Is the Israel of Today Becoming 1980s South Africa?

Two Countries Where Hope Overlapped, Then Dramatically Diverged

Former Enemies: Nelson Mandela and then South African President Frederik de Klerk shake hands at the Grand Hotel in Oslo on the evening before receiving jointly the Nobel Peace prize in 1993.
Getty Images
Former Enemies: Nelson Mandela and then South African President Frederik de Klerk shake hands at the Grand Hotel in Oslo on the evening before receiving jointly the Nobel Peace prize in 1993.

By Jay Michaelson

Published December 16, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Today’s college students were not yet born when Nelson Mandela, F.W. De Klerk, Yasser Arafat, and Yitzhak Rabin shared Time’s “Man of the Year” award in 1990. As the world mourns Mandela and celebrates his legacy, it is worth looking back at that moment — and looking toward the future that it might signify.

There was a brief time, from 1989 until Rabin’s assassination in 1995, at which there was real hope in Israel, as in South Africa. In both places, historic enemies had come together in a way that few had thought imaginable. No, the situations were not identical — South Africa was a colonial power, Israel was only called one by its enemies; South Africa’s black majority was within its boundaries, Israel’s Arab plurality was mostly in “occupied territory.” But they were close enough to give Time, and the rest of us, the sense that a New World Order was arising, now that the Cold War was over.

Those were heady years, impossible to convey to young people — right-wing and left-wing — who know Israel only as a quasi-pariah state. I grew up with Mandela a prisoner, and Arafat a wanted terrorist. Suddenly, Mandela’s former oppressors were negotiating how to share power with him, and Arafat shook hands with the Israeli prime minister. Apart from racists and separatists in South Africa, religious zealots in Israel, and the “Israel Lobby” in the United States, the world cheered. Dominos fell: peace with Jordan, Palestinian autonomous zones, the end of apartheid.

But then the paths diverged.

In Israel and South Africa, the far right and far left threatened the processes of peace. Yet in South Africa, Mandela moderated his former stances — embracing the Americans who had tried to keep him in prison, alienating the separatist nationalists in Inkatha, and steering toward socialist capitalism, rather than communism. Most importantly, he chose negotiation over violence, and gave in on critical points, such as allowing South Africa’s National Party to retain significant influence in the government.

Israel and Palestine were not so lucky. Arafat was a weaker leader than Mandela, and while he publicly renounced violence, he privately allowed it to persist, and even encouraged it with double-meaning speeches and anti-Israel rhetoric in textbooks and state media. Emboldened by a leader too weak to take them on, Palestinian extremists flourished.

And Israel’s extremists, of course, assassinated Yitzhak Rabin, egged on by massive rallies at which he was hung in effigy and denounced as a traitor. And yes, Benjamin Netanyahu sometimes spoke at those rallies. So did many of the people now in his government.

By 1996, Israel and South Africa were on radically different courses. Mandela was president of a united South Africa, Netanyahu prime minister of a divided Israel. As far as Israel and Palestine are concerned, the situation today is not so different. Yet South Africa has grown, despite enormous challenges and persistent social inequality, into a free and democratic state.

There are many reasons for the divergence, not only the personal capacities of its leaders. Israel’s right-wing apologists are at pains to point out that “Israel is not South Africa,” and for now, they are right. Israel is not a colonialist outpost. Israel is not ruling over an indigenous majority. Within Israel proper, non-Jews have the same rights as Jews. And so, while much of the world has turned against Israel in the last few years, the United States has stood by it, and the pressure on Israel is nothing like that on South Africa in the 1980s.


If you noticed, all of the ways in which Israel of the 2010s is not South Africa of the 1980s are extremely short-lived. Israel may not be a colonialist outpost, but its West Bank settlements are. Within a decade, Israel will indeed be ruling over an indigenous majority. And they will have either no rights (if they live in the West Bank) or increasingly abridged right (if they live within Green Line Israel).

What then?

The Divest-from-South-Africa movement predated my arrival at Columbia University by a few years, but it was still very much a force on campus when I arrived in 1989. Indeed, it had won. Not only Columbia and other universities, but many countries and even many in the U.S. government supported boycotting, divesting from, and imposing sanctions upon South Africa. Although many in the Reagan and Bush administrations disagreed — including Dick Cheney, who called Mandela a terrorist (sound familiar?) — no one I knew on campus did. South Africa was racist. Who would defend that?

No amount of Israel advocacy can change mathematics. Unless Israel changes its policies, it will soon be quite similar to South Africa in the 1980s, and it’s hard to see why it won’t follow white South Africa’s road to extinction. True, Israel has much better lobbyists, but South Africa had its supporters too, especially within the Republican party (sound familiar?) and with its mineral wealth, it had plenty of money to spend. It also had wonderful tourist attractions, an entrepreneurial spirit, and a thriving cultural scene. Nothing helped. You can’t whitewash apartheid. Eventually, unless you’re too big to oppose, like China or Russia, the world does turn against you.

There is one open question, though, to which no one can yet know the answer. If Israel/Palestine 2025 is South Africa 1985, who will be Palestine’s Mandela?

Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor to the Forward.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels.
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.