Friday, June 5, 2015

Falling from grace

Once again, June 5th. Anniversary of the beginning of that war in 1967, the war whose consequences shaped all our lives. 48th year to the occupation of the Palestinian territories - who would have thought it would last so long? Again the Women in Black vigil. Like every Friday since the beginning of the First Intifada, they are standing at the center of Tel Aviv, as well as in Haifa and Jerusalem and the entrance to Kibbutz Gan Shmuel. And like every year, on June 5 they call for reinforcements from women (and men) who do not usually take part. The black plastic palms inscribed with "End the Occupation" in Hebrew and Arabic and English – the Women in Black’s trademark – as well as some large photographs of the destruction in Gaza and the bulldozers busy building settlements. 

Passers-by on the Ben Zion Boulevard, a bustling place on Friday Noon, stop, look, some of them start a conversation or debate. "You traitors! Enemies of your country!" shouts a man who holds the hands of two young children. One more shout and he moves on, pulling on his children away from those traitors. A few minutes later there is a young woman, also with a small child, aged three or four. The kid asks, "What is this? What are they doing?". The mother patiently explains: "They are demonstrating. They want peace. They want peace, so that there would not be wars any more, and people will not be killed any more." The boy smiles shyly.

So far, the report which I could have written, almost word for word, also a year ago. For that matter, also two or three years ago. What has changed since? The new topic which conquered the newspaper headlines. "Boycott!", "Boycott!" , "Boycott!". The word is everywhere. "Boycott alert!". "The boycott threatens us!". "Mobilize to fight the boycott!" The most recent headlines announce the latest from the boycott battlefield: "Orange surrenders to the anti-Semites, the boycott threat materializes, the French telecom giant Orange has announced the severance of its relations with Israel!" In the body of the article there is a reference to Orange having come under sharp criticism in France and throughout Europe, due to the activity of its Israeli partner activity at settlements in the Occupied Territories, as well as the "Adopt a Soldier" campaign launched by Orange Israel during the recent war in Gaza. Is this Anti-Semitism? It seems the editor thinks so. 

"A creeping erosion" writes commentator Ben Kaspit. "The situation is only going to become ever worse. The Israeli economy is still flourishing, everything seems fine, but the foundations are being steadily eroded". Elsewhere on the page is a report of an emergency PR delegation sent by the government of Israel to tour universities worldwide. It comprises four Israeli students, including one Ethiopian and one Bedouin from the Negev. "We will show everybody that Israel is not an apartheid state. This is not South Africa!" say the enthusiastic youths.

This is not South Africa? A moment for some historical reminiscences. Though few remember it nowadays, there was a time when whites in South Africa were regarded as heroes and greatly admired by left-wingers and progressive people, in Europe and worldwide. True, it was very long ago, more than a century, during the event known as "The Boer War". So many other wars and horrors have since then gone by that this one is almost completely forgotten. During those years at the beginning of the Twentieth century, there was wide sympathy for the people known as " Boers" or "Afrikaners" – whose ancestors had been Dutch, who began to settle in South Africa in the Seventeenth century and mixed with Huguenot French and some Indonesians and whose language has changed to become Afrikaans. They were regarded as a small David bravely resisting the mighty armies of the British Empire. 

The British coveted the Boers’ land, rich in gold and diamonds. The British defeated the regular armies which the Boers could field, but the latter continued a stubborn guerilla warfare. Eventually the British managed to crush their resistance by means of brutal repression against the Boer civilian population, incarcerated in special camps where living conditions were harsh and cruel. It was then that the notorious term "concentration camp" first entered the vocabulary of the human race.

On 5 April 1900, while the war in South Africa was getting to its peak, the Prince of Wales – future King Edward VII of Britain – made a visit to Belgium. At the Brussels North Railway Station, a young anarchist named Jean-Baptiste Sipido jumped into the British royal carriage and fired several gunshots at eminent visitor, but failed to hit him. At the Court Sipido made an impassioned speech: "I have no regrets! I'm only sorry I did not kill him! He is a murderer! The British are murdering thousands in South Africa. I wanted to do justice! Long live South Africa!" The court acquitted Sipido of all charges due to his young age. A cheering crowd waiting outside the courthouse gave him a hero’s welcome - and many worldwide regarded him as such.

Where were the blacks of South Africa at this time? Of course they were there, also then they were the great majority of South Africa’s population. The white British and the white Boers waged war over their heads, and the blacks suffered much at the hands of both sides. But the watching world hardly noticed the presence of blacks in this war. Not even the leftists and Socialists and Anarchists.
Eventually, a reconciliation came about between the British victors and the vanquished Afrikaners (at least, many of them). South Africa became a dominion, one of the British colonies gradually winning more and more autonomy until they became virtually independent states. A visitor to London's Trafalgar Square can see four identical buildings arranged in precise symmetry at the four sides of the square - the embassies of the four Dominions: Canada and Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Obviously, when these were constructed during the interwar period, no one foresaw that one day South Africa would become a pariah state, it’s embassy the focus of incessant demonstrations and protests.

The key person in the South Africa of this time was Jan Smuts - the man who in his youth conducted guerrilla warfare against the British and who in later life became a general and field marshal in the British Army, who fought for Britian in World War I and later became a member of Winston Churchill’s war cabinet.

