Annexation, Apartheid, and Me

I ran away from institutional racism; I cannot watch while my adopted country moves toward it now.

Simona Ghizzoni / contrasto / Redu​x

If Israel annexes part of the West Bank in early July and denies the Palestinians who come with it equal rights, I will confront one of the deepest dilemmas I have had to face since 1965, when I migrated to Israel from apartheid South Africa.

I fought as an Israeli paratrooper in the Six Day War; was stationed in Sinai during the War of Attrition; spent nine months on the Golan Heights after fighting in the 1973 Yom Kippur War; and performed an average of 60 days of active reserve duty annually for about 15 years.

I have lived with my family through Intifadas and suicide bombers, a succession of unnecessary wars, missile attacks from Iraq, and sporadic but persistent rocket and mortar barrages from over the border with Gaza.  My wife walked our four-year old to a birthday party shortly after a suicide bomber detonated himself. His head had landed on a balcony near the kindergarten and a grenade was found in the playground not far from the birthday cake.

I have seen a prime minister assassinated for trying to make peace, and spent many sleepless nights worrying about my children as each served their three years of compulsory military service.

But what has broken my heart is watching what’s happening to my country under the decade-long leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu: The erosion of democracy; the institutionalized greed; the bloated government; the delegitimization of the press (journalists critical of the government now risk bodily harm reporting on right-wing pro-Netanyahu demonstrations); the direct, unrelenting attack on the rule of law led by a prime minister now on trial for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust; and now the insensitivity to those who have lost all to the virus, while those in power line their pockets.

Israel today feels like a pressure cooker with no release valve on top. There are so many points of tension: the secular and the religious; Israelis and Palestinians; settlers and those who oppose the occupation; Sephardic Jews from the Arab world and Ashkenazi Jews from Europe; and Israeli Arabs and Zionists—the list is endless.

Yet in over 50 years of mayhem I have never seriously questioned my decision to live here. Israel gave me an identity I did not have growing up as a Jew in apartheid South Africa. There I was tolerated because I was white and hated because Afrikaners were taught in Sunday school to believe that the Jews killed Christ. Nevertheless, it was apartheid, not anti-Semitism, that drove me to leave South Africa as soon as I could. I could not abide living in a country with endemic discrimination against a large majority of the population based on race.

I hated the darkness, censorship, fear, tyranny, and brutality, and the unbelievable cruelty that came with it. The forced movement of millions of people from their lush and mineral-rich tribal lands to arid Bantustans, where social and family structures collapsed as men left to work the mines and mothers abandoned children to become domestic servants, was diabolic in concept and implementation.

As much as I hated apartheid, fighting it was not my cause. For me, South Africa was an accident of birth, not my country. From an early age I saw Israel as my home, the light at the end of the tunnel. It promised identity, freedom of speech, international acceptability—not a pariah state, but a thriving democracy—and the challenge of building a new society with healthy values: a light unto the nations.

That light will be dimmed for me if the annexation goes through, and I find myself back in a country that practices discrimination and inequality as policy.

I have no citizenship other than Israeli.

I burned my South African passport on the campus of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1966 after listening to Arthur Goldreich speak at an open-air rally in support of equality for Israeli Arabs.

He was one of 13 people arrested with Nelson Mandela—seven of them Jewish—by the South African security forces in 1963, and he was subsequently convicted of sabotage and sentenced to life. With the burning of my passport, I thought I had left apartheid behind.

I have long argued that Israel, despite the occupation, which has now lasted more than 50 years, was not an apartheid state.

If annexation goes ahead, with Israeli sovereignty and law extended only to the Israeli residents of the areas involved, but not to the Palestinians, I am not sure I will be able to make that case in the future. It may not be apartheid, which was a seminal and unique event. But it would be separation under one sovereignty by ethnicity—and that is a red line I cannot cross.

I did not go through five decades in a pressure cooker to live in a pariah state again, spurned by the world and subject to international boycott. I ran away from institutional racism; I cannot watch while my adopted country moves toward it now.

And yet I dread the thought of running again. Unlike South Africa, I have a stake here. I have seen apartheid defeated. I would much rather stay and fight for what’s right. And unlike those who unshackled South Africa from apartheid against all odds, here we have the tools in hand to do so.

The press remains free; the legal system solid; the Knesset vibrant; the security services and army independent; and the police, all-things-considered, still far from being in the pockets of the politicians.

This is not apartheid South Africa, but one stroke from a cynical pen annexing parts of the West Bank while denying equal rights and citizenship to all those living in the affected territory, is a sure death knell for Israel as a Jewish and democratic country as defined in our Declaration of Independence.

Defending the essence and soul of this unique place is the battle now.