Uri Avnery’s critique of Desmond Tutu and Neve Gordon

This piece, by Uri Avnery of Gush Shalom, is from the Gush Shalom website

Tutu’s Prayer

HOW MUCH did the boycott of South Africa actually contribute to the fall of the racist regime? This week I talked with Desmond Tutu about this question, which has been on my mind for a long time.

No one is better qualified to answer this question than he. Tutu, the South African Anglican archbishop and Nobel prize laureate, was one of the leaders of the fight against apartheid and, later, the chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which investigated the crimes of the regime. This week he visited Israel with the “Elders”, an organization of elder statesmen from all over the world set up by Nelson Mandela.

The matter of the boycott came up again this week after an article by Dr. Neve Gordon appeared in the Los Angeles Times {1}, calling for a world-wide boycott of Israel. He cited the example of South Africa to show how a world-wide boycott could compel Israel to put an end to the occupation, which he compared to the apartheid regime.

I have known and respected Neve Gordon for many years. Before becoming a lecturer at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba, he organized many demonstrations against the Separation Wall in the Jerusalem area, in which I, too, took part.

I am sorry that I cannot agree with him this time – neither about the similarity with South Africa nor about the efficacy of a boycott of Israel.

There are several opinions about the contribution of the boycott to the success of the anti-apartheid struggle. According to one view, it was decisive. Another view claims its impact was marginal. Some believe that it was the collapse of the Soviet Union that was the decisive factor. After that, the US and its allies no longer had any reason for support the regime in South Africa, which until then had been viewed as a pillar of the world-wide struggle against Communism.

“THE BOYCOTT was immensely important,” Tutu told me. “Much more than the armed struggle.”

It should be remembered that, unlike Mandela, Tutu was an advocate of non-violent struggle. During the 28 years Mandela languished in prison, he could have walked free at any moment, if he had only agreed to sign a statement condemning “terrorism”. He refused.

“The importance of the boycott was not only economic,” the archbishop explained, “but also moral. South Africans are, for example, crazy about sports. The boycott, which prevented their teams from competing abroad, hit them very hard. But the main thing was that it gave us the feeling that we are not alone, that the whole world is with us. That gave us the strength to continue.”

To show the importance of the boycott he told me the following story: In 1989, the moderate white leader, Frederic Willem de Klerk, was elected President of South Africa. Upon assuming office he declared his intention to set up a multiracial regime. “I called to congratulate him, and the first thing he said was: Will you now call off the boycott?”

IT SEEMS to me that Tutu’s answer emphasizes the huge difference between the South African reality at the time and ours today.

The South African struggle was between a large majority and a small minority. Among a general population of almost 50 million, the Whites amounted to less than 10%. That means that more than 90% of the country’s inhabitants supported the boycott, in spite of the argument that it hurt them, too.

In Israel, the situation is the very opposite. The Jews amount to more than 80% of Israel’s citizens, and constitute a majority of some 60% throughout the country between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. 99.9% of the Jews oppose a boycott on Israel.

They will not feel the “the whole world is with us”, but rather that “the whole world is against us”.

In South Africa, the world-wide boycott helped in strengthening the majority and steeling it for the struggle. The impact of a boycott on Israel would be the exact opposite: it would push the large majority into the arms of the extreme right and create a fortress mentality against the “anti-Semitic world”. (The boycott would, of course, have a different impact on the Palestinians, but that is not the aim of those who advocate it.)

Peoples are not the same everywhere. It seems that the Blacks in South Africa are very different from the Israelis, and from the Palestinians, too. The collapse of the oppressive racist regime did not lead to a bloodbath, as could have been predicted, but on the contrary: to the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee. Instead of revenge, forgiveness. Those who appeared before the commission and admitted their misdeeds were pardoned. That was in tune with Christian belief, and that was also in tune with the Jewish Biblical promise: “Whoso confesseth and forsaketh [his sins] shall have mercy.” (Proverbs 28:13)

I told the bishop that I admire not only the leaders who chose this path but also the people who accepted it.

ONE OF the profound differences between the two conflicts concerns the Holocaust.

Centuries of pogroms have imprinted on the consciousness of the Jews the conviction that the whole world is out to get them. This belief was reinforced a hundredfold by the Holocaust. Every Jewish Israeli child learns in school that “the entire world was silent” when the six million were murdered. This belief is anchored in the deepest recesses of the Jewish soul. Even when it is dormant, it is easy to arouse it.

