Magazine

The South African connection

Prominent Jewish voices share history and criticism of Israeli government's policies.

Cape Town, South Africa
Photo by: Thinkstock/Imagebank
I recently read a Roger Cohen op-ed piece in The New York Times. You know the kind: vehement denouncements of the Israeli government's policies; encouragement of American Jews to voice their disapproval. In this case, he lays out his Jewish credentials upfront, explaining how he experienced anti-Semitism as a child growing up in England, perhaps, as a way of saying to the average Jewish reader: “Hey, I love Israel too – that's why I'm going out of my way to attack it in order to save it from itself.”

Peter Beinart has spun a similar narrative on his book tour to promote The Crisis of Zionism. He’s called for a boycott of all products emanating from Israel's occupied territories – again, as an effort to save Israel from self-destruction.

This of course, sounds very similar to the defense Richard Goldstone used after he was accused of giving legitimacy – by virtue of him being Jewish – to the charge that Israel committed war crimes when it invaded the Gaza Strip in 2008 to prevent the firing of missiles into its southern towns. (The only difference in Goldstone's case was that he retracted his findings, perhaps because Israel did not cooperate with him in the first place.)

Naturally, my mind has started to wonder what might tie these three “Jewish saviors” to each other.  I’ve come to the conclusion that their worldviews are shaped by their having either lived in or descended from apartheid South Africa. Of course, there is no shortage of Jewish critics of Israel, but compared with self-confessed anti-Zionists such as Norman Finkelstein, Tony Kushner and George Soros, Beinart, Goldstone, and Cohen stand out as the so-called “objective” Jews, and they make attacking Israel their mission.

I visited South Africa in the mid 1980s, when the Krugerrand was dirt, and you were lucky to find an international act playing a Polka festival. The bus from the airport had protective caged windows, and the driver prepared riders to duck if we came under attack from any unruly stone-throwing youth.

The surreal sense of reality continued in Johannesburg’s city center. I observed empty double-decker buses (whites only) race through the streets while the odd brown bus (blacks only) idled indefinitely by the curbside, loading up so many passengers that it reminded me of the famous photograph in which a bunch of teenagers try and cram people into a VW Bug.

On the positive side, the day I arrived was the first day that blacks were allowed to use the public swimming pools.

Coming from Israel, I had been given letters and gifts to pass on to relatives. Upon our meeting, they extended me a hospitality that I have not experienced since.  There were dinner parties in my honor – I was 19 years old; a weekend of water-skiing and barbecues along the picturesque Vaal Dam Lake, and numerous offers to board in their guest houses, which usually came with a driver and maid. I was the first foreigner they’d seen in years, and I sensed a deep need to show me what good people they were. It became my internal running joke that within 15 minutes of entering someone's home, the hosts inevitably trotted out the help to show how well they were treating them.

To be fair, there were many South African Jews who opposed the apartheid government, some even risking their lives for the cause. But for the majority of the Jewish community, their focus turned inward, as they did their best to live a normal life. Occasionally, talk of immigrating to Israel would come up, but it was hardly looked on very positively since it would mean giving up their high standard of living.

For Goldstone, Cohen and Beinart, their time in apartheid South Africa must've posed a psychological dilemma. They were raised with strong Jewish values that championed human rights and individual freedoms, but people they loved were living unscathed, in a country built on oppression and racism. (In Goldstone’s case, he actually was a participant in the highest echelons of the court system – even if he likes to describe himself as a reformer working within the system.)

Guilt by association is a real phenomenon. Following World War II, numerous German youth traveled to Israel to work on kibbutzs, some even adopting Israeli parents and changing their names to Chava or Yitzak.  But in the case of Cohen, Goldstone and Beinart, it would seem that the focus of their attention has not been Africa, but the nation of their people. It's as if they are trying to right the wrongs of their community by taking it out on Israel – no matter the infinite differences between occupying Palestinians in the West Bank and apartheid South Africa.

But logic is ignored to attempt to achieve a balance in the psyche. One need only listen to Beinart speak about his longing for the Israel of his childhood to understand how deeply rooted the past is in his present.

Of course, when Cohen's colleague Thomas Friedman joined the fray and accused American lawmakers of being wrongly influenced by Jewish money, it kind of threw a wrench into my theory. I am taking a closer look at his family lineage.


The writer is a playwright living in Los Angeles who has written for The New Republic, The Forward, Arutz Sheva, Canadian Jewish News, Dwell, Metropolis and Beyond. He is currently working on a new play called Boycott This!


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