Ben Young: The Role of Students: Lessons from South Africa

From the archive (legacy material)

Ben Young | Resisting Israeli Apartheid conference | 5 December 2004

[Note: French translation available here.]
Hello everyone, I hope that you’re finding this conference as illuminating and informative as I have. I’m in total accord with the other speakers who have clearly stated that there is so much we can do in terms of isolating Israeli apartheid. I believe that for various reasons circumstances are changing in our favour and I will outline these later.
It is indeed necessary to compare the South African and Palestinian experiences to see where they are similar and where they differ so that we can learn from and emulate the anti-apartheid struggle. As Professor Nabulsi stated we need mass mobilisation and an upping of the ante. I would say that we are not there yet but the potential is definitely there and it doesn’t require the sort of sacrifice one of our previous speakers needed to make. Just as the ANC needed the aid of outside organisations and individuals; we in the pro-Palestinian movement need to make our support count.
Before I start I would just like to make it clear that although I’ve been involved in Jews for Justice for Palestinians and its student offshoot I am speaking here in a personal capacity and my views are not those endorsed by Jfjfp, which is a broad-based organisation in terms of viewpoint on Israel/Palestine.
Anyway a couple of weeks ago I was looking through a free paper called the Jewish News , mainly to see how balanced the letters being published about Israel/Palestine were, and the editorial caught my eye. It was about the flurry of Early Day Motions (EDMs) centred on Israel. One that particularly irked the Jewish News was condemning the detention of Mordechai Vanunu. In its closing paragraph the JN says “The latest EDM calls for the immediate cessation of harassment of Vanunu. One could reasonably call on its supporters to cease their constant harassment of Israel”. In the previous paragraph the JN comments that “ It is surely bizarre, to say the least, that so much of their parliamentary time should be taken up by one topic, over and over again”.
I’m just pointing out this comment because you can see the main obstacles to building up a strong, united pro-Palestinian student movement, obstacles that were not such big factors in Apartheid South Africa. There is the conviction that there is absolutely no reason to pressure Israel into doing anything and that Israel has no case to answer to, plus the strength and prominence of organisations and individuals who will prevent such pressure being applied on Israel. Another point that emerges from the editorial is the variety of EDMs concerning Israel/Palestine that have been presented. I believe that this mirrors the disparate nature of the pro-Palestinian movement and their lack of a defining unifying objective. In the case of South Africa it was very easy to agree a joint-platform for the end of the pass laws, an end to segregation and full civil rights for all, which would usher in a government elected by the majority of the population. Indeed, student organisations helped to develop and preserve the broadest unity in anti-apartheid action in support of the ANC and similar organisations, managing to overcome all moves to divide their ranks. This started to happen as early as the late 40s (i.e. before the National Party even gained power in South Africa) with African and Indian organisations deciding to cooperate in a common struggle with a platform of full equality, a universal franchise and a democratic state rather than for petty concessions. The South African divestment campaigns were a startling success; Barclays Bank’s deep involvement and investment in South Africa was pin-pointed and targeted with the Bank being forced to sell off its investments there. Lawrence Davidson gave many examples in his piece of how divestment campaigns worked in this context at universities and church groups. Much contact with South Africa was through sports and breaking off all sports contacts with South Africa was an extremely effective way of showing how immoral the basic concept of Apartheid was.
In terms of affecting Israel through a range of actions, there is a dilemma. Are we seeking to convince people here of the immorality of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip or of the concept of Israel itself and what it entails? I would say that the ISM targeting of outlets that sell Caterpillar is trying to do the first while the demonstrations outside Marks and Spencer is trying to do the second. But I would say that the second is a much less effective campaign (even if I do agree with some of its aims) because the image of M&S in the UK is that of an intrinsically British company and because the people who are counter-demonstrating against this boycott who belong to fairly extreme Zionist groups have been successful in portraying the demonstrators themselves as extreme.
This leads neatly on to my perception that pro-Palestinian groups have been hampered by the difference in focus adopted by the various groups. This has been exacerbated by the lack of an effective PLO to help direct and co-ordinate student action in contrast to the ANC. Compare this to how closely the Israeli government co-ordinates activities and campaigns with sympathetic groups who become in effect agents of Israeli policy.
For example, Islamic student societies have tended to look at Palestine from a naturally Islamic point of view while Palestinian societies have all too often failed to pitch themselves successfully in getting non-Palestinian/Arab members and have adopted too narrow a perspective on Israel/Palestine. While they rightly focus on the iniquities that the Palestinians have been subjected to, they do not focus enough on engaging Jews and Israelis. Because of this, the UJS has managed to prolong this image of a binary picture and paint the pro-Palestinian student movement as anti-Jewish, even though this is a more and more inaccurate stereotype.
I am sure that everyone has heard of the UJS’s complaints about this event, alleging that it will stoke up anti-Jewish feeling. So selective is their analysis that they conflate being Jewish with being a Zionist; it never occurs to them that perhaps many Jews see this campaign as not only beneficial but absolutely necessary.
