Demonstrators step on the national flag during an anti-Israel protest in front of the Israeli Embassy in Bangkok last year..
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Tensions between the ruling African National Congress party and the South African Jewish community rose this week after a senior government official threatened to punish students who visited Israel.
Obed Bapela, a deputy minister in President Jacob Zuma’s office, charged the students, who visited Israel recently under the auspices of the South Africa Israel Forum, with bringing the ANC into “disrepute” and said the party would “summon” them to an investigation.
Bapela said Israel was “offering free trips and holidays to embarrass the ANC,” adding that it was a “campaign by Israel to distort our stand on Palestine. We have a clear position that supports Palestinian freedom.
No leader of the ANC in a private capacity or for the party will visit Israel. It will be putting the ANC in disrepute.”
No official ban has been placed on members of the government or ANC traveling to Israel.
The director of the forum told Israeli media that the students “were under enormous pressure not to come or received threats over being kicked out of their political parties.”
Both the South African Zionist Federation the Jewish Board of Deputies responded harshly to Bapela, calling his statement an “uncalled for attack” and stating that it was “deeply disturbing that a member of the South African government should condemn and threaten to punish those who have simply exercised their democratic right to freedom of thought and association.”
“On a constant basis, visiting groups from South Africa travel to all parts of the world, including to countries where serious human rights abuses are taking place. Why is it only Israel that they should not be allowed to visit,” the groups asked in a joint statement on Thursday.
The Jewish organizations also compared Bepela to South Africa’s former apartheid regime, stating that his attempt to deter future students from visiting Israel was “reminiscent of the policy of the old Nationalist regime, which, during the apartheid years, tried to prevent people from traveling to Lusaka to meet with the exiled ANC leadership.”
The Jewish community and the ANC have butted heads before, with Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein last year accusing the party of having “betrayed the South African dream of peaceful and dignified dialogue.”
He was responding to a party denunciation of Israel that likened the IDF’s incursion into the Gaza strip to the Nazi war against the Jews.
At the time, ANC deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte condemned Israel’s strikes on Hamas targets as “barbaric attacks on the defenseless Palestinian people of Gaza,” adding that Israel had turned the “occupied territories of Palestine into permanent death camps” and calling for all South Africans to boycott Israel.
Several days later the party’s social media manager came under fire for praising Adolf Hitler.
A picture of the Nazi dictator on Rene Smit’s Facebook wall was accompanied by a caption reading, “Yes man, you were right... I could have killed all the Jews, but I left some of them to let you know why I was killing them. Share this picture to tell the truth a [sic] whole world.