The recent South African ‘human rights delegation’ to Israel continues to attract enormous attention in the South African public space. Talks at private homes and at universities, air-time on the radio, and editorials and opinion pieces in newspapers have ensured maximum exposure of the delegates' opinions. As a propaganda piece, the mission continues to excel. In terms of fomenting a greater understanding of the conflict, apart from a few astute exceptions (most notably Justice Edwin Cameron), the mission was, in my opinion, a miserable failure.
I spoke to a couple of people who attended the address by the delegation at Wits University last week. The address, they said, brought nothing new to the debate; instead it just rehashed the old Israel-bashing rhetoric to which we have become so accustomed.
The view from people who attended a private invite-only address at a residence in Houghton last week was slightly more positive, thanks mainly to Justice Edwin Cameron. It seems that different messages are disseminated depending on the audience – at least in terms of the selection of speakers. Edwin Cameron is selected for a private predominantly Jewish audience; whilst Mondli Makhanya (Israel is evil!) is selected for a far wider public audience.
Yesterday, the Cape Times did well to provide two opposing views regarding the delegation. Nathan Geffen’s article (“we have a duty to speak out”) was overshadowed by a masterful article by Joel Pollak who, whilst volunteering for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel last year, went on many of the tours that the delegation experienced (“South African mission went wearing blinkers and predictably found what it was looking for”).
I found Geffen’s article profoundly absurd. He writes as one of the three primary organisers of the tour and sets about explaining the lofty goals of the mission. Geffen subtly claims that the delegation has been successful in its mission to “create space, in the South African Jewish community, for views critical of the occupation.” He goes on to say that “It has not been easy in the past to express dissent in the community without vilification.”
I disagree. First off, there is lots of “space” in the Jewish community for criticism of the occupation. This year at Limmud, Gershon Gorenberg, author of the seminal book on the occupation, entitled “The occupation, the untold story of Israel’s settlements”, will be speaking. The Jewish community has previously hosted other outspoken critics of the occupation working to bring about its end, most notably former anti-apartheid activist Benjamin Pogrund and Palestinian human rights activist Bassem Eid.
I have myself on numerous occasions expressed criticism of the occupation without being subjected to this community vilification:
Just prior to the disengagement from Gaza I penned an article in the quarterly Mizrachi (Orthodox Zionist) magazine. I criticised the occupation and came out in strong support of the withdrawal from Gaza. My views were certainly not supported by the majority of the Mizrachi community, but I was far from crucified. The only notable opprobrium I received was that the editor of the magazine highlighted that the views expressed were my own and not those of the Mizrachi synagogue. Vilification indeed!
But it gets worse. Geffen first claims that there is no space for criticism of the occupation in the Jewish community and then proceeds to describe the positive manner in which the delegation has been received by the community, noting the significant coverage they have obtained from the leading Jewish weekly as well as the rational and civil debate they have had with the Jewish leaders. Geffen escapes from this obvious contradiction by assuming that it’s his delegation that has made this discourse possible!
Just because events A and B both occurred does not imply that A led to B. It’s a really foolish and condescending conclusion. Perhaps Geffen feels that it’s just not possible that community institutions have previously engaged in rational debate on Israel – no, his mission has suddenly and miraculously brought civil debate to the Jewish community. Well bravo! He ignores the debates within the Jewish community where Hussein Solomon, Benjamin Pogrund, Dennis Davis, Bassem Eid etc have argued against the occupation; he ignores the addresses at the Jewish Board's annual conferences by Mosioua Lekota and Andrei Zaaiman who both stridently spoke out against the occupation. I have to conclude that Geffen is either ignorant of communal affairs or just chooses to ignore everything that doesn't fit his conclusion.
I will be the first to agree that a large majority of the community needs to be challenged regarding its positions on Israel and the occupation in particular. But recent visits from Israelis and Palestinians working towards fostering real ties between Arabs and Jews, from Israelis like former apartheid activist Benjamin Pogrund and Palestinians like Bassem Eid are evidence of a creeping enlightenment of views within the community. A delegation where leading members describe Israel as pure evil does not create space for new debate – it stifles it, marginalises the community, and shoves us back to previous defensive positions!
Most absurd, however, is that Geffen also claims that the delegation set out to try and improve the ties between the Jewish and Muslim communities in South Africa. I don’t buy it.
They blame only Israel for the problems; they lecture only the Jewish community about softening their positions; they investigate only Israeli abuses of Palestinian human rights. Everyone knows about the importance of the perception of fairness in conflict resolution. Geffen knows this. Yet, without any attempt to appear fair, he has the audacity to claim that they wanted to improve relations between South African Jews and Muslims. Who is he trying to kid?
Currying favour with one community and lecturing the other does not bring the two sides closer. It polarises the communities. It presses only the Jewish community to change its views, - not through debate but through public pressure! He calls on the Jewish community to better understand the suffering of the Palestinians (here I have to agree) but makes no similar demands of the Muslim community!
Furthermore, Geffen’s comparison between the positions adopted by the organs of the Muslim community and the organs of the Jewish community reflects complete naiveté and ignorance. In fact, he describes the failures of the Jewish community as far worse than those of the Muslim community. I challenge Geffen to actually read what the organs of both communities say. (Here Nathan, read this rhetoric from the Muslim Judicial Council and then find me similar utterances from a local Jewish communal institution).
Another telling hypocrisy is in the way Geffen describes the trauma suffered by both sides. The suffering caused by the occupation is described in human terms – it causes tremendous hardships and suffering. His description of the incessant rocket fire on Sderot however, lacks this human aspect – its failure is described in tactical terms; not as causing immense suffering to the Israelis living there, but as undermining the Israeli left and strengthening the Israeli military.
I have to conclude that the Human Rights Delegation has failed in terms of achieving at least two of their three stated objectives. Instead of trying to help the Palestinians by sharing their state-building experience, they have focused on lecturing the South African Jewish Community. If there will be any good to come from this delegation, it will be that they return to the Palestinian territories, for a longer period of time, in an effort to help the Palestinians build the insititutions that will be so vital to a future Palestinian state.
- For a really good take on the Human Rights Delegation make sure you read Joel Pollak’s article which appeared alongside Geffen’s column. You can read the full text of Pollak’s article at his blog Guide to the Perplexed.
- Michael Trapido has also weighed in with his view - read it at his Thought Leader blog: SA human rights delegation needed here.