Jan Smuts, the respectable face of South Africa

Jan Smuts was one of the drafters of the UN Charter, but his policy as Prime Minister of South Africa did not really accord with the principles of that document. Like other leaders before and after him, Jan Smuts supported racial segregation and the rule of whites over the blacks. On some occasions, he did remark that at some unspecified point in the future, black South Africans might be asked to share power with the white minority, provided that "black politicians demonstrated their commitment to civilized norms of political and personal conduct". In actuality, that moment never came near during the whole of Smuts’ long political career, stretching beyond his eightieth birthday.

In the final part of his career, Smuts expressed his support for a certain increase in the number of blacks who would be allowed to move from the countryside to the South African cities. This position contributed to his defeat in the 1948 elections, to the shock and dismay of many. The National Party which took power in South Africa and was to hold it in the coming decades espoused blunt, outspoken racism, with no compromise and no apology – a policy which eventually got named "Apartheid".

In the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s South Africa was steadily moving in a direction opposite to the rest of the world – increasing and intensifying the discrimination and repression against its black population, while in the rest of the African continent colonies gained independence and blacks in the United States established the Civil Rights Movement. The demand for a boycott of South Africa gained momentum around the world, first in civil society organizations and then taken up also by governments and official international bodies. Also the Dutch, distant kin of the Afrikaners, turned their back on them. According to polls conducted at the time among whites in South Africa, they felt especially hurt by the international sports boycott - as much as, or even more than, by the economic sanctions imposed on South Africa. Eventually, the coach of the South Africa rugby team met with representatives of the African National Congress – at the time still considered a terrorist organization under South African law – in order to discuss an end to the sports boycott. Many who heard of it realized that the end of Apartheid was approaching. And so it was, although some ten years would pass - and a lot of lives would still be lost – before the day actually came.

Policy makers in Israel should be familiar with the history of South Africa. Jan Smuts was a staunch supporter of the Zionist movement, Kibbutz Ramat Yohanan was named after him. Later, South Africa was for decades a strategic ally of Israel. And yet it seems that Israel is bent on following in South Africa’s footsteps, step by painful step.

Nowadays it is difficult to remember that for many years, the Zionist movement and the young State of Israel had gained the very extensive support and sympathy of left-leaning and progressive people all over the world. It can be said that, ironically, in the 1940’s and 1950’s Israel got the support of much the same kind of who nowadays would tend to support the Palestinians - and for much the same reasons: support for the underdog, for those who were hurt and wronged and demanded justice. The Zionist Movement was perceived as representing a terribly persecuted people, who had undergone the most terrible genocide in human history and who rightly demanded a piece of land as a safe haven under their feet. A famous poem by Natan Alterman commemorates an Italian sea captain named Ansaldo, who had fought against the Nazi occupation of his country and who in December 1945 helped a boatload of Zionist illegal immigrants reach the coast of Palestine. To many people at the time, Ansaldo’s acts seemed to be natural and obvious parts of a single continuity.

The hundreds of thousands of refugees who lost their homes and land with the creation of the State of Israel did not seriously detract from the positive image of the young state of Israel, with the socialist kibbutzim as gleaming showcase for the world. The attempt of the Arab states to institute a boycott of Israel did for a time intimidate some western corporations, but such boycott calls got virtually no political or ideological support in Europe or America. Even the war of 1967 was seen, at least for some years, as the victory of David over Goliath. Last week I mentioned here President Obama's interview with its poignant longing for "The Israel of… the kibbutzim, and Moshe Dayan, and Golda Meir, and the sense that not only are we creating a safe Jewish homeland, but also we are remaking the world." It made a bit strange reading to people of my generation, whose earliest political experience was an outspoken protest of Golda Meir’s declaration that "there is no Palestinian people".

For the world at large, the Israeli magic still worked in those days. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan was admired when he proclaimed the policy of "liberal occupation" and Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek was acclaimed as the champion of coexistence even while he oversaw destruction of the Mughrabi Quarter of the Old City and the intensive construction of exclusively Jewish neighborhoods on confiscated Palestinian land. For many years, many American Jews were known for their chronic split personality, supporting each and every Liberal cause and issue aside from their ​​blind support of Israel. But nothing lasts forever, and the day of Israel’s Jan Smuts also came to its end. In 1977 the Israeli Labor Party fell from power in the country it had dominated for decades, and was replaced by the Likud – a party notable for its blatant nationalism and particularly for the massive construction of settlements in Occupied Territories. The killings and destruction of the First Lebanon War began to crack Israel's image in the world. In 1992, a change of direction seemed at hand, with Rabin coming to power, shaking Arafat’s hand and signing an interim agreement with the Palestinians.

We will never know for certain what would have happened had Rabin not been assassinated, and if he would have managed to reach a permanent agreement with the Palestinians by May 1999, as specified in the agreements. In reality as it happened, Rabin was assassinated and did not get a worthy successor. The Oslo process ended in a bloody disappointment and disillusion, with the occupation now racing toward the jubilee year. By now, Israel has become associated worldwide with the most right-wing and conservative parties; in the United States being increasingly aligned with the Republicans against the Democrats. Jews, especially young ones, are increasingly turning their backs on Israel. The call for a boycott of Israel is gaining strength. Last week it first manifested itself in the field of international sport, with Israeli soccer managing at the last moment to sustain only a "yellow card" rather than a red one. At last, the country’s decision makers are crying out about the boycott being "a strategic threat to Israel", with the mass circulation newspapers pumping up the same topic.

"Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it". Unclear who said it first, but true it is.

Women in Black Tel Aviv, June 5th 2015