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11 things I learned in South Africa

Arthur Lenk began his assignment as Ambassador of Israel to South Africa, Lesotho, Mauritius and Swaziland in early August 2013. Previously he served as the Director of the Department of International Law at Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He has played an active role in representing Israel before international organizations such as the UN Human Rights Council. He also worked as a staff member on the UN Secretary General's Panel of Inquiry on the 31 May 2010 Flotilla Incident. From 2005 - 2009, Mr. Lenk served as Israel's Ambassador to Azerbaijan. During that period, political, strategic and economic relations between the two countries grew dramatically including growth of Israeli exports from $5 million in 2005 to $264 million in 2009. Israel massively increased its oil import from Caspian Sea to Israel. He has also served in diplomatic postings in New Delhi, India and Los Angeles. Mr. Lenk was born in the United States (New Jersey) and made aliyah to Israel in 1983. He studied law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (LL.B. and LL.M. degrees) and is a member of the bar in Israel and New York.

As I approach the end of four wonderful years as Israel’s Ambassador in South Africa, I have been reflecting on many lessons learned here which will be even more valuable to take back home to Israel than the souvenirs I have collected. Here are 11.

1. Africa and Israel have so much in common and have much to share with each other. The concerns of so many people: food security independence, successful water management and a government capacity to protect us from the dangers of uncertain, often dangerous neighborhoods, have all brought Israel and Africa closer in recent years.

Israel, for many African countries, is an easier model than far-off European or Asian countries. Tiny Israel is arid, part of a complex, challenged region and has been successful in transforming from a developing to modern country in a generation.

Twice over the past year, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Africa to share a message that if Israel can achieve many of these goals, African states can too. Last month’s interaction in Liberia with the 15 members of the Ecowas group emphasised these interests and opportunities. An Africa-Israel summit, in Togo, is planned for October and will be another chance to exchange views and ideas to promote cooperation on development and security.

2. South Africa’s liberation story still has resonance and inspiration for so many of us around the world. South Africa’s peaceful resolution, as imperfect as it may seem in 2017, offers hope to people where conflicts seemingly have no solutions. Just as you had great leaders who understood that change comes via compromise, negotiation and rejecting of violence, many lessons can be applied to other conflicts.

South Africans are sometimes too close to your workaday challenges, political competitiveness and hyperactive news cycles to see how strong this message remains for the rest of us. This history and success can be an enormously powerful policy asset for South Africa if used appropriately, in concert with seeking the best paths and partnerships to resolve your own current dilemmas.

Of course, blanket solidarity and blind support for literally anything the Palestinians suggest (denying Jewish ties to Jerusalem at Unesco; rejecting all nation-specific human rights resolutions at the Human Rights Council, except for against Israel; abstaining on Israeli initiated resolutions on agricultural technology) does not build international or regional credibility.

3. Transformation can only come from being forward-looking. Both Israel and South Africa were born from great tragedy. Although Israel was born a mere three years after the end of the Holocaust, its leaders immediately focused on development of our people and our society. Such a world view allowed Israel to transform from a tiny, besieged, agricultural based country to today’s developed, creativity rich “Start-up Nation”. To be fair, Israel has had significantly longer – we celebrated our 69th anniversary earlier this year. South Africa, after only 23 years, is right to remember and honour its heroes, but its foreign policy, economic leadership and priorities need to more truly focus on the future.

4. Despite solidarity and real empathy with other national freedom movements, in the main, South Africa’s struggle movements clearly rejected terrorism. Despite an intimate connection with various Palestinian liberation groups, it pointedly did not hijack airplanes, deploy suicide bombers or target civilians. While Umkhonto weSizwe (MK), the armed wing of the ANC, carried out missions, its actions and policies in rejecting terrorism, as adopted too often in the Muslim world, allowed a peaceful transformation to remain possible. In fact, Paul Trewhela, who edited the MK’s underground newspaper and was a political prisoner in the 1960s, wrote in 2014, “Hamas in Gaza is not a national liberation movement like the ANC or the PAC in the struggle against apartheid.”

5. I am astoundingly privileged on a personal level. The South African conversation on responsibility, privilege and transformation has been a meaningful learning experience when it is respectful and builds bridges instead of abused for political score-keeping, recrimination and laying blame. The Jewish tradition of “tikkun olam”, repairing the world, is an important response to this conversation. Mashav, Israel’s Agency for International Development Co-operation, concentrates on skills development and knowledge transfer programmes, and government-to-government co-operation. Amazing civil society programmes such as Project Ten (“Ten” means “give” in Hebrew) sends young Israeli volunteers to do grassroots community work in Ghana, Uganda and in South Africa’s KZN province. Innovation: Africa has provided one million rural Africans access to vaccines, light and water via Israeli solar and water technologies.

