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Tutu's prayer - Uri Avnery
Published Monday 31/08/2009 (updated) 03/09/2009 11:11
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Uri Avnery [MaanImages]
How much did the boycott of South Africa actually contribute to the fall of the racist regime? This week I talked with Desmond Tutu about this question, which has been on my mind for a long time.

No one is better qualified to answer this question than he. Tutu, the South African Anglican archbishop and Nobel Prize laureate, was one of the leaders of the fight against apartheid and, later, the chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which investigated the crimes of the regime.

This week he visited Israel with the Elders, an organization of elder statesmen from all over the world set up by Nelson Mandela.

The matter of the boycott came up again this week after an article by Dr Neve Gordon appeared in the Los Angeles Times, calling for a worldwide boycott of Israel. He cited the example of South Africa to show how a worldwide boycott could compel Israel to put an end to the occupation, which he compared to the apartheid regime.

I have known and respected Neve Gordon for many years. Before becoming a lecturer at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba, he organized many demonstrations against the separation wall in the Jerusalem area, in which I, too, took part.

I am sorry that I cannot agree with him this time - neither about the similarity with South Africa nor about the efficacy of a boycott of Israel.

There are several opinions about the contribution of the boycott to the success of the anti-apartheid struggle. According to one view, it was decisive. Another view claims its impact was marginal. Some believe that it was the collapse of the Soviet Union that was the decisive factor. After that, the US and its allies no longer had any reason for support the regime in South Africa, which until then had been viewed as a pillar of the worldwide struggle against communism.

"The boycott was immensely important," Tutu told me. "Much more than the armed struggle."

It should be remembered that, unlike Mandela, Tutu was an advocate of non-violent struggle. During the 28 years Mandela languished in prison, he could have walked free at any moment, if he had only agreed to sign a statement condemning "terrorism." He refused.

"The importance of the boycott was not only economic, but also moral," the archbishop explained. "South Africans are, for example, crazy about sports. The boycott, which prevented their teams from competing abroad, hit them very hard. But the main thing was that it gave us the feeling that we are not alone, that the whole world is with us. That gave us the strength to continue."

To show the importance of the boycott he told me the following story: In 1989, the moderate white leader, Frederic Willem de Klerk, was elected president of South Africa. Upon assuming office he declared his intention to set up a multiracial regime. "I called to congratulate him, and the first thing he said was: Will you now call off the boycott?"

It seems to me that Tutu's answer emphasizes the huge difference between the South African reality at the time and ours today.

The South African struggle was between a large majority and a small minority. Among a general population of almost 50 million, the whites amounted to less than 10 percent. That means that more than 90 percent of the country's inhabitants supported the boycott, in spite of the argument that it hurt them, too.

In Israel, the situation is the very opposite. The Jews amount to more than 80 percent of Israel's citizens, and constitute a majority of some 60 percent throughout the country between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. 99.9 percent of the Jews oppose a boycott on Israel.

They will not feel the "the whole world is with us," but rather that "the whole world is against us."

In South Africa, the worldwide boycott helped in strengthening the majority and steeling it for the struggle. The impact of a boycott on Israel would be the exact opposite: it would push the large majority into the arms of the extreme right and create a fortress mentality against the "anti-Semitic world."

(The boycott would, of course, have a different impact on the Palestinians, but that is not the aim of those who advocate it.)

Peoples are not the same everywhere. It seems that the blacks in South Africa are very different from the Israelis, and from the Palestinians, too. The collapse of the oppressive racist regime did not lead to a bloodbath, as could have been predicted, but on the contrary: to the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee. Instead of revenge, forgiveness. Those who appeared before the commission and admitted their misdeeds were pardoned. That was in tune with Christian belief, and that was also in tune with the Jewish Biblical promise: "Whoso confesseth and forsaketh [his sins] shall have mercy." (Proverbs 28:13)

I told the bishop that I admire not only the leaders who chose this path but also the people who accepted it.

One of the profound differences between the two conflicts concerns the Holocaust.

Centuries of pogroms have imprinted on the consciousness of the Jews the conviction that the whole world is out to get them. This belief was reinforced a hundredfold by the Holocaust. Every Jewish Israeli child learns in school that "the entire world was silent" when the six million were murdered. This belief is anchored in the deepest recesses of the Jewish soul. Even when it is dormant, it is easy to arouse it.

(That is the conviction which made it possible for Avigdor Lieberman, last week, to accuse the entire Swedish nation of cooperating with the Nazis, because of one idiotic article in a Swedish tabloid.)

It may well be that the Jewish conviction that "the whole world is against us" is irrational. But in the life of nations, as indeed in the life of individuals, it is irrational to ignore the irrational.

