Opinionista Marelise Van Der Merwe 18 July 2014

In tolerating Israel-Palestine prejudices, we re-enact our own divisions

Separating criticism of Israel from anti-Semitism is always a challenging path to tread, but it’s one that South Africa’s politicians – and our people – could be doing a whole lot better.

Peace is a tango that takes two equal partners dancing in unity; it is not a dance of one who drags around his partner at will…In your dance of peace you have no partners, only enemies. For your peace is his occupation, your success is his loss…Peace is still far away because peace demands honesty, because peace demands equality. You want to force them to lie, you want of them a peace of surrender, you are celebrating a peace of master and slave. Under such conditions there will perhaps be peace-and-quiet, but Peace, no. Not until you open your eyes and your heart. Not until we are ready for a peace of partnership and equality.”

Michael (Mikado) Warschawski, The Party Is Over: An Open Letter to a Friend in Peace Now

It’s not a good time to be a Muslim.”

I remember, keenly, the words of my partner at the time, a Muslim, the day Jean Charles de Menezes was shot; when there was still some confusion and before we had learnt he was, to add insult to injury, Brazilian, shot down because he looked dark-skinned and vaguely “foreign”.

Those words came back to me sharply a few days ago, when this time, a Jewish friend said in parallel: “It’s a bad time to be a Jew.”

Those two phrases have been sitting uncomfortably this week, while the dialogue on social media has left me pondering the words of my friends: it seems it is true, from the way the wind is blowing, that for some time it has not been a good time to be either.

* * *

Islamophobia has made its presence felt across the globe, in swells, for years now – it is an all-too-familiar flavour in the post 9/11 world. But it is anti-Semitism that seems to have spiked most recently locally: in the last two weeks came the controversial sow crate advert in Mail & Guardian, which it later transpired had been placed by a Jew, but not before some wounds had been opened and public comments made which could not be taken back; some days later Jessie Duarte compared Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to Nazi war crimes, which drew outrage from Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein on Politicsweb; and it’s been just a few months since the infamous ‘Shoot the Jew’ incident at Wits. There have also been incidents of anti-Semitism on Facebook and Twitter, which culminated in the now-infamous Facebook post by newly minted ANC persona non grata Rene Smit, which featured a picture of Adolf Hitler with the caption: “Yes man, you were right…” with the caption below the image reading: “I could have killed all the Jews, but I left some of them to let you know why I was killing them.” And then: “SHARE THIS PICTURE TO TELL THE TRUTH [TO THE] WHOLE WORLD.”

Smit, for some background, was formerly titled on her Facebook bio as social media manager for the Western Cape ANC and her profile is littered with photographs of herself, Marius Fransman, Soli Philander and other well-known ANC volunteers, friends and employees making the rounds during the election campaign. She also previously admitted to Daily Maverick that she was one of the brains behind its poorly-received Western Cape campaign video, is featured dancing in it (next to Fransman) and was in fact the person who attempted to report Daily Maverick itself – and this writer – to the HRC for “hate speech” for the self-same article that satirised that video, which we had described as racist in tone.

But we digress.

Smit has landed squarely in the dwang, and she’s landed alone, which must sting, given the single-minded and highly visible zeal with which she dedicated herself to the ANC cause. But here’s where it gets interesting. Although the ANC is refusing to discipline her in any way – Gwede Mantashe, although called on by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies to take action and condemn her post – merely offered a limp-wristed defence that she was posting in her personal capacity and on her own time. When, some days later, the furore had not yet died down, Keith Khoza chimed in to dissociate the party further from Smit and say that she was not an employee. On Tuesday morning Smit’s Facebook profile suddenly no longer bore the title of “social media manager” – which it had done, unchecked, for months – and the ANC Western Cape released a statement slamming the DA for allegedly erroneously referring to her thus. “Pipe dreaming on a wild goose chase,” the title read. However, while Smit’s bio no longer connected her to the party, some of her earlier posts still did, referring to her position in “ANC media”. There were claims that Smit had apologised for the post, although initially no actual apology could be found online. (She eventually apologised on her Facebook page on Thursday morning.)

It was not only the ANC that made a sub-standard showing. The DA, for its part, let rip with the usual canned outrage, as predictable and standard-issue as your average McDonald’s burger. “The post is not only anti-Semitic and hate speech, but can also be construed as an incitement to violence and is an insensitive insult to victims and survivors of the Holocaust,” it read.

But this is where the situation becomes problematic. The major voices on the political landscape – namely the ruling party and the opposition – are so busy giving the usual responses that there is no room at all for meaningful dialogue on what is a very, very important conversation in our country right now.

