Naomi Dann

A recent article published in The New York Times by Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren, profiled vintners in the Israeli-occupied West Bank who are attempting to re-create biblical era wine. Originally titled “With Indigenous Grapes, Israel Breaks New Ground in Wine Industry” (Nov. 29), the article was a case study in how to whitewash the violence of settler colonialism and legitimize the settler’s claims of indigenous rights to the land.  

The article makes no secret of the fact that this project, funded in part by the Jewish National Fund (Rudoren describes the institution that has played a central role in displacing Palestinians as “a century-old Zionist organization that has helped transform Israel’s agricultural landscape”), is part of an effort to bolster a national identity based on a claim to authentic indigeniety in the land. “We have a very ancient identity, and for me, reconstructing this identity is very important. For me, it’s a matter of national pride,” says one settler vintner quoted in the piece. 

Rudoren’s article highlights the central element of the logic that distinguishes settler-colonialism from colonialism–a desire to create a national identity around the erasure (or elimination) of the native population, rather than simply a desire to control the resources of the colonized land. It is a particular form of settler-colonialism that leads to racialized segregation and subjugation of native populations, and it is this typology that is compared in the often-referenced, and sometimes controversial, analogy between apartheid in South Africa and Zionism in Israel. 

The essays in Jon Soske and Sean Jacob’s collection, Apartheid Israel: The Politics of an Analogy, engage with comparisons between pre-1989 South Africa and contemporary Israel broadly. The message that pervades this anthology is that the ‘apartheid analogy’ is not just about how the treatment of Palestinians by the Israeli state resembles the state policy of racial hierarchy and segregation that existed in South Africa before 1989, or how it fits the United Nations’ definition of apartheid, but also about the settler-colonial nature of each regime’s establishment and rule. The parallels between the settler-colonial nature of apartheid in South Africa and Zionism in Israel, as historian T.J. Tallie notes in his thoughtful and self-reflective contribution to this collection, range “from ruthless expulsions of peoples to the claims of newly arrivant peoples to authentic indigeneity, religious justifications, and hypermilitarization.” 

The essays in this book, for the most part, bypass the quagmire of the question “is the analogy accurate?” and instead dwell on the far more helpful questions of “what can we learn about the ways in which apartheid in South Africa and Zionism in Israel play out in ways that are parallel, analogous, or divergent?” By asking these kinds of questions, the essays move beyond the kinds of tedious conversations that are often roadblocks to taking concrete action to change the status quo in Palestine-Israel. The contributors to this collection succeed in transforming the conversation to be one about the politics of the analogy and its implications for the future of activism in solidarity with Palestinian rights. 

The book began as a project of Africa is a Country, a blog of analysis and criticism intended to “destabilize received wisdom about the African continent and its people in Western media.” The contributors are scholars and activists whose work focuses on the continent and its diaspora, including many who are active in Palestine solidarity work. 

As conversations around the ‘apartheid analogy’ often quickly become defensive and focused on the similarities, what makes this anthology most useful to activists and academics alike is the focus on the differences between the two cases. The essays in this collection give the space to delve into crucial differences between the South African and Israeli cases. This opens up space for discerning which lessons of the successes and problems of the anti-apartheid movement, both at home and abroad, can be translated and emulated in the Israeli/Palestinian context, and which ones might require reframing and newer, more creative solutions. 

Two key differences stick out as providing particularly interesting perspectives on questions of justice for Palestinians. The first is the differences between the relationships of labor that Black and Palestinian populations had/have in the South African and Israeli economies respectively, and the second is the added complication of the settler colonial framework in the Israeli case due to the fact that the Zionist narrative is one of a liberation movement. In some ways, these differences pose even larger hurdles to be overcome for the Palestinian struggle.

