“Around this time of year the steady downpour of anti-Israel propaganda in the media becomes a category 5 hurricane just ahead of the perennial favourite on the South African University calendar, Israel Apartheid Week..."(From a letter I sent to The Star in response to yet another misinformed attack on Israel from a BDS spokesman*).
While Politicsweb is a site primarily for topical South African matters the Israel-Palestinian conflict (the IPC) has been brought squarely into the South African political space by an informal BDS-ANC alliance. It is clear that in the fraught time between now and the 2019 elections, the IPC offers elements within the ANC, especially within the Western Cape, an opportunity for some Jew-Israel baiting amongst a population they believe is susceptible to the populist message. So this may be an opportune time to unpack this strategy and to examine in the process some of the broader consequences.
My letter to The Star (full text below) was written in the context of a relentless PR war against Israel for 2 decades under the BDS banner, and before that from the political Left as part of its 'anti-Imperialist' campaign. From the outset the media to-and-fro has had nothing to do with historical truth or understanding but has simply focussed on a broad set of morally stigmatising tropes devised by BDS strategists.
Let’s enumerate some of them: the Zionist lobby (now mutated into the 'Jewish mafia'), Israeli apartheid, illegal occupation, Israeli racism and militarism and, of course, genocide. That does not exhaust the list: organ trafficking, water deprivation, and anything else which political contingency throws up, can and is included as part of the demonisation project.
The full dimensions of the campaign go way beyond outraged calls for moral condemnation to include Lawfare wherever opportunity presents itself, the use of a pliant and corrupt UN as an inexhaustible source of anti-Israel resolutions, recruitment of youthful idealists, ideologically motivated faculty and well-groomed activists at Universities to mount boycott and sanctions campaigns, pressurising Governments and sub-state entities (like sports federations, Universities and cultural-scientific bodies) to exclude Israel from participation in the normal economic, cultural and diplomatic exchanges between nations. The list goes on and on.
Such a coordinated campaign needs considerable sums of money and expertise. These resources are readily available from wealthy sympathisers and governments with a vested interest in the perpetuation of the Middle East conflict. The depiction of Israelis as greedy interlopers and brutal oppressors and the Palestinians as helpless victims suits the interests of various elites, ideological groupings, religious activists and states with regional or global ambitions.
In short, it’s not a debate with rules of evidence and logic and some chance of resolution but simply the PR dimension of an entangled conflict in which various parties are invested for a variety of cross-cutting reasons of their own. Such conflicts are predicated upon increasingly well-understood universal psychological predispositions, cognitive biases, specific religious- cultural conditioning, group dynamics, historical contingencies, geopolitical motivations and individual agendas of various kinds.
Given this interlocked, multi-dimensional, causal infrastructure it will be very difficult to resolve the IPC. We can assume, therefore, with a pretty high probability that it will continue for the foreseeable future. Israel has no interest in perpetuating this struggle. Whatever benefits may accrue (eg. a few elite careers enhanced, national identity strengthened or simply techno-commercial advantages) are far outweighed by the diversion of resources, the stress on Israel’s social and political fabric and the downstream risks.
For the Palestinians it is a different matter. Their national identity is constructed on the twin pillars of a traditional tribal honour-culture and a deep sense of historical injury, and these elements in the national psyche have been exploited by both the secular and religious leadership. To this end martyrdom is extolled, the 'resistance' narrative is taught at schools and places of worship and low-level violence is encouraged to just below the threshold of massive Israeli retaliation. Hence the leitmotiv of stabbings, bomb attacks, attack tunnels, abductions, car rammings and shootings which runs through the fabric of Israeli life.
The Western media have played their role by systematically biased reporting, though not enough to fully satisfy the PR warriors of the anti-Israel persuasion. The bias comes in 3 forms: selective omission of Israel's scientific and cultural achievements or humanitarian/human rights efforts; accepting Palestinian narratives of events at face value when they know full well that such accounts are often materially false and are designed to demonise Israel; and finally by the more subtle distortion of reality through misleading headlines, images, and emphasis - a process widely known as spin.
The consequences are almost uniformly negative. While the IPC itself is a minor factor in the troubles wracking the region, it contributes to the dysfunctional logjam fuelling the factional battles consuming Middle East and parts of North Africa. Paradoxically, the fact that Israel-Lebanon-Syria-Iran are not part of the wider conflagration is due almost entirely to massive Israeli military superiority and its demonstrated willingness to use it against what, in another context, may be seen as minor provocations. It is specifically this disproportion which maintains an island of peace in a region of war. Let knee-jerk pacifists ponder that fact.
A corollary is that resolution of the IPC and acceptance of a small but advanced Jewish state in the region by the wider Arab-Muslim community could serve as a much-needed catalyst for modernisation and peace. Considering that Arab states contribute disproportionately to the world list of failed and poverty-stricken nations, such a development would be universally beneficial.
