The apartheid propaganda playbook must fall

The strategies of Israel's South African supporters to fight BDS on the country's university campuses.

Image credit Heri Rakotomalala via Flickr.

The notion that history repeats itself is a largely ahistorical trope. However, sometimes a shared ideological foundation and an equally shared attitude towards dissenters against that ideology manifest in old tactics being deployed in new circumstances. In many ways, Israeli Apartheid is an attempt to perfect the system of subjugation pioneered by the National Party. The historical collaboration between Israel and Apartheid South Africa is well-documented. It is therefore unsurprising that when the annual Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) comes around, as it did in early April, those who are committed to the protection of the Zionist state plagiarize the Apartheid propaganda playbook.

The South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS) once again embarked on its annual reactionary campaign to discredit IAW on our campuses and whitewash the realities of Apartheid, settler-colonialism and military occupation. The campaign, now branding itself as #NoPlaceForHate, aims to impede the movement for Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. Again, the vapid platitudes of liberalism—dialogue, peace and unity—were on display, seeking to rebrand Zionist apologetics as a response to hate. This year, however, there was noticeable focus on the campus space, with the stated goal of portraying “BDS and its affiliates” as anti-Semitic. As opposed to previous campaigns, which fronted the “only democracy in the Middle East,” this year’s campaign was centered around de-legitimizing Palestinian solidarity movements. In order to do this, the lines between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are blurred by an organization whose collective identity embodies this disingenuous conflation.

The South African Union of Jewish Students is not merely a representative body for Jewish students. It is an organization that adopts a political ideology and takes an explicit political stance in accordance with that ideology. The three pillars of SAUJS are Judaism, Zionism and South Africa. The adoption of Zionism—or some current of Zionist thought—is an implicit prerequisite for membership of SAUJS. Consequently, non-Zionist and anti-Zionist Jewish students (and there are indeed such students active in the Palestinian solidarity movement) are alienated from the body that claims to represent all Jewish students. Anti-Zionist Jews are assumed to have committed political blasphemy by acknowledging the damaging and dangerous nature of Israeli nationalism. To SAUJS, they are an inconvenient reality. They are disposable.

The attitude towards the Zionist Right, on the other hand, is not nearly as harsh. During IAW, I confronted SAUJS members, including members of its executive committee, about their posters, which portrayed graffiti stating “Fuck SAUJS” alongside a swastika. The implication of this was fundamentally dishonest and sought to conflate those of us who oppose SAUJS with literal Nazis. After hitting the brick wall of “everyone has the right to an opinion,” I pursued a different line of questioning. That is, is there anything, anything, that could be done by the Israeli state which would invite the condemnation of SAUJS? The short answer is no—not exactly shocking, given that no such condemnation can be found through myriad injustices perpetrated over the past few decades: military occupation; the blockade and frequent bombardment of Gaza; the detainment and deportation of asylum seekers; the legalized discrimination against African migrants to Israel; the surveillance, entrapment and blackmailing of Palestinians; the expansion of illegal settlements… none of these contraventions of human rights and international law move SAUJS leadership to take a stand.

Of course, many SAUJS members will claim that they do not support Netanyahu or his right- wing government. They claim to be “progressive” Zionists. When asked to condemn that right- wing government, however, they respond that SAUJS is a broad church—open to many Zionisms—and so a condemnation would alienate right wing Zionists in their ranks. There is no acknowledgement that silence in the face of injustice is a stance, especially given that SAUJS exists to protect the entity perpetrating those injustices. The primacy afforded to the protection and promotion of a settler-colonial ethno-state renders SAUJS morally bankrupt. Those “progressive” Zionists fail to push back against the oppressive policies of the Israeli state because the racist nature of the Zionist ideology precludes the possibility of a real Zionist Left. They are, to borrow a phrase, the useful idiots of Apartheid, who hold hands with the Right every year to peddle Israeli state propaganda during IAW.

This year, when the IAW terms of engagement were set in the mandatory joint meeting with management of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, SAUJS was asked directly whether they would bring any Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers onto campus.

They responded with the lie that they had never brought an IDF soldier onto campus, despite evidence that they have repeatedly done just that, as highlighted by Shaeera Kalla in March 2015, when she served as the Chairperson of the Wits Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC). They went on to pledge that they would not do so this year. That, too, was a lie. On the Monday of IAW, SAUJS brought Ashager Araro, an IDF lieutenant in reserves, onto Wits campus. Araro is an Ethiopian Israeli and the deputy director of StandWithUs—a right-wing, multi-million dollar organization closely linked to Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. StandWithUs is a hasbara organization, which exists to globally disseminate Israeli state propaganda. Like Apartheid South Africa, Israel recruits black people as propagandists for an Apartheid state, then appeals to a shallow identity politics to “disprove” the claim that it is a racist entity. Araro is the token black friend of a racist regime, who served in its murderous military and now peddles its propaganda around the world.

