As I read through Phil Weiss’s superb reports on Jewish settlers in West Bank Palestine (Part 1 and Part 2), I experienced an eerie sense of familiarity. From 1978 to 1983 I lived in southern Africa, writing articles and then a book about the struggle against apartheid. The people Weiss has just described so vividly reminded me of many of the white South Africans I met back then.
The resemblance is more than an attitude of colonial superiority. Beyond that, I recognized in Weiss’s settlers a similar feeling of self-confidence, the conviction that although the outside world could criticize all it wanted, no one was going to taken any serious actions to disturb their lives.
The great South African black poet Dennis Brutus once told me an anecdote that summed up this smug view. Brutus, who passed on in 2009, was the man who encouraged me to go to southern Africa and see for myself. He had been imprisoned on Robben Island in the 1960s, alongside Nelson Mandela and other national leaders. “One day one of the white warders approached,” Brutus said in his mellifluous voice. “He said, ‘Brutus, you seem like an intelligent man — why do you fight against a system that you will never be able to change?’ He was a decent sort, so I answered, ‘And why do you think you will keep dominating us forever?’ He answered simply, ‘Because America will never stop supporting us.’”
The same self-confident attitude shines through in Weiss’s reports. The settlers are absolutely certain the Israeli government will never uproot them, and behind that is the unspoken conviction that the United States will never put significant pressure on Israel.
South Africa’s negotiated transition to a non-racial democracy in 1994 and Mandela’s election to the presidency were true miracles. Sanctions — the BDS of its day — did put economic pressure on the apartheid regime, as international banks refused to roll over loans and investment started to dry up. But sanctions were vastly more important because they eroded the morale of white South Africans, who realized that the rest of the world was no longer going to stand behind them.
Just as with the debate over BDS today, back then the discussion about anti-apartheid sanctions sometimes got sidetracked, such as about what kind of enterprises to boycott. Dennis Brutus’s white warder acquaintance was not paying attention to such details. Only when he recognized that the rest of the world was truly reducing its support did he let his political leaders negotiate a settlement.