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Harvard president on Israel/Palestine

The argument of the president of Harvard that comparing Sharon's Israel with apartheid South Africa is anti-Semitic is not valid.
The president of Harvard has made the accusation that comparing Israel's treatment of the Palestinians to S.AFrica's treatment of non-whites under apartheid implies that Israel does not have the right to exist, and therefore is an example of Anti-Semitism. I beg to differ with this and other formulations that equate criticisms of Israel with anti-Semitism.

"Comparisons are odious" said Dr. Samuel Johnson. When you try to compare politicians, political trends and actions from different countries and different historical epochs you may get into trouble. Comparing Sharon's treatment of Palestinians with Hitler's treatment of Jews is of this nature. Bad as Sharon is, his policy is not so far aimed at exterminating the whole Palestinian people--rather he aims at silencing and then displacing them. To call Sharon a "new Hitler" and the Israeli Defense Force's suppression of Palestinian rights a "new Holocaust" is as counterproductive as it is incorrect. It is counterproductive because it is an exaggeration that tends to discredit the speaker and thus obscure the real argument, but this fact does not excuse what Sharon has done and continues to do. Hitler was not the only bloodthirsty thug in history, and to be a bloodthirsty thug, you don't have to go as far as Hitler did. Sharon is doing just fine in the bloodthirsty thug department.

Others have indeed made a comparison between Israel and the Apartheid regime in South Africa. Having myself been born, and partly raised in South Africa, this is a comparison that interests me more. In the case of South Africa, the white minority government's motives for repressive action were:

a. Maintaining minority countrol against the African majority, which was essential for....

b. Maintaining a cheap labor force for the South African mining and agricultural sectors (this included displacing African peasants from land so that they could be brought back to cultivate that same land as cheap labor for white landowners).

Thus, though the apartheid folks were ruthlessly violent to individuals and organizations which challenged them, they never contemplated either (a) exterminating non whites, a la Hitler, or (b) throwing them out completely, a la Sharon and his predecessors. They wanted their land, but even more wanted to exploit their labor, so to kill them off was not an option.

So the South African situation is or rather was not identical to the Israeli-Palestinian situation, but somewhat different motives produced similar methods of government by repression and discrimination. Above all, both situations produced minority settler states, which tend to have similar, though not identical, characteristics, including elaborate mechanisms of showing the suppressed indigenous population who is in charge through humiliating them. Stories in the media about how Palestinians are humiliated and badgered by Israeli troops at checkpoints bring back vivid memories of the long-gone "dompas" system in South Africa. Neither settler state setup was tolerable, neither was sustainable as a way of running a country.

The Harvard president claims that comparing S. Africa to Israel implies that Israel has no right to exist. This is muddle-headed and incorrect. Nobody ever said that South Africa per se did not have a right to exist, just that Apartheid could not be tolerated and that the Black majority had to have equal political rights with the white minority. Although the apartheid regime and its predecessors were vicious and bloody, no major faction of the S. African freedom movement, not even the nationalistic Pan African Congress ever called for wiping out the whites, throwing the whites out of the country, making them go back to Europe or anything of the kind. In the Israel situation, there are factions in the Palestinian community, among Islamicist extremists, who talk about expelling all the Jews, but the stronger current of opinion seems to be against this, calling either for a two-state solution or a unitary non-sectarian state in which Arabs and Israeli Jews would have equal rights. The former is based on a more pessimistic assesment of the ability of present and near-future Palestinian and Jewish political leadership to work together in one unitary state, and the latter more resembles the South African solution. If a two state solution is achieved, it can not be on the basis of Israeli Jews oppressing and mistreating Arabs within Israel, and Arabs mistreating and oppressing Jews within the Palestininan state. In each state, or indeed in one unitary state, what has to disappear is inequality and oppression, and above all, as regards the Israelis, the idea that eventually all the Arabs are going to be pushed out of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza to make room for more settlers--the frequently stated objective of powerful right-wing forces in and out of the Israeli government. Surely that is not an anti-Semitic position.



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