Is Israel like apartheid South Africa?

Author: 

Clive Bradley

Comparisons between Israel and apartheid South Africa are increasingly common, both on the far left and in parts of the liberal mainstream. (Incoherently, in the latter case, since most of those making the comparison simultaneously support two states!) The AWL rejects the analogy because of the different class structures in these two states. The article below, written more than two decades ago by Clive Bradley, explains this in detail; though it obviously doesn't take into account more recent developments, we believe its basic analysis stands up well.

Some notes on our attitude to South African whites

A common taunt against us from others on the left is to the effect that “you’ll be saying self-determination for the Afrikaners next”. It is argued that the logic of our attitude towards the Northern Ireland Protestants (autonomy) and the Israeli Jews (self-determination) is that we should advocate similar rights for the Afrikaners (or whites in general) in South Africa. Of course comrades know that this is just a demagogic taunt, but it is worth going into.

The left today has broken with the classical Marxist position on the national question. The Bolshevik attitude was that all nations had the right to self-determination included, if they wished, the right of small nations to secede from an oppressive state and form an independent state. The idea was perfectly simple: if socialist stood for democratic relations between nations, they would lay the basis for real, lasting internationalism. The necessary basis for international working class unity was the most thorough and consistent opposition to all kinds of chauvinism and national oppression.

Nowadays, many on the left argue the self-determination is the right only for oppressed nations, and that it is only an ‘anti-imperialist’ demand – so ‘pro-imperialists’ (like the Falkland islanders) or, worse still, pro-imperialist oppressor nations like the Israeli Jews have no rights. (We of course do not advocate self-determination for the Protestants).

This line of thinking is ridiculous. Obviously, on the whole there is not a lot of point in talking about ‘self-determination’ for nations that already exercise it. ‘The right of Britain to self-determination’ would be a peculiar slogan. Suppose, however, that a foreign nation conquered Britain (in the sense of occupying and imposing a foreign government etc.). We would oppose any ‘national unity’ with our imperialist ruling class, argue for international workers’ unity and so on. But we would not argue: ‘Britain is an imperialist country that still has vestiges of empire so any foreign imperialist power should feel free to do whatever it likes to the British people.'

In the second world war, socialists opposed the German occupation of France. They argued against any support for the French bourgeoisie, or ‘national unity’ against Germany, because the French bourgeoisie was in reality fighting for the preservation of its empire, not for the democratic rights of the French. But socialists did not argue: ‘France is an imperialist, oppressor nation, so Germany can do what it likes’.

In any case, the argument is illogical. National oppression consists precisely in being denied national rights. To say ‘you are not oppressed, therefore you also should not have any national rights’ is absurd.

‘Self-determination’ is not just an ‘anti-imperialist’ demand either. We are in favour of self-determination for the Kurds – against Turkey, Iran and Iraq, which are not imperialist countries in the sense in which those who use this argument mean it. Moreover, we are in favour of self-determination after the revolution. That was the Bolshevik view.

In some circumstances we don’t advocate full blown self-determination. If the creation of a separate state would entail a bloody civil war between two communities, which would set back working class unity rather than help develop it, we don’t advocate self-determination. Ireland is an example. It depends on the needs of the class struggle.

Given the degenerate intellectual climate on the left, we have not surprisingly tended to pose the national question, in the Middle East, for example, in rather abstract terms. Arguing from logical categories, the formalistically-minded conclude that we should have the same attitude towards the South African whites as towards the Israeli Jews.

It is a false analogy

Self-determination means the right to self-rule. It necessarily implies rule over a particular territory. We don’t support complex ‘multi-national’ arrangements that base political institutions on ‘national groups’ irrespective of where people live. Instead we argue for particular national rights: to language, culture and so on; and for local autonomy or full rights to secession for groups who live together in a clearly defined separate territory. (We also incidentally, oppose all attempts to divide the workers’ movement along similar lines: we advocate national rights, including self-determination, and workers’ unity, simultaneously.)

The Israeli Jews do live in a separate territory. We argue that areas in Israel in which the Arabs are the majority should be able to secede to an independent Arab state. But there are clear areas in which the Jews are a clear majority. Israeli-Jewish self-determination means the right to rule over those areas.

