisconsin Divestment from Israel Campaign Project of Al-Awda Wisconsin, revealed the sinister rhetoric and execution of the divestment proponents. Its purpose, Sbaihat wrote, was “to provide a scaffold for those beginning divestment campaigns.” To accomplish that, the guide suggested that “In order to be successful, the divestment from Israel campaign must focus on addressing the deep-rooted issues of Israel’s racism and ethno-religious centricity rather than debating facts on the ground that can prove illusive [sic] when one attempts to build a case around them. [Emphasis added]”
Realistic political debate, and the actual facts on the ground, are regularly ignored and glossed over, with the only discussion focusing on the malefactions of Israel, and Israel alone. Why? Because, the guide suggested, “the ultimate goal of a successful divestment campaign, such as the case with Apartheid South Africa, is to cause the isolation of the racist state economically, socially, culturally, and diplomatically in the international arena . . . .”
Focusing the world’s attention on the defects of Israel’s fundamental being would be the most effective strategy, and, the guide instructed, divestment activists should insure that “the argument is more directed towards questioning the nature of the exclusively-Jewish nature of Israel and the racist policies that allow the existence of such a project. This argument is far more effective and winnable than that of debating specific events and facts. [Emphasis added]”
“If you cannot answer a man’s argument,” Oscar Wilde once quipped, “do not panic. You can always call him names.” The cognitive war against Israel has employed many toxic ideological tactics and name-calling in the past, and the ongoing charge against the Jewish state of being a well-spring of racism and enforcer of apartheid is one of the core accusations in the unrelenting effort to libel, slander, and make an eternal pariah of the Jew of nations, Israel.
Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., a Freedom Center Journalism Fellow in Academic Free Speech and President Emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, is the author of Dispatches From the Campus War Against Israel and Jews.