Let us be very clear: there is little room in the cookie-cutter statement of the DA, or the “not my job” response of the ANC – or their piously critical responses to each other – to convince the casual observer that either really gives a toss about the issue at hand. The point of passion here is how they feel about each other. The reason for speaking is the PR opportunity.

But the dialogue we should be having is a profound one.

The Israeli-Palestinian crisis is at boiling point and it is of supreme relevance to South Africans. Firstly, you would be hard-pressed to find a South African who did not have feelings on the matter: According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, as far back as 2007, 86% of South Africans in both rural and urban areas had an opinion on the Israel–Palestine conflict. Many South Africans identify with one or the other; especially amongst Jewish and Muslim citizens strong ties exist and, in an inclusive democratic society, these deserve to be recognised and respected as much as South African national identity.

South Africa and Israel have a problematic history, too, and one which is too often swept under the carpet: the relationship during the Apartheid years was, at best, ambiguous, with Israel oscillating between publically condemning the Apartheid government in its later years and privately assisting the regime, on and off, for decades previously. More than one politician still publically associates Israel with the bad old days; even the emphatically tactful Nelson Mandela noted that Israel was the last country to invite him to visit after his release, having been the only place not to have invited him at all for a prolonged period. To this day, many prominent South African voices continue to be vocal in their criticism of Israel: Ahmed KathradaDenis GoldbergKader AsmalBlade NzimandeZwelinzima Vavi and Winnie Mandela have all compared Israel to an Apartheid state.

But the problem here is that Israeli/Palestinian support is increasingly, in South Africa, becoming polarised along political lines, mirroring the behaviour of the parties at the apex. Because there is no meaningful dialogue surrounding the issue at the top of the political food chain, there is little at the bottom. Visit the social media pages of either the ANC or the DA and be amazed at the extent of the trolling when discussions around Israel-Palestine arise: reasoned debate is most certainly not the order of the day, with conversations frequently ending in threats, insults or virtual violence. Conspiracy theories abound: The DA is run by “Jew money” and is out to oppress Muslims; the DA is a front representing the voice of Zionist Jews in South Africa with Apartheid policies; the ANC are anti-Semites; whites and Jews are being persecuted in SA and we are on the verge of a genocide; etc. The race card, predictably, plays a part too, although its application tends to be more haphazard.

Essentially, though, the dialogue around Israel-Palestine in South Africa is ill-managed, and this mismanagement is driving polarisation in a country that can ill afford it. We have not yet completed our reconciliation process – it is a case of “so far, so good(ish).” Secondly, South Africa – as a country that has to date successfully managed some reconciliation, has potential to be an important voice in the global peace dialogue. Although it will, in this writer’s humble opinion, never be a major player in this conflict, and many South Africans may be grateful for that, the IRR’s Frans Cronje gives food for thought when he writes on Politicsweb, “A far better approach would be to revise South Africa’s foreign policy on Israel towards one of constructive engagement that looks for areas of common interest and understanding that could help bring the warring parties together. Israel might then find the South African government, given its close historical ties with the Palestinian movement, a particularly useful peace-broker.”

Cronje is probably unrealistic. But it is also true that the ANC has been vocal in its support for the Palestinian cause, South Africa is on record as supporting a two-state solution, and the country has birthed a number of influential leaders and writers on the issue, not least of whom is the very vocal Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who has never shied away from voicing his opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Earlier this week, Tutu specifically displayed a notable departure from his usual stance, condemning, equally, the leaders of both sides, and saying both Israeli and Palestinian leaders were behaving “like children” in a continuing tit-for-tat that had no end in sight until citizens demanded it.

“Once again, the people of Israel and Palestine are embroiled in a deadly contest of tit-for-tat violence in which there can never be victors, only losers,” he said in a statement. 

“Like children following a playground dust-up, political and religious leaders fall over each other, not to make peace, but to proclaim: ‘It wasn’t us, they started it’.

“The world is looking to Israelis and Palestinians to be bigger than themselves; to act now, before any more children are harmed,” he added.

What is particularly illuminating about Tutu’s latest statement is his change of tack – his sudden avoidance of taking sides. Certainly the South African winds generally blow more critically in the Israeli direction. But there are a couple of difficulties here.