The South African whites also, of course live in separate areas – because of influx control, pass laws etc.. Self-determination or even autonomy for the whites would inescapably mean the preservation, in some form, of influx control – in other words, the preservation of apartheid. There is simply no way that the collective rights of the whites in particular areas can be exercised without some (moderated perhaps) form of apartheid. So any such arrangement necessarily infringes upon the rights of the black majority. It is impossible both to have full democracy for the black majority and have ‘national rights’ for the whites.

Complex ‘multi-national’ federal arrangements are advocated by many South African liberals (by the Progressive Federal Party, for example). This would be rather like the ‘multi-national’ system mentioned above. We oppose it:
a) Because we oppose such systems in general. They institutionalise and promote divisions in the population.
b) It would necessarily be undemocratic. The idea would be to have separate elections for whites and other groups, separate representation etc.. Probably it would mean disproportionately large representation for whites. Certainly it would entail rights to ‘veto’ and so on. It would not, of course, just be a ‘veto’ against black chauvinism: it would be a veto against anything the majority wished to do – like nationalise the mines, perhaps.

Many anti-Zionists would argue that Israel is similar: the majority Jewish areas depend on ‘influx controls’ to maintain their ethnic purity (and, indeed, in areas like Galilee, the ‘demographic problem’ is a major concern of Israeli governments – i.e. that there are too many Arabs). There is of course an element of truth to this argument, and the main case against it is dealt with in other points below. However, even in its own terms, it is wrong. If you assume (implausibly) a desire of all Palestinians living outside present-day Israel/Palestine to ‘return’ to within the pre-1967 borders, they are extremely unlikely to want to go to live in majority Jewish areas. Were a ‘democratic secular state’ to be created that actually was democratic, you would still find areas of definite Jewish or Arab majorities.

It is not possible to approach the question just from abstract principles alone. The left’s problem is it doesn’t actually know the principles. Of course it’s possible to ask ‘difficult questions’ based on a crude analogy between the whites and the Israeli Jews, if your starting point is disregard for the rights of the Jews and a desire to prove the correctness of such a disregard by any argument that comes to hand. But it is only an analogy, and the analogy very quickly breaks down. On the basis of a concrete analysis, there is no comparison between Israel/Palestine and South Africa.

In Israel/Palestine, the basic problem is a division imposed upon what was Palestine, and the eviction of the indigenous inhabitants from the national state altogether. A new national state was created – in which there is a fully fledged class structure, including poor, exploited and dispossessed Jews as well as Arabs.

For South Africa to be analogous, the whites would have had to carve out a separate white state, expelling the ‘natives’, and creating a fully fledged white nation. Such a thing could have happened. But it did not happen. Instead, the whites crystallised over time as a caste ruling over the black population.

It is precisely the programme of the far right (the AWB of Terre Blanche) to carve out a separate Afrikaner state. Anyone wishing to equate Israel with South Africa therefore has to explain how come the programme of the South African right is to do what (in a different historic environment) Israel has already done.

Of course there are similarities. There are also similarities between South Africa and the USA, Britain, Brazil, Mexico… etc., etc. – in varying ways and to varying degrees. But to describe them as the same is not useful.

Our programme is designed to address concrete questions. The Palestinian movement has proved very weak, and has suffered bitter defeat after bitter defeat since 1970. Palestinian nationalism has proved utterly incapable of solving the conflict or winning even concessions for the oppressed Arabs. Why? Partly they have failed due to the objective power of the Israeli state. But they had no strategy to undercut that power, no means by which to win the ear of the Israeli masses. The democratic secular state was a nationalist formula, perceived as such. The question of a democratic programme (as part of a socialist programme) is therefore not just a question of this or that abstract principle: it is a question of giving a political alternative, of developing a different strategy to the failed nationalist strategy.

Further, there is also the question of breaking with the (literally) fatal policy of alliances with bourgeois Arab regimes.

