Spring is here. And just as it portends the melting of snow and the budding of flowers, on campuses worldwide for the last few years spring has also brought a flurry of absurd anti-Israel activities inaccurately comparing Israel to the old South Africa with its reprehensible racist apartheid regime. We need to fight this modern blood libel passionately and intelligently, what Daniel Patrick Moynihan called this “Big Red Lie,” noting its Soviet and Palestinian origins as a propaganda play in the United Nations, not a serious intellectual analysis on universities.
Whenever I hear of an Apartheid Week on campus I am appalled. I would endorse a week boosting Palestinian nationalism. But a week devoted to demonizing Palestinians’ enemies curdles their collective soul, feeding the destructive nihilism at the heart of their national movement. Golda Meir’s truism still applies: Apartheid Week suggests that too many Palestinians still hate Israeli kids more than they love their own, and are more committed to destroying the Jewish state than building their own.
When I see an Apartheid Week display on campus I can all but smell the rotting corpse of the Soviet Union emanating from it. It is an affront to all who believe in truth on campuses to see this false comparison take hold. It also gives the most violent, most reactionary, Hamasnik parts of the Palestinian national movement a victory they do not deserve.
Beyond terror attacks and diplomatic moves, Yasir Arafat and his allies fought an ideological war to shape world opinion. Exploiting the rise of a global mass media, and what the Palestinian intellectual Edward Said called the twentieth century’s “generalizing tendency,” the Palestinians framed their local narrative as part of a global struggle. They invested heavily in research centers, think tanks, and publishing houses to tell their story—and thus link it to broader trends. As a result, Said admitted: “the Palestinians since 1967 have tended to view their struggle in the same framework that includes Vietnam, Algeria, Cuba, and black Africa,” joining “the universal political struggle against colonialism and imperialism.”
This language of worldwide anti-colonial rebellion, of Third World solidarity, made race more central to Palestinian rhetoric. As a bonus, calling Zionism racism furthered the Palestinian argument that Jews were not a nation. Judaism to Palestinian propagandists was just a religion; anti-Semitism a Zionist delusion; and the Jewish ties to the land mere illusion. They viewed any distinctions between Arab and Jew in Israel as racial, along the lines of whites and blacks in South Africa, rather than the legitimate national distinctions all UN member states drew between, say, Americans and Canadians or Germans and Poles.
Calling Zionism racism played well in Africa too. Linking Zionism with apartheid, and Israel with South Africa, made the Soviet Union look attentive to African needs. Israel also made the historic mistake of winning in 1967 — just as the Progressive world fell in love with losers. Israel’s post-67 image as a regional strongman in America’s orbit, rather than a postcolonial success story, made it easier for adversaries to cast it as the Middle Eastern equivalent of South Africa, a colonialist intrusion. This equation of Israel with South African apartheid would outlast the Soviet Union.
The apartheid analogy was absurd because the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians was national, not racial. Not only were there dark-skinned Israelis and light-skinned Palestinians, there was no legalized discrimination based on race in Israel or the disputed territories, which is what defined South African apartheid. In 1948 the Afrikaner National Party had instituted a series of laws segregating the races, including restricting certain jobs to “whites only,” and prohibiting marriage between whites and non-whites. Two years later, the Population Registration Act empowered the government’s Department of Home Affairs to classify every South African racially, as either white, black (African), or colored (of mixed descent).
With the Soviets pushing to make their vulgar anti-Semitism seem virtuous, the charge of racism became an increasingly popular libel against the Jewish State. Communists were experts at demonization, wielding libelous labels with the deftness of Samurai swordsmen. Underlying the theatrics was genuine Palestinian pain and a growing Israeli quagmire. What the apartheid-liars don’t realize is that these kinds of assaults on Israel’s honor, these totalitarian attacks on truth itself, only inflame the conflict, prolonging Palestinian misery.
Gil Troy is Professor of History, McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His latest book is Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism published by Oxford University Press. Watch the new Moynihan’s Moment video!