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Irwin Cotler, MP

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The great betrayal of South Africa’s moral legacy

Posted on March 19, 2015

(As originally published in The Jerusalem Post)

I recently returned from South Africa – a country for which I’ve had a special affinity – and a long-standing relationship with both its Jewish community and the anti-apartheid movement.

As it happens, I was visiting South Africa on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Freedom Charter – the iconic call for a free, democratic, plural, non-racial, and egalitarian South Africa – which served as the moral compass for the anti-apartheid movement and the inspirational foundation for the South African constitution and the most comprehensive Bill of Rights of any democracy.

My visit also coincided with South Africa’s Israel Apartheid Week, which draws upon, and anchors itself in, South Africa’s heroic anti-apartheid legacy.

It was not surprising, therefore, that I would be asked – as I had been on my previous visit to South Africa and Wits University – what I thought of Israel Apartheid Week. My answer was that I have always had great respect for the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and indeed was detained there in 1981 while calling for Mandela’s release and indicting South Africa as “the only post-World War II government that had instituted racism as a matter of law”. Apartheid, as I said then, was not just a racist philosophy. It was a racist legal regime.

Accordingly, it demeans the great struggle against apartheid to label Israel as an apartheid state – as it shames the real struggle against the real apartheid South Africa.

This is not to suggest that Israel, like any other state, should not be held accountable for its violations of human rights. The problem is not that Israel should seek – or that anyone should seek on its behalf – to be above the law, but that Israel is being systematically denied equality before the law in the international arena. For example, when the United Nations General Assembly recently adopted 20 resolutions of condemnation against Israel and only 4 against the rest of the world combined; or when the contracting parties to the Geneva Convention, the repository of international humanitarian law, recently put Israel in the docket for its purported human rights violations – the third time this has happened in the last 50 years – and each time only one state was singled out – Israel.

The problem, therefore, is not that human rights standards should be applied to Israel – which they must be – but that these standards are not being applied equally to any other state; not that Israel must respect human rights – which she must – but that the rights of Israel are deserving of equal respect.

And here is the corruption and hypocrisy of Israel Apartheid Week. For it singles out one country for discriminatory indictment, while giving the major human rights violators exculpatory immunity.

And this becomes the shame of Israel Apartheid Week. For if you say Israel is like South African apartheid, that means apartheid South Africa was like Israel. That means that apartheid South Africa had a universal franchise, a free press, an independent judiciary, protection for gay rights, and the like.

The analogy is clearly false, harmful, and hurtful – and is belied, yet again, by the Israeli election where the Israeli-Arab bloc emerged as the third largest party in the Israeli Knesset and an Arab Supreme Court judge presided over the integrity of the elections process. Moreover, this year’s Israel Apartheid Week in South Africa – which I personally witnessed – was also resonant with anti-Semitic tropes and betrayed the heroic anti-apartheid legacy whose moral authority it sought to invoke, but whose legacy it continued to shame.

Indeed, I was reminded while in South Africa – and spoke of – the recent resolution unanimously adopted by the Canadian Parliament condemning the rising global tide of anti-Semitism.

In particular – and bearing express reference to South Africa’s Israel Apartheid Week – the resolution reaffirmed a section from the Ottawa Inter-Parliamentary Protocol to Combat Anti-Semitism, which says as follows:

“Criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitic and saying so is wrong. But singling out Israel for selective opprobrium and condemnation, or denying Israel’s right to exist and calling for its destruction, is discriminatory and hateful, and not saying so is dishonest”.

South Africa has a unique moral authority that arises from its struggle against the injustice of apartheid. Indeed, apartheid is defined in international law as a crime against humanity. If you say, therefore, that Israel is an apartheid state, you are saying that Israel is a crime against humanity – that it has no right to be – that it should be dismantled; and that all who support Israel are therefore members of an international criminal conspiracy and deserve to be shunned and their speech silenced. That is the great danger of Israel Apartheid Week – and that is the great betrayal of South Africa’s moral legacy.

Irwin Cotler is a Canadian Member of Parliament and former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada. He was a long-time anti-apartheid advocate and served on Nelson Mandela’s international legal team.

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