The first is that, in reality, none of us really know the truth behind the news reports. As one friend put it, “Anything we think we know is likely to collapse at any minute in one giant house of media cards.” Journalist Eloise Bollack, frustrated by the various global propaganda machines, did attempt to reach a greater understanding by travelling herself to Gaza and sleeping on both sides of the border. “A few days ago, I was on the other side of the border, watching the attack on Gaza from Israel,” she wrote. “Now I am sure that the strike forces are far from being equal. Back then, a Hamas rocket also fell nearby where we were reporting. A small fire broke out and that was it… In Israel, the attack on Gaza has become more popular that the World Cup; thousands of Israelis gather every evening on hilltops overlooking Gaza to watch the blood sport…”

Certainly, sympathy for Palestinians is widespread, and in the liberal media there is a great deal of deep-seated mistrust for Israel – particularly after Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated last week that he was categorically not interested in a fully sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank, ever, emphasising the perceived need to defend Israel against further attacks. The speech was juxtaposed neatly with a refusal from Hamas to accept the ceasefire brokered by Egypt. It is also possible to track, geographically, the shrinking of Palestininan territory through the progression of maps from 1947 onwards. But the problematic position of Israel is made more problematic specifically because it does not justify the waves of anti-Semitism that are suddenly, curiously permissible. Somehow, in the uncertainty, human beings have begun fabricating certainties of self and other.

But it is no more permissible to allow anti-Semitism than it is to allow Islamophobia on the basis of political leanings: Jews, Zionists and Israel are three separate and distinct concepts which have somehow become interchangeable in a wave of hatred that has come to a head as far afield as South Africa – on as obscure a platform as an ANC volunteer’s Facebook feed.

But the bottom line is, we don’t know. The only thing we do know for sure is that whatever one’s political position on Israel/Palestine, hate speech is hate speech – and it is illegal, indefensible and should not form part of the political discourse on matters of international interest. Neither anti-Semitism nor Islamophobia have a place in South Africa’s democracy, nor its foreign relations, and hate speech is a contravention of The Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act, nr4/2000, specifically Chapter 2(7)(a). It further, as noted in the complaint lodged with the HRC against Smit, breaches the rights to equality and human dignity as enshrined in the Bill of Rights.

SHARE THIS PICTURE TO TELL THE TRUTH TO THE WHOLE WORLD.”

It’s enough to make you shiver.

The ANC should not only be distancing itself from Rene Smit and declaring, defensively, “She’s not ours!” It should move beyond statements that hurl playground-variety insults at the DA and condemn, of its own accord and in the strongest possible terms, any cruelty and hate speech from any quarters.

Meanwhile the DA should not only leap up to cry foul when it senses a PR opportunity to make the ANC look bad. It should engage thoughtfully and transparently with the Israel-Palestine issue on a consistent basis – and it should be equally concerned with intelligent, meaningful and conciliatory dialogue from both sides.

Politically, we are simply re-engraving the old divisions. It’s deeply ironic that we’re debating the existence of an Israeli Apartheid, when we’re re-enacting our own Apartheid divisions in the debating of it.

* * *

Some years ago, I attended a theatre piece put on by a small group of Israelis and Palestinians that had felt moved to visit South Africa. They were ordinary people, doing something akin to the local Bonfire Theatre group, with inspiration from truth commissions around the world. They were moved to visit South Africa because of our history, and who we were, and how far we had come.

There were about ten of them.

What they did was improvisation. But it was nothing like theatre sports. It was raw, painful, bitter. It had taken them about a year of hard, painful processing and furious, hurtful conversation to get to where they were. They told each other’s stories. Israelis told the stories of Palestinians. Palestinians told the stories of Israelis. They performed each other’s pain.

What they did on that dark, stark stage, with no props – just their voices and bodies – left me without words. I went home and sobbed.

It moved me not just because of the content. It moved me because it was so impotent.

But they wanted to come to South Africa, because we know how to do this. Except when one looks at the polarisation being driven by the tolerance of first Islamophobia, and now anti-Semitism – maybe we don’t.

Maybe we have forgotten.

That year, ten brave, broken people came to South Africa to learn to communicate. But they were braver than us. Because now, a communication rep from the ruling party – whether there as a volunteer or employee – is “showing the world the truth” about Jews. Unchecked. Because, unlike those ten brave travellers, nobody wants to hold up the mirror. Oh, the irony.

Holocaust survivor Ruth Kluger writes in her memoirs of the legend of the horseman who rode across a lake of ice. He survived. But when he got to the other side, he looked back and died of fright.

South Africa has ridden across that lake of ice. Or maybe we’re not across yet. Something tells me we’re on very thin ice now. But we can’t possibly know. Because we’re not brave enough for introspection, and nobody’s looking back. DM

Read more:

  • Netanyahu finally speaks his mind in Times of Israel;

  • On the ground in Gaza in Con mag.

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