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 appears in the 24 Feb 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Boris Backlash