I first visited South Africa in the early months of 1986, when the system of Apartheid was in full force and operation. South Africa was a vibrant, exciting, functioning democracy -- for Whites. There were a number of first-rate universities, for Whites, a lively intellectual scene, a cultural scene with music, dance, and visual arts, at least one first rate newspaper [The Daily Mail and Guardian], and a far greater awareness in academic circles of the writings of Marx than I could find anywhere in the United States.
The system of Apartheid [or "apartness" in Afrikaans] had carried out a thoroughgoing relocation of non-whites into racially defined enclaves called "Homelands," which in law, if not in fact, were considered quite literally to be separate countries. Strict "influx control" laws restricted the presence of non-Whites in the White cities after dark, forcing African, Colored, and Indian men and women to travel long hours each day from their "townships" or their "informal communities" [shack settlements] into the cities where they worked. The Townships ringing the White cities were deliberately laid out so as to make them easy to police and -- if the state deemed it necessary -- closed off entirely.
And yet, in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Pretoria, and Durban, it was quite possible for a White man like me to spend weeks on end without ever directly encountering the five-sixths of the population excluded from the civil society and cultural life of the country. The academics I met read the same left-wing journals I read, their sphere of reference was virtually identical to mine, I felt quite at home with them, even though I had flown ten thousand miles to spend six weeks in their country [lecturing on Marx at the University of the Witwatersrand, or Wits, in Johannesburg.]
All of this has been on my mind as I have been reading about the appalling election in Israel. Contemporary Israel, like pre-liberation South Africa [its military partner, back then], is a vibrant, lively nation where a radical intellectual from America can feel quite at home, so long as he does not look too closely. Intellectually, musically, culturally, it feels familiar, albeit foreign, much as France or Spain or Italy does. It is fatally easy to suppose that Israel is our natural ally, a kindred spirit in the family of nations, a place that an American or a Frenchman or a Swede could call home.
But the plain truth is that Israel is running its own version of the system of Apartheid. The treatment of land is typical of an apartheid system. In South Africa, the borders of the Homelands, ostensibly the natural boundaries of ethnically and linguistically unified areas [KwaZulu, Sotho, !Qhosa, and so forth]. were actually very carefully drawn so as to reserve the best agricultural land for the White Afrikaner farmers, leaving the infertile land with little water for the Homeland residents. The denial to non-Jews of even such elementary rights as marriage perfectly mirrors the treatment of non-Whites in the old South Africa.
The simple fact is that the phrase "Jewish democracy," like the phrases "Christian democracy" and "Islamic Democracy," is a contradictio in adjecto.
Israel, it is said, is our most important strategic partner in the region. I confess that I can see no reason of realpolitik for this judgment. From a purely self-interested perspective, it would make a good deal more sense for the United States to form a strategic alliance with Iran. On the other hand, it would indeed make a great deal of moral and ideological sense to forge strong bonds with a truly democratic Israel. If such an Israel ever surfaces, I would be the first to call for such an alliance.