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Op-Ed: ‘Israel Apartheid Week is a tragic obstacle to peace’

Writing in The New Statesman today, the Chief Rabbi decries the staging of ‘Israel Apartheid Week’, a period dedicated not to ‘nationalism’ or ‘awareness’, but to unbridled hatred of Israel. A nation in which Arab Israelis occupy prominent positions in public life and benefit from equal status under the law bears no resemblance to the South African Apartheid of his youth, says the Chief Rabbi, reflecting on a misguided comparison that will only serve to polarise the two sides further. Dialogue, respectful disagreement and a common desire for peace should be what activists strive to achieve.

“Words make a world of difference. Over time, they become charged with inference and allusion and, deployed effectively, they have the power to change the very fabric of our civilisation. For example, the phrase “civil rights” could reasonably be applied to any right of any citizen the world over, yet we instinctively associate it with the movement that for ever altered the political and social landscape of the United States in the 1950s and 1960s.

The word “apartheid” has similar historical resonance. Growing up in South Africa, I became aware of the different status conferred upon the black majority. I found myself confronted every day by a society that would routinely degrade and demean black South Africans, not just culturally or socially, but also in the eyes of the law. All societies wrestle with the scourge of prejudice, but validating that prejudice in statute makes a virtue of oppression.

I am eternally grateful that I grew up in a home in Cape Town where the existential immorality of apartheid never affected the way in which we understood the world. My father, who is a rabbi, preached against apartheid and visited political prisoners on Robben Island. My late mother was the principal of the Athlone teacher training college, which at the time was the only college for black pre-school teachers in the country. As with other similar institutions, it would later become known as a hotbed of activism. The students’ struggle was her struggle and my siblings and I would hear stories at the end of each day about the challenges they faced and the harsh reality of their lives. Those experiences remain among the most important of my early years.

My late mother was the principal of the Athlone teacher training college, which at the time was the only college for black pre-school teachers in the country.

This week on university campuses across the UK, activists are preparing for “Israel Apartheid Week”. Note: not Palestinian “nationalism” or “awareness” week, which might focus on the well-being of the Palestinian people, but a week dedicated to attacking Israel – its government, its people, its very existence. The implied message here is simple: Israel today is where South Africa was in the latter part of the 20th century. It is a comparison that is entirely false; a grave insult to those who suffered under apartheid; and a tragic obstacle to peace.

The difference between the two countries could scarcely be more stark. Under apartheid, a legal structure of racial hierarchy governed all aspects of life. Black South Africans were denied the vote. They were required by law to live, work, study, travel, enjoy leisure activities, receive medical treatment and even go to the lavatory separately from those with a different colour of skin. Interracial relationships and marriages were illegal. It was subjugation in its rawest form.

Contrast that with Israel, a country whose Arab, Druze, Bedouin, Ethiopian, Russian, Baha’i, Armenian and other citizens have equal status under the law. Anyone who truly understands what apartheid was cannot possibly look around Israel today and honestly cla