As usual, that propaganda program includes the appeal for students to “see Israel” for themselves, offering propaganda trips to anyone of significant social or political standing. This too is an echo of National Party tactics. In Ron Nixon’s 2015 book, Selling Apartheid, he documents how, in the 1980s, the South Africa Foundation offered dozens of policy-makers, journalists and business executives traveling fellowships so that they could “see South Africa” for themselves. The Foundation was founded by a group of businessmen who opposed sanctions again South Africa and was led by Anglo American’s Harry Oppenheimer. The position taken by white capital was in line with the Reagan-Thatcher policy of “constructive engagement.” It sought to tightly manage perception of the country, obscuring the systemic racism in an attempt to combat the threat posed by BDS to those who benefit most from global capitalism. The same propaganda trip tactic was used by Andrew Hatcher, Richard Nixon’s deputy press secretary (who was black) and Strategy Network International, a firm that lobbied against sanctions in the UK. Whether it is Sun City or Tel Aviv, these choreographed visits are intended to shield an Apartheid state from economic repercussions for its policies.

In another SAUJS poster, the case is made that boycotts hurt Palestinians most, in reference to the closing of the SodaStream factory in the Occupied West Bank in 2015 and the subsequent loss of employment by Palestinian workers. While it is true that some 500 Palestinians lost their jobs after the relocation of the factory to the Negev (where it is now complicit in the displacement of indigenous Bedouin-Palestinian citizens of Israel), it is incorrect to attribute this to BDS. After the closing of the factory in the Occupied West Bank, SodaStream had initially expressed intent to transfer the jobs of Palestinians to the new factory in the Negev. However, the Israeli government refused to grant work permits to the majority of those workers. Those who had initially been allowed to work at the new plant were subsequently denied permits as well and so the last Palestinian workers were laid off in early 2016. This, of course, was not on the poster. SAUJS, which grounds its argument in a feigned concern for Palestinian workers, fails to mention the exploitation and discrimination reported by SodaStream workers, or the fact that the West Bank factory operated in the illegal Maale Adumim settlement, which was built on the ruins of seven Palestinian villages. There is no analysis of the role played by the Occupation in the dire economic circumstances faced by Palestinians living in the West Bank. Instead, it is the movement to end that Occupation which is ludicrously portrayed as the enemy of the interests of the Palestinian working class.

This line of argument—that BDS hurts the victims of Apartheid most—was a standard propaganda tactic deployed by Pretoria in attempts to prevent its own isolation. In Operation Blackwash: Apartheid South Africa’s 46-year Propaganda War on Black America, Ron Nixon details Operation Heartbreak, which involved schoolchildren from Washington DC being co-opted to deliver small black dolls to American lawmakers in June 1988, two years after the US Congress voted to impose harsher sanctions on Apartheid South Africa. The Reverend Kenneth Frazier, a black former Methodist minister and leader of the Wake Up America Coalition (which organized Operation Heartbreak) explained that the stunt was meant to symbolize South African children, who, he claimed, would be “further harassed and suffer all the more with a further round of US Sanctions.” As is the case with the Occupation, there was a willful omission of the systemic and systematic dispossession of an indigenous people by a racist entity which considered them less than human. Instead, we are asked to believe that it is those who have heeded the call for global solidarity who are to blame for the plight of those people. The tactic was—and remains—an absurd attempt to protect a system of subjugation through an appeal to the suffering of the subjugated.

SAUJS and its national counterparts—the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) and the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF)—were confident in these propaganda tactics this year. During the first half of IAW, the Wits PSC hosted numerous events and speakers to raise awareness about Israeli Apartheid. There was no substantial confrontation with SAUJS, owing in part to Wits policy on spaces during IAW and the constant obstructionism that we have to navigate. Zionists on our campuses and in higher structures lauded this as a victory. Writing for the South African Jewish Report on Thursday, April 4, Jordan Moshe and Tali Feinberg characterized IAW 2019 as being pervaded by a “sense of calm” and “in some cases, fun on the part of the pro-Israel side.” Wendy Kahn, the national director of SAJBD, told Moshe and Feinberg, “Their [the Wits PSC and UCT PSF] mangy attempts at their annual ‘wall’ raised questions about the future of this hateful week.” The maintenance of what Dr Martin Luther King conceptualized as a “negative peace,” which is the absence of tension, in contrast to a “positive peace,” which is the presence of justice—was seen as the triumph of an impotent liberal discourse that denigrates disruption and direct action, even in the face of naked oppression.

Then, on that same Thursday, while the Wits PSC was hosting a rally at the Science Stadium, SAUJS hired music producer and DJ Sketchy Bongo to perform at their farcical lunchtime concert outside the Chamber of Mines building. After the artist had left, PSC activists confronted SAUJS over the continuing presence of Araro, the IDF soldier, on our campus. Soon after Araro was directly confronted, private security moved in to shield them from us, despite the fact that we were unarmed and posed no danger to them. In a statement to the Wits Vuvuzela, Wits PSC chairperson Nonkululeko Mntambo highlighted that “SAUJS annually responds to IAW with inviting military personnel onto campus and still, the suggestion is that the black and brown people were the ones posing a threat. So, the real threat on campus is waiting to find out what exactly white skin must do to be considered dangerous at Wits.”

