Israel and the ANC: A response to Roy Isacowitz

Milton Shain says one has to ask why our ruling party targets the Jewish State alone

It seems to me that Roy Isacowitz’s reading of my article (‘Why the ANC Deplores Israel’, 16 November 2016) is informed by the title Politicsweb chose. In the original Business Day online version which appeared earlier, it was more appropriately entitled ‘It is not atrocities the ANC deplores, but the Jewish state itself’. This, I think, is the reason why Isacowitz (‘Criticise the ANC but don’t white-wash Israel’, 16 November 2021) criticises me for having ignored the occupation. But he has also accused me of painting too rosy a picture of Israel.

It was never my intention to deal with the occupation which is obviously a major issue. My article was premised on the idea that in lobbying to prevent Ms SA Lalela Mswane taking part in the Miss Universe pageant in Israel next month, the BDS movement was ‘pushing against an open door’. That is to say, the ANC, like BDS, has a problem with Israel’s existence as a ‘Jewish state’.

Hence its willing use of the ‘Apartheid-Israel’ mantra. It is not concerned about atrocities (or ethnic inequities) as a matter of principle. Witness its silence on many instances of oppression and discrimination in other parts of the world. Would the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture have withdrawn support for Miss SA if the pageant was held in China, Zimbabwe or Turkey or in many other countries where ‘well documented’ atrocities have been identified?

The ANC has double standards. Nation-states invariably privilege a particular group, and Israel is no exception. Only Israel concerns the ANC. Only Israel is consistently excoriated in world forums. Its enemies (as opposed to legitimate critics) wish to destroy the Jewish state, recognised as such since 1947 by the United Nations.

No one calls for the dismantling of Britain, France or the United States because of demonstrable ethnic inequities. One hears nothing from Pretoria about Turkey and its oppression of the Kurds and China’s current treatment of the Uighurs. One can go on.

Today, many South African human rights-oriented elites - both black and white, Christian and Muslim - consider Zionism (essentially a nineteenth century ethno-national movement or, as Isaiah Berlin put it, ‘the last child of the Risorgimento’) to be illegitimate.

History is ignored in a miasma of cherry picking and simple hatred. There is, to be sure, little empathy for ethnic polities in South African thought that, as Hermann Giliomee puts it, is informed by ‘a dogmatic or intransigent universalism.’ ‘Its point of departure’, he writes, ‘is that race or ethnicity as a principle of social organization is essentially irrational and ephemeral and that there is no need to make any concessions to it.

What this boils down to is the unshakeable conviction that there is not much more to racial or ethnic identification than the legacy of apartheid classification’.

Certainly the ANC, dating back to its foundation document, the Freedom Charter of 1955, has little time for ethnic politics or what it sees as ‘tribalism’. It has always viewed such politics as a means to divide and rule, manifest in the apartheid project with its proposed puppet ethnic ‘homelands’.

These ideas have been transplanted onto the Israeli state. In 1988, Dr Neo Mnumzama, the chief United Nations representative of the ANC that was still in exile at the time, put it bluntly: ‘The South African people have never approved of Zionism. They see parallels of apartheid in Zionism and therefore their struggle against apartheid automatically has overtones of anti-Zionism which is not the same thing as being anti-Jewish’.

This statement may have a certain logic, but it is devoid of historical context and reality. Importantly, consistency is absent. Sadly, in recent years the ANC has crossed the thin line between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. But that is for another day. For now I stand by my conviction that the ANC has a problem with Israel as a Jewish state. It should not!

Milton Shain is Emeritus Professor of Historical Studies at UCT.