The failure of South Africa’s Israel Apartheid Week

“Israel Apartheid Week” has seen an outpouring of vitriol aimed not only at Israel but also at SA Jewry.

A man wearing a T-shirt that says, ‘Boycott Israel Apartheid’ holds a Palestinian flag during a protest, while below, an artificial beach is set up with the theme ‘Tel Aviv on the Seine,' (photo credit: REUTERS)
A man wearing a T-shirt that says, ‘Boycott Israel Apartheid’ holds a Palestinian flag during a protest, while below, an artificial beach is set up with the theme ‘Tel Aviv on the Seine,'
(photo credit: REUTERS)
For South African Jewry, “Israel Apartheid Week” (IAW) has always been the most dreaded period on the Jewish calendar. This year, however, it became one of celebration, culminating in the first formal diplomatic engagement between South Africa and Israel in years. Both foreign ministry director generals share a desire to deepen dialogue and have agreed on improved cooperation between the two countries.
Over the years, IAW has seen an outpouring of vitriol aimed not only at Israel but also at SA Jewry. Previous campaigns have seen numerous ugly incidents taking place countrywide. But this year was different. 2016 saw a major shift on our campuses, in the traditional media and in the social media.
Initially, it looked as if things would follow the same course as in previous years. At Wits University the Palestinian Solidarity Committee (PSC), to get around the university’s decision that the display venue be shared with the SA Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS), occupied the space a week earlier through fraudulently posing as the Orienteering Club when applying to book the venue.
The university’s senior executive team described the ploy as “irresponsible and duplicitous” and gave the assurance that disciplinary action would be taken against those responsible, as well as against those PSC members who attempted to disrupt a Jewish religious study session.
That the PSC engaged in such blatant acts of deception showed once again how afraid IAW activists are to permit any other perspective but their own to be heard. As Jewish Agency International spokesperson Avi Mayer remarked on a recent visit to South Africa, it indicates that ultimately, the Boycott Israel lobby recognize that they are unable to win the intellectual argument, and hence must resort to intimidation, censorship and, where necessary, deceit.
On the first day of IAW, the PSC decided to boycott its own boycott. On the SAUJS side were colorful posters aimed at encouraging discussion and dialogue on the theme, “Let’s talk solutions.” Jewish and non-Jewish students engaged with outstanding speakers well prepared to engage in these conversations that SAUJS had arranged to be on hand. By contrast, the PSC side was eerily quiet.
The only incident was when two of its supporters seized a pile of SAUJS posters and proceeded to destroy them, all the while pontificating about the evil Zionists on campus.
Their YouTube debut shares their moment of “glory.”
More hate was still to be unleashed by the PSC, however, with large black mannequins being hung from the neck on various parts of campus to draw attention to their anger against the university administration. In their zeal to spread their message, however, the PSC had miscalculated once again. Those really hurt and traumatized by the stunt were not the university, or indeed the Jewish students that were being targeted indirectly but rather young black students, who were outraged. This “oops moment” led to an apology which had an unintended and pivotal message: “In no way did we intend to appropriate the struggles of black people in promoting the Palestinian cause.” It has taken a decade for any of the BDS-style (boycott, divestment and sanctions) groups to acknowledge this pivotal fact – that likening Israel to Apartheid South Africa is nothing more than an opportunistic and manipulative exercise, a warped misappropriation of our country’s tragic legacy for cynical political gain.
Next we saw the ducking and diving of the BDS leadership, whose normally vociferous public relations Officer Kwara Kekana suddenly became quite shy. The widely publicized online Daily Vox “hangout” calling for tweets and whatsapps that Kekana would respond to on the topic of IAW was canceled when BDS pulled out. The speculation was that it was in response to a critical article by political commentator Steven Friedman, entitled “How the incompetence of BDS SA has promoted Zionism in SA.” This scathing article enraged BDS board member Prof. Farid Esack, who responded, “This is F***n malicious: Couldn’t you guys have waited a week or two until after IAW to run this piece? Just what is their agenda?” Unable once again to curb the anti-Semitic foundation of the BDS movement, this year’s IAW highlight was to have been protests outside Investec Bank and Discovery Health. For those of us who have been monitoring BDS’s operation, the targeting of Jewish business is nothing new. For years, BDS has exclusively targeted companies that are founded, owned or managed by Jew, notably Reggies, Cape Gate, Dischem, Cape Union Mart and Woolworths. The envisaged protest has since been “postponed,” making this yet another instance of BDS failure (although the word “postponed” signals its intention to further target Jewish business).
Amid all this blundering, vitriol and provocation by the BDS movement, a voice of peace and reconciliation emerged. Prof. Mohammed Dajani, formerly a hard-line Fatah member and today a committed peace activist, was brought out by the Jewish community to share his vision with the greater South African community. For Dajani, the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lies in both sides listening to and understanding one another’s aspirations, fears and historical narratives. During his visit, he met with academics, students, politicians, trade unions, journalists and community members, leaving a deep impression on everyone he interacted with.
Bringing humor into the week was a group of social media activists who designed banner ads that were strategically placed through Google on the Daily Vox site as it was running its IAW series. The Daily Vox tweeted, “Welcome to the information war. Zionists are buying google adspace and sabotaging our coverage.” Banners included images of Shimon Peres and Nelson Mandela embracing with the words, “Let’s bring Peace not Hate” and using the recurring #SeeIsraelForYourself.
We end IAW on two sweet notes. One is a picture of ambassadors Dore Gold and Jerry Matjila’s smiling faces as they commit themselves to cooperation between Israel and South Africa. And second was seeing supporters of Israel coming out today in the streets of Johannesburg and Cape Town, in a forthright demonstration of their constitutional right to be both proudly South African and proudly Zionist.
The writer is national director of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies.