When Nelson Mandela died in December and the world flocked to Johannesburg to pay respects, South African Jews desperately wanted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to be among them.
When he cancelled at the last minute and instead sent a hastily arranged group of a few MKs, there was a palpable sense of let-down.
Netanyahu’s decision, citing the trip’s high cost, was a PR disaster. Cost does not stop a prime minister of a vibrant, successful country like Israel from flying all over the world, either for important political engagements or high-profile symbolic events like the Mandela memorial. One can only guess that it was more to do with the fear of demonstrations against him.
Leon Reich, chairman of Likud South Africa, was disappointed, but understood Netanyahu’s dilemma: “One wouldn’t want the prime minister of Israel to be humiliated, and if Netanyahu had come to South Africa, there is a good chance that he would have been. Mandela always took the side of the Palestinians and although the government says it supports the two-state solution, the feelings on the ground say otherwise.”
Reich refers scathingly to the fact that only Israel is singled out for this kind of criticism, while the worst violators of human rights worldwide are ignored.
Not all countries sent top leaders, so why was it so important for Netanyahu to come? Pro-Israel Jewish activists, representing mainstream Jewish sentiments, feel beleaguered as BDS grows stronger.
Comparing Israel to apartheid, which most consider slander and simply part of the assault on Israel, is especially sensitive in South Africa where apartheid was born, grew and died and among whose victims South African Jews live. To their dismay, they see the label sticking. Would Netanyahu’s visit have helped?
SA Jewry, known for being passionately Zionist, consists of some 70,000 people today, having shrunk 50 per cent since the 1970s, primarily due to people emigrating because they couldn’t stomach apartheid or feared a racial bloodbath. Most went to Australia, the US and other western English-speaking countries, fewer to Israel.
There are moderate Zionists who understand the threats to Israel and have long defended it against apartheid accusations, but are furious at the ongoing settlement-building that threatens the viability of the two-state solution, which most SA Jews endorse. Is it foolish fantasy to think of Israel’s leader coming here, publicly staring down the anti-Israel camp and saying: “We are not apartheid. The military situation in the territories is for security. We intend leaving the West Bank so a Palestinian state can be created.” Imagine the consequences for him at home if he said that.
Israel isn’t apartheid, nor its people South African-style racists. But the nuts and bolts of military occupation provide a convenient palette for painting it so. When South Africans like human rights icon Archbishop Desmond Tutu go there and say they see practical apartheid — based on criteria other than race — as they recall it from home, they remember South African towns designed to separate whites from blacks; control of black people’s movements; different laws for blacks and whites. Outraged right-wing Jews petitioned to have him removed as a patron of the Cape Town Holocaust Centre.
The apartheid accusation is everywhere. Last year’s Yom Ha’atzmaut concert at a major Johannesburg venue, Gold Reef City, was met by demonstrators with placards proclaiming “Apartheid: South Africa’s history, Palestine’s current reality”.
Israel should be extremely worried about the “Apartheid Israel” label becoming fixed in peoples’ minds, much as the “Apartheid South Africa” label became undisputed. South Africans who lived for decades as citizens of a pariah state know the serious consequences.
Dennis Davis, a South African High Court judge and former chairman of Cape Town’s Jewish Board of Deputies, is frustrated by Israel’s coolness towards the current US-brokered negotiations with the Palestinians and its tardiness in recognising the South African lesson: “Already the BDS movement is on the rise and significant first steps towards disinvestment from European companies has begun. South Africans should know that once the sanction/disinvestment movement reaches a critical point, it will build a major impetus of its own. Finance Minister Lapid has recognised this threat, even as Naftali Bennett and the bittereinders (diehards) refuse to gaze toward reality.
"If a US Secretary of State, who has diligently sought to broker the kind of solution that most reasonable people know and have known for years is the only viable route to breaking the current impasse, claims that the Bennetts of this world have won the day, the BDS movement will grow exponentially. That is a clear and present danger to the future of Israel.”
Professor Ran Greenstein of Wits University acknowledges Israel’s security concerns, but slams the settlement enterprise: “[It is] a system in which Israelis live in Jewish-only settlements, under a different legal system from local residents, use different roads, have sole access to state services, and enjoy political rights and freedoms denied to their Palestinian neighbours… Progressive Israelis have campaigned against this oppressive system for the last 46 years. South Africans of goodwill should identify with this campaign, which resembles their own struggles against apartheid.”
Many on the Jewish anti-Zionist left were anti-apartheid activists. Ronnie Kasrils, former underground fighter and later government minister, compared Israel’s attacks on Gaza and Lebanon to the Nazi attack on the Warsaw Ghetto. In 2006 he asked the SA Human Rights Commission to say if comparing Israel’s actions to Nazi ones amounted to hate speech, which is outlawed in South Africa. The Commission said it did not.
The country’s most celebrated cartoonist, Zapiro – Jonathan Shapiro – known for his lampooning of apartheid and contemporary politicians, is Public Enemy No 1 among rightwing SA Jews for critical cartoons about Israel, such as one about Judge Richard Goldstone – author of the UN’s Goldstone Report in 2009 on Israeli human rights abuses – being pressured not to attend his grandson’s barmitzvah in Johannesburg through fear of Zionist demonstrations against him.
Might a Netanyahu visit have provoked a genuine public conversation about the rationale for Israel’s existence and the Jewish people’s justified struggle, which most South Africans have never been exposed to? Probably not.
Israel Apartheid Week is coming up soon on university campuses. During last year’s IAW, a concert by Israeli-born Berlin-resident pianist Yossi Reshef at Wits University broke up 15 minutes into Beethoven’s Tempest Sonata when protesters forced a door and invaded the hall, leaving Reshef to be escorted out by security. In a desperate attempt to restore Wits’ credibility for protecting freedom of expression, a disciplinary committee imposed penalties on the students.
And the government’s stance? Relations between it and SA Jews are mixed. It displays a schizophrenic attitude to Israel. On one hand, lip service to anti-Israel rhetoric to satisfy ANC and other stalwarts, with meetings and angry resolutions aplenty.
On the other, there are full diplomatic relations with Israel, though they are mostly pretty icy. Officially, the government allows — even encourages — healthy bilateral trade, which in 2012 was reported to be worth $1 billion.
But foreign policy often seems to be made on the run. Government officials make strong statements contradicting formal policy on Israel, with no reprimand. Like Deputy Foreign Minister Ebrahim Ebrahim saying South African officials shouldn’t visit Israel; and when former SA ambassador to Israel, Ismail Coovadia, ended his term a year ago, Israel’s Foreign Ministry gave him a certificate for 18 trees planted in his name – which he rejected, denouncing the JNF: “I have supported the struggle against apartheid South Africa and now I cannot be a proponent of what I have witnessed in Israel, and that is, a replication of apartheid!”
South Africa is a land in flux, still to consolidate its post-apartheid identity and the role of minorities, including Jews. It is 20 years since its first free poll, with new elections due in May. Political parties are cautious how they project themselves on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, a hot potato which can win or lose Muslim or Jewish votes. There are many more Muslims than Jews.
Few Jews are in politics today, contrary to a few decades ago when they were prolific, like Helen Suzman, Harry Schwarz, Tony Leon, Selma Browde and many Johannesburg and Cape Town mayors.
If Israel does not do something quickly to counter the apartheid label BDS is successfully attaching to it, SA Jews will become ever more embattled and conflicted in trying to defend it in Mandela-land. In the electioneering of the next few months, Israel will be one of the footballs tossed around for political gain. The situation is urgent; the time is now.