A small, economically powerful Jewish minority has a perfect right to try its hand at some arm-twisting.
With yet another furore at Wits University over yet another Jewish concert, that perennial bogeyman - the Zionist lobby - pops up in the window. Should there even be a Zionist lobby?
Why shouldn't there be? That infuriating but clever Jewish habit, asking a question to answer one, settles the case at hand perfectly. What is wrong with there being a Zionist lobby? Conducted in the open as it ought to be in a democratic system, lobbying is nothing new or inherently sinister. After all, what is it but an act of advocacy for twisting public policy or swaying public opinion to favour a narrow cause. Advertising tries to do a similar thing every day.
Given that the Middle East conflict dominates world agendas, and has done for a long time, lobbies - pro, anti and powerful - are bound to be active volcanoes.
In the United States, it is the Israel lobby, Aipac, that raises concern. "There is a big bad lobby that distorts US foreign policy … way out of proportion to its actual support by the American public. But the offending lobby is not Aipac but rather the Arab lobby, which opposes the Jewish state." So wrote Mitchell Bard in a book titled The Arab Lobby: The Invisible Alliance.
Look today at Barack Obama's envoy to the Middle East, John Kerry, and his unequal treatment of the parties in the new peace process there. He has forced Israel to make concessions and allowed the Palestinians to make demands. It's not difficult to guess which of the lobby groups wields the greater power in the US, Jewish or Arab.
How they wield power is a different matter. An unhealthy lobby, Bard says, is one that tries with unlimited money to buy what it cannot win on the merits of its case.
So to South Africa, where two lobby groups, one pro- and the other anti-Israel, vie to influence the government and the public.
The anti-Zionist lobby, under the umbrella of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, vies with a pro-Zionist lobby under the umbrella of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and the Zionist Federation.
In a democratic country, both groups are legitimate. Why then pillory the Zionist lobby? In a way no different to what its BDS rival does, it tries to sway the government and the public to favour a narrow interest.
It does need to be asked, however, how the lobby goes about this. Is it more open than covert? Does it respect human rights and liberties? No lobby will have a perfect scorecard. Just because it operates in a democratic system will not make a lobby group democratic.
As you'd expect, office-holders can become self-perpetuating kingpins, holding sway over resources and making decisions for which they are not accountable. One happens upon the regular systemic bugs: cronyism, wheeling and dealing, misappropriation, bad decision-making. Some Jewish funders have withdrawn support for some Jewish groups; others have switched to a breakaway group. Who knows?: similar plots could have played out in the closed-off BDS mansion.
Zionist lobby support
How effective has the Zionist lobby been? In twisting the government's arm to do its bidding, it couldn't be clearer: outgunned and outplayed. Take the labelling of products from so-called Palestinian territories. The BDS lobby won that big battle without having to draw its weapon.
Given that it had the backing of the whole tripartite alliance in South Africa, perhaps the victory was preordained. Indeed, by any intelligent guess, the alliance would be funding BDS, along with the satellite nongovernmental organisations orbiting around it. Just last month one of them, Open Shuhada Street, which is connected with Aids campaigner Zackie Achmat, laid on the kind of programme irrigated by the BDS money tap when it paid an Israeli to enjoy the delights of Cape Town in return for spinning his yarns about Israel's wicked military.
If the Zionist lobby has been hopeless in twisting the government's arm, what impact has it made on public opinion?
Here it has made good strides. A recently formed body named Fairplay courts and recruits Christians to the Zionist cause by sending church leaders to Israel.
If the Zionist lobby continues to grow this support, especially among black Christians, it could make the government sit up and take notice.
Steve Apfel is the director of the School of Management Accounting, Johannesburg, and the author of Hadrian's Echo: The Whys and Wherefores of Israel's Critics.