Norman L. Smith

Understanding the past to guide our future

Comparing the State of Israel to the former South African apartheid system is not only a reckless, harmful and false equivalence, but obscures critical lessons from which Israel can benefit.

I was born and raised in South Africa. During the turbulent ’70s and early ’80s, I served in its army, was educated, practiced as an attorney and was active in opposition politics. I therefore witnessed and experienced South Africa’s transformation.

In the past 30 years, I have spent much time in Israel, living in homes I have owned for many years. Two of my daughters made aliyah, one served in the IDF and is now the proud mom of my granddaughter, our family’s first Sabra. Although I recently made aliyah, I don’t presume to have the understanding of those who were raised in Israel and served in the IDF. However, my background and experience do provide an alternate perspective.

Mindful of the obligation not to stand idly by in the face of impending danger, I am writing this piece, not to refute any false comparison to apartheid which I can confidently do. Instead, I offer my observations to draw attention to what I perceive to be emerging and disturbing similarities in Israel to the South African deterioration I witnessed. This deterioration was enabled by gradual resigned acquiescence and conditioning of too many white South Africans who could have made a positive difference but instead, almost by default, remained loyal to an increasingly corrupt National Party government (known as the “Nats”) committed to a destructive policy destined to produce tragic consequences.

The process of intensifying “conditioning” was initially induced by seductive demagoguery claiming patriotism and promising security. The process of conditioning voters succeeded in subliminally identifying the Nats as patriotic and the only bulwark against the “communist onslaught” while demonizing any opposition with “left wing,” “liberal,” and “communist” labels. Many Likud politicians dismissively label opponents and opposing ideas as “left wing” or “liberal” as a convenient smokescreen and diversion to avoid answering or addressing their merit. Unfortunately, many appear to accept these diversions, thereby denying themselves the opportunity to consider other options and suppressing the famously Jewish characteristic of questioning instead of blind acceptance.

While false characterizations are a political staple, their excesses often become absurd. Nat polemics then were almost as absurd as current Israeli cabinet ministers advocating homosexual “conversion,” denying religious plurality because it “would harm world order,” a Justice Minister opining that certain Supreme Court decisions should be disobeyed, that voter’s choices were either “Bibi or Tibi,” and suggesting that investigations of Netanyahu are part of a conspiracy by the police, the office of the attorney general and the judiciary.

Under apartheid, the Nats influenced the media by covertly using government funds to acquire or fund newspapers. Does that sound familiar? Certainly, the motive and means were much the same as Netanyahu’s alleged using government influence to induce biased reporting.

The conditioning of the South African electorate was fueled by hubris, arrogance and misguided reliance on its military might, its economic strength, resources and independence and its perceived ability to withstand the anti-apartheid BDS equivalent. Similar to Israel today, many white South Africans believed that South Africa had the President of the United States “in its pocket.” They blithely overlooked the significant power wielded by other U.S. government institutions and that U.S. Presidents have term limits and are often replaced by one at the other end of the political spectrum who may want a “true-up” for old “favors.” Netanyahu has so severely alienated the Democratic Party that a Democratic President or Congress may well be hostile to Israel, or less supportive of its policies.

The Nats infamously divided South Africans into racial and ethnic groups. Even the so-called white group was effectively divided by language, history and culture. So too in Israel, deep, damaging divisions are growing. It is hard to imagine a group more divided from, and divisive to, the country, than the Haredim. Yet, Netanyahu continuously panders to their agenda of entrenching this division and succumbs to their demands. This government’s willingness to divide Israelis is by no means limited to religion. More recently, it deeply offended Israel’s Druse community, among our most loyal citizens, by promulgating an unnecessary “Nation-State Law,” and is in the process of alienating the Israeli Ethiopian community.

The Nats used religious influence by the powerful Dutch Reformed Church to provide theological support for apartheid, the concept of Afrikaner “chosenness” and for relegating black South Africans to the menial biblical status of “hewers of wood and drawers of water.” Similarly, in Israel, the religious Zionist leaders often proclaim their goal of replacing Israeli law with Halachic law and have long claimed a divine right to “Greater Israel.”

The Nats frequently muzzled the media and banned critics from visiting because South Africa had much to hide. Israel has nothing to hide or of which to be ashamed. To the contrary, hosting visitors is Israel’s finest form of advocacy. Our facts speak for themselves. It is therefore mystifying as to why Netanyahu would ban two U.S. Congresswomen, thereby giving them undeserved international recognition and creating the impression that Israel had something to hide.