The Holocaust will have a decisive impact on any call for a boycott of Israel. The leaders of the racist regime in South Africa openly sympathized with the Nazis and were even interned for this in World War II. Apartheid was based on the same racist theories as inspired Adolf Hitler. It was easy to get the civilized world to boycott such a disgusting regime. The Israelis, on the other hand, are seen as the victims of Nazism. The call for a boycott will remind many people around the world of the Nazi slogan "Kauft nicht bei Juden!" - don't buy from Jews.

That does not apply to every kind of boycott. Some 11 years ago, the Gush Shalom movement, in which I am active, called for a boycott of products from the settlements. Its intention was to separate the settlers from the Israeli public, and to show that there are two kinds of Israelis. The boycott was designed to strengthen those Israelis who oppose the occupation, without becoming anti-Israeli or anti-Semitic. Since then, the European Union has been working hard to close the gates of the EU to the products of the settlers, and almost nobody has accused it of anti-Semitism.

One of the main battlefields in our fight for peace is Israeli public opinion. Most Israelis believe nowadays that peace is desirable but impossible (because of the Arabs, of course). We must convince them not that peace would be good for Israel, but that it is realistically achievable.

When the archbishop asked what we, the Israeli peace activists, are hoping for, I told him: We hope for Barack Obama to publish a comprehensive and detailed peace plan and to use the full persuasive power of the United States to convince the parties to accept it. We hope that the entire world will rally behind this endeavor. And we hope that this will help to set the Israeli peace movement back on its feet and convince our public that it is both possible and worthwhile to follow the path of peace with Palestine.

No one who entertains this hope can support the call for boycotting Israel. Those who call for a boycott act out of despair. And that is the root of the matter.

Neve Gordon and his partners in this effort have despaired of the Israelis. They have reached the conclusion that there is no chance of changing Israeli public opinion. According to them, no salvation will come from within. One must ignore the Israeli public and concentrate on mobilizing the world against the State of Israel. (Some of them believe anyhow that the State of Israel should be dismantled and replaced by a bi-national state.)

I do not share either view - neither the despair of the Israeli people, to which I belong, nor the hope that the world will stand up and compel Israel to change its ways against its will. For this to happen, the boycott must gather worldwide momentum, the US must join it, the Israeli economy must collapse and the morale of the Israeli public must break.

How long will this take? Twenty Years? Fifty years? Forever?

I am afraid that this is an example of a faulty diagnosis leading to faulty treatment. To be precise: the mistaken assumption that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resembles the South African experience leads to a mistaken choice of strategy.

True, the Israeli occupation and the South African apartheid system have certain similar characteristics. In the West Bank, there are roads "for Israelis only." But the Israeli policy is not based on race theories, but on a national conflict. A small but significant example: in South Africa, a white man and a black woman (or the other way round) could not marry, and sexual relations between them were a crime. In Israel there is no such prohibition. On the other hand, an Arab Israeli citizen who marries an Arab woman from the occupied territories (or the other way round) cannot bring his or her spouse to Israel. The reason: safeguarding the Jewish majority in Israel. Both cases are reprehensible, but basically different.

In South Africa there was total agreement between the two sides about the unity of the country. The struggle was about the regime. Both whites and blacks considered themselves South Africans and were determined to keep the country intact. The whites did not want partition, and indeed could not want it, because their economy was based on the labor of the blacks.

In this country, Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs have nothing in common - not a common national feeling, not a common religion, not a common culture and not a common language. The vast majority of the Israelis want a Jewish (or Hebrew) state. The vast majority of the Palestinians want a Palestinian (or Islamic) state. Israel is not dependent on Palestinian workers - on the contrary, it drives the Palestinians out of the working place. Because of this, there is now a worldwide consensus that the solution lies in the creation of the Palestinian state next to Israel.

In short: the two conflicts are fundamentally different. Therefore, the methods of struggle, too, must necessarily be different.

Back to the archbishop, an attractive person whom it is impossible not to like on sight. He told me that he prays frequently, and that his favorite prayer goes like this (I quote from memory): "Dear God, when I am wrong, please make me willing to see my mistake. And when I am right - please make me tolerable to live with."

The author is an Israeli writer and founder of the Gush Shalom peace movement. A member of the militant Zionist Irgun movement as a teenager, Avnery served in Israel's Knesset from 1965-74 and 1979-81.
1 ) Emily / US
31/08/2009 17:00
this is the first perspective on the boycott movement that I have identified with, kolhavod!

