Israel: Beware the Rorschach effect – OPINION

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Israel: Beware the Rorschach Effect

Terrence Corrigan |

16 March 2023

Terence Corrigan says Israel is a fractured, divided and challenging society in all respects, but the epithet apartheid is wrong

Israel: Beware the Rorschach Effect

16 March 2023

Israeli Apartheid Week, currently underway on campuses across South Africa, is the latest note in the stack of anti-Israel activism that must be one of the longest running and most recurring themes in our politics.

Parliament recently passed a resolution demanding the ‘upgrading’ of the Embassy of South Africa in Tel Aviv. It came shortly after South Africa led the charge against Israeli delegates observing an African Union summit in February. An Israeli rugby team was relegated from a local tournament. Higher Education Minister slaps a book defaming Israel. And so it goes on making its way through international institutions, parliamentary delegations, street protests and even beauty pageants.

For the Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, condemning Israel is part of his repertoire.

As its name indicates, the IAW is part of the dubious legacy that South Africa’s own tragic history has given to the world. ‘Apartheid’ – sometimes, I’ve noticed, pronounced with visceral stress on the last syllable, or its homophone, ‘hate’ – is a symbol of much in the modern world. It is about domination and subjugation, blatant disregard for the dignity of people. The late Samuel P. Huntington called it ‘racial oligarchy’, a system in which the color of one’s skin reflects one’s origins, which determine eligibility to hold rights and access life’s opportunities.


It has left the right mark on South Africa’s (and the world’s) consciousness and conscience; As with anything that stirs strong emotions though, there is a risk of the Rorschach effect, seeing what is expected rather than what may be accurate.

Israel is a fractious, divided and challenged society in every way; But the title apartheid seems to me to be completely wrong. Apartheid was a uniquely South African institution. It was based on ‘caste’ – not ethno-cultural identity, although it played some political role – and was holistic in the sense that it struck at the heart of the citizenry. Apartheid was not only about separate and unequal recreational, educational or living spaces, but about denationalizing the African population through the system of imaginary homelands and creating separate societies.

Whatever its faults, Israel does not discriminate on ‘racial’ grounds and grants its non-Jewish citizens civil rights, most importantly the franchise.

A few years earlier, the Law of the Nation State of Israel defined the country in which the Jewish people exercised self-determination. It raised consternation, some of it warranted (including myself as a distant observer), because it suggested that some were more closely tied to the state than others. But it is also not uncommon globally, as many countries – from Liberia to Malaysia to Latvia – are formed around dominant ethnic, historical or religious identities. Sometimes these are fraught with tension and alienate minorities. If one criticizes Israel on these grounds, one can think of many other societies in which this happens. Neighboring Egypt, for example, relegates its Coptic minority firmly to second-class status; In practice China does the same with its non-Han minorities. However, there is no week dedicated to reprimanding Egypt or China for their failures.


Incidentally, based on its existing constitutional provisions, ethno-religious identity would be the foundation of a Palestinian state: it would be explicitly ‘Arab’, with Islam as its official religion and Sharia law as its basis.

Much has also been said about the situation in the occupied territories – a situation that occurs within Israel proper. There is much to criticize. It is a militarized position that restricts freedom, is deeply discriminatory towards the Palestinian population and inevitably perpetuates hardships and abuses. There is no real dispute about this. But, to quote Benjamin Pogrund, a South African journalist now living in Israel (and constantly critical of its actions): ‘It is an occupation, it is repression, but it is not apartheid.’

More importantly, South Africa have nothing good to do to break this impasse. There are some applicable lessons in our transition. The struggle of rival nationalisms over boundaries and the character of states is beyond our experience. South Africa did not have to contend with territorial claims. Rather, the focus was on the conditions of a common citizenship. South Africa had an extensive Christian religious tradition as a growing power; In Israel and Palestine, religion is a source of deep division. (I recently suggested to a prominent local supporter of Israel that South Africa could draw on its experiences in this conflict. This is a mistake on both sides.)

Nor does the government of South Africa have anything to inspire or compel the parties. No support package, no security guarantee. And it has no capacity for persuasion, as it transparently hates Israel and sides with the Palestinians without any qualms.


And according to all available evidence, it’s not of much interest to most South Africans anyway. A 2017 survey by the Kaplan Center at the University of Cape Town found that nearly three quarters of respondents (Africans living in urban centres) had never heard of the conflict. More than a third of them could not tell which party was responsible for it.

So, what exactly does IAW mean? At best, it is about increasing ‘cohesion’. Most of the people involved are undoubtedly sincere in this. But it’s a minor, demonstrative gesture that doesn’t value anything. Above all, it is not about ‘peace’, even though that word is sometimes confused with it.

It is about demonstrating support for the Palestinian ‘victory’ – ‘from the river to the sea’. It’s not realistic, but never mind. It scratches something in the political psyche of South Africa. It pays less attention to history than to mythology. These kinds of gestures are indicative of what their celebrants imagine the country to be, or could be – especially for those in the country’s political elite affiliated with the ANC.

‘Taking a stand’ provides the satisfaction of a clear morally and ideologically ‘progressive’ position on an issue of global importance. Of constant struggle. It is more the stuff of a liberation movement than a government. None of the complexity and frustration of running an electric utility, or living off the roads.


Thus, back in 2017, Sisa Njikelana, an ANC international relations officer, said at a seminar that to counter Israel’s destructive influence in Africa, South Africa should offer the same technology and expertise to its partners. For a country in the throes of failure that was (and is) squandering its potential, there was glaring unreality and arrogance on display.

It also perpetuates a fantasy about South Africa’s geopolitical weight, that it is in fact what former ambassador to Washington Ibrahim Rasool called a ‘moral superpower’. When Parliament passed its motion on the downgrade of the embassy, ​​the National Freedom Party referred to ‘our ability to act as a neutral mediator in the conflict’. If anyone thinks so, it is beyond delusion, rather like South Africa’s mediation between Russia and Ukraine.

It is a clear example of the disconnect from reality that pervades our politics, a narrow and self-referential worldview with aspirations beyond capability and ideology beyond reality.

Never mind Israel. This week says a lot about the situation in South Africa.

Terrence Corrigan is project manager at the Institute of Race Relations

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