Sept. 30, 2005
Lessons from South Africa
Reconciliation after apartheid can serve as example to Mideast.
Mention the words apartheid and Israel in the same sentence when
there are Jews within earshot and you better have some good protective
gear handy: it's an understatement to say it's an emotional topic.
So it was no surprise that more than 400 people filled a lecture
hall to hear a talk on the subject Mandela's Legacy: Reconciliation
Between Israelis and Palestinians? and no surprise that the
speaker, Heribert Adam, addressed his own allegiances in his opening
"I am not a member of either tribe," Adam said. "I
question the question, 'Which side are you on?'"
A professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at Simon
Fraser University, Adam was delivering the opening talk for the
Vancouver Institute's fall program. He said his interest lies in
how both sides in the Middle East conflict can reach a fair and
just peace and his claim was backed by an analysis that uncovered
both similarities and differences between the South African and
Middle East models. His talk steered clear, however, of making any
direct comparison between current Israeli policies and apartheid.
Setting the scene of the talk, Adam compared the feelings in South
Africa in the 1980s with the "gloom and doom" of the second
intifada. But he pointed out that, although most experts saw the
South African situation as far more intractable than that in Israel,
a solution was achieved.
"I don't want to romanticize South Africa, with the widening
wealth gap and the high crime rate, but at least people aren't killing
each other for political reasons," said Adam. "The rich
and poor in South Africa come in both colors. The ethno-racial groups
Looking at the Middle East through the lens of South Africa results
in "paradoxes and contradictions" that are barriers to
peace, Adam said. These included the fact that although the majority
of the Jewish electorate supports the idea of a viable Palestinian
state, 64 per cent endorse the continued expansion of settlements
in the West Bank.
"No Palestinian leadership, however moderate, will ever sign
a deal which would ratify this," said Adam. "Probably
no Israeli leadership would ever survive if it agrees to a complete
settlement evacuation of the West Bank."
Adam also pointed out the obstacle of uncritical ethnic solidarity.
"Many Jewish academics are troubled by Israeli policy yet remain
silent and do not criticize Israel publicly," said Adam, adding
that Elie Wiesel, who said, "As a Jew, I consider my role as
a defender of Israel. I defend even her mistakes," was someone
who personified this phenomenon.
Turning to a direct comparison of the South African and Israeli
situations, Adam highlighted several differences: blacks and whites
in South Africa were more economically interdependent than Jews
and Arabs in Israel; in South Africa, religion actually served to
unify blacks and whites whereas in the Middle East, many agitators
"use God as real estate agent"; in South Africa, neither
the African National Congress nor the Afrikaners wanted third party
intervention. "In Israel, almost everything depends on U.S.
policy," Adam pointed out.
As well, in South Africa, Adam said, there was more personal contact
and interaction between the rival sides. In Israel, there is a social
distance between the two groups.
"The great majority of Israelis have never been to the West
Bank and have never actually seen what is happening there,"
Despite the differences in the circumstances, Adam said that several
lessons can be applied to the Middle East conflict, among them the
fact that leaders must compromise and assist each other.
"In South Africa, when the country was at the brink of civil
war in 1993, Chris Hani, the leader of the Communist party, was
shot by a right-winger. De Klerk asked Mandela to 'Please calm the
country down,'" Adam pointed out.
Adam also said there can be no "divide and rule" policy.
"If you are really interested in peace deals, you have to have
a cohesive adversary and that includes extremists. You must try
to include everyone," Adam said, explaining that that meant
involving Hamas in negotiations and welcoming the fact that they
are going through political, rather than violent means.
"That wasn't easy in South Africa," Adam said.
Turning to the possible short- and long-term results of the Middle
East conflict, Adam was not very optimistic. The least likely scenario,
he said, would be a viable Palestinian state based on the evacuation
of settlers, recognition of refugees and Jerusalem as a joint capital.
More likely, in the shorter term, would be a pseudo-Palestinian
state existing in a situation of civil war, or a continuation of
the status quo, with occupation in the West Bank and a high level
of Israeli-Palestinian violence.
In the long term, however, Adam suggested a more likely scenario
would be a one-state solution with some sort of confederation. He
acknowledged that "90 per cent of Jewish Israelis are horrified
by that option" but perhaps something along the lines of the
European Union would be a workable solution.
"There were even fewer whites in South Africa who thought that
a black government would be not just feasible but possible,"
Adam pointed out. "Nowadays, South African whites are saying,
'Why didn't we do it earlier? Why were we so stupid not to abolish
apartheid?' So you can't say people are stuck in their ideas forever.
Change is possible."
Baila Lazarus is a freelance writer, photographer and
ilustrator living in Vancouver.