Ran Greenstein’s contribution to this collection focuses on differences around the role of labor in shaping the possibilities for resistance. There is a crucial difference between the structures of segregation and inequality of apartheid rule in South Africa and the experience of the vast majority of Palestinians. In South Africa, Black labor was an integral part of the South African economy, while Greenstein claims that from the beginning of Zionist settlement in Palestine “the dominant settler strategy [was] of building a self-sufficient economic sector that would not be dependent on the indigenous labor force and would provide for minimal contact between the two ethnonational communities.” 

The displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in 1948 and the continued displacement of Palestinians from their lands, the isolation of walled off ghetto that is Gaza, the obstacles of work permits and checkpoints restricting West Bank Palestinians working in Israel, the privileging of military service for job applicants in ’48 Israel, all contribute to the exclusion of Palestinians from the Israeli economy. While in both cases, anthropologist Patrick Wolfe’s claim that “settler-colonialism is a structure and not an event” is evident, it becomes clear that the settler colonial logics took different forms on the question of labor. South Africa practiced a policy of subjugation, apartheid was structured to make Black labor available for white use; while Israel’s policy depends on a logic of elimination, the most amount of land with the least amount of Palestinians on it. 

In practice, not only does this mean that Palestinians and Israelis are far less likely than Black South Africans to have economic or employment relationships with their oppressors, but it also limits the possibilities of resistance. It is harder to be successful at organizing non-cooperation of the kind that throws a wrench in the wheels of economic production and stops business as usual when the labor is not needed. (Despite this, strikes have long been a tactic of resistance for Palestinians, particularly during the First Intifada, and even last month, Palestinian municipalities inside Israel went on strike to protest the banning of the Islamic Movement). However it is clear that in the absence of the power to effectively withhold labor as a resistance tactic, Palestinians must look elsewhere for ways to leverage the power they do have to resist Israeli occupation and oppression. 

What’s more, Palestinians face the intensified challenge of being even more marginalized economically by the neoliberalization of both the Israeli economy and the Palestinian Authority. Adam Clarno’s essay “Neoliberal Apartheid” is particularly instructive in this respect. Arguing that, from the start, Oslo was a deeply neoliberal process, Clarno highlights the neoliberal restructuring of the Israeli economy that reduced even further the reliance on Palestinian labor, and the role of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in shaping the policies of the Palestinian Authority. This process created an institution not only greatly dependent on the Israeli economy and on its role as a subcontractor enforcing occupation, but also greatly susceptible to the demands of international donors. Clarno concludes by expressing the need for movements to comprehensively challenge the racial capitalist system in Palestine and globally that is producing surplus populations that can be enclosed, expelled, or killed. 

Several of the contributions to this collection emphasize the African National Congress’ decision to prioritize the racial justice struggle at the expense of the class struggle; an important lesson for the Palestine movement to learn from. They argue, rightfully, that the choice to pursue those liberatory struggles in succession rather than jointly has meant that South Africa today is still one of the most unequal societies in the world. In his 2004 essay, "Aesthetics of Superfluity",1 Achille Mbembe has written that the deeply rooted processes of rendering native bodies into surplus and disposable populations still influences the racialized economic structure and spatialization of the post-apartheid city. A question that remains for many supporters of Palestinian rights is how today’s one-state apartheid reality could be transformed into a one-state solution that de-racializes sovereignty and liberates labor from the structures of neoliberal capitalism. 

On a related note, the second major difference between apartheid in South Africa and Zionism in Israel is the added dimension of competing claims to the right of national self-determination. What sets the Israeli case apart among other cases of settler states is the narrative of Zionism as a liberation movement of an oppressed people. Zionism, as Mbembe states, employs “the melding of strength, victimhood, and a supremacist complex” to maintain its power and justify the ongoing acts of violence by the state against Palestinians. The discourse around return, victim and oppressor present an added layer of complication that was not present in the South African case. Hinted at but unexplored in this book are is the possibilities for looking to the kind of land redistribution efforts slowly developing in post-apartheid South Africa as way to address the Palestinian right of return. 

