Liberal churches can either name Israel’s apartheid or lose their souls — South African minister writes

by Brian J. Brown, 472 pp., February 2022, Paperback $19.99, Kindle edition, $9.99

In a new book, “Apartheid South Africa! Apartheid Israel!” Brian J. Brown, a South African Methodist minister, calls on Christian churches, not just to recognize that Israel is an apartheid state, but to declare that total opposition to that apartheid is mandatory for any person or church that claims to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. Brown’s lifelong war against apartheid has been driven by the conviction that it is utterly incompatible with any Christian theology faithful to the social teachings of Jesus Christ.

His position was true in South Africa and it’s true in Israel-Palestine today, he says, offering a detailed comparison of the two regimes; but in the case of South Africa the churches saw the light more easily and took a stern line more quickly. Faced now with the cresting consensus of the human rights community that Israel is an apartheid state, mainline churches in the U.S. and around the world are finally hearing Palestinian church leaders’ clarion calls to action, such as the 2020 “Cry for Hope” declaration from Jerusalem. Brown’s own passionate cry makes clear why Western liberal churches can no longer temporize on the question of apartheid or fail to understand its profound significance to them as followers of Christ’s teaching.

Brian J. Brown

Brown began fighting apartheid in the 1960s, helping to lead the radical, multiracial Christian Institute of South Africa. In his book he recalls that most members of the CI came to believe that “support for apartheid was not just evil but heretical.” Today, this is becoming the view of many church-based Palestinian solidarity activists. That means that as mainline denominations continue to move rapidly to condemn Israel as an apartheid state – a forced move really, given the irrefutable reports – they will find themselves not just lending support to the long-suffering Palestinians but in an existential struggle for “the very being of the Church, the integrity of the Christian faith, and the credibility of the Gospel,” to quote “Cry for Hope,” which Brown reprints in his book.  

Brown’s work in South Africa got him banned in 1977, along with a large number of leaders of the Black Consciousness movement, whose teachings he and the CI had embraced. He then emigrated to Britain, where he carried on the fight as the Africa Secretary for the British Council of Churches. He had already grasped the Palestinian parallel with his homeland in 1972, when he first visited Jerusalem on a “decidedly pro-Israel tour.” In the Old City, one evening with his wife, a man on a balcony picked out their South African accents and announced to them, “You are the ones who enslave and kill Black people in South Africa, the same way Israelis kill us Palestinians.”

His comparison of the two apartheids draws deeply on his perspective as a church-based frontline fighter for liberation. Thus, he discusses how both racist systems reflect the religiously-inflected, tribal identities of the dominant group. Moreover, his critique of those identities, while fully compatible with the secular vision of equal human rights, dwells on the antithesis between such exclusivist religion and his own liberationist Christianity, as well as the prophetic ethics of Judaism. He doesn’t deny that God may choose a people for a special purpose, as Judaism and Christianity traditionally believe God chose the Hebrews. But he quotes Munther Isaac, a Palestinian Lutheran leader, who explains that “God brought Israel, God’s chosen people, to the land so that they would model a different and distinctive community, set apart from other nations.” The point is that a God of justice would never grant any people a privilege to oppress other people. The further point is that anyone who claims otherwise is essentially defaming God or, at best, totally misunderstanding God. The final point is that faithful Christians, when presented with proof of apartheid, are required to actively oppose it.

Brown marshals a vast host of comparisons between the two apartheids, at one point enumerating 37 specific forms of structural inequality imposed on Palestinians. His comparative approach gives his assessment of Israel a different entry point than that of the recent human rights reports. While Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, B’Tselem, and others applied the legal criteria defining the crime of apartheid to the situation in Israel-Palestine, Brown adds an experiential perspective to his study when he specifies similar apartheid structures that are harsher in Israel than they were in South Africa. So, for example, he writes that the Israeli “intensity of control” at borders and the like is “far in excess of that experienced in my apartheid homeland.” Moreover, “there was nothing approximating to Israel’s barrier/wall or the proliferating checkpoints.” Comparing forced removals in the two regimes, Brown says that those in South Africa were “infinitely less brutal in implementation than in Palestine.” Summing up how the two regimes compare, Brown told an interviewer that Israel, overall, is “apartheid plus,” that is, worse than South Africa.

