Last month, an event occurred in Pittsburgh that suggested boycotts, divestment and sanctions with regard to Israel are becoming the norm in the US. It’s in this context that we need to view a local government minister’s recent statement urging South Africans to steer clear of the Jewish State.
A thought experiment: A cross-section of globally influential civic organisations, worried about the state of the world and the propensity of human beings to cause one another untold misery and suffering, get together to agree on and compile a document called A Manifesto on the Politics of Conscience. The document is informed, as suggested in the title, by the principles of justice, compassion and mercy, and is thus liberal and progressive in nature. What would be in it?
Granted, the United Nations professes to already have such a document in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but as the (in)actions of that august body have shown—in Rwanda in 1994, in Kosovo in 1998, in Syria as we speak—its tenets are subject to the whims of the world’s hegemonic powers, and therefore not really worth the paper they’re written on.
So, to start afresh, let’s say there was a document like the above that actually meant something, and let’s assume that the overburdened term “equality” was its driving force—a consequence of which would be that the right to marry someone of the same sex, for instance, existed alongside the right not to be treated as an inferior human being just because of one’s racial profile.
To anyone who has enjoyed even mild success in battle with their inner fascist, the logic of this thought experiment should appear unassailable. And yet last month something happened in the United States that was deeply emblematic of two opposing truths in the current human rights zeitgeist: first, the truth that some rights remain more equal than others; second, the truth that the Israeli government is in the process of hanging the Israeli nation by the noose of its own policies.
The event in question was the biennial General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America. Representing 2-million members and more than 21,000 ordained ministers from almost 11,000 congregations, the church is one of the largest mainline Protestant denominations in the world. Its investing agencies hold stock in companies that do business in Israel and Palestine, including Intel, Oracle, Coca-Cola, IBM, Microsoft and McDonalds. Two years ago, at the 2010 General Assembly, the issue of divestment was barely on the radar. In early July this year, a committee focusing on “Middle East and Peacekeeping” set a church precedent.
Known as Committee 15, it voted, according to Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, 36-11 in support of divestment from Motorola Solutions (for providing surveillance equipment for Israeli settlements), Caterpillar (for providing bulldozers used for demolishing Palestinian houses) and Hewlett-Packard (for selling hardware used by Israel in its naval blockade of Gaza).
The article, a column on whether boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) are a genuine means to peace in the Middle East or the cause of further rifts, asked whether Israel should fear the divestment by the church. The answer of the columnist was that it was less about the economic impact of the decision than the fact that the BDS movement might henceforth “be considered the norm in the United States, as it is in some parts of Europe, and even for some members of the Jewish community.”
And then, three days after Committee 15 handed in its historic vote, as if to reiterate the columnist’s assertion that BDS could become standard practice in America, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church upheld a ban against its ministers officiating at gay weddings, thereby perpetuating tensions that have roiled the denomination for years.
What did the one have to do with the other? Nothing, unless you take into account the minor detail that at the core of both votes—“for” divestment and “against” gay marriage—was the fundamental principle of equality. Palestinians across the sea, the Presbyterians were declaring, had more right to equality than local homosexuals, even homosexuals who happened to be born into the church community.
While it need not be spelled out how these events will confirm for both gays and “occupation” – denying Jews that the victimisation continues (regarding the latter, see the reader comments that will inevitably appear below), what does need to be spelled out and reiterated is the following: Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, the Knesset and the Israeli military machine are turning Israel into a pariah state, and the only way to stave off economic sanctions—as the Nats learnt in South Africa—is to retreat from their untenable position.
Taken in this context, last week’s cancellation of a trip to Israel of a delegation of KwaZulu-Natal officials was no more than a minor affirmation of a trend. The trip was to be facilitated by the SA-Israel Forum, which, according to Executive Director Wayne Sussman, has in the past facilitated trips for municipalities in eight provinces. “There is a lot South Africans can learn from Israel, particularly in the field of agriculture, science and technology, and there is much South Africa can offer Israel,” Sussman told the Mail & Guardian.
What Sussman didn’t tell the newspaper, however, was that the SA-Israel Forum’s chairman Nathan Friedman is also the current chairman of the Johannesburg-based company Cape Gate, which owns Yehuda Welded Mesh, the operation that built the fence around the Gaza Strip. This information was conveyed to the newspaper by Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, a board member of the BDS movement of South Africa.
“The KZN province should be commended for its principled position,” Ndlozi told the Mail & Guardian. “Now that the Israeli lobby has been exposed and, in a way, caught red-handed, it will be difficult for it to do its pro-Israeli work. All other provinces, municipalities and other structures should now follow the lead of KwaZulu-Natal. A precedent has been set.”
Just as a precedent was set by the Presbyterian Church of the US in July. But in South Africa last week, an even more meaningful precedent was set than KZN’s about-turn—in the self-same Mail & Guardian article, Ebrahim Ebrahim, deputy minister of international relations and co-operation, was quoted saying that his department strongly discourages trips to Israel unless they are linked to the peace process.
No longer a minor affirmation of the BDS trend—these, after all, were the words of a government minister—the South African Zionist Federation felt it needed to step into the fray. On Tuesday, 14 August, the organisation issued a press release detailing its concerns.
“Mr Ebrahim’s statements are indicative of a highly discriminatory and disproportionate obsession with the Jewish State,” the SAZF noted. “In further polarising rather than bringing together the various parties, it undermines the government’s oft-stated policy of supporting a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In addition, it harms South Africa’s standing as a credible player in resolving international disputes.
“One-sided boycotts only play into the hands of those who oppose a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian question. It is not in South Africa’s interests, both domestically and internationally, to support such extremists.”
Problem is, where the SAZF and South African government may be nominally in favour of a two-state solution, Netanyahu patently is not. Why else did he approve, in February, new financial incentives to entice Israelis to move to settlements in the occupied territories? Why do negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians remain deadlocked, with even their meaningful resumption—let alone success—appearing unlikely in the near future? How is it that the IDF routinely turns a blind eye to the violent (and ever-increasing) attacks by radical Jewish settlers on their Palestinian neighbours?
In short, by alleging that Ebrahim is “highly discriminatory” and “obsessed” with the Jewish State, the SAZF is playing the man and not the ball. To suggest that the minister may be a closet anti-Semite is to wilfully ignore the growing reality of the BDS movement, a port of last call for many concerned individuals and organisations. What, it would be interesting to know, does the SAZF make of the fact that the SA–Israel Forum has connections to the company that’s walled off Gaza?
The issue of imposing sanctions against Israel is no doubt sensitive and complicated, as evidenced by an enormous mainstream (as opposed to fanatical) American church deeming the plight of faraway Palestinians more dire than the plight of its own homosexuals (as well the former might be). But this is not the fault of the internal hypocrisies of any particular organisation or government department, it is the fault, most immediately, of Bibi Netanyahu. DM
Kevin Bloom is a writer and journalist. He is the co-author of Continental Shift: A Journey into Africa’s Changing Fortunes, a seven-year, eighteen-country investigation into the forces shaping Africa in the 21st century. His first book, Ways of Staying, won the 2010 South African Literary Award for literary journalism, and was shortlisted for the Alan Paton Award. Kevin is an Honorary Writing Fellow at the University of Iowa, and a former Writing Fellow at the Wits Institute of Social and Economic Research. His writing has taken him to many of the world’s conflict zones, where he has witnessed the devastation caused by rent-seeking politicians, callous multinationals, desperate warlords and misguided NGOs. As programme director of the Vuka Institute, he brings this experience to bear on the search for inward-focused responses to our most urgent collective crises. For more, visit www.continentalshift.co.za and www.vukainstitute.org.