In the meantime, however, the Palestinians continue with the hallowed 'resistance', postponing national renewal indefinitely in favour of honour and total victory, however remote. They have been doing this from before Israel was born in 1948, egged on by a corrupt leadership and a collective culture which views compromise and mutual accommodation as betrayal of sacred values. The rejectionist stance is epitomised by the most salient clause in the Khartoum Resolution of 1967: “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it, and insistence on the rights of the Palestinian people in their own country.”
Since ‘their own country' means “from the river (Jordan) to the sea (Mediterranean)” according to the many pro-Palestinian rallies I’ve attended, it leaves little room for the art of productive negotiation. And so it goes…
“Bittereinder” politics may be heroic in its own way but the more hopeful, courageous and honourable path is to seek principled commonality. South Africa with its own history of oppression and domination and deep cleavages has managed by-and-large to avoid zero-sum politics. But tribal politics exert a fateful attraction on human emotions and invade spaces quite remote from the source. So ripples from the Middle East merge with the turbulence created by culture wars and historical injustices in South Africa and the West more generally, which brings us back to BDS and the ANC.
The ANC historically has had sympathy with those it sees as victims of Western colonialism. It mistakenly sees the IPC in precisely those terms, which may be understandable but is wrongheaded and false. Neither side, Palestinians and Israelis alike, are guilt-free and both have been guilty of excesses and human rights abuses.
But Israel was not the product of a colonial or apartheid enterprise in any historically meaningful sense of the term. It was indeed a project of national renewal in the land of its birth and was led primarily by socialist idealists intent upon creating a 'new Jew' in a land equally devoted to material progress and progressive ideals of social justice. Whatever its shortcomings of execution it did not derive from an intent to dominate or exploit the local Arab population.
The plain historical fact is that good intentions foundered on the rock of Arab rejectionism and intransigence despite noteworthy exceptions. The power of extremist Arab leaders to undermine Jewish attempts at cooperation and to mobilise Arab mobs against inter-ethnic collaboration is one of the tragedies of the Middle East and continues to this day. It encouraged the so-called 'realist' centre and rightwing within Israeli politics, sidelined the Left encouraging the emergence of a shrill fringe.
By ignoring these uncomfortable truths for reasons of short-term political expediency the ANC is allying itself with a political philosophy which is alien to the South African spirit reflected in our constitution and history. Even worse the political culture which is being imported by opportunists and agitators in the ANC has proven itself to be an abject failure in the Middle East and North Africa and is a threat to democracy around the world.
If Ramaphosa wants to be remembered as a great African statesman rather than another wily politician, he will deal with the budding BDS-ANC alliance effectively before it wreaks havoc on our own South African social and political life. I hope he seizes this moment and resets the tone for his entire administration.
Text of letter to the Star, 27 February 2018:
AROUND this time of year, the steady downpour of anti-Israel propaganda in the media becomes a category 5 hurricane just ahead of the perennial favourite on the South African University calendar, Israel Apartheid Week. This is the time young activists are invited to demonstrate their creative potential and solidarity with their favourite victims, the Palestinians.
However, 2018 is special. After a decade of ANC humiliation at the polls by the DA and the rotting carcass of the party exposed to public gaze by Zuma's reckless excesses, a small window of opportunity has presented itself. Cape Town is in the midst of a devastating year of drought for which preparation has been inadequate and the Patricia De Lille affair is ripe for exploitation. Yummy. So how about linking the Palestinians, the South African Jewish Mafia, Helen Zille and the DA to Israeli apartheid? It's a Royal Flush.
Enter Sharon Davids and other ANC councillors. The DA "fabricated" the Day Zero water crisis in Cape Town to set the scene for desalination contract kickbacks from the "Jewish mafia", according to a report in News24.
Enter Rumana Akoob (The Mail & Guardian, February 12: "South Africa does not need the help of Israel to solve our drought. Palestinian consumption is rationed to 70 litres of water a day and in some areas 20 litres a day. Each Israeli uses almost four times the amount at 300 litres a day." Bad people.
But then enter Kwara Kekana, the spokesperson for Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) South Africa: "Today, Israeli agriculture is suffering, heavy water restrictions are in place, and Israel not only cannot find a solution to this incoming crisis but refuses to admit that years of bad policy and water management by the state are its root causes." ("When a water dream turns into a nightmare", The Star Letters, February 23). So which is it?
Who cares? Israel is committing a "slow genocide" - Akoob again. But "the populations of the West Bank and Gaza are also among the most rapidly expanding in the world", according to an EU briefing in January 2016. Genocide or rapidly expanding populations? Surely it can't be both? Can it?
Of course it can, according to ANC-BDS - only too happy to join Alice in Wonderland. But in the real world occupied by real people, Israel is a world leader in efficient water conservation. And in the real world, ANC-BDS are pampoens who will sink South Africa unless our new president knocks them into shape.
Dr G Michael B Berger