The SAJBD's submission on DTI's Israel labelling proposal

Wendy Kahn says Minister Rob Davies had an overtly disdainful attitude to their concerns

Oral submission by Wendy Kahn, National Director, SA Jewish Board of Deputies to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Trade and Industry Meeting, September 21 2012

I would like to thank the Portfolio committee for allowing us the opportunity to share with you our concerns regarding the proposed legislation Government Gazette Notice 379 of 2012.

The SA Jewish Board of Deputies is the representative body of SA Jewry and it is our responsibility to engage with government on behalf of our community. In the majority of our interaction with government, we deal specifically with South African issues in the context of the needs and concerns of the Jewish community and the role it can play as an involved, constructive part of the greater society. At times, however, we consider it necessary to also speak out on matters relating to the State of Israel. This is in light of the strong emotional, religious and ethnic bonds that most South African Jews have with Israel and the widespread distress that result from perceived threats to its relationship with South Africa.

I would like to say from the outset that we are not opposed in principle to the accurate and correct labelling of products; in fact we applaud DTI's vigilance in wanting to provide full labelling disclosure for the consumer. What we do object to is the manner in which this process has been politicized, to the country-specific and discriminatory nature of the proposed measures and to the fact that the necessary consultative processes have not been followed by those driving the process.

From September 2011 to May 2012, we wrote on 33 occasions to the Minister of Trade and Industry's offices requesting a meeting in which we could voice our concerns and discuss possible solutions that would still address the requirements of the consumer while not causing distress to our community. Unfortunately, the record shows that the Minister chose not to meet with us, opting instead only to hear representations from Open Shuhada Street. He thus decided to go ahead with the Government Gazette Notice after hearing the views solely of one small lobby group with a distinct political agenda while rejecting the input from the representative body of SA Jewry, a body also with a distinct interest in this matter.

Following the furor that the notice caused, and only after the intervention of the Presidency following our request for assistance in this matter, the Minister did finally agree to meet with the representative Jewish leadership. This meeting, however, proved to be little short of hostile. It was characterized throughout by the Minister's overtly disdainful attitude towards our concerns and complete lack of interest in either debating the merits of the objections raised or of finding alternate and less confrontational ways of introducing this legislation. Declining to engage or debate the points raised, he simply brushed them aside with the dismissive comment that if we objected we were welcome to put in a written submission. His hostile attitude continued long after the meeting with our community being excluded from the process and with the media being our only access to important information on an issue that deeply affects us.

We did in fact prepare such a submission, which was presented to the Minister's office on 27 June 2012. Much to our surprise, in a news article in Haaretz by Jeremy Gordin dated 23 August, the Minister was quoted as saying that there was "no need for further consultation with anyone. I will tell you that the overwhelming thrust of most of the submissions was in the direction in which we headed."

We were frankly astounded by this assertion on the Minister's part. We were privy to many of the submissions that were presented to the Minister's office both from the Jewish and Christian communities and I can assure this body that these submissions were in no way supportive of this notice in the way that it was being applied. It is a pity that there has not been transparency in terms of the content of the submissions received. The Minister's refusal to consult further was in our view, wholly inconsistent with government's commitment to consultation and stakeholder involvement. In the same article, the Minister stated that the legislation was basically a ‘done deal' following a cabinet memo.

If the Minister had taken the trouble to meaningfully consult with us in the way that this Portfolio Committee is doing, he would understand that we are not opposed to the legislation. He would realize that we are very reasonable in terms of our understanding of this situation. We have suggestions and proposals that could result in a compromise that would satisfy the various parties.

Much of the disquiet felt by the SAJBD, which was shared in some way by the above-mentioned parties that also made written submissions, was the manner in which the Notice was worded. The effect of that wording was to overtly politicize what was supposedly a technical, trade issue relating to consumer protection.

From both a legal and historical perspective, the reference in the Notice to ‘Occupied Palestinian Territories' is deeply problematic. The territory that the Minister refers to is disputed land; at this time it belongs to neither Palestine nor Israel. It was determined following the 1995 Oslo Accords agreed to by both parties that this area would be considered a territory that would be subject to negotiation between the two countries and that until agreement was reached its status would be in abeyance.

While we understand that in these terms it is technically incorrect to label products emanating from such disputed areas as being products of Israel, it is just as incorrect to refer to them as having been produced in "Occupied Palestinian Territory'. It is not for South Africa, or any other country, to unilaterally determine the ownership of a disputed region whose status remains subject to the terms of a final settlement between the parties directly concerned.

We are cognizant and distressed by the suffering in the region and the SAJBD has repeatedly endorsed the view, one that is held by the greater part of the international community as well as our own government, that the Israeli-Palestinian question must be resolved by means of a negotiated, two-state solution leading to the creation of a viable Palestinian state co-existing alongside Israel in peace and mutually secure borders. This notice however is in no way helpful in assisting the peace process that we all long for; it functions merely to further polarize the parties. The key to achieving that goal, however, can only be through a negotiation process between the parties concerned and not through unilateral pronouncements from outside parties, particularly when such pronouncements prejudge the issue in favor of one or the other as the Minister's Notice clearly has done.

