Standing on the piazza of the Wits University Great Hall during the annual Israel Apartheid Week, I often wondered whether equating anti-Zionism to anti-Semitism was, after all, no more than a clever tactic used by Israel advocates to defuse a difficult discussion.
US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s recent series of comments and tweets have made me seriously reconsider my assumption. Her sentiments, which were once beyond the pale in our public discourse, are being heard with greater frequency and volume these days, especially among those who consider themselves anti-racists, and I think it is imperative that we address them.
Before I elaborate, let me first set the context. It was March 2017 and I was a Wits student on my way to my 8am philosophy lecture on East Campus. Only when I arrived on campus that morning did I realise that it was the annual Israel Apartheid Week. Covering the Great Hall, the central point of the university, stood a giant concrete wall, labelled “Zionism is Racism”. This slogan set the stage for the events that were to take place in the week ahead.
That year, more than any previous year, it was made clear to me that Israel Apartheid Week does not seek to educate anyone, nor to challenge Israel’s occupation of territory captured in 1967, nor even to further the cause of Palestinian liberation. On the contrary, it exists solely to incite confrontation between the two groups and to create greater hatred among a number of factions in society.
Israel Apartheid Week does not make people aware of what is really going on in Israel; rather, it is a platform for people to delegitimise Zionism and to defame Israel, to the point of denying its very right to exist.
Before pointing out the changes that the hosts of Israel Apartheid Week ought to consider making in the future, I want to address the slogan “Zionism is racism” and explain why this false and biased charge is a deliberate, and indeed an anti-Semitic, effort to undermine the Jewish nationalist movement and deny the Jewish people’s right to live in freedom and security in their historic homeland.
Zionism, formally established as a political organisation in 1897, is the Jewish national movement of rebirth and renewal in the land of Israel — the historical birthplace of the Jewish people. The Zionism that the movement’s founder, Theodor Herzl, presents us with is more complex than what is portrayed by both the Zionist myth and anti-Zionist propaganda. It is an ideology that envisions a Jewish state and is rooted in the liberal principles of freedom, democracy, equality and social justice.
By painting the slogan “Zionism is racism” and denying Jews the right to national self-determination, and only Jews, I struggle to see how this can be called anything other than anti-Semitism.
It may be different for the couple of Utopians who consistently argue against nationalism in any form, seeking to bring about a world without nation-states, but this is not what the slogan painted in front of Wits Great Hall seeks. Anti-Zionism isn’t directed at any other national movement, but that of the Jews.
While there are perfectly legitimate criticisms that one can make of Israel or the actions of its government — and I have never been shy about making them — those criticisms cross the line into anti-Semitism when they ascribe evil, almost supernatural powers to Israel in a manner that replicates classic anti-Semitic slanders.
The Jewish power to “hypnotise the world”, as Ms Omar put it, is, in fact, the plot of Jud Süss — the most successful Nazi film ever made, produced by Joseph Goebbels himself. Since then, the myth of the shrewd Jewish manipulator continues to persist in various forms. I mean, in 2018 ANC MP Sharon Davids declared in the Cape Provincial Legislature that the “Day Zero” water crisis had been fabricated by the DA in order to score contract kick-backs for what she referred to as the “Jewish mafia”.
So, we can acknowledge that most anti-Zionists at Wits wholeheartedly embrace other national movements or at least fail to condemn the existence of any nation-state other than Israel. We can also acknowledge that the same people empathetically champion Palestinian aspiration and insist on the rights of self-determination for every other minority. What I struggle to understand though is how this stark double standard seems to escape them? What is it about the Israelis, exactly, that puts them beyond the pale?
So, if the BDS and the Wits Palestinian Solidarity Committee (PSC) aim at seeking a positive change in the future, then I would argue that they ought to restructure and rebrand their campaign. The way I see it — and call me out if you see it differently — the BDS campaign does not target Israel’s policies. Rather, it simply targets Israel’s legitimacy. Their emotionally charged campaign just incites greater hatred — so instead of building longer tables to engage in rational discussion, Israel Apartheid Week just builds more walls.
If an entire campaign is premised on hatred and seeks to consistently delegitimise Israel, how will we seek to bring an end to the occupation and ultimately an end to the conflict? Now, I truly believe that Israel could benefit from a week like this and genuinely needs an international wake-up call to realise some of the negative implications of its presence in the West Bank. However, by setting up a campaign that both demonises Israel and refuses to acknowledge its legitimate right to exist, BDS and the PSC are retreating from any form of constructive dialogue that may bring about any genuine change.
Let me conclude by saying that like, many other Jews, I am not a supporter of Netanyahu’s current Likud government, nor am I a supporter of the policies encouraging the continuous expansion of settlements in the West Bank. I also understand the harsh reality that Yom Haatzmaut for Jews is interpreted as Nakba Day for the Palestinians. One side may assert that in 1948, they finally found refuge in their historical homeland, whereas the other may claim that Israel’s establishment led them to being uprooted from theirs.
The Palestinians argue that the creation of a Jewish state in an Arab land was indeed an injustice to them, whereas the founding fathers of Israel argue that leaving the Jews homeless, especially in the context of the widespread anti-Semitism that prevailed in the 1940s, would also have been an injustice.
I can’t call out either side and say that neither makes a legitimate point, so in saying this, if we choose to realistically and pragmatically move forward from here, then both sides need to make compromises. BDS ought to acknowledge that the Jewish people also have a historical right to the land that is now Israel. They just need to recognise that the Jews who settled in Palestine did not conquer the land to enrich themselves, which is usually the purpose of a colonial invasion.
Instead of focusing a campaign on delegitimising Zionism and denouncing Israel’s right to exist, BDS should rather place emphasis on critiquing and attempting to bring a change to Israel’s current policies.
On the other side, we Jews ought to constantly remain critical and be willing to engage. I always say that a real Zionist constantly seeks a better Israel, and that is why I encourage every Zionist to constantly challenge his or her beliefs. At the end of the day, none of us can turn back time and neither side can truly prove who the land belongs to.
In an ideal world, perhaps, Palestinians and Israelis would peacefully coexist in the same land — but this is not the reality we face. So, as students, we must remain rational and we must remain pragmatic. I truly believe that student movements can play a major role in the conflict, so as academics, and foremost, as human beings, instead of creating a microcosm of the conflict on our campuses, let’s truly educate others.
Let’s first acknowledge each other’s cause — neither side less worthy – and ultimately find some common ground, something few Israeli and Palestinian politicians have been able to do, and which they urgently need to do if this long-running conflict is ever to be resolved. DM