It was some time in the late 1970s, a time when South Africa was deeply committed to its apartheid dream that a friend of my parents came from England to visit. Although from Johannesburg we were on holiday in the beautiful Cape, and the magnificent area, vista after vista was presented to him for his viewing pleasure. He was clearly impressed as one has to be until he went down to beach where a “Whites Only” sign confronted him. He was appalled and could do little to hide his revulsion.
Although a young child, I still remember how the traveler challenged the racist system and how defensive and uncomfortable the adults around me became. I recall them desperately showing him the “Separate by equal” bathing areas (far down the road), and insisting that no one, no one at all, was unhappy with it. In fact, they were sure, they insisted, that everyone preferred it that way.
I had no idea then what was true and what was not, but I did know even then that as resolute as the adults were, they were uncomfortable. It was clear to me that when you sound and act defensively, no one will be convinced. They might have shamelessly justified an ugly and cruel system, maybe out of embarrassment or patriotism or stupidity, but either way, no one, was buying it.
And maybe that is why I hate one of the approaches to confronting the BDS. I hate that we proudly display photos of Palestinians in positions of leadership, and authority and achievement and ask “Apartheid?” as though this finally and unequivocally proves that it isn’t. I hate that we think that there is even one person who has chosen to believe that Israel is an apartheid state who will look at a picture of a Palestinian model who has risen to the top of her field in a country that supposedly discriminates and say, “Gosh, how could I have been so wrong?” I hate that it makes us sound defensive and makes us look like we are practicing tokenism, when nothing could be further from the truth. I hate that it makes us seem weak and I hate that we think that this works.
It kind of reminds me of a time when my wife and I had to meet a therapist for one of our kids who was having a hard time. I recall her asking us a question about our child that I could thankfully answer negatively. But I was trapped in the “If I say ‘No’ she will think we are in denial” quandary. I had no idea how to convince her that our child might have a bunch of issues, but that the one she was asking about was not actually one of them. I was dammed either way. No amount of my saying so would prove it to her. She was going to have to spend time with him and make that decision for herself. And if she was skilled, and if she chose to look at him objectively, then she would reach the same answer that I had given her.
It is ironic that the very country that gifted apartheid to the world also spawned its next mutation. The now notorious Durban Conference was the incubator for the Israel Apartheid virus; which, once airborne, has spread and infected all those present and still today continues to contaminate. I often wonder how South Africans have allowed the diminishing of their painful past and allowed others to downplay the terrible suffering in their history. Calling Israel an apartheid state means minimising the horror that was apartheid. It negates and makes a mockery of real suffering. And yet, Durban, a port city was the very place that exported this fallacy to the world.
We live in a world that has disproven the “Sticks and Stones” adage. Words and labels can harm, which means that our reaction to the name-calling needs to be well thought out and measured. The more defensive we behave the more it will seem that we are guilty and have what to defend. Israel is not an apartheid state. Anyone who understands what apartheid really is knows that full well. It’s time to stop parading people in front of the public as though it proves anything. It only makes us look like we have something to hide.