Labelling Israel as an apartheid state and heeding the call to boycott it only hurts the cause of peace in the Middle East, writes Steve Linde
Letter to Fatima
It is with a heavy heart that I write this letter to my late sociology professor, Fatima Meer, after a recent visit to Durban, where she taught me in the 1980s.
Fatima, you supervised my thesis on the emergence of Mahatma Gandhi as a charismatic leader in South Africa, and I later travelled with you to the US to be your teaching assistant at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.
When I moved to Israel in 1987, however, you severed all contact with me, and declined to reply to any of the postcards and letters I sent you. Although your grandfather had been Jewish and you had many Jewish friends, you abhorred the idea of a Jewish state, believing it was racist and undemocratic.
Boycotting me achieved nothing, other than causing me pain. On a grander scale, boycotting Israel or Israeli products only hurts the cause of peace in the Middle East.
Your spirit pervaded my week-long stay in Durban. In the local Satyagraha newspaper, I chanced upon an article titled “Calls to boycott Israel intensify”.
In the article, I found no trace of the philosophy of Satyagraha, Gandhi’s pursuit of truth and non-violence. It quotes a humanitarian aid worker, Dr Mad Gilbert, as “likening Gaza’s occupation to that of South Africa’s apartheid,” and making a plea to boycott Israel, “the same way the world did against apartheid South Africa”.
In response, let me counter that, although Israel does impose a blockade on Gaza, it withdrew from the territory unilaterally in 2005.
Furthermore, drawing a parallel between the flourishing Israeli democracy and the repressive apartheid regime is simply false.
Making such a comparison only denigrates the victims of apartheid.
Muhammed Desai, the national co-ordinator of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS), is quoted in the article as calling for “the solidarity of people around the world to bring real, direct pressure on Israel until it complies with all relevant international laws and to take action to end companies’ and governments’ complicity in Israel’s human rights violations.” Desai, who recently voiced the view that publicly chanting “Shoot the Jew” is no big deal, is hardly a leading proponent of Gandhian passive resistance. And Israel respects human rights as well as the rights of women, minorities, including Christians and Muslims, as well as gays much more than any of its neighbours.
Desai’s appeal to boycott Israeli companies will not help break the current impasse in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
The Palestinians themselves do not support BDS, and many of the companies being targeted (especially in the West Bank and Jerusalem) employ a predominantly Palestinian workforce.
It is also worthy of note that relatives of senior Fatah and Hamas leaders from Gaza and the West Bank, as well as Syrians wounded in the civil war in their country, routinely receive medical treatment in Israel. And there was no talk of boycotting the field hospitals Israel dispatched in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea to combat Ebola.
While I was in South Africa, the latest local firm to be targeted by BDS was the Woolworths chain and its shareholders for selling figs, pomegranates and pretzels from Israel. A student activist even resorted to the repugnant act of placing a pig’s head in the kosher section of a Woolworths store in protest of its support for Israel.
This is clear anti-Semitism, which should not be tolerated in the new South Africa. Woolworths, admirably, has refused to buckle under the pressure. “We can confirm that we have not stopped (selling) Israeli products,” Woolworths said on its website, noting that less than 0.1 percent of its food comes from Israel.
“We respect our customers’ right to make individual purchasing choices, which is why we clearly label every product’s country of origin and fully comply with government guidelines on products from Israel.”
During the week that I was in Durban, I was inundated with questions about the Woolworths boycott when I met local journalists.
More prominence was given in the media to the Woolworths boycott than to the barbaric Palestinian terrorist attack at a Jerusalem synagogue on November 18, in which four rabbis were butchered during morning prayers.
The subsequent death of a Druze Arab policeman from the wounds he sustained in the gunfight with the two terrorists received almost no press coverage. Upon my return to Israel, I felt compelled to give my take on the Woolworths boycott.
What would Gandhi have said? He may indeed have supported a non-violent boycott against Israel, but he surely would not have sanctioned the use of savage violence by the two terrorists against innocent Jews praying to God.
What would Nelson Mandela have said? During his visit to Israel in 1990, which I covered, Mandela squarely backed the Jewish state’s right to exist in security, while calling on it to hand over the territories captured in the 1967 Six Day War for the establishment of a Palestinian state. “I cannot conceive of Israel withdrawing if Arab states do not recognise Israel within secure borders,” I heard him say clearly after meeting with then foreign minister David Levy in Jerusalem.
Surely South Africa and the entire world should be encouraging both parties, Israel and the Palestinians, to return to the negotiating table and hammer out a deal to peacefully end their bitter conflict.
Encouraging the Palestinian Authority (PA) to make unilateral appeals to the UN and other global bodies, while several countries make symbolic pronouncements in favour of a Palestinian state, as Spain, Sweden and the British Parliament have recently done, can only be detrimental to any chance of peace between the parties.
Israel should not have withdrawn unilaterally from the Gaza Strip. It should have negotiated the withdrawal with the PA. The hasty pull-out enabled Hamas to seize power in the Strip, sabotaging any opportunity for a negotiated peace settlement. Hamas, after all, is a terrorist group bent on Israel’s destruction. Similarly, the Palestinians should not be encouraged to act unilaterally. Their leadership, under President Mahmoud Abbas, must be urged to put an end to the current cycle of violence and resume a peaceful dialogue with Israel.
When US President Barack Obama visited Jerusalem last year, he stated his support for Israel unequivocally. “I see this visit as an opportunity to reaffirm the unbreakable bonds between our nations, to restate America’s unwavering commitment to Israel’s security,” Obama said. Peace must come to the Holy Land, Obama declared.
Peace is what Obama wants. It’s what Gandhi and Mandela would have wanted. It’s what you should have wanted, Fatima. It’s what most Israelis and Palestinians want.
BDS is based on the false premise that Israel is an apartheid state. It is the Palestinians, not Israel, who should be pushed to renounce violence and show they are genuinely interested in peace. It is the Palestinians who should be reprimanded for resorting to terror, inciting violence and aspiring to create a state devoid of Jews.
Israeli leaders have said repeatedly that they are prepared to make painful concessions and negotiate the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Successive Israeli governments have made generous offers, only to be spurned.
Israel did not initiate the last conflict in Gaza. It was purposely provoked by Hamas. Israel wants peace. But true peace can be achieved only by direct negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. South Africa, which has been a beacon to the world in replacing apartheid with a rainbow nation, can play a positive role in advancing this process.
Because it is by definition against the normalisation of relations between Israel and the Arabs, BDS can only cause harm and hinder an ever-desirable peace accord.
Fatima, I was gutted when you cut off contact with me. When you died in 1990, I wept. Today you would probably be a vocal supporter of BDS.
But does boycotting Israel or Israeli goods benefit anyone,?
Isolating Israel, an island of sanity in a tumultuous Middle East, is wrong. So is endorsing Palestinian terror, which only demeans the Palestinian cause. And so is BDS.
Let’s rather support engagement by the parties in a peaceful dialogue, free trade and the search for a comprehensive, lasting and just resolution of the conflict.
* The writer, an ex-Durbanite, is editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post. The views expressed are his own.