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Israel should be given the South African treatment

By Antony Loewenstein and Moammar Mashni - posted Tuesday, 1 March 2011

“I am a black South African, and if I were to change the names, the description of what is happening in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank would be a description of what is happening in South Africa”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, New York 1989

When Desmond Tutu made this comment, the South African apartheid regime was still in power. In 1994, after 45 years of racial segregation, the apartheid era was officially over. When watershed moments like this occur, multiple factors can be attributed. But history is clear that one of the many reasons this tyranny finally succumbed was an international boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign – BDS.


There is no doubt the decision taken by Sydney’s Marrickville council last December to heed the 2005 call for BDS by virtually all of Palestinian civil society was going to be controversial; so was the international movement against apartheid South Africa.

With a New South Wales state election just around the corner, and other local councils considering similar BDS proposals across Australia, this issue is generating predictable heat. The Sydney Morning Herald’s Gerard Henderson last week condemned the Greens for ignoring “democratic” Israel. A prominent mural in inner Sydney, normally aimed at attacking Muslim women who wear the burqa, was changed to attack Marrickville mayor and leading Greens candidate Fiona Byrne for supporting BDS. Even DFAT Secretary Dennis Richardson has entered the debate, calling BDS “wacko stuff”.

Sydney's Daily Telegraph slammed Byrne for daring to consider a trade boycott of China over its human rights abuses in Tibet. She should be praised for consistency, acknowledging that we should not conduct international relations, even with a major trading partner, and ignore gross human rights outrages to make a buck.

As a Palestinian and a Jew, we salute Marrickville for understanding that words about “two-state solution” and “peace process” are soothing to elite media and political ears, but desperate facts on the ground in Palestine require direct action in a consultative and non-violent way. When governments fail to arrest the illegal march of colonisation on Palestinian land, it is not enough to wait for futile peace negotiations that only lead to a more deeply entrenched occupation.

Marrickville council is at least trying to advance the debate about occupation while our leaders visit Israel and dine with Benjamin Netanyahu. Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd led the largest ever delegation to Israel in December, barely stopping in the occupied Palestinian territories for a few meetings.  

Much as staunch Israel advocates would like to have us believe that apartheid South Africa and Israel are completely different, they are actually intimately linked. Israel was one of the few countries that continued to support apartheid South Africa when most of the international community had instituted its boycott. In his recent book about the relationship, The Unspoken Alliance, author Sasha Polakow-Suransky writes that the Zionist state is “playing its part” in comparison to the darkest apartheid days by instituting a matrix of control against the Palestinians.


In reality, the resolution that Marrickville passed is probably more symbolic than anything else, but it is a necessary one precisely because it has had its intended impact; leading a debate on Palestine/Israel both here and overseas.  In early February , Israeli Member of the Knesset Miri Regev announced that “In the realm of the boycott alone, one can point to real damage to the State of Israel, assessed at tens of millions of US dollars”. It is as legitimate to target Western security firms that assist Israel in the West Bank as boycotting arms dealers who sell weapons to the brutal regimes of Egypt and Libya.

When Israel refuses to cease colony building and Western states, including Australia, continue to fete Israeli “democracy”, BDS becomes a logical and moral tactic. A wide selection of Jewish groups, activists, unions and Israeli citizens has now embraced BDS worldwide.

Israel’s illegal military occupation, West Bank settlements, home demolitions and blockade of Gaza have sometimes been met with Palestinian violence. BDS however is a categorical act of non-violence, yet those who support BDS as a way of franchising the international community into making Israel more accountable are themselves now attacked as ‘delegitimisers’. This is as insidious as calling critics of Israel “anti-Semites” as a way to shut down discussion. It should not succeed.

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About the Authors

Antony Loewenstein is a freelance journalist, author and blogger. He has written for the Sydney Morning Herald, Haaretz, The Guardian, Washington Post, Znet, Counterpunch and many other publications. He contributed a major chapter in the 2004 best seller, Not Happy, John!. He is author of the best-selling book My Israel Question, released in August 2006 by Melbourne University Publishing and re-published in 2009 in an updated edition. The book was short-listed for the 2007 NSW Premier's Literary Award. His 2008 book is The Blogging Revolution on the internet in repressive regimes. His website is at and he can be contacted at

Moammar Mashni is the Manager and Co-founder of Australians for Palestine

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Antony Loewenstein
All articles by Moammar Mashni

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