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Learning from Apartheid

In a column published in The Tech last Friday, Rachel Bandler suggests that calls for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) of Israel are tantamount to a Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses in 1933. I respond by drawing on my personal history as a child of two white South Africans, a graduate of an American Jewish Day School, and as a Master’s in City Planning student here at MIT.

As a South African, I was raised to learn of the history of Apartheid. The premise of this method of state organization was simple, yet effective. A minority white government forcibly dispossessed majority black populations of land, and put them in small, underdeveloped homeland states or “bantustans.” These homelands retained a nominal level of independence, but, in reality, were dependent on the white-ruled South African state for basic administrative competencies, such as tax collection. Similarly, the land controlled by the State of Israel includes a majority population of Palestinians who are forced to live in nominal territorial “administrations” ruled by Fatah and Hamas. Who decides to segregate public transport and basic services, collects taxes, and retains military control? Israel.

There were many aspects of struggle against the unjust system of Apartheid, both within South Africa and around the world. By explicit association, the current BDS movement concerning Israel is inspired by the BDS movement against South Africa. When people around the world saw the violence and racism that underpinned this system of minority-ruled “separate development,” they recognized the moral imperative to advocate for a boycott of all South African economic and cultural institutions, which upheld the administration of Apartheid. There are many states around the world that commit heinous crimes. A BDS campaign against Israel, of course, does not exempt these other countries. But it does recognize the distinct nature of minority-rule ethno-nationalism that characterizes the Apartheid state of Israel.

As a graduate of a Jewish day school in the United States, I am familiar with the knee-jerk accusations of anti-semitism and total disregard for the existence of a non-Jewish majority population in the territory under Israeli administration, which pervades many American Jewish institutions. Bandler conflates an anti-Israel position with anti-Semitism. Her invocation of the Holocaust seems pitched primarily at silencing dissent. This is particularly chilling given that many Holocaust survivors and their descendants have actually denounced association with Israel for precisely the reasons that I enumerate here.

During my education in Jewish institutions, I have studied the Bible, Talmud, and other texts of Jewish law and philosophy for many years. Self-evidently, the modern state of Israel, which does not even provide the electoral franchise irrespective of race, ethnicity, religion or gender, to all who live within its administrative boundaries, violates the fundamental Jewish ethics of social justice and tikkun olam (repairing the world). On this point, I am unequivocal. This undemocratic state does not represent me as a Jew. I join with many other Jews around the world who have chosen to say to those who would conflate the state of Israel and Judaism, “not in our name.”

As a Master’s in City Planning student in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies & Planning, I have learned of the ways in which spatial distribution of land, shelter, and public services is a basic means of wielding power. The persistence of the state of Israel in consolidating its occupation of the West Bank through construction of new settlements underlines the extent to which Israel is a perpetrator of a planning-related injustice. Any planner who has a basic understanding of the history of the profession appreciates that Israel is an example of the worst excesses of planning. Similarly, any planner with a basic understanding of the ethical imperatives of the profession would only involve themselves in such a state in order to end the administration of Apartheid in Israel and work towards emancipation of the Palestinian people.

There are many organizations that have a long history of working to end Israeli Apartheid and advance the cause of Palestinian emancipation. I do not aim to speak for them, though my sympathies and solidarity are with them. Count mine amongst the Jewish voices, the South African voices, and the planning voices, that say to tribalists like Bandler that they stand firmly on the wrong side of history.

Benjamin H. Bradlow