Palestinian demonstrators stand near burning tyres at the Israel-Gaza border in the southern Gaza Strip. Israel is detested not for what it does but for what it is, says the writer. Picture: REUTERS
Palestinian demonstrators stand near burning tyres at the Israel-Gaza border in the southern Gaza Strip. Israel is detested not for what it does but for what it is, says the writer. Picture: REUTERS

Israel is a "volkstaat". It may have many of the hallmarks of a modern, secular democracy, but there’s no getting away from the fact that ethnicity is expressly privileged in its founding laws. Exclusivism — Jewish exclusivism — is central to its existence, and that is why the parallel with apartheid SA has some credence. Israel wears its noninclusivism unashamedly, and that’s why it’s become the bete noire of progressives around the world.

This is partly a psychosocial matter, of course: a mix of sympathy, solidarity, guilt and self-righteousness. It’s also because nonracialism (and antichauvinism, generally) has supplanted anticapitalism as the main leftist preoccupation. The politics of identity, and indignation, is what’s now dominating academic discourse, and in terms of that framing, a white, western, wealthy and powerful collective arrayed against a less well-endowed underdog is the quintessence of loathsomeness. Actual conduct is all but irrelevant: Israel is detested not for what it does but for what it is.

The logic isn’t hard to follow. What is remarkable, though — and depressing and frightening — is how shallow this analysis is in terms of historical context and situational consciousness. Not quite as bad as damning a Hindu food vendor for exhibiting a swastika, but pretty close.

Depending how the word is defined, most of the countries in the world can fairly be called apartheid states. Badly scrambled Africa is the exception, but it’s not easy to fault Nassim Taleb’s observation that 'the nation state [is] apartheid without the political incorrectness'

It’s not just the obvious stuff that’s ignored or de-emphasised, such as the imperialism of the Ottomans, the genocide of the Nazis and the repressiveness of most regimes in the neighbourhood. There are subtler fallacies too — fallacies and inconsistencies the left should be especially astute to, including the following:

While apartheid was awful and caused endless suffering, it was very much in line with the ethos and practices of the colonial age. By the late 1960s SA was a pariah for its racial policies, but not 30 years earlier the self-same paternalism towards Africa and Africans was pervasive in Whitehall (and Washington). It was only after the Second World War that the "civilising mission" was disavowed and vocal nonracialism embraced, and this happened without official apology, or compensation. Apartheid iniquity we know all about, but what of antiapartheid hypocrisy?

Second, depending how the word is defined, most of the countries in the world can fairly be called apartheid states. Badly scrambled Africa is the exception, but it’s not easy to fault Nassim Taleb’s observation that "the nation state [is] apartheid without the political incorrectness".

This may seem bizarre, or even offensive, but that’s only if one takes a short-term view, and takes borders for granted. On the longer, more dynamic view, England fits the bill, as do France, Germany, Sweden, Japan and a hundred others.

Of course, there’s nothing in their constitutions about race or ethnic origin, but that’s because this was entirely unnecessary when those documents were drawn up. It was implicit, or axiomatic, that France, for example, was a country for a certain kind of person; one who happened to be French speaking and pale skinned. The resilience of nationalism or tribalism (or some kind of "us-ism") was taken for granted until the mid-20th century, and its hold on the public imagination has been illustrated repeatedly since then. Witness the goings-on in places as diverse, economically and culturally, as Croatia, Cyprus, Crimea, Catalonia, Caledonia and, for pity’s sake, Canada.

Third, while the way a community relates to minorities in its midst is a good test of its collective moral sense and standard, it gives no guidance as to how it would respond to the prospect of being outnumbered by people perceived as "others" (however defined). It was that issue — the existential one of the threat of losing power — that really distinguished white SA. Not nastiness, in other words, but the simple logic of numbers.

It is the same concern that makes Israelis unwilling to agree to a unitary state. Hamas’s (grotesquely jingoistic) charter lends extra legitimacy to this position, but even without it the notion of a state with a permanent Jewish character is eminently defensible. Caring about your neighbours is the core value of the Quran and the Torah; yielding to your neighbours is nowhere enjoined in either.

It’s important not to get carried away here, of course. These arguments don’t legitimise Verwoerdian apartheid and nor do they negate or demean the Palestinian liberation struggle. Their only significant application is as counterweights to the idea that majority rule is always and everywhere a moral imperative. Apartheid was indefensible, but it didn’t follow that "one person one vote in a unitary SA" was the only way or the best way out of the specific political quandary.

This may take some doing given the still-intense taboo, but try to imagine SA as a loose confederation of statelets, whose parameters were equitably settled after good-faith negotiations between empowered protagonists. Imagine, in other words, a fair application of the principle of separate development. Or self-determination, to use the more modern parlance.

If you need a thought aid, consider 1989. That was the year FW De Klerk signalled the end of SA’s programme of ethnic exclusivism, but it was also the year in which the underlying logic of the programme was implicitly endorsed by the world community. We finally embraced the ideal of democratic nonracialism while a dozen new nation states were legislated into being in what used to be Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and the USSR. We raced into a crazy-wonderful experiment in practical universalism just as socialist Eastern Europe gave up on the idea of uniting disparate communities.

For the record, I’m an internationalist and a redistributionist. I think that:

• Current levels of global inequality are immoral and unsustainable;

•The distributive justice rules have long been stacked in favour of people like me and against those who are differently profiled educationally, culturally, situationally and genetically;

• Interracial amity is both possible and desirable, as is hybridisation.

Where I break with the literate left — apart from my visceral dislike of self-righteousness — is essentially in one regard, namely that my version of reality no longer entails the belief, or the pretense, that wealth can be willed and ethnicity willed away. From there it’s a short step to accepting that there might be a better way of framing the key questions of our time — one that still challenges capitalism, though not via the dead hand of state control but rather through the dynamic interplay of education, regulation and taxes (some applied across borders).

And one that still posits nonracialism as an ideal, but recognises it faces no greater threat than nonracialism as an ideology.

Israel, in terms of this way of seeing, may well be classed as an apartheid state. In that case, though, all people of good conscience would reflexively answer: and why is that? And where isn’t? And what of it?

• Heneck is a Cape Town businessman.

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