In other words, no nationalist movement is capable of resolving the problem, or winning national rights for the Arabs. Only an internationalist, working class movement can do this. That doesn’t mean artificially counterposing ‘internationalism’ in the abstract to the present national struggle; it means spelling out an internationalist programme on the national question, which embraces the national aspirations of the Palestinian Arabs and provides an overall answer and a strategy. And it means developing a working class force to fight for it.

The question of the Jews is not therefore just a question in the abstract. It is the central issue that has to be addressed. Without a fundamental break with purely nationalist attitudes towards the Jews, without a policy to win the Jewish workers, there is, to put it bluntly, no hope for the future of the Palestinians.

A ‘socialist’ ‘democratic secular state’ is not only wrong in principle: it is utterly false in terms of the concrete needs of the situation. The idea that you can win over the Jews by requesting that they dissolve their national identity into a hypothetical united state is farcical. The idea that you can bludgeon them into this unity, and that having done so they will be socialists, is even worse.

Conversely, of course, we say to the Jews that only a democratic attitude towards the Arabs can solve the problems they face (and a democratic attitude towards the national movement now – i.e. towards the PLO; we don’t advocate future hypothetical democracy with a hypothetical working class socialist movement: democratic attitudes now can help that future movement come into being).

In sum, the actual conditions of Israel/Palestine, a programme of ‘no rights for the Jews’ is both wrong and undemocratic in principle, and madness from the point of view of Palestinian national rights.

In the actual situation in South Africa, things are very different. In principle, there are problems with ‘national rights for whites’, as we have seen: it means the preservation of apartheid in some form. But isn’t it true that since the whites are immensely powerful, that they need to be won over or neutralised, and that the best way to neutralise them is to offer a compromise – like two states in the Middle East is a compromise?

No, it is not true, for many reasons. Precisely because white society is not a distinct and self-complete national entity, but an oppressive caste, the issue is posed of democracy for the majority. The struggle is for rights for the majority within a single state which already exists. The black struggle is not for reintegration into a state from which they have been expelled. It is a struggle to exercise their rights as an already existing majority in a state where they already live but which treats them in a sense as semi-slaves.

So a democratic attitude among whites necessarily entails that they simply accept this status within a state whose majority is black. In actual conditions, there is not and cannot be any democratic content to the desire for whites to survive ‘as a group’ – which is why the further right you get the more explicitly they pose their ‘survival’ in terms of creating a separate (Afrikaner) state. Democratically minded whites don’t want to preserve a separate white identity – which is why the more democratically-minded the whites are, the more wholeheartedly they identify with the black movement.

Because South Africa is a system of white caste rule over the black majority, rather than a separate white nation, the dynamics both of the struggle and of popular consciousness are completely different to those dynamics in Israel/Palestine.

Identification with a white nation – and a belief that there are ‘national’ rights for whites that should be guaranteed – is inescapably racist. This is because of white caste status and the fact that their identity is posed in terms of ‘race’.

That it is posed in terms of ‘race’ is important. All attempts to present the issue in terms of ‘nation’ in South Africa are a thin cover for racism. What whites want when they talk about ‘national rights’ is rights as whites, rights based on skin colour. This is true even when posed in terms of the ‘Afrikaner nation’. The AWB, for example, thinks English-speaking whites can join the Afrikaner nation if they want; Afrikaans-speaking ‘Coloureds’ however, cannot. What bothers them is their privileges based irreducibly on their skin colour.

Israeli-Jewish or Hebrew-speaking self-identification is not necessarily racist at all. Of course, many Israeli Jews are racist towards Arabs, and they can also be racist towards other Israeli Jews. But self-identification as Israeli Jewish does not necessarily entail racism. The reason [is] that they are a nation, rather than a caste. The line between nationalism and racism is often thin. But there is a difference between Israeli-Jewish nationhood – which is accepted even by many Israeli anti-Zionists, and many Palestinians – and the ‘race consciousness’ and racism of South Africa’s whites.

The progressive movements in South Africa have begun to transcend a purely nationalist framework and pose the question in class terms. It is no accident that the specific form this takes is ‘non-racialism’. In South African conditions, the only democratic approach is to abolish all distinctions based upon the concept of race, to construct a new, non-racial (and not ‘multi-racial’) unity.

