Support the
Henry Jackson

Our work is only possible through the generosity of private philanthropy. Find out how you can support our mission and can contribute to our work.

Members' log in
First published in  Mail & Guardian
November 4, 2011

The Russell Tribunal on Palestine dishonours victims of apartheid

Robin Shepherd

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this weekend’s Russell Tribunal on Palestine, which will designate Israel an “apartheid” state as sure as night follows day, is precisely that it is taking place in South Africa.

Let’s face it, the form and the content — it will have “witnesses” to “Israeli apartheid” and at the end of it the “jury” will “set out its conclusions” — are a joke, though one made in decidedly poor taste.

It’s a kangaroo court. It’s run by the usual suspects. And the whole affair would be unremarkable to the point of being boring if it wasn’t for that one tiny, yet depressing, little detail — its location, Cape Town.

For, make no mistake about it, the attempt to smear the world’s only Jewish state (and only the world’s only Jewish state) with a label designed to leverage hatred and disdain is not merely to put oneself in the company of some of the most bigoted campaigners in the world. It is simultaneously to insult the memory of apartheid South Africa’s victims by adopting a strategy that inevitably sanitises the word “apartheid” itself.

The point is simple, though it is worrying, bizarre even, that tribunal participants such as Desmond Tutu apparently need it explained to them. But anti-Israeli hysteria is what it is. So, here goes.

The animating idea behind apartheid was white supremacy. Apartheid could not have been invented as a concept unless it had been underpinned by the notion that white people were superior to black people. That is what made it so abhorrent. No amount of dissembling from apartheid’s apologists that it was merely about separate development could disguise the fact that the system was racist to the core.

To attack Israel by using the word “apartheid” is therefore to deracialise a racist concept, and it runs the risk of inviting anyone who visits, or truly understands, Israel to say that if this is apartheid, apartheid must have been a perfectly reasonable system. Hendrik Verwoerd will laugh from the depths of hell.

To be fair, some of the more cunning operators inside the Israeli-apartheid brigade are aware of this.

Changing tack

They know that no Israeli leader has ever believed that Jews are racially superior to Arabs. They know that Arabs vote just like Jews do, and that Arabs sit in the Israeli Parliament. They know that Arabs and Jews can ride in the same buses, lie on the same beaches, and eat at the same restaurants.

So they have to change tack. Apartheid does not exist in Israel proper, they concede, but, in the literal sense of the word’s meaning, it does exist between Jews and Arabs in the West Bank in the form of “separateness” in dwellings and transport.

It’s a desperate last stand. The only reason for separate roads and dwelling is security, and everyone knows it regardless of what one may think about the settlements. To put it bluntly, Palestinian terrorists will kill Jews in the West Bank if they can. Israel has simply responded by erecting obstacles in the terrorists’ way.

But enough already. It’s time to stop participating in a fiction. The fact is that nobody believes Israel is an “apartheid” state. I’m certain that Tutu doesn’t believe it. Not even Hamas believes it.

The truth is that word and meaning are not meant to go together in this instance. And, when you think about it, in politics, the general phenomenon is not unusual.

Many leftwingers in Britain in the 1980s, for example, habitually called Margaret Thatcher a “fascist”. But none of them, not one, truly thought she was taking the country in the direction of Benito Mussolini’s Italy. They were simply throwing mud.

In Israel itself, the very word “apartheid” has occasionally been used by prominent politicians against the policies of their opponents. But they don’t mean it literally. It’s just a dig, a cheap shot. Politics, in other words.

To be sure, when anti-Israel campaigners use it, the term “apartheid” is much more than that. The word in this case is a weapon designed to isolate the Jewish state and inspire a global campaign similar to the one that helped to bring down the previous regime in South Africa.

In so far as one is looking for meaning, that’s all there is to it.

Not Jewish myself, I have been studying this seemingly unending hate campaign against one small Middle Eastern country for years. The ranting and the raving are the same more or less everywhere, and the charade in Cape Town won’t be any different.

But, as I have indicated, all it does is add an extra layer of depravity that a bunch of South Africans are prepared to dishonour the memory of apartheid’s victims while prosecuting what is already a thoroughly dishonourable campaign.

About Robin Shepherd

Robin Shepherd, Director, International Affairs, has held senior fellowships at some of the world's most prestigious public policy institutes since leaving international journalism in 2003 when his last position was Moscow Bureau Chief for The Times of London. Shepherd's key areas of expertise are transatlantic relations, American foreign policy, Middle Eastern(particularly Israeli) relations with the West, Russia, central and eastern Europe, NATO and the European Union. His most recent book: "A State Beyond the Pale, Europe's Problem with Israel" looks at the reasons for widespread hostility to Israel in Europe among the continent's opinion formers. He joined the Henry Jackson Society in March 2009. Shepherd entered the think tank world in 2003 with a public policy fellowship at the Woodrow Wilson International Institute for Scholars in Washington D.C. where he focused his attention on the dual expansions of NATO and the EU and their impact on transatlantic relations. Subsequently he became an adjunct fellow of the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies. Based in central Europe he wrote widely for international media and journals, focusing on transatlantic relations, Russia and relations with the Middle East. In 2006 he was appointed as a senior transatlantic fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), also based in central Europe. He returned to London and joined Chatham House in June 2007 where he ran the Europe programme. Shepherd is widely quoted in the international media and writes commentaries for a variety of publications. He speaks Russian, Slovak, Czech and French. He studied Russian at the University of London's School of Slavonic and East European Studies and took a masters in political theory from the London School of Economics. His first book -- "Czechoslovakia: The Velvet Revolution and Beyond", published in 2000 -- looked at the first decade of post-communist transition in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Full profile  |  See all of Robin Shepherd's work