Uri Avnery: comparing the boycott of South Africa to a possible boycott of Israel





[Uri Avnery is a peace activist, journalist, and writer. He is a founding member of Gush Shalom independent peace movement, former publisher and editor-in-chief, Haolam Hazeh news magazine, and former member of the Knesset (three terms: 1965-1969, 1969-1973, 1979-1981). He is also a founding member, Israeli Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace.]

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 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. “The importance of the boycott was not only economic,” the archbishop explained, “but also moral. 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.”

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 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.

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. 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...



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