(That is the conviction which made it possible for Avigdor Lieberman, last week, to accuse the entire Swedish nation of cooperating with the Nazis, because of one idiotic article in a Swedish tabloid.)

It may well be that the Jewish conviction that “the whole world is against us” is irrational. But in the life of nations, as indeed in the life of individuals, it is irrational to ignore the irrational.

The Holocaust will have a decisive impact on any call for a boycott of Israel. The leaders of the racist regime in South Africa openly sympathized with the Nazis and were even interned for this in World War II. Apartheid was based on the same racist theories as inspired Adolf Hitler. It was easy to get the civilized world to boycott such a disgusting regime. The Israelis, on the other hand, are seen as the victims of Nazism. The call for a boycott will remind many people around the world of the Nazi slogan “Kauft nicht bei Juden!” – don’t buy from Jews.

That does not apply to every kind of boycott. Some 11 years ago, the Gush Shalom movement, in which I am active, called for a boycott of the product of the settlements. Its intention was to separate the settlers from the Israeli public, and to show that there are two kinds of Israelis. The boycott was designed to strengthen those Israelis who oppose the occupation, without becoming anti-Israeli or anti-Semitic. Since then, the European Union has been working hard to close the gates of the EU to the products of the settlers, and almost nobody has accused it of anti-Semitism.

ONE OF the main battlefields in our fight for peace is Israeli public opinion. Most Israelis believe nowadays that peace is desirable but impossible (because of the Arabs, of course.) We must convince them not that peace would be good for Israel, but that it is realistically achievable.

When the archbishop asked what we, the Israeli peace activists, are hoping for, I told him: We hope for Barack Obama to publish a comprehensive and detailed peace plan and to use the full persuasive power of the United States to convince the parties to accept it. We hope that the entire world will rally behind this endeavor. And we hope that this will help to set the Israeli peace movement back on its feet and convince our public that it is both possible and worthwhile to follow the path of peace with Palestine.

No one who entertains this hope can support the call for boycotting Israel. Those who call for a boycott act out of despair. And that is the root of the matter.

Neve Gordon and his partners in this effort have despaired of the Israelis. They have reached the conclusion that there is no chance of changing Israeli public opinion. According to them, no salvation will come from within. One must ignore the Israeli public and concentrate on mobilizing the world against the State of Israel. (Some of them believe anyhow that the State of Israel should be dismantled and replaced by a bi-national state.)

I do not share either view – neither the despair of the Israeli people, to which I belong, nor the hope that the world will stand up and compel Israel to change its ways against its will. For this to happen, the boycott must gather world-wide momentum, the US must join it, the Israeli economy must collapse and the morale of the Israeli public must break.

How long will this take? Twenty Years? Fifty years? Forever?

I AM afraid that this is an example of a faulty diagnosis leading to faulty treatment. To be precise: the mistaken assumption that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resembles the South African experience leads to a mistaken choice of strategy.

True, the Israeli occupation and the South African apartheid system have certain similar characteristics. In the West Bank, there are roads “for Israelis only”. But the Israeli policy is not based on race theories, but on a national conflict. A small but significant example: in South Africa, a white man and a black woman (or the other way round) could not marry, and sexual relations between them were a crime. In Israel there is no such prohibition. On the other hand, an Arab Israeli citizen who marries an Arab woman from the occupied territories (or the other way round) cannot bring his or her spouse to Israel. The reason: safeguarding the Jewish majority in Israel. Both cases are reprehensible, but basically different.

In South Africa there was total agreement between the two sides about the unity of the country. The struggle was about the regime. Both Whites and Blacks considered themselves South Africans and were determined to keep the country intact. The Whites did not want partition, and indeed could not want it, because their economy was based on the labor of the Blacks.

In this country, Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs have nothing in common – not a common national feeling, not a common religion, not a common culture and not a common language. The vast majority of the Israelis want a Jewish (or Hebrew) state. The vast majority of the Palestinians want a Palestinian (or Islamic) state. Israel is not dependent on Palestinian workers – on the contrary, it drives the Palestinians out of the working place. Because of this, there is now a world-wide consensus that the solution lies in the creation of the Palestinian state next to Israel.

In short: the two conflicts are fundamentally different. Therefore, the methods of struggle, too, must necessarily be different.

BACK TO the archbishop, an attractive person whom it is impossible not to like on sight. He told me that he prays frequently, and that his favorite prayer goes like this (I quote from memory):

“Dear God, when I am wrong, please make me willing to see my mistake. And when I am right – please make me tolerable to live with.”

