Open Zion

05.23.12

Who's Racist?

Even if you’re not a Zionist of South African parentage (not everyone can be so fortunate), it’s worth grabbing your biltong (don’t worry, it’s kosher now) and tuning into the political brawl currently underway between Israel and South Africa. Last week, the Pretoria government told its retailers to begin designating products from beyond the green line as hailing from the “occupied West Bank” rather than “Israel.” In so doing, South Africa did its part to help Israel from becoming, well, South Africa. 

After all, as those well-known radicals Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert have both warned, the deepening occupation threatens to plunge Israel into a South Africa-style struggle over the character of the one state between the Mediterranean and the Jordan, a struggle that would likely end with the dismantling of Israel as a Jewish state. What keeps Israel from becoming South Africa is its democratic character within the green line, a green line that settlement growth is helping to erase. By distinguishing between products from democratic and non-democratic Israel, South Africa is reinforcing the green line, and thus reinforcing Israel’s legitimacy inside its original boundaries. By contrast, those Israeli politicians who oppose separate labeling—thus sending the message that there is no meaningful difference between Israel east and west of the green line—are playing right into the one-statist BDS movement’s hands.

South Africa’s move may be the beginning of something big. Denmark followed suit a few days later, and the Irish foreign minister is suggesting a European Union-wide boycott of settlement goods. When it comes to Israel and Palestine, the post-American world is approaching fast. After three years of Washington’s failure to revive a meaningful peace process, countries in Europe and the developing world are taking matters into their hands. Some of us warned about this back in 2010 and 2011, when the Netanyahu government stiffed the Obama administration’s efforts to launch negotiations based upon the 1967 lines plus swaps. In so doing, this Israeli government—with the help of the American Jewish establishment—has helped make Washington look impotent, thus emboldening countries with less sympathy for Israel to enter the fray.

That’s the serious part of the Israel-South Africa scuffle. The farcical part is the language the Israeli right is using to denounce the labeling decision. South Africa’s move, an Israeli foreign ministry spokesperson explained, is “essentially racist.” In his own statement denouncing the South African move, Danny Dayan, head of the umbrella settler group, the Yesha Council, actually proclaimed, “We shall overcome.”

Let’s count the ironies. First, the man who announced South Africa’s decision, Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies, is a Jew, one of many Jewish leftists who rose to prominence in the avowedly multi-racial African National Congress during the apartheid years. Secondly, the Israeli foreign ministry that denounced his move is led by Avigdor Lieberman, a former member of Meir Kahane’s party Kach, a party that wanted—a la apartheid South Africa—to criminalize marriage and sex between gentiles and Jews. Thirdly, when the United Nations World Conference against Racism held in—where else—South Africa tried to chastise Israel in 2001, one of the key arguments deployed by Israel’s defenders was that no matter how one feels about Israel’s policies in the West Bank, “racism” shouldn’t enter the discussion because neither Jews nor Palestinians are a race.

Yet today the Israeli government is denouncing South Africa’s labeling decision not merely as unfair or discriminatory but as “racist.” Since Jews, as Israel’s defenders have long pointed out, are not a race, it’s not even clear what the foreign ministry means. If it’s not racist for Israel to give Jews but not Palestinians citizenship in the West Bank, how can it be racist for the Jewish minister in a black-dominated South African government to demand that goods from the West Bank be treated differently from those within democratic Israel? Perhaps South Africa’s ambassador to Israel, Ismail Coovadia—a South African of South Asian-descent—will retaliate by saying that the Israeli foreign ministry’s attacks on Davies make it anti-Semitic. Pieter-Dirk Uys, if we ever needed you, we need you now.

UPDATE: While writing this column, I believed, based on widespread media coverage, that Rob Davies was Jewish. He is not. I regret the error.