This assessment is not a dogmatic socialist assertion. It is what is actually happening. That it is happening does not exhaust the issue – but the complexities of the problem lie more in the divisions that exist between blacks, than in the black-white division. Non-racialism is the answer being given to the question in South Africa.

The different groups in South Africa have historically inter-related, clashed and enmeshed as groups within a single state, albeit an odd one. The political, social and economic framework has been that of the South African state. In the Middle East it is fundamentally a question of the Israeli nation state on the one hand, and the Palestinians on the other – confronting each other as distinctive nations. Of course it is not just that: there are Arabs who are Israeli citizens; there is a democratic/national minority question within Israel. But the arena in which the issues have historically developed is fundamentally different in these cases.

Thus in South Africa the question is posed directly in terms of majority rights within a single state which will abolish racist institutions. Israel/Palestine is different.

There are other concrete, actual differences. In fact, the Palestinian struggle consists of elements that to an extent are separate. The ‘full’ national programme of a single state has particular appeal to those living in refugee camps – that is, to a minority of Palestinian Arabs. The main concern of the Arabs in the occupied West Bank and Gaza is to get Israel to withdraw to the ’67 borders.

Therefore, the Arabs in the occupied territories have no material interest in the democratic secular state: in so far as they favour it, they do so in the abstract – as a nice idea (which, of course, it is). In practice the struggle for such a state would not and does not even involve the bulk of the Palestinian people.

It is in reality a programme for conquest and subjugation of the Jews by the armies of the Arab states. (It is therefore not going to happen, but that’s another story). It is not a realistic programme: a) because the Jews can’t be expected to agree with it; b) because if it’s forced on the Jews it won’t be democratic; c) because it would rely in practice upon a reactionary agency – the Arab armies.

The programme of a single state for South Africa has an entirely different significance. It is a demand for majority rule, and for the abolition of white caste privileges. Because the whites are a caste, not a nation, whose collective existence depends not on territorial self-rule, but precisely upon privileges and racial discrimination, the demand for a single state is a demand for equality and democracy. It implies no black chauvinism.

Moreover, there plainly is a social force capable of creating it – the black masses winning over a section of the whites. It is not a demand that in practice could be implemented only by another, reactionary force.

Because the unitary state is a democratic objective, our arguments against ‘conquest’ as in Israel/Palestine don’t really apply. Conquest of the Jews would be an Arab-chauvinist programme that would (even if it were possible) destroy any hope of workers’ unity. Of course we don’t advocate conquest of the whites, and would fight any communal-sectarian slaughter of whites or whatever. But the central issue in South Africa is the destruction of the white supremacist power structure. Whilst this does not equal ‘conquest’ of the whites, it certainly entails a violent struggle to wrest power from the whites, and therefore possibly high levels of coercion of sections of the whites. It would be stupid to shrink back from coercion of the whites for fear of infringing their democratic rights. To repeat, we oppose chauvinism, unnecessary coercion, revenge, etc., and advocate that the whites join the struggle for a democratic and socialist system. But given the situation, given the white power structure, it is not comparable to Israel/Palestine.

This is not to say we are opposed to all violence or coercion of the Jews, of course. The difference is: we are opposed to the forcible dissolution of the Jewish collectivity; the dissolution of a white collectivity is essential, and it may have to be done forcibly. I hope this difference is clear.

Isn’t this the same as ‘smash the Zionist state’ No. First, because of all the reasons specified above (the Jews are a nation, not a caste; there is no comparison between whites and Jews; there is a democratic programme short of a single state that goes a long way to satisfying Arab demands – an independent Palestinian state – for which there is no analogy in South Africa). Second, because ‘smash apartheid’ doesn’t carry the ‘hidden meanings’ that ‘smash the Zionist state’ does. Third, because the dismantling of the specifically Zionist structures of Israel is separable from the existence of Israel as such, and it is therefore possible to recognise the right of the Jews to a state whilst opposing the discriminatory set-up that exists at the moment. For all the reasons stated above, you can’t have a ‘white state’ that isn’t racist.

