The Cape Talk debate on the UJ boycott of Ben Gurion University

Cape Talk’s debate on UJ’s relations with Ben Gurion University was refreshingly free of jargon and stale talking points. Yet, with all its references to water technology and special services to people in the military, the discussion left the real issue rather lost.

Ironically, Brenda Stern herself stated the core issue straight out: BGU is an institution embedded in, and designed to serve, Israel as a Jewish state. What does this mean? If Israel were Jewish the way Britain is associated with the Church of England, for example, we would not have the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as we know it today. In that case, some Jewish symbols and religious sentiment might float through public life while everyone in the country otherwise went about their business enjoying equal rights under impartial state laws. Yes, prejudice would probably persist in various ways but much as social prejudices persist everywhere and are fought through laws ensuring equality. But that kind of ‘soft ethnic’ nationalist identity is not how Israel functions as a Jewish state, and Ms. Stern knows it.

The basic problem is this: Zionist doctrine has always held that Israel’s survival as a Jewish state requires an overwhelming Jewish majority. Preserving this majority requires that non-Jewish citizens be confined to a politically debilitated minority. Why is this a problem for Israel? Because most of Palestine’s population in 1948 was not Jewish, and most of that non-Jewish population was therefore expelled from Israel’s territory through force of arms to create a Jewish majority. Those refugees are still not allowed to return to the land of their birth and ancestral homes, because, if they came back and obtained citizenship, they would change the laws that ensure a Jewish majority.

Within Israel, it is considered seditious to oppose the laws and doctrines that enforce this exclusion of non-Jewish indigenous people. This situation reverses the legal situation elsewhere. Everywhere else, state law supports the long hard fight for equality and justice. In Israel, state law prohibits that fight. The only other country to do this was apartheid South Africa.

Hence Israel’s ‘demographic threat’ (an odious term) and the conflict as we know it today, spinning around Israel’s ugly demographic policies in the territory it controls: denying citizenship, solely on grounds that they are not Jewish, to half the population under its rule. Holding that population instead under military occupation and military law, solely because they are not Jews. Denying them basic freedoms and liberties in order to stifle their dissent against this treatment. Forcibly separating them from the dominant-Jewish society through walls, fences, and a pass system. Such practices fit the international legal definition of apartheid: forced separation of groups, enforced through a host of ‘inhuman acts’ to repress dissent, to ensure the absolute domination of one group over the other. Israel has no “right” to do any of this. It therefore has no ‘right to exist’ in the sense Ms. Stern means it–”an ethnically engineered state that can preserve its ethnic ‘character’ only through continual rampant human rights abuses.

Ms. Stern was scathing about the “intellectual laziness” of those who call Israel an apartheid state. This is a curious charge, as she did not mention any special attention she herself has paid to the question and fell back on old chestnuts instead. It hardly behooves her to charge the international lawyers who authored a 15-month 300-page study on this question with laziness while (apparently) not even bothering to read even its executive summary. Instead, Ms. Stern states simply that Israel is an apartheid state because its non-Jewish citizens enjoy equal rights under some of its laws.

But Ms. Stern knows full well that other Israeli civil law and Basic Law provide Jewish citizens with special rights, creating a two-tiered system in which Palestinian citizens are systematically disadvantaged. Indeed, I’m sure she would freely admit this and defend it, as essential to preserving Israel’s ‘Jewish character’. For the rest of us, a two-tiered system of citizenship is bad enough. But policing the boundaries of civil Israeli law are all those military laws and policies that, in concert, serve to exclude the territory’s original majority population from the embrace of Israeli civil law, by excluding them from residency and citizenship. So,yes, Ms. Stern, non-Jewish citizens of Israel have the right to vote–”but not the right to vote against the laws that subordinate them and cut them off from their kith and kin. And millions of others live hunkered under Israel’s military boot, seeing none of these rights.

It is Israel’s comprehensive system of institutionalised racism against indigenous non-Jewish inhabitants, depriving them of basic rights solely because of their ethnic identity, that sets Israel apart among all the countries of the world and morally impels special treatment. As Ben Gurion University serves and helps to reproduce this system–”as Ms. Stern herself confirmed several times–”it functions in service to an abhorrent doctrine and should be shunned, just as an identical doctrine justified the world’s shunning universities in apartheid South Africa. The comparison to Harvard and other schools misses this basic issue: whatever Harvard does, and whatever the US military does, Harvard’s existence is not premised on a mission to serve and preserve a juridically racist state.

For let us not forget: Palestinians are in the miserable predicament they now face–”exile, occupation, debasement, humiliation–”for just one reason: they are not Jewish. We needn’t bog down on whether Jewish and Palestinian identities are racial identities: I don’t doubt that Ms. Stern would confirm that anti-Semitism (prejudice against Jews) is a form of racism, ergo prejudice against people because they are not Jewish translates one form of racial thought into another. This is why UJ and all South African universities should sever ties with Israeli universities, for they are–”as Ms. Stern emphasized–”the crucible of a doctrine of ethnic domination, whose intrinsic viciousness and cruelty–”whatever the romantic and noble sentiments and claims about ‘rights’ its defenders and beneficiaries invoke to defend it–”are here all too well remembered.