South African presenters share at U-M what apartheid really looks like to eliminate biased perspectives surrounding Israel.
By Robert Weinbaum
At the University of Michigan, certain professors and departments promote a rather biased perspective on Israel and are not open to a more balanced conversation.
U-M offers a welcoming, safe and inclusive home to me and thousands of Jewish and pro-Israel students, but to deny the difficulties faced in having conversations about Israel would be dishonest. With graduation fast approaching, I decided to open a space for a fact-based discussion regarding one of the most prevalent accusations brought against Israel: the allegation that Israel is an apartheid state.
The opportunity presented itself when two South African students, who supported the BDS campaign at their universities, were on a speaking tour. They fully believed that Israel was an apartheid state, until they traveled to Israel with Africans for Peace and saw the reality of the situation for themselves. Both activists are no longer affiliated with the boycott campaign and contend that BDS lied to them about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The U.S. tour is organized by Africans for Peace, a collective of independent students, scholars and activists in South Africa who bring an African lens to the global debate on peace and stability in Africa and beyond, in collaboration with StandWithUs, an international Israel education organization that believes that education is the road to peace.
As the 2018-19 StandWithUs Emerson Fellow at U-M, I couldn’t pass up the chance to bring this unique perspective to my campus.
Klaas Mokgomole, from the University of Witswatersrand in Johannesburg, and Mmamalema Molepo, from the University of Cape Town, visited April 1. It was important to frame the event as being based on their own personal experiences and not meant to be representative of a universal South African view.
They tabled during the day, interacting with hundreds of interested students. Then, they spoke at my event, which was co-sponsored by Michigan Hillel and Michigan’s Chabad.
On his first visit to Israel, Klaas was waiting to see apartheid in action. He asked an airport employee for the “blacks-only bathroom.” He was surprised to receive a silent stare in response.
Klaas explained that under South African apartheid, citizens of different racial backgrounds used separate buses, schools, benches, water fountains and even bathrooms. The employee answered, “No, no, no, we don’t have that here. You can use any bathroom appropriate for your gender.”
Mmamalema noted how the different classes of people in South Africa created a society built on discrimination that explicitly denied black South Africans their rights to education and employment. After visiting Israel, he says he can’t classify it as an apartheid country because he simply does not see the same kind of overt and systemic racism. “I find none of that in Israel,” he said.
U-M senior Emily Olin noted how prevalent anti-Israel rhetoric was when she studied at the University of Cape Town. After witnessing Israel Apartheid Week there, Olin said it was “illuminating to hear from South Africans with an alternate perspective whose families had actually experienced the challenges of apartheid.”
U-M student Dylan Berger said, “The event was really enlightening on how Israel is the antithesis of apartheid South Africa. I’m glad Klaas and Mmamalema are taking their inspiring personal narratives to American campuses. Their stories are needed to correct the misinformation about Israel swirling throughout colleges.”
While listening to Klaas and Mmamalema’s presentation, I saw some deeper truths about the nature of conflict resolution as they described life during and after apartheid. I realized that peace has to be made not only by governments, but also among the people.
Although the African National Congress officially ended apartheid in the early 1990s, the South African inhabitants still deal with the repercussions of the divide formed between them during those painful years.
Similarly, peace in Israel can only be achieved through direct negotiations between the Palestinian and Israeli governments, along with fostering mutual recognition of the validity of both populations’ narratives.
This is possible through dialogue that acknowledges that neither Israelis nor Palestinians are going to disappear anytime soon. Hopefully, this vision of productive dialogue about the conflict can also be mirrored on my campus.
Robert Weinbaum is the 2018-19 StandWithUs Emerson Fellow and an undergraduate in the University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science and the Arts.