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Israel should learn from the Boers

It was no coincidence that Israel was one of apartheid South Africa's few friends. In both societies, fear fed racial bigotry

Liz McGregor Guardian

Thursday May 17, 2001

In the old days in apartheid South Africa, one heard a British accent - or indeed a French or German one - with a sinking heart. It invariably meant that yet another racist loser had arrived to bolster the cause of white supremacy.

By the 70s, the horrors of apartheid were so widely known one assumed that anyone who chose to settle in South Africa was comfortable with the idea that black people were thrown off their land and denied skilled jobs to give whites privileged access.

Immigration to South Africa worked contrary to the normal rules whereby host states can cream off the brightest and best from other countries and immigrants struggle against intense competition - and, not infrequently, prejudice - to make a place for themselves in their adopted countries. If you couldn't cope with the competition at home, South Africa offered a warm welcome and sheltered employment - as long as you were white. This did no favours to the gene pool and skewed the society further against the forces of reform.

In Palestine today, the words of war uttered in strong South African and American accents by Jewish settlers during the past turbulent months speak of a similar scenario. The law of return requires Israel to accept any Jewish person, regardless of their ethics or ability. As well as immigrants of talent and principle this must include bigots and losers. The settlements in particular attract fanatics: the nobody from New Jersey who acquires an heroic new role in a narrative that puts him at the forefront of a biblical struggle.

Israel and the old South Africa illustrate the dangers of the state based on ethnicity, where there is the notion of a particular ethnic group which prospers at the expense of the perceived lesser races. Apartheid South Africa was, like modern Israel, born of a strong sense of religious destiny and experience of persecution. Afrikaners believed they were God's chosen people and saw the success of the Great Trek away from British rule in the Cape as a sign of God's favour. Their displacement of other tribes in pursuit of their destiny was, they believed, sanctified by God. Their subsequent suffering in the Boer war concentration camps instilled a deep sense of victimhood. Their fundamentalism in the end rendered them fatally inflexible.

Some 20 years ago, fresh from my protest-torn campus in South Africa, I spent a couple of months on a kibbutz. Even then I found the similarities too close for comfort. The racial hierarchy - Ashkenazi Jews, then Sephardic Jews followed way, way down by Arabs - was disconcertingly familiar. As was the Israeli demonisation of Arabs: lazy, unmotivated, lacking ambition, which was exactly what whites said of blacks to rationalise their discriminatory policies.

In both countries, subordinate races were dispossessed of their land and crowded into marginal, drought-stricken ghettoes; their movement was restricted; access to education and skilled jobs limited so that they inevitably sank into a pool of low-wage labour. In both societies, bans on inter-marriage and daily lives segregated by race did little to dispel the fear and ignorance that feeds racial bigotry.

Obviously the differences between the two countries are also huge: the persecution of Jews that led to the founding of modern Israel makes the Afrikaners' wounds look like a scratch. Unlike apartheid South Africa, Israel gets the good as well as the bad. They can draw on the best and brightest from the US - or South Africa or Britain - as well as the worst. South Africa's international isolation and repressive, Calvinist government resulted in an increasingly stagnant society - quite unlike vibrant, democratic Israel. But the similarities are too strong to go unremarked. In South Africa, white lives counted; blacks didn't. The odd white soldier who died putting down black rebellion was mourned as a hero. He was given a state funeral, his life celebrated, the media carried endless interviews with grieving relatives. The black victims - or "terrorists" - were recorded, if at all, in nameless lists. In mainstream Israel these past months, the Palestinian dead have scarcely registered beside the far smaller number of Israeli fatalities. Photographs and biographical details of the two Israeli boys stoned to death last week, for instance, were broadcast around the world. Most Palestinian fatalities remain nameless and faceless.

It is not coincidental that Israel was one of apartheid South Africa's few friends. The two cooperated extensively militarily, not least in the development of nuclear weapons. This comradeship was partly born of a shared sense of vulnerability: both saw themselves as minorities under threat of annihilation from hostile neighbours. In South Africa, it was the swart gevaar or black peril: the African hordes who would sweep all Christian whites into the sea if given half a chance. In Israel's case, many in the Arab world are thought to resent its very existence. Both depended heavily on superpower indulgence. It is no coincidence that FW de Klerk started talking to the ANC around the same time that the end of the cold war dispensed with the need for dodgy allies in strategically important parts of the world.

In South Africa everything has changed. Israelis might look at what has happened to whites there and take heart. They might have lost political power but they still control the economy and they live as well as ever, still largely remote from the black majority. They have lost their pariah status and no longer live under a state of siege. Despite the inevitable teething problems, the transition from a racially discrete group living off and in fear of another has been remarkably pain-free.

But, above all, they no longer live in fear of approaching Armageddon. They have a future.

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