columnIsrael-Palestinian Conflict

Confronting South Africa’s official anti-Zionism

The word “apartheid” is key to understanding why more than the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, most of Europe and even parts of the Islamic world, it South Africa that has proved so receptive to the core contention that Israel has no right to a sovereign, independent existence.

South Africa on a map. Credit: TonelloPhotography/Shutterstock.
South Africa on a map. Credit: TonelloPhotography/Shutterstock.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen, a senior analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics.

In no other democratic country in the world has anti-Zionism enjoyed the kind of mainstream success that it has in South Africa.

Consider that Israel’s recent military strikes against Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) positions in the Gaza Strip were, by and large, spared the volume of international condemnation that has typically accompanied previous Israeli incursions. In part, that’s because the world has plenty of other issues to worry about, like the war in Ukraine, punishing inflation and a looming fuel crisis this winter, especially in those countries dependent on Russian energy supplies. It’s also because the Israeli security forces completed their operation in the space of three days, sparing us from a lengthy news cycle dominated by images from Gaza alongside the inevitable “Free Palestine” demonstrations that, during the 11- day Israel-Hamas conflict of May 2021, resulted in Jewish bystanders getting beaten up and abused in cities around the world.

South Africa, however, was an exception. As “Operation Breaking Dawn” was drawing to a close, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) issued a statement calling on the international community “to intervene and end the current and continual attacks by apartheid Israel against the people of Palestine”—in essence, a call to the world’s nations to take up arms against the one Jewish state on the planet. That was very much in keeping with South Africa’s response to the May 2021 hostilities, when even President Cyril Ramaphosa, whose name is not usually included in the long roster of Israel-haters within the ANC, told a French broadcaster that Israel’s actions reminded him of the apartheid era in his own country.

The word “apartheid” is key to understanding why South Africa—more than the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, most of Europe and even parts of the Islamic world—has proved so receptive to the core anti-Zionist contention that Israel has no right to a sovereign, independent existence. Apartheid—the system of racial segregation and unequal development that prevailed in South Africa for most of the 20th century—ensured that a white minority of 10% ruled with an iron fist over a black majority of 90%, confining them to crowded townships, denying them the vote, severely limiting their right to education and proscribing interracial marriages and relationships.

The fact that no similar laws exist in Israel hasn’t stopped the ANC, which like many anti-colonial movements in the developing world embraced the Palestinian cause during the Cold War, from franchising the word “apartheid” to the Palestinians. The ANC believes—and has persuaded many ordinary South Africans to believe—that Israel is a carbon copy of the old, unlamented apartheid regime, and that its Jewish citizens, who descend from all corners of the world, are the equivalent of the boorish Boer settlers from Holland who colonized their country during the 19th century.

As always the case with anti-Zionism, the hostility isn’t restricted to Israel as a state entity but spills over into open anti-Semitism targeting Jews more generally. Last week, one of South Africa’s most popular news outlets published an uncomplicatedly anti-Semitic op-ed that neatly demonstrated how easy it is to graft traditional anti-Semitism onto ostensibly progressive concerns about racial injustice.

There was no doubt in the mind of the op-ed’s author—an academic named Oscar van Heerden—that Israel not only practices apartheid but is engaging in a Nazi-like genocide against the Palestinians. Simple math shows how nonsensical this assertion is—in 1948, there were approximately 1.2 million Palestinian Arabs, while in 2022 they number nearly 5 million—but the real problem here is the way in which the claims of an eliminationist ideology are presented as uncontested facts.

When advancing anti-Semitic tropes, van Heerden frequently cites the Israeli anti-Zionist journalist Gideon Levy, whose arguments often provide cover for those commentators anxious to deflect charges of anti-Semitism. We are thus told, pace Levy, that the “Jewish people have a deeply-held belief that they are the chosen people, chosen by God himself. And as a ‘holy people,’ and having a covenant with God, they can do no wrong in proclaiming his name and providing a light to others.”

This distortion of the “chosen people” concept as a doctrine of Jewish ethno-racial superiority has long been part of anti-Zionism’s arsenal, advancing anti-Semitic canards to make the case that the Jews and their culture are themselves racist. Other than Levy, van Heerden quotes no other source for this claim, nor the associated outlandish claims he makes, among them the comment that, again following Levy, “if you just scratch the surface of every Jewish person in Israel, you will find that they do not see Palestinians as human beings and hence any argument put forward about respecting the human rights of the Palestinians does not apply here because they are not human beings and hence must be treated as such.” Later on, he tells us that Israelis “cannot or will not acknowledge that what they are doing is no different from those very Nazis so aptly represented by [Adolf] Eichmann.”

The fundamental point is that van Heerden’s op-ed is not an outlier; what he says here about Israel is little different from what South Africa’s rulers have to say. Until her untimely death from cancer last month, the ANC’s Deputy General Secretary, Jessie Duarte, was arguably the South African leader most given to incendiary rhetoric targeting Israel and Jews, going so far as to state, during a May 2021 demonstration outside the Israeli Embassy in Pretoria, that “[I]f we do not stop this imperialism in Israel, one day they will move into Africa and start dispossessing our land here.”

These poisonous notions are encountered around the world but rarely by elected leaders. However, the ANC’s enthusiasm for denouncing Israel as an apartheid state has opened the minds of its supporters to anti-Semitism as a progressive ideology—what was once termed, in a different context, as the “socialism of fools.”

The international community, which has rightly supported South Africa’s transition from a racist government to a multi-racial democracy, can no longer turn a blind eye to the anti-Zionist anti-Semitism actively promoted by the ANC. The United States and the European Union, in particular, need to remind the South Africans that such rhetoric is frowned upon, and they need to publicly condemn every such utterance by that country’s leadership.

Our admiration for the struggle against apartheid, coupled with our knowledge of the suffering endured by black South Africans under that system, has perhaps made us reticent about criticizing the current generation of leaders. No more.

Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.

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