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Why the anti-Israel industry is obsessed with South Africa

The apartheid libel isn’t just inaccurate, it’s an indefensible evil.

The logo of the "Africa for Palestine" group, formerly BDS South Africa. Source: Twitter.
The logo of the "Africa for Palestine" group, formerly BDS South Africa. Source: Twitter.
Benjamin Kerstein
Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his writing on Substack and his website. Follow him on Twitter @benj_kerstein. His books can be purchased here.

The anti-Israel industry and anti-Zionists the world over are obsessed with nothing so much as South Africa. Their relentless invocation of that country’s now defunct system of racial segregation—“apartheid”—in their attacks on Israel has reached the point at which one often feels compelled to ask whether it might be more sensible to simply leave Israel aside and discuss South Africa. It is, after all, the only thing they seem to want to talk about.

I will leave aside the issue of the obvious inaccuracy of the apartheid libel, as many others have dealt with and discredited it at length. It is worth asking, however, why South Africa has become the object of such an obsession.

There are several reasons why, but the first and most obvious is that it is easy. For good reason, there now exists a global consensus that apartheid was a monstrous system that violated the most elementary human rights of black South Africans, and that it died a well-deserved death. In short, more or less everyone agrees that apartheid South Africa was an evil regime.

As such, the invocation of apartheid serves more or less the same purpose as the invocation of Nazism. It is simply another name for the devil, and it is the moral obligation of any decent person to strike down the devil. This relieves the anti-Israel industry of the need to delve into the moral ambiguities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It can simply invoke South Africa and be done with it. This is a lazy tactic but often a rhetorically effective one.

There is a darker motivation behind the exploitation of apartheid as a totem of evil, however. Put simply, apartheid South Africa—like French Algeria or the Confederate States of America—is one of the few historical examples of a regime that was utterly destroyed with the general approval of the world. For those who want to see Israel destroyed, that global consensus is invaluable. In most cases, the desire to see a nation destroyed is considered monstrous, but if the equation to apartheid can be successfully made, this is turned on its head, and the desire to see a nation survive becomes monstrous.

The moral implications of this are enormous because it means that the apartheid libel has become, in effect, a warrant for genocide. It holds that the destruction of the Jewish nation would not be a horrific crime, but an actual positive good. As a result, genocidists can wrap themselves in the halo of moral rectitude. All sins—including terrorism and ethnic cleansing—are absolved, and murder becomes God’s work.

There are also historical reasons behind the South Africa obsession, particularly in regard to anti-Israel leftists, because the end of apartheid was essentially the left’s last real political victory. For most of the past few decades, the left has won its confrontations with the right almost entirely in the realm of culture. In the world of practical politics, they have been consistently defeated.

Among other things, Soviet communism collapsed; former President Ronald Reagan and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher forged a neoliberal consensus across the West that still survives today; China abandoned Maoism in favor of authoritarian capitalism; Cuba remains a basket case; attempts at leftist revivals in countries like Venezuela proved disastrous; and even the 2008 financial crisis failed to bring the socialist left back to power. If the near-collapse of the global financial system could not bring about a left-wing revival and revolution, it is safe to say that nothing will. The left is not stupid, and they are well aware of this.

As such, to turn back to the last great victory in hopes of repeating it is probably inevitable. Hatred of Israel carries with it the possibility (among some, the surety) of returning to the glory days in which the global left could count itself a powerful and potent force. In other words, it gives the left hope, and at the moment, hope is desperately needed.

This is ironic, however, given that the left’s view of the end of apartheid is something of a fantasy. Yes, apartheid was a terrible and immoral system. It’s a good thing that it died. But the left’s dream of what would replace it has proven to be precisely that—a dream. South Africa has not become the multiracial and multicultural paradise the left envisioned. It has become just another country, with all the attendant problems and moral compromises inherent in practical, quotidian politics. For the left, to see its dreams of a paradisiacal post-apartheid South Africa smash against the wall of the real world must be a source of constant anguish.

Some other messianic fantasy, then, must be sought in its place, and for the true believers, this is the great hope of destroying Israel. Out of the ashes of the evil Zionist entity, they believe, a new utopia will emerge in the form of a “liberated” Palestine, in which all conflicts will be resolved and peace will spread inexorably across a violent and unstable region. The “root cause” of war and terror will be uprooted, historical justice will be done at last and the Palestinians, along with the rest of us, will finally be happy.

But not all of us would be happy. What the apartheid libel conceals with malice aforethought is that the Jews would not be happy—and for very good reason. Apartheid fell because it was a terrible injustice to black South Africans. But the end of Israel would be a terrible injustice to the Jews. And this is the dark shadow of the apartheid libel: It seeks not to liberate, but to enslave; not to bring life, but to bring death.

We should remember, however, that fantasies of slavery and death are powerful, and we must not underestimate the enormous energies they can release. Our enemies may be driven by the most demonic of forces, but the devil has not inconsiderable power. Thus, to defeat the apartheid libel, it is not enough to simply refute or debunk it. We must also point out that it is an indefensible evil, the work of the devil, and ought to be treated accordingly.

Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his writing on Substack and his website. Follow him on Twitter @benj_kerstein.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.

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