What's in a label?

The South African "Made In" Fight

“Occupied Palestinian Territory”—the South African government might have known that these three words, appended to product labels with the prefix “Made in,” would have provoked the ire of the country’s mainstream Jewish bodies. Still, that didn’t stop them from ignoring no less than 33 meeting requests on the matter out of the office of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies.

Why the rudeness? Here’s one guess: Government Gazette Notice 379 of May 2012, wherein traders in South Africa are obliged not to incorrectly label products that originate from the occupied territories as products of Israel, seemed an easy win for a ruling party that’s lost its Mandela-era sheen. In a year when the splintering African National Congress is preparing for a pivotal elective conference, a show of solidarity with Palestine reminds everyone of its own liberation record.

Of course, as the government was almost certainly aware, the organizations that claim to represent local Jewish concerns were handicapped from the get-go—in South Africa, even today, nothing sways public opinion like a dubious apartheid profile. And unfortunately, while individual South African Jews protested the laws of the apartheid regime in numbers disproportionate to the relative size of the community, the semi-official leadership failed for 46 years (from 1948 until the 1994 elections) to condemn the policies of race-based discrimination.

So when Wendy Kahn, the SAJBD’s national director, finally got an audience with the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Trade and Industry, her arguments—whatever their merits—were always destined to come across as hollow.

Mrs Kahn’s oral submission to the committee was made in late September, and her central contention could be summarized in the following passage: “While we understand that in these terms it is technically incorrect to label products emanating from such disputed areas as being products of Israel, it is just as incorrect to refer to them as having been produced in ‘Occupied Palestinian Territory’. It is not for South Africa, or any other country, to unilaterally determine the ownership of a disputed region whose status remains subject to the terms of a final settlement between the parties directly concerned.”

The national director was referring to the agreement by both parties to the Oslo Accords that the status of contested territory would be held in abeyance—belonging neither to Palestine nor Israel—until negotiations concluded the issue. She also made clear that the SAJBD supports a two-state solution, and stressed that the government’s Notice “is in no way helpful in assisting the peace process that we all long for [since] it functions merely to further polarize the parties.”

Did any of this matter to the South African government? Curiously, it appears that maybe it did. On October 12, Government Gazette Notice 832 of 2012 was published. In it, the term “Occupied Palestinian Territory” had been changed to “Israeli Occupied Territory,” a modification that could only be read as a concession to the SAJBD and the South African Zionist Federation.

At present, it looks unlikely that these two organizations are going to be so easily pacified. Whether the territory is deemed Israeli or Palestinian, there’s still the term “occupied” in there. Also, given the government’s consistent disregard for the feelings of the Jewish community in the months leading up to the parliamentary hearings, the SAJBD and Zionist Federation can rightfully view the concession as patronizing.

But further complaints would not only be to rail against the inevitable (30 days have been granted for final proposals, after which the Notice will pass into law), they would be to perpetuate the head-in-the-sand approach that mainstream South African Jewry has perfected over the years. For a range of reasons, both historic and symbolic, it is just and appropriate that South Africa becomes the first country to legally require this kind of product labeling.

Most obvious, there is the parallel drawn by an ever-increasing number of commentators, including Jews on the Left and liberal Zionists, between apartheid’s Bantustan system and Israel’s policies in the territories. Then there is the fact that, for many years, the IDF generously supplied the apartheid regime with technology and weapons. Finally, there is the memory, still fresh in the minds of South Africa’s ruling elite, of the central role played by sanctions in the toppling of the old guard.

In the South African context, this legislation is good politics. It also happens to be the right thing to do.