guardian.co.uk, Monday 24 August 2009 11.35 BST
The most inaccurate way to describe Israel today is as an apartheid state. That's the exact opposite of what Neve Gordon said on Cif last week. Level whatever criticisms you want against Israel – start with West Bank occupation and oppression of Palestinians, and go on to the domestic discrimination suffered by the Arab minority – but the simple fact is that none of it is the apartheid of the old South Africa. Abundant evidence of this is readily available, in the Guardian and elsewhere.
Why then is the comparison so often made? One reason, in a different context, is in the words of American comedian Stephen Colbert: "Remember kids! In order to maintain an untenable position, you have to be actively ignorant."
For some, the apartheid accusation is the way to destroy Israel. If Israel can be linked with apartheid then it can be denounced as illegitimate as was white-ruled South Africa and hence be wide open to international sanctions.
Those who pursue this couldn't care less about facts. They have an agenda and are unscrupulous about distortion, lying and exaggeration. Their ultimate purpose is exposed by how they answer a basic question: whether or not they accept the fact of Israel's existence.
Others use the apartheid label because they are genuinely affronted and angered by Israeli behaviour – from the occupation to the attack on Gaza – and it seems an easy way to reduce to digestible size the complexities of the national-religious struggle between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians over a small piece of land. It's wrong and it's lazy but that's how many people behave.
It is surprising, and disappointing, to find Gordon in these ranks. He is a professor of politics at a good Israeli university and one expects a more informed approach. I have never met him but see from his writing that he is a man of conscience. He condemns Israeli misdeeds and has long worked for peace, although to be sure he seems to be at the outer fringe of Israel's peace camp. So active is he that rightwing extremists rant at him and try to pressure his university to get rid of him.
Now, however, not only does he take over the apartheid line but he supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement aimed at Israel. That presumably includes the academic boycott that he has previously opposed; he thus becomes both the arrow and the target. He still has to explain how he will resolve this personal contradiction.
Equally the "double standard" which he rightly describes as a problem. Why not boycott China for its egregious violations of human rights, he asks. To which he could add the US because of its many human rights sins, Greece and Romania for mistreating their Roma people, India for Dalits, Turkey for Kurds, Lebanon's denial of rights to Palestinians, Cuba, Libya etc etc. He puts a good question, but does not give an answer.
The explanation for his new outlook is: "The Israeli peace camp has gradually dwindled so that today it is almost non-existent, and Israeli politics are moving more and more to the extreme right."
He is venting the left's despair. The left's influence has probably never been lower. Its efforts to foster peace with Palestinians are ignored. It has been ineffective in halting the rise of the right wing. It is powerless against an aggressively rightwing government whose leaders abusively blame it for Palestinian terrorism. Its warnings of settlement growth on the West Bank are trashed.
In dealing with this situation we are entitled to look to a professor of politics for insights and understanding of why it has happened, if only because therein lies possible solutions. It has not come about in a vacuum. But again, nothing.
However, the factors at work are obvious, such as the absence of a brave and visionary leadership (both Israeli and Palestinian). There is also, at bottom, the Jewish psyche shaped by history: the centuries of persecution culminating in the Holocaust, the triumph of the creation of Israel in 1948 and the immediate invasions by Arab neighbours to eradicate it and the unceasing rejectionism, wars and attacks since then.
The terrorism that Palestinians have resorted to has deeply traumatised Israelis. Suicide bombings have driven many or most Israelis to the right. Thousands of rockets fired by Hamas from the Gaza Strip and missiles by Hezbollah from Lebanon, add to the national anxiety. There is more than buffoonery in Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, wanting to wipe Israel off the map: his nuclear ambitions are scary.
There is certainly Jewish over-sensitivity and over-reaction; some Jews misuse and manipulate antisemitism and the Holocaust to stoke up fears for their own purposes. But allowing for all this, the fact of antisemitism is still a potent and dangerous reality, whether in Arab bloodthirsty threats or the UN Human Rights Council singling out Israel for attack, or a stupid Swedish newspaper article alleging the stealing of human organs.
Day after day, Jewish paranoia is buttressed and justified: Jews see themselves in a world of menace in which their existence is always under threat. In this situation, boycotts, sanctions and divestment are not the way to persuade individual Israelis to change. To believe that it will do the trick is to fail to understand use of boycott as a tactic to achieve defined aims. Applied in this case it will harden Israeli opinion, and make people more determined to tell the world to go to hell. Far from saving Israel from itself, as Gordon wants, it will be a gift to the right wing who will trade on it to foster fear.
That doesn't mean all pressure is useless: it's of a different order when applied, for instance, by the US government through threat of withdrawal of loan guarantees or arms supplies, as has occurred in the past. Such action forces the leaders in government to justify themselves and explain to the public why they have landed the country in such trouble with its most powerful friend.
South Africa offers some lessons. Boycotts were but one of the measures that brought down apartheid and they had variable effects. Sports boycotts sapped the morale of whites; cultural boycotts mainly hurt elites who mostly opposed apartheid; disinvestment, causing loss of jobs, hit the black people whom it was intended to help; industry was not laid low – when Kodak left, Fuji came in; when Ford left, other car makers took over. The most effective action was probably the refusal by US banks in 1985 to roll over loans; that struck the foundations of the economy and was the beginning of the end. Then came the effects of the end of the cold war.
In the case of Israel, resorting to mass boycotts is an admission of failure. It's a cathartic response to despair and floundering. Israelis have turned their backs on Gordon so he blindly lashes out.
Yet there is an alternative. It's old-fashioned: educate and persuade. There is already a head start: opinion polls consistently show a majority of Israelis – and Palestinians too – accept a two-state solution as the means to peace. That must be built on: convince Israelis that they are not going to be murdered and thrown into the sea, and that their children – not only Gordon's two sons – can look forward to a secure future. Convince them that the world – or at least much of it – does not view them as more evil than any other people but wishes them well. Encourage and help maximum contact and co-operation between Israelis and Palestinians.
It's often boring, tedious work, with results that are not always immediately apparent. But it's an affirmation of hope about what can be achieved.