General News Opinions 

What lies behind the anti-Israel obsession?

In a voice dripping with impartiality, Stephen Grootes raised the vital issue of freedom of expression and South Africa’s constitutional values on the Midday Report of 13 August. What may you ask elicited Stephen’s concern? By now we all know the answer.

Mr Muhammed Desai, activist by profession and currently National Coordinator (not a mere “member” Stephen – tsk, tsk) of the South African chapter of the BDS Project, hit upon the smart idea of wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “In solidarity with Palestinians against Israeli apartheid” to the Houghton Branch of the Virgin Active Gym.

This is more-or-less equivalent to Ben Levitas going to a soccer game wearing a placard “In solidarity with farm victims of Black barbarity” or insisting on entry into a predominantly Muslim gym wearing a T-shirt bearing the words “In solidarity with women and homosexuals stoned to death in Islamic countries”.

Mr Desai got the reaction he was looking for. A member of the gym objected, apparently challenging him to come outside and settle it “like a man”, and the gym management told Mr Desai to leave and, by implication, return with another less offensive T-shirt.


Mr Desai took this serious contravention of his constitutional right to provoke and offend people straight to his happy hunting ground – the media. Enter Stephen Grootes. To lend gravitas to the topic du jour, who does Mr Grootes call upon to explain the crisis precipitated by the abrogation of Mr Desai’s right to demonise Israel at a time and place of his choosing? But you already know the answer to that one too of course: Professor Jane Duncan.

Who better after all? Jane Duncan is Professor of Journalism at the University of Johannesburg with a long academic pedigree in the field and was Executive Director of the Freedom of Expression Institute for a number of years. But the other hat Prof Duncan wears is that of ardent anti-Israel activist which, given Stephen’s intimate familiarity with the journalism scene, he could not fail to know. Not that you would ever guess that from the interview.

In the same unctuously impartial tones he put the following penetrating question to Prof Duncan, “Are there limits to the kind of speech you can have on a T-shirt in public”? Needless to say there are but, equally needless to say, none of them applied to Mr Desai’s regrettable eviction. On the contrary, it seems that the question of Israeli Apartheid requires airing if we are to maintain the moral health of our society. Loud applause.

Now of course the ordinary man-in-the-street, just like Mr Desai, Prof Jane Duncan and Mr Grootes, knows this is all hogwash, to put it politely. It is a public circus staged by the ever-inventive Mr Desai to advance the BDS campaign of demonisation of Israel. It is a performance in which Prof Duncan as the academic “expert” and Mr Grootes, the scrupulous journalist, played their parts with the smooth professionalism of seasoned performers.
No mention that Desai is the National Coordinator of the BDS project or of Duncan’s history of anti-Israel commentary. No real discussion of the morality (nevermind legality) of such behaviour in view of South Africa’s diverse ethnicities and no comment on the deep offense it provokes in the small South African Jewish community. And, again of course, no contextualisation.

So here is a bit of context. Whatever the wrongs of Israeli society and politicians they pale besides the multiple social ills of the hostile states which surround her. Israeli “Apartheid”, like “International Law”, is used solely as a branding slogan dreamt up by the propaganda warriors of the BDS movement to demonise Israel. If these issues do need airing (which I seriously question in the light of South Africa’s manifold problems and dubious moral behaviour), let’s do so by all means in depth and not in terms of advertising agency smoke and mirrors.

Here is a bit of context. A brief glance through the South African media of the last 5 days reveals the following pressing issues related to Israel:

The BDS protest against the Pharrell Williams concert sponsored by Woolworths reported in the Weekend Argus and other newspapers, expressing righteous indignation at being allowed only 150 protesters by the City Council. The ANC “slammed” the decision much to everyone’s surprise.
A lengthy interrogation of Woolworth’s relationship with the designated pariah state, Israel, by Janet Smith published in the Pretoria News.

Multiple articles and images on rightwing Israeli extremism as expressed in the arson attack which left a Palestinian toddler dead and an internet threat to a mixed Jewish-Arab school.
An article in the Pretoria News by the ubiquitous Muhammed Desai on an EU report recommending “stronger action” against Israeli Banks and other financial institutions with any dealings with Israeli businesses in the “illegally-occupied territories including East Jerusalem”. Of course Mr Desai knows (and cares) nothing about international legality or illegality pertaining to the issue of the West Bank/Samaria and Judea/Occupied Territories; the term is just another club.
An article in New Age-Northern Cape on a recent increase in the infant mortality rate in Gaza which an UNWRA report attributes to Israeli “blockade”. Naturally the report does not deal with UNWRA complicity in the huge inflation in Palestinian refugee figures, the massive staff complement it carries reliant upon massive donor support, or its close association with Hamas and other “militants”. Nor with the fact that Egypt also controls a border with Gaza or the problems posed by the continued rebuilding of terror tunnels by Hamas in Gaza…and many other contributory factors.

