Andre Oboler’s article “A false prospectus on campus” in The Guardian’s Comment Is Free

Andre Oboler, A false prospectus on campus, The Guardian: Comment Is Free, Feb 15 2008

In the UK this week, anti-racists were hard at work. It was “anti-apartheid week”, billed as “the biggest Anti-Apartheid campus protest since the fall of apartheid South Africa”. Those anti-racists campaigners with their eyes open were out to stop it. A typical South African who suffered under apartheid, or indeed an anti-apartheid campaigner, may well feel confused. Apartheid is, after all, an evil, and anti-apartheid must by this logic be good. This “anti-apartheid” week, however, was no more than the latest attempt to demonise and delegitimise Israel, the Jewish state.

It is tempting to launch into the absurdity of the apartheid claim, and many do. This time last year the Jerusalem Post carried an editorial entitled “The ‘Israel Apartheid Week’ libel”. Understanding the absurdity of the claim is important, but that doesn’t explain the inherent racism within this supposedly anti-racist campaign. The racist element is not something Jews should have to fight alone; rather, it is an illness that all those who are serious about combating racism should help to diagnose and cure when they encounter it. Further explanation is needed so they, too, can understand what Jews and South Africans find so offensive about this “anti-apartheid” campaign.

In 2004, Natan Sharansky, a notable former dissident in the Soviet Union, explained to a US Congressional Commission how one could identify antisemitism. He proposed the “3D” test: double standards, demonisation and delegitimisation. “Double standards” is perhaps the most obvious. Whether one is speaking of the treatment of a student by their teachers or the treatment of states by human rights organisations, to have different rules for different people is discriminatory. When that discrimination is based on membership of an ethnic group, it is racism.

“Double standards” is a modern concept based on equal rights; demonisation, however, goes back to the middle ages. It was in Europe in the Middle Ages that demonisation became a modus operandi of the church. Jews were portrayed as servants of Satan, and myths that Jews had horns and drank the blood of Christian children were propagated. These myths are in some places repeated and believed even today. The popular clip on YouTube by Borat (Sacha Baron Cohen) is satirising antisemitism when he speaks of grabbing the Jew by his horns and throwing him down the well. The role of demonisation is to portray “the other” as an evil, thereby encouraging and sanctioning a “righteous” response. In the middle ages and, indeed, in more recent times, such responses were generally violent and often involved a massacre of Jewish communities.

In explaining delegitimisation, we return to the concept of modern human rights and one of its foundation documents, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The covenant begins by stating: “All peoples have the right of self-determination.” Sharansky explained this further with specific reference to Israel, “While criticism of an Israeli policy may not be anti-Semitic, the denial of Israel’s right to exist is always anti-Semitic. If other peoples have a right to live securely in their homelands, then the Jewish people have a right to live securely in their homeland as well.” The European Union Working Definition of Antisemitism (pdf) makes a similar point, and explains how denial of self-determination for the Jewish people is a form of anti-Jewish racism that may manifest itself “by claiming that the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavour”. The logic is straight and brings us nicely back to the discussion about anti-apartheid week.

Anti-apartheid campaigning against South Africa aimed to grant self-determination to the black people of South Africa. This anti-apartheid week campaign against Israel aimed to deny the Jewish people their right to self-determination. This is human rights activism that has lost its moral compass. The oppressed people in South Africa did not have a path to self-determination and lacked political rights. By contrast, Palestinians who are Israeli citizens (ie, Arab Israelis) vote in elections and have a number of parties with members in the Israeli parliament. Palestinians who are not Israeli citizens (ie, those living in Palestinian Authority-controlled areas) also have political rights, but they vote in Palestinian elections. The two parties have a diplomatic process, which is leading to the creation of a Palestinian state.

This new anti-apartheid week does not seek to enhance this political process. Rather, it focuses exclusively on undermining the human rights of one of the parties – and doing so under a false flag of human rights.

Real human rights activists who are concerned about a lack of Palestinian civil and political rights are in short supply. Few are commenting on the Palestinian refugees who have been mistreated for decades in places like Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Some human rights organisations have highlighted a double standard in the Arab world where Iraqi refuges have been allowed asylum, but Palestinian refugees from Iraq have been refused. But anti-apartheid week is not about gaining rights, nor is it really about Palestinians. It is about demonising the Jewish state, applying a double standard and working to delegitimise and destroy it.

We can see this most clearly in the week’s logo, although it is also present in the programme and the statements of the organisers. The “anti-apartheid week” logo features the slogan “Apartheid then, apartheid now” and shows a stylised South Africa in white with Bantustan in black. Next to it is a stylised map of Israel (including the territories) and labelled “Palestine”, again with bantustan in black. It even shows an isolated bit of white in a corner between Egypt, Gaza and the sea: Gush Katif continues to exist not only in the hearts of its former settler residents, but in the latest pro-Palestinian propaganda as well.

The programme for campuses in the UK is supported by a national website, complete with the full programme of events taking place in Manchester, Leeds, Exeter, Warwick, Bradford and Lancaster.

At Manchester, Leeds, Bradford and Lancaster the week includes an “Israeli Apartheid” photo exhibit. At one of these universities, security – tipped off by a concerned staff member – removed the exhibit first thing Monday morning and sent the activists to the students union for an explanation. A union official rightly said the exhibit was “contradictive to the multicultural space that we try to create”, but then allowed it to be replaced by an alternative “anti-apartheid” display with a reduction in rhetoric. On other campuses, Jewish students have been feeling the sting of this racist campaign.

The campaign is part of a bigger picture which starts with the 2001 UN anti-racism conference in Durban, South Africa, and perhaps aims to culminate in a repeat of that vile gathering at the Durban Review conference in 2009. At the time of Durban, Wayne Firestone, from the Anti-Defamation League, wrote: “Once again charges of ‘Zionism equals racism,’ accusations of Israel of being an apartheid state and of practicing ‘ethnic cleansing’ would be the mantra.” These are more than false charges, as the Jerusalem Post noted, they are a libel against the Jewish people. The Durban strategy, steeped in antisemitism, cannot be ignored. When an anti-racism conference turns racist, the victims are not only those who are attacked, but also the many other victims of racism whose case will be not be heard and who wait in vain for the international community to come to their assistance.

Anti-apartheid week not only abuses the victims of apartheid and their struggle for self-determination, it also demonises Israel. The opposition to the very existence of the Jewish state is no less than racism. University administrations and student unions must stand against this racism. Last year, the NUS adopted the EU working definition of antisemitism. Now unions need to start applying it when considering events like anti-apartheid week. When an event scheduled for campus is racist and seeks to demonise, delegitimise or apply a double standard, the answer should be easy. The answer should be no.

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