In line with this presupposition of what constitutes a threat, force is then deployed. We saw this when security proceeded, unprovoked, to violently remove Rashaad Yusuf Dadoo, a Wits student and the former chairperson of the Wits PSC, lifting him off his feet and then pushing him to the ground. Dadoo regained his footing and continued to challenge Araro and the security force that had been mobilized to protect her. The assault on the activist exemplifies two crucial points. The first is the danger posed to our political freedoms by campus militarization and the continuing presence of a private security force at our university. The second is that even in the face of assault by the institution’s hired bouncers, Palestinian solidarity activists are not prepared to appease injustice with silence. After an engagement with Wits management, Araro was finally escorted off our campus. This was to be the first of a series of blows dealt to the efforts of the Apartheid apologists.

On Thursday evening, the Wits PSC engaged Sketchy Bongo (whose birth certificate name is Yuvir Pillay) on Twitter, highlighting the crimes of the Israeli regime and the role of art in whitewashing this oppression. Within hours, Pillay apologized unreservedly and said that he does not support “any Apartheid state.” He also pledged to make a substantial donation to the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund. Contrary to the narrative being peddled by SAUJS, Pillay was not bullied into this position by the Wits PSC. He explicitly said so himself in an interview with the South African Jewish Report. He came to his own conclusions after engaging with the Jewish Nation State law, passed in July of last year, which states that “the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” The law goes on to establish Hebrew as the sole language of the state, demoting Arabic, which was previously an official language. It finally gives a stamp of state approval to illegal settlements. In response to this information—the entrenching of Apartheid and settler colonialism in the law—Pillay made the laudable and principled decision to apologize for performing at the concert, which he acknowledges was “not about unity; it was about pushing an Israeli policy agenda,” adding that he “cannot support the Israel Nation State Law, nor be seen to support it.” The SAUJS had seriously underestimated the moral clarity of Sketchy Bongo. Their attempt to whitewash Apartheid spectacularly backfired within 24 hours.

Then, on Friday, news broke that Minister of International Relations, Lindiwe Sisulu, in a written statement to the South African Institute for International Affairs, announced  that South Africa has permanently withdrawn our ambassador to Israel. The South African embassy in Tel Aviv has been downgraded to a liaison office with immediate effect. This came in response to the Israeli military murdering dozens of Palestinians peacefully protesting in Gaza, as part of the Great Return March. Sisulu went on to say that the withdrawal of the ambassador is “stage one” of South Africa downgrading relations with Israel. It took the ANC government 15 months to implement the downgrade resolution that the party adopted in December 2017, but the process of actualizing the isolation of Apartheid Israel has finally begun.

On the university front, the call for an academic boycott of Israel is being heard by more and more institutions. On the March 15, the University of Cape Town Senate adopted the academic boycott of “Israeli institutions operating in the occupied Palestinian territories as well as other Israeli academic institutions enabling gross human rights violations in the occupied Palestinian territories.” Although the UCT Council subsequently failed to adopt the resolution, sending it back to the Senate, the significance of the only body representing academics at the institution adopting the boycott should not be understated. Should UCT pass the boycott resolution, it will become the third university in the country to do so. In November 2017, the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT, the largest residential university in the country) adopted the position that it will “not have any ties with Israel, Israeli organizations and institutions.” In 2011, University of Johannesburg severed ties with Israel’s Ben-Gurion University, in recognition of the role of the latter in maintaining the Israeli Apartheid enterprise. That same year, the South African Union of Students (SAUS) urged all university Student Representative Councils (SRCs) to implement the academic boycott. Seven SRCs have adopted the position since then. Like our government, our institutions of higher learning are moving away from policies that normalize the criminality of the Israeli state. This is the reason that there has been a doubling down by Zionist organizations, specifically targeting the BDS movement. The ground is shrinking beneath their feet. And they know it.

Apartheid is a crime against humanity, as much in Palestine as it was in South Africa. The brazen attitude of the Likud-led, far right—a government which is more honest in its racism and has nonetheless been emboldened by a renewed electoral mandate—Is making the propaganda narrative more difficult to sustain. Complacency is the enemy within and we must not fall back upon the comforting notion of historical inevitability. It is the action we take today that will determine the history that is written tomorrow. Nonetheless, the movement to deprive Apartheid Israel of the oxygen of normality is indeed gaining momentum.

We must be cognizant of the reality that every BDS victory has been achieved through political activism—each of them would not have been possible without people organizing on the ground. The momentum that has been building is therefore ours to sustain. Reactionaries and Apartheid apologists are once again scrambling to maintain an unjust status quo. It is our duty as progressive internationalists, who stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people, to ensure that the tactics in the Apartheid propaganda playbook fail once again.

Further Reading

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