Opinionista Shaka Sisulu 5 March 2015

‘Dear John’: The day I became an ‘anti-Semite’

It is simply no longer acceptable to conflate anti-Semitism with a position where one asks Israel to take a more reasonable position at the negotiating table. It is time that South Africans realised this.

Early on Monday morning I received a break-up email.

It was from a gentleman whom I’d been working with on project we were both extremely excited by. In recent weeks we’d gathered momentum and so I was quite taken aback to read about his wish to withdraw.

Then I read on to “I see you’re a supporter of the Israel Apartheid Week. As a Jew I cannot condone such actions” and it all made sense. Well, sort of.

I imagine he’d seen my picture in one of the many newspapers and online blogs that had covered the launch of Israeli Apartheid Week at Lilliesleaf this past Sunday. I stood alongside the children and relatives of numerous other South African struggle luminaries: Kathrada, Dadoo, Naude, Chikane, even Luthuli and Mandela as we invoked their names, and memories in appealing for South Africans to support this cause. So yeah, I was a supporter of #IAW.

As for the second part of his reason – about him being a Jew and not condoning my actions – that’s not quite so cut and dried. Look, I admit that my first reaction was an internal nod. I understood. I have, over the past year, come across many Jewish people who, without batting an eyelid, conflate criticism of the State of Israel, which is what Israel Apartheid Week is, with anti-Semitism. Indeed, I had to admit to myself that I was now beginning to find this pretty normal. I know I shouldn’t. We shouldn’t. Just as it wouldn’t be normal to expect any observations we make about the Chinese or Japanese governments to be met with accusations of racism, would it?

Becoming a hater

So around the time that I first made public my views on the conflict between the peoples of Israel and Palestine, I received a phone call. It was from a Rabbi I’d met once, and hit it off with, seven years ago. I met him at the funeral of a good friend of mine, who happened to be Jewish and attended this particular Rabbi’s Schul. The Rabbi and I debated religion and exchanged a few choice words of Hebrew that I’d picked up from Jewish friends and colleagues over the years. Sometime last year, around the time of Israel’s incursion into the Gaza Strip, he saw my name on a flyer for a BDS March. I was to represent the ANCYL there, in solidarity with the people of Gaza.

Besides my political affiliation, I too didn’t agree that the most advanced military power in the Middle East needed to effectively destroy an entire city to protect itself. It felt a little bit like the US going to war in Afghanistan and Iraq on the basis that terrorists that may have come from or had links with those countries attacked America. We didn’t see them bomb half of Boston after terrorists struck there during their marque marathon two years ago – presumably the state realised not all citizens can be blamed for the actions of a few counterparts.


Anyway I was pleasantly surprised to receive the Rabbi’s call. But suitably concerned after a few minutes on the phone. I was going to be on a platform that advocated the death of all Jews and the destruction of the state of Israel, he warned me. He tried to convince me to not go to the march. I tried to convince him that the Gaza incursion was morally wrong and we had to make a stand against it. After about 40 minutes we signed off, still not having agreed on anything. Although I remained steadfast, I did worry – what if the Rabbi was right? What if BDS truly was for wiping Jews off the map? I didn’t want to stand for that. I mean, as we say in South Africa, some of my best friends are ______ (fill in stereotypical blank).

The next day I went to the march, still full of trepidation. I was astounded by what I experienced. Hundreds of people waving placards. And not a single one calling for Israel’s destruction. Certainly they called for Israel to account. They called for the freedom of the Palestinians. They called for the end of bloodshed. But none called for an end to any race of people. Could the Rabbi have gotten it wrong?

Over the next few weeks I found myself getting more and more involved in the protest movement against the Israeli incursion in Gaza. All the while getting more confused by the reasons that were being given for it – initially it was about young abducted boys, then about tunnels, then rockets, then about Hamas, the supposedly terrorist organisation governing the Gaza strip. Maybe it was about everything. Or more likely it was about anything.

In the 1980s, during the State of Emergency, the South African military frequently entered the townships. Under different pretexts. They even invaded other sovereign states, citing their harbouring of terrorists. In the process many innocent lives were lost, even children. They always were sure to give an explanation to the media, a media largely controlled by or supportive of the state. But we who had been raised to understand the role and value of propaganda could see through it. I suppose anyone who’s been raised to appreciate the value of human lives will also find explanations for the need to kill children unsatisfactory.