This brings me to my next point, the relative success of the anti-Apartheid movements at combating the propaganda of the South African regime compared to the relative success of the Israel government and organisations sympathetic to it in this area. Just witness the coverage on Newsnight during the week when the Palestinian delegate Afif Safieh was prepared to answer questions about the forthcoming elections but was wrongfooted by the BBC showing non-BBC footage of a suicide bomber. Understandably angry about this, he would have appeared as incoherent compared to the smooth (and unsurprisingly chuffed) spokesperson from the Israeli embassy who followed him. I don’t mean to denigrate Afif, having seen him speak on many occasions before and knowing what a capable and fluent speaker he is. This is just an observation on what we need to combat. In both campaigns it has been imperative to fight misleading propaganda by our adversaries and their friends to confuse the issues, indeed to shift in a Popperian sense the lens by which the wider world has viewed the current and historical situation in Israel/Palestine. We need to shift this from a perception of a conflict based on existential religious differences to one of fundamental individual and group human rights.
I believe that pro-Israeli proponents have had an easier task at doing this as Western countries helped to push through the UN General Assembly vote recommending the partition of Palestine in 1947 through a sense of guilt at their inaction and inability to stop the Holocaust and this has led to a well-spring of sympathy for a (and I’d like to put this in quotation marks) young, small, resourceful nation struggling to build a home for itself in the desert surrounded by hostile regimes. There is still a vestige of this sympathy notwithstanding the many events that have occurred since 1948 (or the Nakba in 1948) and this is something that Apartheid South Africa never had. This sympathy has helped Israel promulgate these nostrums that still have some hold over the political establishment in this and other countries: “Israel has always sought peace”, “ We are reasonable people, they are the irrational ones with murder on their minds”, “We are a small defenceless country surrounded by many hostile larger ones”, etc. This has permeated down to the official NUS level. Whereas the anti-Apartheid campaign benefited from official NUS liaison, the UJS has managed to prevent much discussion of Israel/Palestine through forming a tactical alliance with Labour students (who are mainly careerist and have no radical ideological pretensions) and gaining the chairs of any NUS committees where such issues may be aired (such as anti-racism, international). At Student Union level, unions have been reluctant to endorse pro-Palestinian motions for fear of being called anti-semitic and contravening their equal opportunities platform. The forced cancellation of an event discussing divestment from Israel at Warwick University shows how deeply this fear has gripped. Moreover, one gets the impression that pro-Israel groups don’t even feel that Israel has much to answer for. Organisations such as BICOM continually stress how unjustified and unwarranted attacks on Israel’s conduct, policies and attitudes to the Palestinians are.
There is indeed much to learn and draw on from the experience of the anti-Apartheid movements. What the anti-Apartheid movements did so effectively was to put across the message in plain language that what was happening in South Africa contravened all basic human rights that anyone was entitled to. We need to do something similar on this issue.
I believe that I have covered the ways in which the anti-Apartheid and pro-Palestinian movements have differed. Now I would like to outline what we in our various sympathetic movements need to do.
A fully co-ordinated pro-Palestinian student movement will need to set out a comprehensive platform that they can campaign on in order for it to win widespread acceptance in the student establishment and beyond. In my opinion this must include a full and just resolution of the refugee question and a ‘truth and reconciliation’ commission similar to the one in South Africa covering events from 1948 as well as any one or two-state solution. Our failure to convince mainstream public and political opinion that this issue is about upholding basic human rights rather than initiating a peace process has meant that, as Daniel Barenboim recently pointed out, the UK political establishment has no real understanding of the injustices that have occurred and that the only stance it will adopt is that of a disinterested even-handedness allied with a general wish to restart the ‘peace process’ as if peace could be delivered by adhering to a timetable. This is in contrast to the experience of the anti-Apartheid movements where many present-day politicians such as Peter Hain found their initial inspiration and where the onus was on the South African regime not the black majority to change its consciousness and its outlook.
Yet there is cause for optimism on at least two fronts. Firstly, for the first time in living memory the NUS President is from a non-Labour faction, the electoral standings of the various factions in the NUS are changing and this will affect the tactical alliance the UJS has with Labour students. Secondly, and I do not mean this in the same way that pro-Israel analysts mean it: the death of Arafat. While it was absolutely necessary to defend him against claims that he was an ‘obstacle’ to peace and to acknowledge his iconic standing among the Palestinian people, his failings at governance were manifest and clear. In the forthcoming elections it will be absolutely vital to support those candidates who will not submit to making peace on Israel’s terms while at the same time help to build up a democratic Palestinian polity.
I think pro-Palestinian students are beginning to realise the need for unified action. Last October there was a student conference on Palestine at LSE ecompassing FOSIS, JSJFJP, Palestinian societies and other groups such as War on Want to sketch out what they wanted to achieve on campus and at NUS. We must ensure that we maintain and update these contacts so we can push forward. I believe that events around the world are helping us to make our message more comprehensible and relevant to the world at large. It is quite apt that at the same time as this conference there is a general conference at ULU about the situation in Iraq. The war in Iraq has shown how governments can act duplicitously and unilaterally, flouting international law to suit their own purposes. The occupation of Iraq shows that occupied people anywhere will be denied their individual and group rights and their sovereignty no matter how benign the purpose. The fact that the prospect of a just peace in Israel/Palestine has not been advanced one jot illustrates that Israel will not negotiate freely of its own volition. The swiftness of the political and military policy decisions by the US and Britain in going to war in Iraq has shown how half-hearted international effort on Israel/Palestine has been. We need to exploit these opportunities to put our message across now to foster a new consciousness of the situation in Israel/Palestine.