Getty
Show Hide image

I grew up in South Africa, so believe me when I say: Israel is not an apartheid state

This week on university campuses across the UK, activists are preparing for “Israel Apartheid Week”. This term is not only misleading, but a grave insult to those who were subjugated in South Africa.

Words make a world of difference. Over time, they become charged with inference and allusion and, deployed effectively, they have the power to change the very fabric of our civilisation. For example, the phrase “civil rights” could reasonably be applied to any right of any citizen the world over, yet we instinctively associate it with the movement that for ever altered the political and social landscape of the United States in the 1950s and 1960s.

The word “apartheid” has similar historical resonance. Growing up in South Africa, I became aware of the different status conferred upon the black majority. I found myself confronted every day by a society that would routinely degrade and demean black South Africans, not just culturally or socially, but also in the eyes of the law. All societies wrestle with the scourge of prejudice, but validating that prejudice in statute makes a virtue of oppression.

I am eternally grateful that I grew up in a home in Cape Town where the existential immorality of apartheid never affected the way in which we understood the world. My father, who is a rabbi, preached against apartheid and visited political prisoners on Robben Island. My late mother was the principal of the Athlone teacher training college, which at the time was the only college for black pre-school teachers in the country. As with other similar institutions, it would later become known as a hotbed of activism. The students’ struggle was her struggle and my siblings and I would hear stories at the end of each day about the challenges they faced and the harsh reality of their lives. Those experiences remain among the most important of my early years.

This week on university campuses across the UK, activists are preparing for “Israel Apartheid Week”. Note: not Palestinian “nationalism” or “awareness” week, which might focus on the well-being of the Palestinian people, but a week dedicated to attacking Israel – its government, its people, its very existence. The implied message here is simple: Israel today is where South Africa was in the latter part of the 20th century. It is a comparison that is entirely false; a grave insult to those who suffered under apartheid; and a tragic obstacle to peace.

The difference between the two countries could scarcely be more stark. Under apartheid, a legal structure of racial hierarchy governed all aspects of life. Black South Africans were denied the vote. They were required by law to live, work, study, travel, enjoy leisure activities, receive medical treatment and even go to the lavatory separately from those with a different colour of skin. Interracial relationships and marriages were illegal. It was subjugation in its rawest form.

Contrast that with Israel, a country whose Arab, Druze, Bedouin, Ethiopian, Russian, Baha’i, Armenian and other citizens have equal status under the law. Anyone who truly understands what apartheid was cannot possibly look around Israel today and honestly claim there is any kind of parity. They would need only to visit Hand in Hand, an organisation that runs schools where Jewish and Arab pupils learn together, or meet the Israeli-Arab judge Salim Joubran of the Supreme Court of Israel. They might note the appointment last month of Mariam Kabaha as the national commissioner for equal employment opportunities in the economy ministry, or hear that just this month, Jamal Hakrush became the first Muslim Arab to be appointed a deputy commissioner of the Israel Police.

Indeed, the difference is so stark that one might argue there is a good case for ignoring the apartheid slur altogether. Yet the tragic reality is that every time the word is used in the context of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, the two sides become polarised yet further and peace becomes ever more distant. As the word “apartheid” is an icon for malevolence, it can only be received by Israel with resentment and suspicion. In turn, extremist forces in Palestinian society can only benefit from a reinforcement of the notion that the very existence of Israel is illegitimate. In short, the apartheid slur provides fuel for those who seek to polarise and it obstructs those who seek peace.

This week I will be meeting F W de Klerk, the man who freed Nelson Mandela and worked so hard to end apartheid in South Africa, to discuss this and other issues. Later in the week he will join me at an event to raise money for a charity that provides education for poverty-stricken children in Israel. He has made clear his view that those who advocate BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) against Israel are misguided and will not help to promote a peaceful ­solution. There can be nobody better placed to make such a judgement.

I personally draw a great deal of inspiration from the state of Israel and am proud of her achievements. The state was born against all odds and, despite having to fight every day for survival, has become a world leader in medicine, technology, science, agriculture and beyond. But of course, as even the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, has said, Israel is not perfect – no country is. The challenges she faces, both external and internal, are urgent and severe. And yet, the beauty of Israel’s democracy, unique in the Middle East, is that there is no social or political problem that is not given abundant consideration within Israel’s own parliament, free press and civil society.

Join that constructive debate by all means, but reject language that stigmatises and polarises. Pursue instead a tone of open dialogue, respectful disagreement and ultimately a common desire for peaceful reconciliation. Say that the conflict in the Middle East is an intractable struggle over nationalism, heritage and territory, if that is what you believe, but please, do not say that it is about race. Say that you are concerned, that you object and that you feel an obligation to speak out but please, do not denigrate or de­legitimise. Say that there is social inequality, under-representation and disadvantage but please, never say that there is apartheid. 

Ephraim Mirvis is the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Boris Backlash

Getty.
Show Hide image

Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.