6. My Jewish brothers and sisters have played a key role in South Africa over the years. Despite comprising less than one fifth of one percent of the population of this country, they have had an outsized impact on its economic and social development. Today, members of the community lead inspirational NGOs such as Afrika Tikkun that run community centres of excellence for child and youth development in places like Alexandra and Diepsloot and the job creating Oranjezicht City Farm Market in Cape Town. The Moshal Scholarship Programme provides bursaries to hundreds of young people from challenged backgrounds to attend top universities. Jews are intertwined in South Africa’s fabric and are focused on being positive factors in this country’s future. They are, of course, a natural bridge between South Africa and Israel. 

7. Surprisingly perhaps, South Africa’s Jews and Muslims have much in common. Both are very small minorities with long histories of social and political activism here while building proud, traditional communities. Both have deeply integrated into life over generations with similar interests, voting patterns and concerns. I was moved, last month, to co-host, together with Cape Town’s Jewish community, a Ramadan “iftar” dinner to encourage interfaith dialogue. It was beautiful to be with representatives of three different Muslim communities and watch them pray in the Holocaust and Genocide Centre building as Jews prayed in the Gardens’ Shul only a few metres away. I am hopeful that this event will be the start of more dialogue, understanding and coexistence.

8. Despite radically one-sided media coverage (one prominent media company literally has a daily item on its international page dedicated to demonising Israel) and despite limited engagement by the ANC, a majority of South Africans, of all backgrounds, are friendly to Israel and to constructive partnerships. A Facebook page for “South African Friends of Israelhas over 102,000 followers and I have more Twitter followers than any other current ambassador in South Africa. A wide variety of Christian churches are deeply connected to Israel and thousands go on pilgrimages to visit the Holy Land.

A fascinating recent survey by the University of Cape Town of black South Africans found that a vast majority of those asked have not even heard of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Among those who have, a large majority support both sides or neither. It also found that despite the huge efforts of a loud and aggressive anti-Israel lobby, only 4% (!) knew they even exist.

9. The Palestinian lobby in South Africa scares lots of people. They have violently broken up a classical music recital, put a pig’s head in a supermarket, chanted “Shoot the Jew” at a protest and regularly berate top level public figures such as the former Public Protector or the Leader of the opposition party who wouldn’t follow their hateful diktat. But they offer South Africans nothing – not jobs, exports or technology, or even bring support of actual voters for any political party. They don’t even really offer solidarity for Palestinians (they are abjectly silent about thousands of Palestinians killed in Syria or the total lack of rights of Palestinian journalists, women or Christians in Gaza). The path to promote peace, dialogue and compromise in the Middle East is through actually engaging and knowing the complex reality. South Africa’s goals should be to assist and learn, to promote dialogue along with its development interests and its real priorities with all sides in the region.

10. The lazy use of the word “apartheid” in regard to Israel is insulting to South African history and factually wrong. While there are no actual parallels, as people of all faiths, race and ethnicities take part in all parts of public life in Israel, the word is bandied about as an epithet for political expediency and to sow hatred. “Apartheid” is never used about Lebanon where Palestinians still have no civil or social rights, about Saudi Arabia where women and non-Muslims are second class citizens or Qatar where foreigner workers are still indentured servants. No, only in democratic, diverse, liberal Israel is the word used today, despite the obvious absurdity of the claim. Just like Jews are justifiably defensive about abuse and watering down of the loaded word “Holocaust”, so too, South Africans should forcefully reject an attempted hijacking of “apartheid”.

11. Israelis and South Africans are already working together. Bilateral trade is significant and has room to grow because of complimentary focuses. Over the past few years, Israeli exports to SA have increased despite the economic slowdown here as our embassy has prioritised trade relations. With a similar effort, South Africa could increase its market share in Israel’s booming economy. More South Africans visited Israel last year than from any other country in Africa. (Predictable advertisement: Come visit! South Africans do not need visas, non-stop flights on El Al, ancient history, world class cuisine and wonderful beaches.) In parallel, more Israelis were tourists to SA than from any other Middle Eastern country. We have deep co-operation in agribusiness, telecommunications and cybersecurity. There is limitless space for South Africa to benefit from Israel’s cutting-edge water management expertise to fight drought using techniques such as drip irrigation, desalination and technology to better monitor basic infrastructure and reduce water loss.

As I pack up to head home, I am grateful for the opportunity to have learned so much and discover so many friends in South Africa. It is abundantly clear that despite the often frustrating noise, South Africa and Israel have a wide range of shared interests and synergies that practically serve vital interests of both sides. There are important partnerships and opportunities that propel both our countries forward and offer tangible benefits for our people and for our regions. DM

Arthur Lenk is the outgoing Israeli ambassador to South Africa.


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