As activists on campuses around the world demonize Israel as an “apartheid state,” Liberal MP Irwin Cotler made the case for Israel as a bastion of human rights in the very place apartheid was practised – South Africa.
Meeting with senior cabinet ministers, judges, NGOs and members of civil society, the former justice minister rejected the allegation Israel practices racial exclusion that targets Palestinians. Such an accusation is not only false, it demeans and detracts from the real horrors of apartheid, he asserted.
Recently returned from his visit, Cotler told The CJN that his views were received respectfully and with interest – without the emotion one might expect in a country that suffered under apartheid.
The view of Israel as practising apartheid does have currency in South Africa, Cotler conceded. “It is present there, but people in South Africa don’t go around preoccupied with it.”
South African political leaders are focused on domestic issues, such as women’s rights and reforming the country’s institutions. And during a question-and-answer session at Wits University, attended by some 500 students, in which he spoke on the pursuit of justice, it wasn’t until he was halfway through the session before a student politely raised the question whether Israel was an apartheid state.
“Not at all,” Cotler recalled answering. “In fact, to say that Israel is an apartheid state is a slanderous remark.”
Unlike apartheid South Africa, Israel is a democratic state with equal rights, a free press, an independent judiciary, and a vibrant civil society with active NGOs.
None of that was characteristic of apartheid South Africa. The slander, he continued, affects that anti-apartheid struggle and “is a form of apartheid denial.”
Cotler made the case for Israel in meetings with senior cabinet ministers, when he urged them to reconsider their votes at UN forums where Israel is the subject of a delegitimization campaign. Supporters of equal treatment should be appalled at the singling out of Israel for differential treatment for its alleged human rights record, when gross human rights violators rights get “exculpatory” treatment, he said.
Cotler made the case for Israel in meetings with the ministers of justice and foreign affairs. He also urged them, as well as the parliament’s justice and social affairs committee, to be in the forefront in confronting Iranian officials on the country’s call to genocide. South African officials, he said, should not receive Iranian leaders when that country violates its citizens’ human rights and advocates genocide of Jews.
Whether his arguments will be persuasive remains to be seen, he said, but he recalled another context in which a one-on-one visit made a difference.
In 1981, when he was Canadian legal counsel for then-imprisoned Nelson Mandela and Natan Sharansky, he was arrested during a visit to South Africa and taken to meet the country’s then-foreign minister, Pik Botha.
When he entered the minister’s office, he noticed a photo of Sharansky displayed prominently on the wall. Sharansky was a hero of the minister, it turned out. Botha saw him as a courageous opponent of Communism, and he wondered why Cotler was defending Mandela, whom Botha considered a Communist.
Cotler responded by saying both were fighting for freedom, and South Africa was the only post-Nazi country to institute a racist legal regime. Botha told Cotler he would come to see that South Africa was a democratic country, but when he visited the minister prior to departing, Cotler reminded Botha those rights did not apply to non-whites.
Later, Botha got into hot water in his own party when he said he could foresee the day the country would have a black government leader. He also became an advocate for Mandela’s release.
Two-and-a-half years ago, Cotler recounted, he met with President Jacob Zuma and discussed the country’s votes at the United Nations, in which South Africa opposed Canadian resolutions condemning Iran. At the most recent vote, South Africa supported the Canadian anti-Iran resolution, Cotler said.
“These discussions can have an impact, they can have a political dimension,” he suggested.
During his visit, he was lobbied by senior government officials on Canada’s visa policies that prevent travel here by current and former members of the African National Congress (ANC).
On his return to Canada, Cotler called on the Canadian government to revise its visa policy that prevents members of the ANC from visiting Canada.
“It is unacceptable for Canada to treat the heroes of the anti-apartheid movement – a historical struggle for a democratic, egalitarian and non-racial South Africa – as presumed terrorists,” he stated.
While in South Africa, Cotler also participated in a reunion of defence counsels for Mandela. As well, he raised the issues of Iran, Syria, Congo and Sudan with South African leaders, and he delivered a lecture on Raoul Wallenberg on the centenary of Wallenberg’s birth at an event sponsored by five governments.
He also met with representatives of the country’s Jewish community. Although the number of Jews has dropped from 120,000 31 years ago to 70,000 today, emigration has stabilized, he said.
The community “is blessed with outstanding young leadership” and it is openly Zionist and Jewish, he said.