S. African Jews, Minister at Loggerheads Amid West Bank Labeling Row

South African Jewish leader says minister ignored the community when passing a law requiring labels to identify products as from the West Bank.

JOHANNESBURG – The leader of South Africa's central Jewish organization recently slammed Trade and Industries Minister Rob Davies for ignoring the Jewish community when proposing legislation labeling goods imported from the West Bank as originating from “the Occupied Palestinian Territories.”

Speaking to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Trade and Industry on Friday, Sept. 21, Wendy Kahn, the national director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, said Davies had been “disingenuous” and shown a “dismissive attitude towards the mainstream Jewish leadership.”

Reading from a prepared statement, she said her organization had between September 2011 and May 2012 unsuccessfully tried to meet with Davies to weigh in on the proposed legislation, which the South African government passed in August.

“Unfortunately, the record shows that the Minister chose not to meet with us, opting instead only to hear representations from Open Shuhada Street,” a South Africa-based pro-Palestinian organization,  said Kahn.

On May 10, Davies officially proposed the legislation, publishing it in the Government Gazette, where all government business appears. The law requires “the labeling of goods or products emanating from Israeli occupied territories, to prevent consumers being led to believe that such goods come from Israel,” said cabinet spokesperson Jimmy Manyi in August.

“I would like to say from the outset that we are not opposed in principle to the accurate and correct labelling of products; in fact we applaud DTI’s vigilance in wanting to provide full labelling disclosure for the consumer,” Kahn said. "What we do object to is the manner in which this process has been politicized, to the country-specific and discriminatory nature of the proposed measures and to the fact that the necessary consultative processes have not been followed by those driving the process."

Kahn said her organization was able to meet with Davies on May 24, following the proposal of the legislation, thanks only to the intervention of South African President Jacob Zuma’s office.

“This meeting, however, proved to be little short of hostile,” she said. “ Declining to engage or debate the points raised, he simply brushed them aside with the dismissive comment that if we objected we were welcome to put in a written submission. His hostile attitude continued long after the meeting with our community being excluded from the process and with the media being our only access to important information on an issue that deeply affects us.”

Kahn said the board had, in fact, prepared a submission with its concerns for Davies, but “Much to our surprise, in a news article in Haaretz by Jeremy Gordin dated 23 August, the minister was quoted as saying that there was ‘no need for further consultation with anyone. I will tell you that the overwhelming thrust of most of the submissions was in the direction in which we headed.’”

“The Minister’s dismissive attitude towards the mainstream Jewish leadership and the overtly biased, politicized wording of his Notice [that goods from the Palestinian territories be labelled as such] has fostered a suspicion that the ultimate goal is not to resolve a consumer protection matter through more accurate product labeling but rather a punitive action against Israel carried out at the behest of an anti-Israel lobby group,” Kahn said.

She said this view was reinforced by the statement made by Deputy Minister Marius Fransman in Athlone, a predominantly Muslim suburb of Cape Town, on July 14, in which he said “I am glad to inform you that our Government, through the Ministry of Trade and Industry has recently, released a Government notice 379 of 2012, as a strategy to apply economic pressure on Israel.”

At the same meeting, South African Jewish Federation Chairman Avrom Krengel briefed the portfolio committee on a legal case it launched against the law in July, before the government passed it.

Zackie Achmat of Open Shuhada Street also made a submission to the committee. He did not present a prepared statement but referred back to the original documents presented to the Minister Davies, and condemned the federation’s the decision to take Davies to court.

Speaking on behalf of organization, he said, “Once again the SAZF has reaffirmed its disregard for indisputable facts and international and South African laws regarding the settlements and goods produced in the settlements. It also, unsurprisingly, reveals its morally indefensible position as one that supports Israel’s illegal military occupation of the West Bank and the resultant human rights abuses committed against Palestinians. None of these tactics will in the least deter people working for peace between Israel and Palestine. But the thuggish and cowardly tactics of the SAZF must be brought to the attention of the South African Jewish community, and the wider public.”

On Sunday, Open Shuhada Street announced, “The manager of Wellness Warehouse [retail store in Cape Town] has confirmed to us that their store has discontinued and removed all AHAVA cosmetic products from their shelves. OSS together with our allies have been engaging with Wellness Warehouse for over two years now to respect the Palestinian call for boycott and, after a long campaign, we welcome this decision and thank the public who have been joining us for our regular protests and pickets.”

But the Citizen newspaper reported yesterday that Wellness Warehouse CEO Sean Gomes has denied that his store will not carry Ahava goods. He has  maintained that the products will continue to be stocked.

Bruce Baigrie from the University of Cape Town's Palestine Solidarity Forum said he thinks the manager told protesters on Sunday that the products would be removed from shelves so as to get them to leave the premises.

"We will join forces with Open Shuhada Street and Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions in South Africa to organise a bigger protest next week," he said yesterday. "Wellness Warehouse is being targeted as they are the only known retailer in the [Cape] province that stocks Israeli products."