Brown also focuses on the psychology of “denialism” found in both apartheid societies – and in the West, including the mainline churches. As has been seen in Zionists’ refusal to make any attempt to disprove the mountains of factual evidence of apartheid presented by the human rights community, denialism relies on deflection, exceptionalism, feigned ignorance, and ad hominem attacks on critics. Brown points out similarities between the underpinning of Israeli and Afrikaner exceptionalism. Like the Israelis, though in far less severity of suffering, Afrikaner apartheid apologists harped on historical persecutions their people had suffered, particularly, in the 19th century at the hands of British settler-colonials, who, among other atrocities, held tens of thousands of women and children in a “new invention called concentration camps.” The Afrikaners also developed a mythology of being God’s “Covenant people,” chosen to rule over all others in Southern Africa. Brown even walks readers through Afrikaner racist, religious doctrine “built on the flimsiest of Biblical foundations,” such as an interpretation of the unedifying story of the curse Noah put on his son Ham (whom apartheid theologians designated as the father of all Black people) because Ham had seen Noah drunk and naked and told his brothers.

Brown notes that Israel’s apartheid nature was easily recognized by the then-leaders of South Africa and also by leading Jewish opponents of the South African system. Thus, Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, commonly known as the “architect of apartheid,” flatly stated in the 1960s that “Israel, like South Africa, is an apartheid state.” His only complaint was that Western nations never acknowledged the fact. Later, three important Jewish members of Mandela’s African National Congress – Joe Slovo, Denis Goldberg, and Ronnie Kasrils — agreed with Verwoerd. Slovo pointed out the irony that “the Jew haters in South Africa – those who worked and prayed for a Hitler victory – were [later] linked in a close embrace with the leaders of Israel in a new axis based on racism.” Kasrils has said recently that Israel’s apartheid is “a hundred times worse” than South Africa’s.

Jews “became a disproportionately large White presence in the ANC leadership,” Brown notes. Nonetheless, he records that “the overwhelming majority of Jews” in South Africa went the other way, “settling for White privilege” under apartheid. He cites Helen Suzman, “the most powerful parliamentary opponent of apartheid over 36 years, and a secular Jew,” who said, “By and large, Jews were part of the privileged white community and that led many Jews to say, ‘We will not rock the boat.’” Finally, he recounts the warm toast that then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin gave to visiting South African Prime Minister B.J. Vorster in 1976, invoking the “ideals shared by Israel and South Africa” in the face of “foreign-inspired recklessness and instability.”

It is intriguing to learn that, in the very same year, 1976, Rabin warned that continued settlement expansion in the West Bank was like a “cancer in the tissue of Israel’s democracy” that, if not stopped, would doom Israel to become an apartheid state. Other former prime ministers voiced similar warnings: David Ben-Gurion in 1967, Ehud Olmert in 2007, and Ehud Barak in 2010. Together they offer a glimpse into the Orwellian doublethink of Zionists who – then and now – express disapproval of the apartheid realities in Israel but somehow still deny to themselves that Israel has always practiced apartheid. (At the time of this writing, the editors of The New York Times seem to be prey to a similar condition, which would explain the newspaper’s inability to publish the news of Amnesty International’s condemnation of Israel as an apartheid state.)

Distinguishing between what he calls “Petty Apartheid” and “Grand Apartheid,” Brown points out that South Africa “viciously implemented” segregation rules relating to access to restaurants, toilets and other social amenities, areas that Israel leaves alone, even though life in Israel is “highly segregated for Jewish and Palestinian citizens.” He emphasizes, however, that both Israel and South Africa engage in “Grand Apartheid,” which he defines as “an ideology that intentionally pursues the total dispossession and domination of one ethnic group of people by another, implemented by means of violence and structures of institutional racism.”

These detailed comparisons of the two versions of apartheid work to demystify Israel, as readers liken its brutalities and evasions to those of White South Africans, who eventually gave up their system. Moreover, South Africans lack the pathos and prestige that Jews possess in the U.S. and most Western countries. So, Israel is seen as simply another racist bully acting the way bullies act.

The great contribution Brown’s book makes to the struggle against apartheid comes, however, when he shares his own religious convictions, which were formed in the crucible of the struggle against apartheid in his homeland. His hard-won grasp of the profound significance to humanity of the struggle will resonate with Christians of conscience — and many others.  

