The blog Mandoweiss has published a letter from high-ranking elected Californian politicians which criticised “the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement and the passage of divestment resolutions on California campuses. Addressed to the chair of the University of California Regents, which controls UC investments”, Mandoweiss reports, “the letter ‘congratulates’ the Regents on ‘standing firm’ against divestment”.
California’s legislators, in condemning students at Irvine, Berkeley, and San Diego, are caving into a lobby which practises very shady patronage, propaganda, and ‘treatment’ oriented politics. The lobby does not shrink from offering free trips to Israel, propaganda sessions at AIPAC, and outright lies about the character of the divestment bills on campuses. It offers seminars aimed at indoctrinating what it regards as critical and strategic sectors in social and political institutions. These include U.S. energy experts; University presidents; civil rights leaders; senior counterterrorism officials; Indian-American media and foreign policy leaders; city, county, and state elected officials; Latino leaders; campus media; and California student leaders.
I wonder how many of the Californian politicians who signed the ill-informed letter were subject to such ‘treatment’, given their very obvious ignorance about the actual contents of the divestment bills on campus, which were extraordinarily even-handed and went to great pains not to single out the state of Israel.
Their letter, which serves as a rebuke to a generation of California’s students who are seeking to construct a moral economy within the community they call home, is particularly offensive given that many signatories, including Darrell Steinberg, the leader of the Senate, write from within a party supposedly dedicated to progressivism, equality, and self-determination, values which are totally incompatible with the uncritical endorsement of colonial rule.
It is hardly surprising that the UC Regents, a corporate-minded body, its members appointed on a corrupt patronage basis by successive Governors, would ally itself with American corporations which profit from violence in Israel and Palestine. There has been another time when the UC Regents found themselves on the wrong side of a moral debate about colonialism, and their intransigence led to acts of unconscionable violence by university police against students. I refer, of course, to the move to persuade the Regents to divest from apartheid South Africa during the 1980s.
Much has been made of parallels between South African apartheid and Israeli colonialism in Palestine. Many of Israel’s critics assert that what Israel practises there is nothing less than apartheid—and given international legal definitions of the crime of apartheid, it is difficult to argue with this. Supporters of Israel, demonstrating a critical historicism glaringly absent elsewhere in their arguments, contend that the structural and physical violence meted out by Israel’s government against Palestinians is different to that implemented by the apartheid regime.
Given the intensity of feelings on campus last semester, I allowed my students in two South African history courses to debate the issue, which they did with great respect and attention to historical specificity, concluding that there are striking similarities as well as dramatic differences.
For me, the most interesting similarities lie in the efforts of the Israeli and South African governments to have their cake and eat it. In South Africa, building on earlier legislation, the apartheid government used the 1959 Promotion of Bantu Self-Government Act to force black South Africans into dismembered ‘homelands’. These marginal lands were overpopulated and over-farmed and could not feed the vast numbers of people the state forced into them. This rendered the homelands dependent on the apartheid state, which was able to use them as a reservoir of readily-exploitable labour in the construction of an economy based on affirmative action programmes for Afrikaans-speakers and the building of infrastructure geared towards allowing white South Africans to live the good life on the backs of their countrymen and –women.
The South African government then declared these homelands “independent” through the 1971 Bantu Homelands Constitution Act, a move which stripped black South Africans working in the “white” areas which comprised 87% of the country of their few remaining rights. The farce whereby the apartheid state pretended that these balkanised homelands, carefully controlled by Pretoria and its stooges, were independent countries with the capacity to take responsibility for their affairs and development was a transparent ruse which most of the world ridiculed. For many years, however, Conservative and Republican governments in Britain and the United States engaged in a policy referred to as “constructive engagement”, whereby they entertained the apartheid government’s claims that it was “democratic”, thereby allowing corporations to make massive profits from the cheap labour supplies available in South Africa, and arms companies to shore up the increasingly-isolated regime in Pretoria.
The parallels with Israel’s claims about the benevolence of its colonial rule, about its own democratic character, and about Palestinian freedom and self-determination, are too great to ignore.
I’m less interested in whether what Israel practises in Palestine is apartheid per se. I think what is most interesting are the parallels between two states swimming against broader historical trends. South Africa built the apartheid state in an era in which most African countries were moving steadily towards majority rule and independence. Similarly, Israel’s colonial structure has been implemented in an era when global rhetoric—if not always reality—should render colonial rule morally and legally untenable.
It is therefore unsurprising that both Israel and South Africa would develop a similarly tortured line of logic, comparable institutional bases for their rule, and analogous rhetorical claims about what their respective states are doing. When we think of colonialism, we generally think of the European powers during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and their far flung overseas empires, which they were proud to claim as such. Because our understanding of colonialism is informed by this historical precedent, instead of a more basic reflection about unequal power relations and the social subjugation and economic domination of one people by another, it is often hard to accept a system like South African apartheid or Israeli rule in Palestine as colonialism. Modern colonial powers depend on moral and material aid from larger powers, and are sustained by global capital, which renders them stronger in the face of a united front by capital, but also more vulnerable to critiques from moral majorities within those larger powers.
And just as colonialism has taken a different and in some respects more insidious form in the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries, so too has anti-colonialism changed. It is more global than before, and its ‘members’ better informed and more able to identify lies and inconsistencies in defenders of the unequal and exploitative order they seek to confound. Students, churches, and labour movements abroad have been at the forefront of movements to call their governments to account for supporting colonial regimes. The actions of anti-colonial ‘movements’ have forced corporations and institutions like the UC Regents—unelected by and unaccountable to the communities they govern—to nail their colours to the mast.
When I read about the actions of California’s legislators, I am reminded of Thomas Paine’s words in The Age of Reason, wherein he wrote, “It is impossible to calculate the moral mischief...that mental lying has produced in society. When a man has so far corrupted and prostituted the chastity of his mind, as to subscribe his professional belief to things he does not believe, he has prepared himself for the commission of every other crime. He takes up the trade of a priest for the sake of gain, and, in order to qualify himself for that trade, he begins with a perjury. Can we conceive anything more destructive to morality than this?” (12).
Legislators and Regents are an intelligent bunch of people. I don’t think they’re stupid enough to buy Israel’s assertions about the benevolence of its rule. Nor are the credulous enough, I think, to believe that in the long run colonialism will do anything other than harm Israel.
But a combination of political expediency—in the face of intense pressure from an ultimately self-destructive and dishonest lobby—and a basic sympathy with the corporate interests which profit from violence in the Middle East and the fuelling of an endless conflict has led the UC Regents and California’s legislators to abandon common sense and spurn the efforts of their constituents in defending what—in the second decade of the twenty-first century—should be an utterly indefensible system of exploitation, misrule, and violence.