Thus while ‘smash apartheid’ is the central question in South Africa, ‘dismantle the Zionist state’ is in reality a relatively subordinate part of an overall democratic programme. As comrades know, I would go further in specifying what is meant by opposition to Zionism than some other comrades: I think the exclusivist aspect to the Israeli state runs very deep. But what is unquestionable is that the central issues are: withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza and the establishment of a fully independent Palestinian state; the right of Arab areas in pre-1967 Israel to secede; reparations to Palestinians expelled since ’48; democratic rights for those Arabs still in the Jewish state; the overthrow of the Jordanian monarchy. Opposition to Zionism as such is important in terms of overall explanations, and political background, but a subordinate part of this programme In South Africa, on the other hand, ‘smashing apartheid’ is absolutely central.

So the essential difference is between ‘caste-hood’ and nationhood. The whites are a caste – an immensely privileged caste, too. The material privileges of white South Africans are vastly greater than those of Israeli Jews relative to Arabs. This is not to say that there are no white proletarians – and the historical role of the white proletariat was very important. But the white workers are a small layer which is enmeshed with the broader mass of black workers, and whose relationship to that broad mass is structured by their ‘caste-hood’.

The internal solidarity of the white caste is based upon this privilege. Their existence as a caste is inseparable from the super-exploitation of black workers. It is a fact that in a democratic South Africa the standard of living of nearly all whites will fall. Not only will their incomes fall as incomes are distributed more equally, but they will lose their black servants and so on. Obviously, what we ultimately want is a ‘levelling up’; but there is no way in the short term that most whites would not be worse off. In principle it might be possible to separate consideration of their ‘collective rights’ from their material caste status: but in practice it is not. Take away their privileges and their ‘raison d’etre’ as a distinct group disappears. And when the whites fight for their ‘national rights’, they are fighting for their racial privileges.

Israeli Jews do of course have privileges over the Arabs, both politically and materially, and it would be wrong to minimise this factor (as Militant do, for example). But this is more akin to the privileges of most white people compared to blacks in Britain. To put it another way, it is more that the Arabs (who in Israel and the occupied territories are a minority) are an underprivileged underclass. It is false to describe the majority of society as a ‘privileged caste’. Again, what the Jews share is nationality rather than ‘caste-hood’.

To sum up: we reject rights analogous to rights for the Israeli Jews (or the more restricted rights we recognise for the Protestants) because:
1. ‘Rights for whites’ contradicts the rights of the black majority.
2. ‘Rights for whites’ does not help to win over any of the whites, because of concrete conditions.

Therefore:
- Our democratic programme is for one person, one vote in a unitary South Africa.
- We are in favour of coercion against the whites to impose this democratic programme, to the extent that such coercion is necessary.
- We are of course in favour of individual rights for whites as for anyone else, oppose black chauvinism, etc..

Concretely, we oppose:
- Any ‘multinational’ electoral framework.
- Segregation in any sphere – education, transport, health, employment, etc. etc..
- Any restriction whatsoever on the movement or residence of anyone in the country.
- White monopolies on land ownership, etc..

Our attitude, as always, is consistent democracy. Such an attitude does not, in South African conditions, demand any concessions to the whites as a collective body. All the above arguments hold together whether one speaks generally of the whites, or more particularly of the Afrikaners.

There is one further point that I should mention. Our attitude towards the Jews is also affected by the facts of Jewish history. The fact that Israel was a product of a monstrous human tragedy does not directly determine our position, but it should not be irrelevant to it. Of course we don’t demand of the Palestinians that they accept a wrong to themselves because of a prior wrong done to the Jews. But I think we do demand that they are aware of the wrong done to the Jews and do not simply equate them with – for example – South African whites (or worse, French colonists in Algeria etc.).

I have deliberately not discussed broader issues to do with the national question in South Africa in this article. I leave open the issue of geographical, as opposed to ‘racial’ federation, for example, for future discussion. I also leave for the future a discussion n the more specific issue of the white working class. I don’t mean the indefinite future, though, and we should aim to have these discussions soon.