It is for the above reasons that the SAJBD feels deeply uncomfortable by this term and has on several occasions requested that the Minister work with us to find a term that more accurately and with the minimum of provocation describes the reality of what exists in the territories concerned. We have made several suggestions, such as labelling the products according to the town/city or Kibbutz from where it originates. In this way, the purpose of accurate labelling of place of origin is accomplished in an accurate and less confrontational manner.

Minister Davies told this committee earlier this week, "with the matter having been raised, what do we do? Do we ignore?" No Minister Davies, but before you go forward with a notice in the Government Gazette that you know will cause much distress and anxiety within a component of the South African population, you at least meet with the stakeholders representing those constituencies to ascertain whether there is a way to achieve the same result without unnecessarily antagonizing them.

The Minister's dismissive attitude towards the mainstream Jewish leadership and the overtly biased, politicized wording of his Notice has fostered a suspicion that the ultimate goal is not to resolve a consumer protection matter through more accurate product labelling but rather a punitive action against Israel carried out at the behest of an anti-Israel lobby group. Deputy Minister Marius Fransman has since reinforced this belief in a speech given in Athlone on 14 July, in which he said "I am glad to inform you that our Government, through the Ministry of Trade and Industry has recently, released a Government notice 379 of 2012, as a strategy to apply economic pressure on Israel."

I now will raise the question of country-specific discrimination. Had the intention been to introduce more accurate labelling of products from disputed territories in general, it would have been unnecessary to single out only one such disputed territory. The notice could have spoken of "Labelling of Products originating from disputed territories". It could have been applied to all international zones that are considered occupied, such as Northern Cyprus, Western Sahara, Tibet and Kashmir, to name but a few. But no - the Notice ignores these other disputed areas and focuses only on the case involving the Jewish State. If the intention is to provide the consumer with clear knowledge of place of origin, why only concentrate on this one area? The discriminatory nature of the legislation provides further evidence that its aim is not enhanced consumer protection but rather the pursuit of an anti-Israel political agenda, in the words of Deputy Minister Fransman, "to apply economic pressure on Israel".

In light of this, we would question whether this punitive action is consistent with international relations strategy of even handedness in dealing with our Government's international relations strategy. For example, on 20 July South Africa abstained from a resolution at the UN Security Council because it "favoured one side of the conflict" and according to DM Ebrahim, "We felt the resolution was unbalanced, it only targeted the Syrian government". Last month, Mr Ebrahim made the following comments at a MENA conference in Pretoria: "Although South Africa prefers that countries solve their own problems and without interference from outside, there is often a need for the international community to play a meaningful role in an impartial manner when countries are unable to solve the issues peacefully," These noble International Relations principles of balance and impartiality are notably absent from this proposed legislation.

All we are looking for is for this legislation to protect the rights of the consumer by providing them a right to know without using unnecessarily inflammatory terminology. Since no bi-lateral trade agreement exists with Israel, the labelling legislation is governed by the World Trade Organisation regulations which clearly states in relation to rules of origin that they are required to be administered in a "consistent, uniform, impartial and reasonable manner". They must be clearly defined and may not, of themselves create restrictive, distorting or disruptive effects on international trade." The singling out of Israel, as well as the intentionally provocative and inaccurate term ‘Occupied Palestinian Territories' does just that.

Minister Davies has often mentioned that this labeling legislation has already been in operation in the European Union, but in fact he is being disingenuous. He fails to explain that the EU and Israel have a bilateral trade agreement including free trade and that this preferential arrangement cannot include a disputed region that is not considered part of Israel. In other words, the issue here revolves entirely around technical, trade-related concerns and bears no resemblance to the clearly politically-driven process that has been introduced in this country.

This scenario is based on customs principles and not with political agendas as with the South African scenario. The EU and the UK do not use the term `Occupied Palestinian Territories' in their labelling but rather use custom entry codes or the names of the towns of origin. They achieve their technical objectives without causing offense.

It is a complex situation and the reality is that it affects South Africa and Israel little in financial terms. But the divisive impact that Minister Davies' labelling strategy has on the two communities in South Africa that been forced into this very unpleasant and very avoidable fray is enormous. Had the Minister agreed to one of our 33 meeting requests and consulted with us, we could have avoided the very public national and international spat that has ensued. It could have prevented the ugly polarization process that has resulted between the Jewish and Muslim communities, each desperately drumming up support for and against this legislation. We are perplexed by the zeal with which this process has been embarked on to the detriment of the social cohesion process that we participated in earlier this year.

Again we have no problem with labelling products according to their origins. However, let's do this through a genuinely open, constructive consultative process in which all stakeholders are allowed to have input. Through this, we as South Africans can arrive at a solution that enables us all to feel comfortable with the final result while fully ensuring that the technical, trade requirements of the matter at hand are fully complied with.

Issued by the SAJB, September 21 2012

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