Few things get under the skin of supporters of Israel like the use of the term ‘apartheid’ to describe the state or its policies. Less than two weeks ago, a campaign named Rethink2014 was launched by pro-Israel activists to challenge what it calls “the Apartheid smear,” just ahead of the global event known as Israel Apartheid Week that looms in March.
In an especially stunning blow to the campaign, Israel’s Knesset took a page from the apartheid policy playbook by seeking to divide and rule its Arab population — just as South Africa once sought to play off parts of its black majority against one another.
Just last week, the Israeli parliament enacted a law that calls for the expansion of the Advisory Committee for Equal Opportunity in the Employment Commission. It essentially aims to distinguish between Christian and Muslim Arabs, with the goal of giving preference to the former. The law further hopes, according to its sponsor, Yariv Levin of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-Beteinu Party, to “de-Arabize” Christians.
A law that offers material benefits to one group over another — in this case, Christian over Muslim Arabs — in order to maintain the privilege of the dominant group is precisely the sort of law that served as the cornerstone for apartheid in South Africa. Apartheid was not just about enacting laws to directly maintain white domination and privilege. It was a carefully crafted system of social engineering that attempted to reinforce difference through policies and laws.
The divide-and-rule objective of the new law is underscored by Levin himself.
“[The law will] grant separate representation and separate treatment to the Christian community, which will be distinguished from the Muslim Arabs,” he said, according to Haaretz
“We and the Christians have a lot in common,” he added. “They’re our natural allies, a counterweight to the Muslims who want to destroy the country from within’” He makes no effort to hide his antipathy towards Palestinians or conceal his attempt to place a wedge between Christian and Muslim Palestinians by saying about Christians: “I take pains not to call them Arabs.”
As a South African who grew up under apartheid, I see strong echoes of laws and policies used to implement and sustain apartheid. In a striking parallel, the Coloured Labour Preference Area Policy of 1955 sought to privilege mixed-race so-called “coloured” South Africans over other blacks.
This policy decreed that no “black African” could be employed if a “coloured” applicant for the job was available in certain parts of South Africa. The policy was aimed at extending limited privilege to one discriminated group over another in order to further assert white domination and privilege.
Laws and policies like the Coloured Labour Preference Area were intended to divide South Africans and hinder a collective struggle against apartheid. What is of particular concern is that the ramifications of this sort of policy are still being felt today – 20 years after the official termination of apartheid.
Last year, a case was brought against the Western Cape’s correctional services department for allegedly discriminating against ‘coloured’ South Africans. Some of the protesters outside the courthouse argued that they were not ‘white’ enough under apartheid, and now not ‘black’ enough in a post-apartheid South Africa.
Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, predicts the new pro-Christian law will have little practical impact. But it suggests the lengths many Israelis will go to avoid accepting a Palestinian identity and dealing with the grievances Palestinians — both Christian and Muslim — hold against Israel.
“[it] is a dangerous attempt by the state to distort the Arab identity of Palestinians in Israel,” the group said.
What is of even greater concern is the normalisation of the racist mindset behind the new law. Its passage by a lopsided 31-6 vote suggests that the Israeli government and public sees no moral or sociological problem with embarking on a campaign of social engineering in order to protect Jewish dominance in Israel.
South Africans can attest that such a policy will ultimately fail. And policies once enacted live on long after their demise.
Dismantling legislation does not neatly coincide with the dismantling of the psyche of a nation. We South Africans remain a painfully divided nation. Anyone familiar with the textures of Apartheid can attest that it is nearly impossible to escape the real legacy Apartheid left; the burden of living in a world defined and divided by difference.
Israel should start confronting and healing the wounds of division now — instead of exacerbating them.
Heidi-Jane Esakov is a Cape Town-based graduate student and researcher.