Board's David Saks has his say

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What's immoral about inviting young people to come and see Israel for themselves? asks the SA Jewish Board of Deputies' David Saks
by DAVID SAKS on IOL | Jul 22, 2015

Shortly after their return from an investigative visit to Israel, ANC-affiliated members of a student group were subjected to an extraordinary diatribe by Obed Bapela, chairman of the ANC's International Relations Committee.

The ANC, warned Bapela, would "summon" the students, who had taken part in what he called a "campaign by Israel to distort our stand on Palestine". Anyone from the ANC who visited Israel, he added, would bring the ANC into "disrepute".

The SA Student Congress (Sasco) reacted similarly, suspending five members pending a disciplinary hearing.

The visit took place under the auspices of the SA-Israel Forum (SAW). Its aim, as expressed by director Dan Brotman, was "not to make (the students) pro-Israel, but to expose them to a narrative they really don't hear in South Africa".

In the course of the trip, the students engaged with a broad range of Israelis and Palestinians, discussing such issues as the nature of Israeli society and how to move forward in advancing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.


The unusually hostile reaction from Bapela raises questions. One is why he should be so adamant that ANC members should not visit Israel, even in their personal capacities, given that neither his party nor the South African government - in which he serves as a deputy minister - has imposed any formal ban on this. Officially, at least, South Africa continues to have full diplomatic relations with the country.

SA Government is re-engaging

President Jacob Zuma, in a meeting with a Jewish leadership delegation last year, confirmed that his government had taken a decision to re-engage with all sides, with a view to helping to bring about a negotiated two-state solution to the conflict.

From a principle point of view, Bapela's attitude is difficult to understand. It is a reality that Israel is continually being accused of every manner of human rights violation, including that it is an apartheid state.

Is there something intrinsically immoral about its advocates saying: "This is not true - come and see Israel for yourselves." And are people who take up that invitation, without in any way being expected to endorse the views of the sponsors on their return, guilty of "selling out" and betraying their party's principles?

Whether those who went on the trip had their original views of Israel softened, hardened or simply confirmed is, in the context of this discussion, irrelevant, At issue is the growing campaign, within and without the ruling party, to prevent South Africans from being exposed to the Israeli perspective at all.

This was evident in the weeks leading up to the visit, when participants were subjected to continual threats, intimidation and insults. Several reported being offered financial incentives to withdraw. Given these pressures, it is remarkable that the trip was able to go ahead.

Why do hardline anti-Israel groupings like Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions SA (BDS-SA) and its supporters in the ruling party campaign so strenuously - to the point of resorting to blatant bully-boy tactics - to prevent constructive debate from taking place on the Israel-Palestine question?

After all, if Israel is an apartheid state, it would be impossible to conceal that reality, regardless of what window-dressing tactics its advocates might resort to.

The young student leaders on the trip were not fools, nor were their views on Israel particularly favourable - indeed, the opposite was generally the case.

Surely, if what the Israel boycotters say is true, a first-hand visit to the country, one involving engagement with a wide range of Israelis and Palestinians, would inevitably confirm that reality? It is not as if the itinerary was tailored to present pro-Israel voices only. Some of the participants met with were critical of aspects of Israeli policy, and at least one (a Jewish Israeli) was an open advocate of boycotts against Israel.

Why prevent constituents from going?

All this raises the obvious question: If Bapela, Sasco, BDS-SA and others of their ilk are certain their understanding of the Israel-Palestine question is the correct one, why are they anxious to prevent their constituents from becoming acquainted with a contrary narrative?

Are they afraid that people will come to the "wrong" conclusions if confronted with information that contradicts their interpretation? As things stand, what they seem to be saying is, "This is what we expect you to believe, and if you even listen to those who try to tell you otherwise, you will be punished".

Such tactics call to mind the ideological conformity so ruthlessly imposed by, among other totalitarian governments, the former Soviet Union and, yes, even the old National Party regime in South Africa.

It will be recalled how the latter went to every length to prevent South Africans from travelling to Lusaka to meet the exiled ANC leadership, and hear what they had to say about their visions for a future, post-apartheid society,

A common feature of totalitarian regimes is that the ruling elite does not trust the greater public to think for itself and, hence, through parallel strategies of indoctrination and censorship, ensures that "dangerous" ideological deviations are suppressed (or at least marginalised).

South Africa, however, is not a totalitarian state, but a constitutional democracy that, at least theoretically, protects and values the right to freedom of belief, enquiry and expression. Regardless of what their views on the Middle East question might be, therefore, South Africans should be concerned about the latest developments, which constitute a serious attack by elements of the ruling party on fundamental principles of democracy in this country.

David Saks is an associate director of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies.


  • The above article first appeared in IOL titles over the weekend

1 Comment

  1. 1 nat cheiman 24 Jul
    Zuma and his amoeba like sycophants would like people to be like mushrooms. Kept in the dark and fed bulls**t.
    Sasco and BDS have the same mentality.


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