Many people I knew found the deaths of over 500 children quite unsatisfactory. But some of my friends found my actions of condemning this deplorable. I ended up in a number of invective-filled debates on social media and in person with people I’d known and broken bread with for years. There is always an internal conflict when a position you take loses you loved ones. And so I tried in earnest to understand what the backlash was about.

The new danger

The first principle of anti-Semitism I discovered was that since Israel was created as a state specifically for and of the Jewish people, any threat to Israel either militarily or politically (in that it is forced to change any of its predominantly pro-Jewish policies) is a threat to Jewish society.

The concept of a threat to the Jewish people is quite clearly defined by the mass-genocide perpetrated by the Nazis. I once overheard an elder tell youngsters a parable which was intended to remind them that six million Jews had been killed off. It is a powerfully debilitating narrative. As a black man, I harbour an inherent mistrust of people of European descent. I can’t imagine how much more severe this would be if I carried a number around with me – 14 million slaves, 1 billion colonised Africans, hundreds of thousands exterminated indigenous peoples in the Americas or Pacifics by the same people.

So the fear is real. Is the threat?

Well, let’s look at it this way, during Apartheid, which was an official government policy promulgated by a largely Afrikaner population, there was the ever-constant threat (fear) of a “swart gevaar”. Like bogeyman tales, elders warned youngsters to be vigilant so that the black man doesn’t rise and kill them in their beds. After Apartheid, we – lo and behold – discovered that this threat never came to pass. And yet there is an increasingly vocal minority of Afrikaners who say it has and that whites are being killed off in some bizarre state conspiracy to eradicate them. A threat, I suppose, is as real as the fear it invokes.

Perhaps that is what the state of Israel rides on. This fear of a racial purge that allows it to get away with murder and essentially Apartheid. Now let’s address this issue of Israel’s Apartheid.

Apartheid Israel?

The first time Israel was called an Apartheid state it was by none other than one of Apartheid’s finest architects, Hendrik Verwoerd. Angered by Western criticism of his official policy of Apartheid whilst not a word was raised against Israel, he made the correct comparison that the Zionists had, similarly to the Afrikaners, taken land away from an indigenous population that had lived there for thousands of years.

And whilst we can’t in good conscience rely on the words of one we so vilify, we can reliably unpack his vision for Apartheid South Africa. In it, racial superiority was buttressed and supported by Biblical and historical references to a “chosen” people, as well as blatant historical revisions such as the absence of the Bantu people when Van Riebeeck landed.

Apartheid South Africa relegated people who had been working and living on land across the country to reserves, and those who remained had limited rights. Rights in law, rights to practise, trade and live in certain places were reserved for the ethnically “superior” group. South Africa viciously enforced this with systems to manage and restrict movement, restrict opinion and dissent, and steadily dehumanise the native citizens.

These characteristics typify Apartheid according to the Rome Statute and UN convention; which says: “Inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group… over another racial group… and systematically oppressing them”. Whilst these characteristics might be similar, they need not be identical to South Africa’s Apartheid for the state to be considered an Apartheid state.

A few years ago, I got the opportunity to visit Israel. It was indeed the modern state that it projects itself to be. And whilst it is a police or military state of sorts, I was never stopped or harassed. I saw numerous dark-skinned people like myself, all going about their day uneventfully. In Jerusalem the followers of the world’s three influential religions all lived and traded together side-by-side. There wasn’t a single Apartheid-style bus stop or public toilet sign proclaiming “Net Blankes!”

My visit to Ramalah, the capital of the West Bank, revealed, however, a different side. It was behind huge walls, like those I recall seeing in Berlin. At its entrance is a check point manned by the Israeli military. Even the shortest of tours cannot hide the economic degradation, especially when compared to the Israeli cities. There is an air of disorder, compounded by the regular military action. The military is there to protect the growing number of settlements – little Israeli towns within the Palestinian West Bank. While Palestinians have to jump through hoops to get in and out of Israel, the dominant economic force in the region, Israeli settlers have dedicated lanes and armed convoys. Too often, areas in the West Bank look like refugee camps. Palestinians who before the declaration of the state lived in the area then called Palestine and now called Israel, lost their right to exist within the current state – they had to move over one border or another, often into refugee camps that still exist.