The conditioning of the South African electorate enabled the government to impose restraints on the judiciary by incremental legislation limiting the court’s authority. As in Israel today, scholarly support was enlisted to justify what were characterized initially and deceptively as benign and beneficial restrictions on the courts. This insidious intrusion deepened to a virtual elimination of the court’s authority to enforce the rule of law or restrain the government from running roughshod over fundamental individual rights. Believing that he would form a government, Netanyahu telegraphed his ominous intentions by having his minions commence steps to give the Knesset the right to override the Supreme Court, to facilitate immunizing Netanyahu from his personal legal challenges.

Notably, although the Nats enjoyed a massive parliamentary majority, I don’t recall them ever attempting to immunize government members from wrongdoing as now appears to be a primary goal of the Likud. Nor did the justifiably much maligned apartheid government completely abandon the basic principles of leadership accountability. When caught using state assets to meddle with the media, the then Prime Minister and an involved senior cabinet minister accepted responsibility and resigned. In stark contrast, Netanyahu’s response to legitimate investigations and prosecution is to demonize and delegitimize the police, the office of the attorney general and the judiciary, thereby eroding public confidence in those vital institutions.

As the cornerstone of apartheid, the Nats conjured up “Bantustan” territories having illusory “autonomy” and opportunities for “separate development.” These Bantustans were intended to create the illusion of quasi-independent states where black South Africans could nominally exercise their constitutional rights on a “separate but equal” basis. This scheme ignored the fundamental requirement of “consent of the governed.” Using the same euphemisms, the Israeli government apparently believes that by permitting Palestinians living in parts of the West Bank a measure of “autonomy” and “separate development” they will effectively separate the Palestinians from the State of Israel. As in South Africa, this will not occur without the consent of the people affected. The more West Bank territory is consumed by settlement expansion outside of the well-recognized settlement blocs, the less viable a separate Palestinian state will become, rendering popular Palestinian consent unlikely.

Many white South Africans blindly voted for the Nats government, naively believing it would preserve their privileged “status quo.” Similarly, many Israelis believe that Netanyahu will preserve the “status quo,” a demonstrably misleading misnomer. The real “status quo” is an insidious slide down the “slippery slope” towards a binational state which most of us justifiably believe will produce disastrous existential consequences for Jewish Israelis. Inevitably, the growing manifestations of a binational state and resulting cultural and demographic change, will be rejected by many Jewish Israelis who will “vote with their feet.” When a “tipping point” is reached, we will experience a most tragic long-term effect – rampant emigration.

Like most artificially induced feelings of well-being, sooner or later reality emerges like a bad hangover. White South Africans realized that their military might could not address its real challenge – a unitary state with equal rights for all of its people. South Africa’s impressive economic power did not compensate for the growing international isolation adversely affecting many of its most talented business people, professionals, scientists and sportsmen whose careers and opportunities were stifled due to their government’s intransigence.

When white South Africans finally realized that they had been lured into a false sense of security, many, including some of the best and brightest, then emigrated. Unfortunately, this damaging trend came without any discernable warning signs, was contagious, and influenced family and friends of those emigrating. The irreversible “tipping point” was only recognized in hindsight. While Israel has always experienced emigration, the trends identified in a recent study by the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research demonstrate that emigration is accelerating, particularly among groups the country depends upon. It is disheartening to read that the number of Israelis acquiring U.S. citizenship or “green cards” from 1995-2005 and 2006-2016 was nearly 50% greater than the increase in Israel’s population. Other statistics project that in 30 short years, even without annexing the West Bank, as some in the government demand, the Haredim will represent 50% of the Jewish population of Israel. Factoring in Israel Arabs, this will leave Zionists as a clear minority.

The compelling lesson of this progression is to reject the path of least resistance and to confront and question the growing reality. Fortunately, there is an alternative which gives us an opportunity to change course and to boldly and courageously choose a new path. This can soon be done by electing true leaders composed of patriotic, honest, selfless and devoted public servants who have a clear vision for Israel’s future. The leaders of the Blue and White Party have a wealth of experience, personal characteristics and the self-confidence and leadership qualities to set aside ego and appoint the best qualified government rather than sycophants whose primary qualification is blind obedience to an increasingly beleaguered Prime Minister committed only to self-preservation and lacking any vision beyond his own self-interest. “If not us, who? If not now, when?”

About the Author
Norman Smith is a California attorney residing in Raanana and San Diego. He is a fellow of the Wexner Heritage Foundation, serves on the National Board of the Friends of the IDF and is the founder and past Chairman of the San Diego and Orange County Chapters of the Friends of the IDF.