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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

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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