{1} Neve Gordon: Boycott Israel – The Los Angeles Times, Aug. 20, 2009

This piece, by Uri Avnery of Gush Shalom, is from the Gush Shalom website

 


6 Responses to “Uri Avnery’s critique of Desmond Tutu and Neve Gordon”

  1. Toby Esterhase Says:

    Ran Greenstein: “Frequently presented as a contribution to debate, this strategy aims to discourage exploration of ‘forbidden’ territories and to prevent critical discussion. Wittingly or not, those operating from this perspective serve as ‘useful idiots’ for Israeli state propaganda.”

    Greenstein says that Engage serves as ‘useful idiots’ for state propaganda.

    This is the slur which has always been dealt out to the “Jewish” left by Stalinists.

    Does he say the same to Uri Avnery and Gush Shalom?

  2. Lynne T Says:

    I think Tutu has his own biases and motivations for urging a boycott on Israel, which he accuses of being “worse” than South Africa during apartheid. As far as the impact of the boycott by consumers around the world of products from SA is concerned, I suspect it paled compared to the impact of SA being drummed out of the Commonwealth and the public condemnations of apartheid by leaders of those countries that really rocked the old regime. Does anyone have figures as to how badly SA export figures sagged during those days to establish whether the SA government was moved by economic pressure, political pressure or both?

  3. Stephen Rothbart Says:

    Where was Bishop Tutu’s call for a boycott on Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe? Where is the call to boycott China for Human right abuses against its own people and those in Tibet? Or Saudia Arabia? Or Hamas treatment of any Palestinian it disagrees with?

    The problem with the debate on Israel today is simply that it is so one sided. The UN’s constant sanctions against her by regimes that would not know human rights from a hole in the wall for example, culminating in the risible Goldstone report. 35 million European refugees were displaced after World War 2 and they have all been resettled and got on with their lives. 600,000 Arabs living in Jordan, mainly and where Israel is now were also displaced, as were 800,000 Jews living in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, just about at the same time as the 35 million Europeans.

    60 years later the Palestinians are still living in squalid camps or under repressive domination by militias run by thugs who have milked hundreds of millions of dollars from EU, UN and US donations. In 60 years the Palestinians have received billions of dollars in aid, yet have little to show for it, while the 800,000 Jews and the 35 million Europeans have got on with re-building their lives.

    When will the world finally understand that this is the biggest con trick in human history.

    The Palestinian Arabs are suffering appallingly from this professional victimhood, and in the absence of any sensible solution to the problem by the world’s leaders like Obama and comments such as those emanating from Bishop Tutu, will continue to do so.

    Israel is an imperfect society with a terrible parliamentary system that, through proportional representation, gives small repugnant parties like Sha enormous power. But unlike the leaders of the Palestinians, who enrich themselves from the constant handouts of guilt-ridden westerners, Israeli leaders are willing to make peace and need to.

    Unlike South Africa, and many African states, there is a tolerant society that allows gays and women equal rights, education and educates Arabs in its Universities, allows them to play football in their national teams, and marry. How dare Bishop Tutu preach to anyone about Israel, when he keeps silent about so much around African malaise.

    If you want a closer similarity to South Africa, Bishop Tutu, I suggest you pick on Saudia Arabia or Iran. Now that is where apartheid really does exist.

  4. zkharya Says:

    Excellent article.

  5. amie Says:

    Excellent article from Avnery. He takes issue with Tutu in a way which is relevant to Tutu’s misconceptions. This has a greater chance of being effective than the frequent totally misdirected attacks on Tutu for being hypocritical, and guilty of double standards.as exampled by Stephen Rothbart. In fact, Tutu has been actively and vociferously involved in campaigns against Chinese human rights abuses in China and Tibet, Burma etc.
    Rothbart asks:
    “Where was Bishop Tutu’s call for a boycott on Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe”
    Tutu’s vehement criticism of Zimbabwe has in fact bypassed boycott to call for the more drastic step of military intervention in Zim.

  6. Proposals to boycott Israeli Universities: a response by Robert Fine, following Desmond Tutu, Neve Gordon, Uri Avnery, David Hirsh and Ran Greenstein « Engage – the anti-racist campaign against antisemitism Says:

    [...] Last year Uri Avnery, the veteran Israeli campaigner for Palestinian rights, published a critique of the Israel-apartheid analogy and a critique of the boycott campaign, which related explicitly to the positions of Desmond Tutu and Neve Gordon.  Read it here. [...]


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