2 ) assad / USA
01/09/2009 21:56
uri avery the closet zionazi gives us a long song and dance about why the 1 state solution won't work (cause zionist are racist) and knows very well that the 2 state solution was impossible 12 yrs ago since zionist stole all the land....you are a fraud uri

3 ) Mya / USA
01/09/2009 22:26
I respect Mr. Averny and his work, but I couldn't disagree more. The present boycott movement is not driven by a comparison to South Africa, but merely employs South Africa as an example. There is no reason that BDS cannot and will not be successful in the case of Israel/Palestine.

4 ) Mya / USA
01/09/2009 22:29
Also, while many advocates of BDS do support the 1 state solution, the boycott campaign does not necessitate support for the 1 state solution. BDS may simply be a successful strategy for ending the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza. Mr. Avnery's arguments are not compelling.

5 ) Amouna / Palestina
06/09/2009 16:40
Uri is not a real peaceactivist, he is a fraud and his opinion should not be posted on websites such as maan. He is among the most dangerous kinds of zionists, the kind which supports zionisms in the name of peace and thus try to corrupt anti-zionists!

6 ) Steve Rogers / Israel
07/09/2009 17:03
A very nice analyses which I can agree with despite being closer to the Israeli mainstream then the author. In order to make his point he did gloss over interfaith marriages which are possible only outside Israel (but recognized by Israeli Goverment) - a different problem!

7 ) alan levin / usa
08/09/2009 01:59
The problem with the boycotters as well as some
elements of the Israeli left is that they only deal with
one side of the cycle of violence. Hamas has been
as inflexible as the settlers in the West Bank and
Fatah has yet to show the ability to enforce any peace

8 ) Jules / USA
08/09/2009 02:22
If the world boycotted Israel, the Israeli left would collapse under pressure from both the boycotters and the Israeli right. Israel would elect leaders further to the right who would harden their positions until the entire Israeli economy fell apart. The way to peace is through negotiations.

9 ) Ann E Fink / Israel Australia
08/09/2009 07:00
The global economy in which Israel is heavily embedded precludes the effective boycotting which led to pressures on the SA government. More selective action i.e. against the settlers is required;.e.g legislation forbidding transfer of funds and tax exemptions from USA, Australia, UK Canada, Europe.

10 ) G. / Italy
08/09/2009 22:27
If we are to launch a campaign aiming to change reality, we should be able to tell what we want and what we're ready to do to get there. Reading the statement of the Palestinian NGOs in support of a BDS campaign I see stated goal #1 is "Ending the colonization of all Arab lands". I ask: all?

11 ) Reuben / Mexico
09/09/2009 06:48
Uri Avnery's text and opinions make sense and reflects pragmatism. He is labeled "dangerous" because he would "corrupt" the purity of anti-zionists. This is a totalitarian language. Who cares if peace is advanced by zionists or anti's. Time to move on and transcend this useless ideological warfare.

12 ) Subeiga / South Africa
09/09/2009 09:25
What a load of rubbish Avnery. Oppression is the closest correlation to terrorism. Mandelah refused to give into the demands of our oppressors. Avnery is a fraud he is worried about loosing his investment money in Israel. Israel must realise that the world will not exept Apartheid. Boycott is best

13 ) Subeiga / South Africa
09/09/2009 13:25
Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. Was Anvery not also part of a terrorist organisation(Zionist Irgun movement) who murdered Brittish citizence.

14 ) Richard / France
10/09/2009 23:46
As you correctly put it I support the boycott out of despair..at Israeli intransigence. How long will it take? Less time than mere wishful thinking. I notice you did not put forward any alternative. Too busy instead blaming everybody but the Zionists for the Holocaust.

15 ) Sara / Sweden
11/09/2009 10:35
I admire Desmond Tutu and I think that boycott as an effective nonviolent tactic is method to protest against the Israeli military Occupation, as in South Africa. And the aim of a boycott is twofold: 1: I do not want to be party to human rights violations 2: I want a change in Israeli behaviour.

16 ) Sara / Sweden
11/09/2009 10:38
Uri Avnery makes a mistake in his article. He says that in South Africa a white and a black could not marry and that the case is different in Israel. However, it is not possible to marry across religion in Israel, mixed couples need to go abroad to marry. There is no such thing as a civil marriage.

17 ) Saul / USA
14/09/2009 19:19
Uri Avnery writes as if it is somehow immoral to support a Jewish majority in Israel. He ignores the obvious racism of the Palestinians. They required that Gaza be Judenrein and their anger at the settlements derives from the refusal to live alongside Jews.

18 ) Jack Lieberman / USA
16/09/2009 08:40
Avnery's analysis is very insiteful and needs to be read by everyone who is active in the movement to promote peace and justice in the Middle East. Peace can be achieved only through a compromise, that respects both people's national rights through a two state solution.
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