Monday, October 13, 2008

On this and that

I signed off on Solar Plexus a couple of months ago, in order to take something of a break from the Israel-Palestine issue and to get more involved in a new personal interest.

In the interim all sorts of important things were taking place on the home front as well as globally. None of this has made us feel more comfortable, though an optimistic interpretation of current local political events is that they have opened up the political space for more a realistic and hopeful politics and vision. But we should not get ahead of ourselves.

Mugabe, predictably, has thrown a spanner into the Zimbabwe powersharing deal and that country slides ever closer to total meltdown. The human cost in premature death, hunger and blighted hopes for a better future is sickening.

Locally we still have our ideologues, extremists and political entrepreneurs milking the fears and the prejudices of the South African population. They are not going to disappear off the map.

We have Manto writing her illiterate nonsense on The ANC Today - luckily a sideshow following the appointment of Barbara Hogan as Minister of Health. We have the usual mischievous political meddling in sport, with irrelevant and provocative attacks on the Springbok emblem and the re-intrusion of quotas into national teams. It is almost certain that for the average black South African, neither of these carry much resonance.

What they and most decent South Africans want is simple fairness, real grassroots transformation and opportunity, and, above all, success. They do not want or need the humiliation of “tokenism”. Unfortunately, Luke Watson used the occasion to make an ill-judged and immature speech to the Ubumbo Rugby Festival. Besides the harm it has done to his own career and to our rugby, it has also brought white racists out of the closet as judged by the comments on

Given that Motlanthe emphasized inclusivity in his address to South Africa, it is time that the ANC put these fine words into practice by reining in the provocateurs in his party’s ranks. That is the minimum required; we also need to see inclusivity stretch beyond the appointment of Barbara Hogan, to become part of the ANC policy platform and practice. But that would be following the DA lead wouldn’t it?

Then there is Lekota and the New Party Threat! All that is in such an early stage and so much is going on behind the scenes, that it is impossible to make a serious comment. What one would like to see is the emergence of strong, two relatively balanced centrist forces in South African politics and the creation of a genuinely inclusive South African identity. At present that is wishful thinking, but with energy and imagination we may yet see the forces of left and right reaction put to flight.

At the same time, South Africa is sharing in the global pain of economic uncertainty and potential recession. According to Trevor M, this is likely to persist (or get worse) for a couple of years at least. Eina!

What impact this will have on the South African economy, social projects, infrastructure spending and employment remains to be seen, but is unlikely to be positive.

Some good may still come out of this if it induces a generally more realistic stance vis-à-vis the role of the state in economic development. Along with crime and corruption, education, social policies and sustainability this remains part of the challenges South Africa faces for the foreseeable future.

Locally the South African “Human Rights Delegation” (HRD) to Israel caused bitter dissention with reactions ranging from unseemly threats to denialism. It is the latter that I want to take issue with, but let’s start by getting some things out of the way.

Nobody is denying the HRD their right to free speech. That does not mean, however, that they should be immune to robust critiques of the content of their message, the political agenda which it serves or their motivations.

Let us be quite clear that their project and its motivation is political. They wish to convert as many Jews and non-Jews in South Africa to their political perspective. For instance the Book Lounge, an innovative addition to the independent bookstore scene in Cape Town, is hosting at talk by “two leading Israeli and Palestinian human rights activists, Mikhael Menkin and Hani Abu-Heikel, who work together...”. “They will discuss the difficulties involved in the important challenge of engaging in joint Israeli-Palestinian non-violent opposition to the Occupation. They will also give a vivid and accurate understanding of the current political situation and the reality on the ground, particularly in Hebron”. It seems highly likely that this is at the instigation or with the participation of the individuals from within the HRD project.

It is quite clear from the phrasing of invitation what the underlying assumptions are. In case it needs to be spelt out they are:

• The prime responsibility for solving the current conflict is Israel as the “occupying” power. No mention is made of how Israel came to be in the position it is and the role of Palestinian and other extremist entities in the region in maintaining the status quo. Thus, it is Israeli ambitions, intransigence and brutality which stands in the way of a peaceful outcome.
• This stance leads to the activist project of mounting a “non-violent opposition to the occupation”. No mention is made here of the role of Iran and, to a lesser extent, Syria and their proxies like Hamas and Hezbollah in the maintenance of the impasse. These are outside the realm of discourse.
• At the root of both of these assumptions, is the fundamentalist “leftwing” paradigm that imperialist Zionist and Western (mainly USA) ambitions are the root cause of this conflict amongst many others. Thus while paying lip service to a two-state solution, the narrative opens the door to the more radical claim that the existence of Israel as a Jewish entity is a Zionist, hence racist and imperialist, project which has no moral legitimacy. Of course, this claim is made openly and repeatedly by the enemies of Israel, for which the apparently more moderate discourse of the HRD and its affiliates prepares the ground. Jews indulging in such forms of activism cannot disown the instrumental uses to which their stance is put.

The other point to be made, is that this invitation is being made to the wider South African public, not simply the Jewish community. This is the same public which over the past decade and more has been subjected to a barrage of anti-Israel reportage and analysis using the same selective bias, half-truths, decontextualisations and outright falsehoods which characterised the more explicit European and Nazi antisemitism of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

It is hardly surprising that the recent Pew Global Survey of Social Attitudes shows South Africa to have amongst the highest levels of antisemitism of countries without an outright Muslim majority. Given that Jews constitute about 0.2% of the population one must ask whether such attitudes do not derive from the calculated media partisanship regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, supported by a small, aggressively moralistic clique within the South African Jewish community.

Since this complex conflict is far distant from South Africa’s strategic interests and obvious socio-political challenges, one must ask whence derives the drive amongst Jewish activists to ensure that the debate remains in the public domain. In some measure it is the result of the media programming to which all of us have been subjected. Partly it flows from the consensus leftwing paradigm concerning the moral failures and responsibilities of the West, specifically embodied in Israel and the USA.

Thus the HRD position must be rejected on at least two levels: the simplistic and misleading nature of their core analysis and the instrumental purposes to which their activism is put by declared enemies of Israel.

It would be a shame if the imaginative and admirable Book Lounge becomes the venue for a partisan political agenda. I trust it will not.

A list of some of the more informative articles and analyses I have come across in the past couple of weeks follows. I’m sure this is incomplete but others may wish to supplement the list.

"Talk Isn't Cheap With Iran" ( Michael Oren and Seth Robinson examine some of the issues involved in initating dialogue with Iran. An address by Tzipi Livni to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Policy and Strategy Conference in October setting out the broad principles of her vision. BICOM Analysis: Violent fringes challenge Israel’s emerging territorial consensus. Claims that a broad emerging consensus in Israel regarding the key elements of the peace process has provoked right and left wing elements into extremist activties and even violence. Some of this, minus the violence, is spilling over into far-off South Africa. Gabrial Simoni of the Jaffee Institute for Security Studies says that Israels response to “provocation” will be disproportionate in future to elevate the costs to the enemy of the strategy of attrition. An excellent guide to all aspects of the Israeli media scene as a pdf file.

That’s it for this posting. Shalom!

Mike Berger