No matter how much we South Africans economically dominate our peculiar highly dependant neighbours, Lesotho or Swaziland, for us to willy-nilly enter with our military would be frowned upon. In fact it was resisted. In Maseru, they kept the outer burned facade of their old Post Office the same as a symbolic reminder of “South Africa’s attempted occupation”. Now imagine us building entire roads and settlements only for South Africans. Meaning the roads would be barbed wired and cordoned off as they are only for South Africans. In Lesotho. It’s absurd, I know. But that’s the West Bank.

It was one of the many things I spoke to anyone who would listen about. Alongside this idea of a two-state solution when one state was surreptitiously taking more and more of the other state, the smaller state’s land. One of the people who gave me a very clear and concise understanding of what was going on was a former Israeli ambassador to South Africa. He was working here in the early years of our democracy, and a huge fan of Madiba – he trapezed the country following him. He says, though, that he got a good sense of the legacy and impact of Apartheid. It gave him no doubt that the same legacy is being bequeathed to the Palestinians.

He provided a highly insightful analysis of the situation – Israel wants to have its cake and eat it. It wants to retain some form of control of the Palestinian territories, hence their objection to the Palestinian independence bid. This control is ostensibly to assure the safety of Israeli citizens.

But Israel also does want peace, and doesn’t want to be seen as a pariah state. All of these conflicting interests – control, land, peace, conspire to bring about Israel’s schizophrenic outlook on. It means that while it purports to support a two state solution, it makes it untenable by basically occupying and settling people on Palestinian land. A one-state solution however, strikes at the very core reason for being – a Jewish state. If it has one state then it will mostly likely have to be come secular to treat all of its citizens fairly. Currently Palestinians and Jewish people have roughly equally sized populations within the area.

“Israel has two options,” the former envoy explained, “either pull back to the 1967 borders, or risk continued instability and wearing the Apartheid tag.” Apparently this tag is almost as feared as the country being vapourised. Hearing someone say it so succinctly was almost as surprising as hearing someone suggest that this wasn’t a case of equal responsibilities for two equally matched warring factions. Since arriving in Tel Aviv, the conflict had been mired in religion and a 5,000-year history, whereas the solution always rested on the other side making the first move.

The other side, to be fair, would hardly be trusted if it were to make any moves at all. The narrative of them being blood-thirsty terrorists undermines that. I’ve often heard it pointed out that Hamas counts the destruction of Israel in its founding charters, from the 1980s. Well, prior to Hamas gaining any ground, the real terrorists were Arafat’s PLO. Countries that blacklisted them also did so to the ANC. I often point out that this transition from terrorist organisation to governing party was as fantastic a transformation as a pan-Africanist organisation (“pro-black”) to the non-racial party that crafted the Freedom Charter clause “SA belongs to all who live in it”.

I’m not suggesting that Hamas will become a great politically inclusive party tomorrow. I’m suggesting that when viewed through a prism of fear, it can only ever be one thing – destructive, and not warranted of a seat at a negotiation table.

That is what, I suppose, makes the South African model so special: terrorists, Africanists, supremacists, tribalists… each of these found a seat around the table and had a stake in ensuring a lasting peace.

Political will

One of the friends I fought with last year over pretty much everything I’ve written here was once a political activist in the ANC fold. He once adopted highly unpopular political decisions. Even today, he often feels he is standing up for something, someone, when he criticises the ANC for any perceived wrong-doings. On almost any foreign affairs issue, he stands on what I think will be the right side of history. He has a fastidious socio-political moral compass. Except when it comes to Israel. Then everything changes. He becomes a zombie, claiming any criticism is motivated by hate.

Claiming criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic is as disingenuous as reducing all criticism of the ANC to racism.

In closing I’d like to go back to my would-be partner, who told me he could no longer work with me because “as a Jew [he] cannot condone such actions”. It would make more sense if the actions he were speaking about were brutality, murder, mass removals, and fuelling racial hatred. But they’re not. The actions he speaks of are advocating for a different way for a state to secure peace around and within its borders.

As this week draws to a close, it is my wish that he, and other Jewish South Africans, in fact all South Africans, begin to reevaluate what they believe they know about initiatives such as Israeli Apartheid Week. And join the global movement to pressure Israel to the negotiation table in good faith. Certainly, for many of us our knee-jerk reaction will be to say “Ja, but the Palestinians must do a, b, c…”

Perhaps. But there is no substitute for the State with all the land and all the military wherewithal, and all the Western political clout sitting at the table unconditionally. It changes the game. It changes history. Like South Africa, it begins to shed its Apartheid skin. DM


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