A pro-Palestinian demonstration in 2007.
A pro-Palestinian demonstration in 2007. Photo by Tess Scheflan
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The two of us, an Israeli and a Palestinian, went to South Africa recently to speak about the Middle East. For understandable reasons, South Africa is a major source for the "Israel is apartheid" accusation; it stems from the fact that many South Africans, especially blacks, relate Israel's treatment of Palestinians to their own history of racial discrimination.

And indeed, in the several dozen meetings we addressed, we repeatedly heard the apartheid accusation. No, we replied: Apartheid does not exist inside Israel; there's discrimination against Arabs but it's not South African apartheid. On the West Bank, there is military occupation and repression, but it is not apartheid. The apartheid comparison is false and confuses the real problems.

As we traveled around the country, it became clear to us that South Africans generally have limited knowledge about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But they hold many prejudices and these are fed and manipulated by organizations that are vehemently anti-Israel - to the extent of calling for destruction of the Jewish state, as the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, the Muslim Judicial Council and the Russell Tribunal have done. Black trade unions join in the attacks and so do some people of Jewish origin.

Our host was the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. During 10 days we spoke on five university campuses, at several public meetings and to journalists, and were on radio programs, including one aired by a Muslim station.

We were shown an e-mail calling for protests against our visit: It seemed that the anti-Israel hard-liners were upset by an Israeli and a Palestinian speaking on the same platform and promoting peace. But there were no protests: The worst we experienced was a knot of about six people standing quietly outside one meeting. We were also warned to expect "tough questions," but we didn't hear any. Instead, the large audiences - people of all colors, and mainly non-Jews - were attentive and wanted information about the current state of play in the conflict.

There were some hostile comments such as the silly sneer that Israel is "terrified of a few suicide bombers" and that it is "hogwash" to call Hamas a terrorist organization. In a more serious vein were repeated references to the Palestinian "right of return." It cannot be said whether those who spoke were genuinely responding to the plight of the refugees, or were cynically using it as a reasonable-sounding slogan although it in effect calls for elimination of the Jewish state.

Nelson Mandela's words in support of Palestinian freedom were flung at us (and also appear in propaganda leaflets issued by Palestinian-supporting organizations ). He was quoted as saying: "But we know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians." Mandela did indeed say that, on December 9, 1997, on the occasion of Palestinian Solidarity Day, and it still resonates strongly among South Africans. But it's actually half of what he said in the context of a call for freedom for all people. He also explained the greater context and the dishonesty of the propagandists in singling out Israel: "... without the resolution of conflicts in East Timor, the Sudan and other parts of the world."

Other falsities we heard were that only Jews are allowed to own or rent 93 percent of the land in Israel, and that Israel's restrictions on marriage (which in actuality derive from Jewish, Muslim and Christian religious authorities ) are the same as apartheid South Africa's prohibition of marriage - or sex - across color lines.

There was also an earlier statement by the South African Council of Churches in support of Israel Apartheid Week in which it claimed that "Israel remained the single supporter of apartheid when the rest of the world implemented economic sanctions, boycotts and divestment to force change in South Africa." That, of course, is nonsense: Israel did trade with apartheid South Africa - but so did the entire world, starting with oil sales by Arab states, and including the United States, United Kingdom, France, Belgium, the Soviet Union and many in Africa.

BDS, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, is noisily vocal and gets publicity in South African media. While we were there it ran Israel Apartheid Week programs on several university campuses. But the movement did not garner wide support; some scheduled speakers did not even turn up. Its boast that more than 100 universities worldwide took part in the week doesn't amount to much: Apartheid weeks have been going on for eight years and out of the 100 this year, 60 were held on American campuses (out of 4,000 universities and colleges in that country ). Not much progress there.

We did not pre-plan what we were going to say. But a consensus emerged: First, we both spoke in bleak terms about peace prospects in the near future; second, we each castigated our own leaderships for double-talk and pretense, and for their lack of boldness and vision, and we pointed to the growth of Jewish settlements on the West Bank as undermining the chances for an agreement.

We stressed that we welcomed interest in our part of the world - but warned that some members of Palestinian solidarity movements have never visited the occupied territories, and they damage the Palestinian cause abroad because they act out of ignorance, and foster division and hatred between Arabs and Jews. They do not help to bring peace.

Our strangest meeting was with scores of Congolese who asked us to explain why their conflict - ongoing since 1960 with a toll of perhaps more than 7 million people dead - receives less attention in South African and other media than does the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. It was painful listening to their recital of mass rapes and murders. But it was difficult to empathize with them when one speaker blamed the Jews, whom he said controlled the world and the media, and when a former army officer asked us for money to go and fight the Congolese government.

 

Bassem Eid is director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group and a former researcher for B'Tselem. Benjamin Pogrund, South African-born, was founder of Yakar's Center for Social Concern in Jerusalem.