He worked closely with his fellow churchman Desmond Tutu, of course. One of his favorite stories happened in 1984, at a time when the archbishop was leading the in-country, civil resistance to South African apartheid, while Mandela still languished in prison. The two clerics were on a train journey in the U.K. when Tutu, in his usual, affectionately teasing way, asked, “Brian, why must I run around like a scalded cat trying to get your fellow-whites to love me, while my time and energy should be given to the hurting and oppressed!” The answer goes to the heart of Tutu’s message and to Brown’s mission to liberate White people or their colonialist equivalent in Israel from the spiritual trap of Supremacist identity.

It is the oppressed who need liberation from apartheid, of course, as the African Black Consciousness Movement taught. Thus, Steve Biko, the South African, anti-apartheid martyr, declared, “It is a sin to accept being oppressed” by which he presumably meant a sin against our nature as made in the image of God. But apartheid oppressors also commit a sin against themselves when they cower behind walls of hatred and fear.

Brown says his own liberation from the poisonous privilege imposed on White South Africans was part of a “crisis of Gospel integrity” that shook the White churches and revealed that true faith was a path to “expanded identity.” That means that the “neighbor” a person is supposed to love, as Jewish and Christian Scripture command, is not limited by racial or ethnic identity. This expanded identity does not mean no longer having various identities but to take on a new identity with God and fellow humans. The painful irony was and is that religion has excelled in justifying apartheid in South Africa and Israel.

It is stirring to read of the liberation of Whites in South Africa that Tutu and Brown preached. Whites, as well as Blacks, were punished for refusing to conform to apartheid rules. But holding on to their “pursuit of ethnic equality and inclusivity,” Brown and his Christian Institute colleagues made “constant discoveries” within its “Black-White mix of activists” that were “crucial in understanding the nature of apartheid.” The movement transformed into a “prophetic community intent on sharing in the suffering of the dispossessed,” and thus “restoring the humanity of Whites.”

Brown’s purpose in writing the book, he says, was to “remind us that the fires of the South African apartheid struggle burn as fiercely in today’s Palestine.” Most disturbing to him is the contrast he sees between “the vigorous solidarity” then expressed by churches around the world about Black dispossession (with the notable exception of the the White Dutch Reformed Church, and some others) and the “reluctance” of many churches today to protest Palestinian dispossession.

In his view, the chasm is so deep between apartheid and what he calls “the Way” taught by Christ that a Christian’s refusal to recognize and condemn today’s apartheid in Israel-Palestine is tantamount to a flat rejection of Christ. In that sense, the crisis of Israel-Palestine presents a crisis of faith for Christians, a fact he suggests needs to be clearly proclaimed.

The Western Churches’ willingness to ignore the apartheid in Israel-Palestine is a general indictment of “the way Christians teach and live out the Gospel,” Brown says. The support given by the U.S. and its allies to Israel should be viewed as a dramatic challenge to Christians to repent at a fundamental level and renew their faith. The alternative is to reduce Christian faith to a mere security blanket for believers.

Brown explains that the most forceful way that faithful Christians can challenge the fundamental faithlessness of their churches is to declare the existence of what is known as a status confessionis, something pursued by the anti-Nazi pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whom the Nazis imprisoned and executed. Brown notes that the Palestinians’ “Cry for Hope” highlights how Bonhoeffer’s “confessing church” broke from the main Deustche Christen, which supported the Nazi state. To be true to the faith, the German Church had to plainly denounce Hitler’s policies, Bonhoeffer’s group stated. Invocation of status confessionis also occurred in South Africa as Whites and Blacks realized that apartheid stood starkly against everything Christ came to teach humankind.

In fact, several global institutions, including the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches declared a status confessionis and either suspended White South African sister churches for practicing apartheid or saw them resign in anticipation of being suspended.

U.S. churches are still far from taking such a stand, but some leaders in the Christian solidarity movement are now discussing the need to put their churches on the spot. Indeed, Brown told Mondoweiss that in March he will attend a residential conference in Britain that will be all about whether and how to call a status confessionis.

One day soon, perhaps parts of U.S. Reform Judaism will move down a similar path as its members realize that the time for temporizing is growing short.

Note: The book was first published in paperback in the U.K. in late 2021 under the title “Apartheid South Africa! Apartheid Israel?” It has just come out in an Amazon paperback and a Kindle edition titled “Apartheid South Africa! Apartheid Israel!”

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