The two of us, an Israeli and a Palestinian, went to South Africa last month to speak about the Middle East. For understandable reasons of history South Africa is a major source for the “Israel is apartheid” accusation; it stems from the fact that many South Africans, especially blacks, relate Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to their own history of racial discrimination.
And indeed, in the several dozen meetings we addressed, we repeatedly heard the apartheid accusation. No, we replied. Apartheid does not exist inside Israel. On the West Bank there is military occupation and repression but it is not apartheid. The apartheid comparison is false and confuses the real problems.
As we travelled around the country it was clear to us that South Africans generally have limited knowledge about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But they hold many prejudices and these are fed and manipulated by organisations which are vehemently anti-Israel, to the extent of wanting destruction of the Jewish state, such as the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, the Muslim Judicial Council and the Russell Tribunal. Black trade unions join in the attacks and so do some people of Jewish origin.
Our host was the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. During ten days we spoke on five university campuses, at several public meetings, to journalists and were on radio programmes, including a Muslim station.
We were shown an e-mail calling for protests against our visit: it seemed that the anti-Israel hardliners were upset by an Israeli and a Palestinian speaking on the same platform and promoting peace. But there were no protests: the worst we experienced was a knot of about six people standing quietly outside one meeting. We were also warned to expect “tough questions”; but we didn’t hear any and instead, the large audiences — people of all colours, and mainly non-Jews — were attentive and wanted information about the current state of play in the conflict.
There were some hostile comments such as the silly sneer that Israelis “terrified of a few suicide bombers” and that it is “hogwash” to call Hamas a terrorist organization. In more serious vein were repeated references to the Palestinian “right of return”. It cannot be said whether those who spoke were genuinely responding to the plight of refugees, or were cynically using it as a reasonable-sounding slogan whose real purpose is to eliminate the Jewish state.
Nelson Mandela’s words in support of Palestinian freedom were flung at us (and also appear in propaganda leaflets issued by Palestinian-supporting organizations). He was quoted as saying: “But we know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”
That resonates strongly among South Africans and Mandela did indeed say that, on 9 December 1997, on the occasion of Palestinian Solidarity Day. But it’s actually half of what he said in the context of freedom for all people. His other (omitted) words explain the context and the dishonesty of the propagandists in singling out Israel:”— without the resolution of conflicts in East Timor, the Sudan and other parts of the world.”
Other falsities we heard were that only Jews can own or rent 93% of the land in Israel, and that Israel’s restrictions on marriage (which stem from Jewish, Muslim and Christian religious authorities) are the same as apartheid South Africa’s prohibition of marriage — or sex — across colour lines.
There was also a statement by the South African Council of Churches in support of Israel Apartheid Week in which it claimed that “Israel remained the single supporter of apartheid when the rest of the world implemented economic sanctions, boycotts and divestment to force change in South Africa.” That, of course, is nonsense: Israel did trade with apartheid South Africa – but so did the entire world, starting with oil sales by Arab states, plus the US, UK, France, Belgium, the Soviet Union and many in Africa.
BDS, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, is noisily vocal and gets publicity in South African media. While we were there it ran Israel Apartheid Week on several university campuses. But it did not garner wide support; some scheduled speakers did not even turn up. Its boast that more than 100 universities worldwide took part in the week doesn’t amount to much: the apartheid weeks have been going on for eight years and out of the 100 this year, 60 were in the US (out of 4 000 universities and colleges).
We did not pre-plan what we were going to say. But a consensus emerged: first, we both spoke in bleak terms about peace prospects in the near future; second, we each castigated our own leaderships for double-talk and pretence and for their lack of boldness and vision and we pointed to the growth of Jewish settlements on the West Bank as undermining the chances of an independent and viable Palestinian state.
We stressed that we welcomed interest in our part of the world — but warned that some members of Palestinian solidarity movements have never visited the occupied territories and they damage the Palestinian cause abroad because they act out of ignorance and they foster division and hatred between Arabs and Jews; they do not help to bring peace.
Bassem Eid is director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group and a former field research for B’Tselem. Benjamin Pogrund, South African-born, was founder director of Yakar’s Center for Social Concern in Jerusalem.