I’m not even going to try to deal with each of these and other articles dealing with real or imagined Israeli malfeasance. This is simply to draw attention to the disproportionate and incessant drumbeat of anti-Israeli items in the media orchestrated in part by known anti-Israeli activists and NGOs but with the active and passive complicity of journalists. There are somewhat different takes on this phenomenon but I would like to call in my own expert on this topic (see Fathom here. I strongly urge readers to follow up this link to one of the most powerful and thoughtful article on this phenomenon that I have come across).

Matti Friedman, a vastly experienced journalist with extensive tours of duty in the Middle East puts it brilliantly:

“The question we must ask, as observers of the world, is why this conflict (Israeli-Palestinian) has come over time to draw more attention than any other, and why it is presented as it is. How have the doings in a country that constitutes 0.01 percent of the world’s surface become the focus of angst, loathing, and condemnation more than any other?

We must ask how Israelis and Palestinians have become the stylized symbol of conflict, of strong and weak, the parallel bars upon which the intellectual Olympians of the West perform their tricks – not Turks and Kurds, not Han Chinese and Tibetans, not British soldiers and Iraqi Muslims, not Iraqi Muslims and Iraqi Christians, not Saudi sheikhs and Saudi women, not Indians and Kashmiris, not drug cartel thugs and Mexican villagers.”

He goes on to say “Soldiers’ (Israeli) vile t-shirts were worth a story. Anonymous and unverifiable testimonies of abuses were worth three. A peace proposal from the Israeli prime minister to the Palestinian president was not to be reported at all. Vandalism of Palestinian property is a story. Neo-Nazi rallies at Palestinian universities or in Palestinian cities are not — I saw images of such rallies suppressed on more than one occasion. Jewish hatred of Arabs is a story. Arab hatred of Jews is not.”

Our own familiarity with the media confirms this time and time again. Friedman’s answer is again best expressed in his words:

“There are simply too many voices coming from too many places, expressing themselves in too poisonous a way, for us to conclude that this is a narrow criticism of the occupation.

It’s time for the people making these charges to look closely at themselves, and for us to look closely at them. Naming and understanding this sentiment is important, as it is becoming one of the key intellectual trends of our time. We might think of it as the “Cult of the Occupation.” This belief system, for that it what it is, uses the occupation as a way of talking about other things. As usual with Western religions, the center (sic) of this one is in the Holy Land.

The dogma posits that the occupation is not a conflict like any other, but that it is the very symbol of conflict: that the minute state inhabited by a persecuted minority in the Middle East is in fact a symbol of the ills of the West – colonialism, nationalism, militarism, and racism. …The cult’s priesthood can be found among the activists, NGO experts, and ideological journalists who have turned coverage of this conflict into a catalogue of Jewish moral failings, as if Israeli society were different from any other group of people on earth, as if Jews deserve to be mocked for having suffered and failed to be perfect as a result….

This makes little sense, unless we understand that people aren’t fixated on Israel despite everything else going on – but rather because of everything else going on. As Maurras wrote, when you use the Jew as the symbol of what is wrong, “all things fall into place and are simplified.”

I quote Freidman because he is a brilliant observer and articulator of the phenomenon. I am not sure he has fully deconstructed the underlying causes It is not simple anti-Semitism but neither is it innocent confusion and idealism. Nor is it all spontaneous, the inevitable diffusion of bad ideas currently in vogue. Much of it is orchestrated by sophisticated, ruthless, well-financed and inventive propagandists.

Propaganda effectively used is extremely powerful and Mankind’s moral instincts can be harnessed to bad causes as well as to good. But I’m a believer in the ultimate triumph of truth, the fairness instinct and hard reality. Our social structures and we ourselves are, after all, complex adaptive systems which have survived many potential catastrophes through the millennia by painful adaptations to the punishment dealt out for misreading reality.

So I believe that Mr Friedman has a good point when he concludes:

“Israel’s intellectual opponents can rant about the moral failings of the Jews, obscuring their obsession in whatever sophisticated way they choose. The gunmen of Hamas and their allies can stand on heaps of rubble and declare victory. They can fire rockets, and shoot up supermarkets. But if you look at Tel Aviv, or at any thriving neighborhood in Jerusalem, Netanya, Rishon Letzion, or Haifa, you understand that this is victory. This is where we’ve won, and where we win every day.”

I and my fellow Jews, whether in Israel itself or in the Diaspora, will try hard to make that true and also ensure that Israel never forgets in this struggle for survival the profound moral values which inspired the early Zionists. I know that for every Desai there is a builder, a creator and the future if there is to be one, belongs to them.

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