It is not atrocities the ANC deplores; it is the Jewish State itself
In making its case for Lalela Mswane to withdraw from the Miss Universe competition to be held in Israel next month, the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture has said atrocities committed by Israel against Palestinians were well documented and that the government, as the legitimate representative of the people of South Africa, ‘could not in good conscience associate itself with such’.
The decision came after weeks of lobbying by the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement which maintains Israel is an Apartheid state. BDS is pushing against an open door. It is not atrocities the ANC deplores; it is the Jewish state itself.
It has always described Israel as a state founded on the basis of apartheid and has questioned the possibility of a Jewish State being democratic. This is a crude, uninformed and biased critique. Those interested in a serious analysis can do no better than to read Israel and the Family of Nations, by Alexander Yakobson and Amnon Rubinstein.
Israel was born in recognition of two national movements - an Arab/Palestinian and a Jewish movement - within British Mandate Palestine. Those supporting partition knew they were supporting the creation of a Jewish state, alongside an Arab/Palestinian state.
That was the UN’s position. Importantly, it was not simply the voice of the West. In fact, the West represented a minority in the General Assembly: the Soviet Union, the Eastern Bloc, many Latin American republics, Liberia and the Philippines all supported the idea of a Jewish state.
In the context of two peoples fighting over the same territory, partition of the Mandate was seen as the reasonable and moral option by the United Nations Special Commission on Palestine (UNSCOP). It complied with regnant notions of national self-determination.
The Jews were considered a people in the national sense, deserving of ‘a country of their own’ where they could be ‘masters of their own fate’, as the Guatemalan delegate to UNSCOP put it.
It needs to be remembered that the Israeli Declaration of Independence did not determine that Israel was to be a Jewish state, but rather that the Jewish State was to be called Israel. The new state would reflect the will of the majority population. This is why Hebrew has official status and this is why the state’s symbols and public life are legitimately and understandably Jewish in character.
This Jewish character is questioned by opponents of the Zionist idea. But it does not contradict the norms of democratic governance. A nation’s symbols need not be neutral: consider the flags of the
They all bear the sign of the cross. With the exception of
Even the contentious ‘law of return’ - seen by Israel’s critics as privileging Jews - is not unique. Many countries have similar legislation which favour national diasporas. Sometimes this involves arrangements for national repatriation, sometimes for immigration and citizenship.
It would appear that only
In the 1950s ethnic Germans - even after living out of
When it comes to the treatment of its minority Arab population,
States are never neutral. Think of the headscarf issue in
The truth is that minorities remain an issue in many liberal and constitutional democracies. But given Israel’s circumstances - most notably its effective state of war with most of her neighbours - the Jewish State has done reasonably well.
Her far from perfect treatment of Israeli Arabs is certainly comparable to the treatment of minorities in many other respected countries. After all, despite its Muslim minority, Italy’s highest court only a few years ago reaffirmed a law requiring that a crucifix be displayed in state schools. Few know that
The bottom line, then, is that
Let us be clear. No one expects the South African government to shy away from issues of concern in foreign policy choices. But one wants consistency and honesty. Would the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture have withdrawn support if the pageant was held in China, Zimbabwe or Turkey or in many other countries where ‘well documented’ atrocities have been identified?
Identifying only Israel as delinquent is, in the words of former Harvard President, Lawrence Summers, antisemitism in effect if not intent.
Milton Shain is Emeritus Professor of Historical Studies at UCT. This article first appeared in BusinessLive.