Many of the contributors to this collection and in the Palestine solidarity movement see one state with equal rights for all of its citizens as the preferred solution to the situation in Israel/Palestine. However, much work needs to be done, both in terms of pressuring Israel to relinquish its strangulating grip over Palestinian life, and also in shifting the terms of the national consciousness of both peoples to embrace a different interpretation of self-determination. In South Africa, Greenstein writes, there was a shift in which “national liberation [came to be] defined as the key goal, but it was seen largely as a way to allow Black people to access their birthright on an equal basis in their homeland rather than return to a real or imaginary free and unified precolonial past.” Something similar may have to happen in both Jewish Israeli and Palestinian society in order for the status quo to transform into one in which both peoples have full equality and freedom in the land.  

The main critique to be made of this nuanced and thoughtful collection of essays is that the contributions did not entirely satisfy the desire of those looking for lessons to apply to the Palestinian solidarity movement by evaluating the impact of the anti-apartheid global solidarity movement in South Africa. 

While discussing the politics of the apartheid analogy and its utility for informing and inspiring Palestinian solidarity activism today it is important to stay grounded in the kind of timescales required for change in South Africa. The first calls for economic isolation of South Africa came in the 1960s, but it wasn’t until the early 1980s that divestment campaigns at universities and against companies began to gain real momentum. By these measures, BDS is growing at a much more rapid rate. Since the PACBI call for academic and cultural boycott in 2004, and the broader BDS call in 2005, dozens of universities have voted for divestment, albeit only 1 has actually moved money. According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), foreign direct investment in Israel dropped 46% in 2014 compared to 2013. Just this month, the National Women’s Studies Association and the American Anthropologists Association became the latest academic associations to endorse boycott resolutions. The US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation released a list of 100 BDS victories this summer to commemorate 10 years since the initiation of the BDS call. There’s still a long way to go, of course, but the rate of change is heartening. 

As Soske and Jacobs rightfully assert in their introduction, the South Africa/Israel analogy has “assisted in fundamentally changing the terms of debate,” turning it from one about whether or not Israel is doing wrong to whether the wrong Israel is doing deserves the kind of international censure and isolation that was eventually brought to bear on South Africa. 

Mahmood Mamdani’s essay to this collection argues that the decisive moment in the development of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa involved a triple paradigm shift whereby demanding and proposing an alternative vision for how South Africa could be a government beyond the supremacist terms set by apartheid. He writes, “The Palestinian challenge is to persuade the Jewish population of Israel and the world that­ - just as in South Africa - the long-term security of a Jewish homeland in historic Palestine requires the dismantling of the Jewish state.” A question then lingers for supporters of Palestinian rights: What will be the tipping point that moves for this? Will it be the next time Israel “mows the lawn” in Gaza, or the next time that Israeli civilians are threatened on a larger scale from the isolated, but still daily, stabbings happening nowadays? As sickening and disheartening as this claim may be, I can’t help but believe that it will get worse before it gets better. 

The Israeli and American publics, the global Jewish community, and the international community at large have had ample time to see the destructive effect that exclusivist, nationalist, supremacist Israeli rule has had on Palestinian lives and families. The next step is to rescue the desire for security from the realm of walls, arms and ethnic supremacy to re-envision how justice, equality and an embrace of what Judith Butler would call ‘shared vulnerability’ can create the conditions for long-term security.

The growing Palestine solidarity movement today is laying the groundwork for the discursive shifts that will be necessary to create policy change, but there is still a ways to go before public opinion shifts will make it possible to bridge the discourse of ‘its complicated’ and compel elected leaders to enact policy change. In the foreword, Achille Mbembe leaves us with these chilling words: “And since all they are willing to offer is a fight to the finish, since what they are willing to do is to go all the way  - carnage, destruction, incremental extermination-the time has come for global isolation.”

1. J.-A. Mbembé. "Aesthetics of Superfluity." Public Culture 16.3 (2004): 373-405. Project MUSE. Web. 17 Dec. 2015. 

Naomi Dann received a BA in peace and justice studies from Vassar College. She grew up in Portland, Oregon and is Media Coordinator for Jewish Voice for Peace. Twitter @naomi_dann