Coronavirus wrecks Israeli Apartheid Week amid BDS rebrand

  • Steven Gruzd
Maybe there is a small silver lining around the Covid-19 cloud.
by STEVEN GRUZD | Mar 19, 2020

Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions South Africa (BDS-SA), the so-called human-rights movement calling for sanctions against Israel, has had to suspend its polarising, hate-inducing “Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW)” on university campuses across the country due to coronavirus.

Meant to run from 15-21 March, IAW has collapsed as people practice social distancing and universities shut their gates. This year, there are just a handful of events worldwide when once there were hundreds.

So, for now, Jewish students have been spared the anti-Semitic harassment that has plagued IAW for years. But Israel’s supporters should guard against complacency.

On 12 March, BDS-SA crowed that after “an incredible decade of … victories in South Africa”, it would be “rebranding and broadening [its] mandate”, to now be known as Africa For Palestine (AFP).

Why the change? “It appears there has been a factional split within the BDS movement in South Africa,” said Rowan Polovin, the national chairperson of the South African Zionist Federation. “A group calling itself the South African BDS Coalition has formed with an allegiance to the international BDS movement,” suggesting serious discord. “Ultimately, both organisations will continue to carry out their singularly anti-Semitic agenda against the Jewish state, driven by an irrational hatred for Jews living freely in their own sliver of land in the Middle East.”

“Personally, I think they [AFP] are weaker with scandals [like Muhammed Desai being accused of sexual harassment] besetting them,” said Professor Hussein Solomon in the department of political studies and governance at the University of the Free State. “Also, I think the gains they previously made have been reversed. Think about the African National Congress downscaling ties with Israel. It’s two-and-a-half years later, and we are still here. The University of Cape Town was supposed to cut ties with Israel, and then it didn’t. Across the Arab world and Africa, we see inroads being made by Israel. BDS is weak. It knows it. So now it rebrands itself to portray an image of strength.”

On Monday, the “old-wine-in-new-bottles” AFP said it had “made a difficult decision to cancel several of its planned public events for the next 30 days amidst the spread of coronavirus. This measure is taken in line with the position adopted by several African government’s [sic] to discourage large public events … It’s also irresponsible not to follow containment measures.”

The global IAW campaign website said, “This year, activists are not only faced with oppression and attempts to silence them; the measures put in place to contain the coronavirus are paralysing communities and restricting freedom of movement and association all over the world … It’s very clear that in this context, it’s difficult if not impossible for a lot of groups to mobilise, organise, and bring people together. We are trying to organise online solutions to keep spreading awareness about Palestinian rights and the BDS movement.”

AFP urges its supporters to use the #africaforpalestine hashtag for social media posts, and offers a range of one-sided material for viewing. Oh, and for good measure, it also takes an erroneous swipe at Israel for taking too long to issue Covid-19 warnings in Arabic, saying, “This is comparable to apartheid South Africa during an epidemic in the 1980s issuing official updates only in Afrikaans.”

The South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS) also announced the postponement of its “Israel Awareness Week” that for the past few years has countered BDS propaganda during IAW.

“This year … we were doing a positive education campaign to show how Israel has contributed to humanity,” said Gabi Farber, SAUJS chairperson at the University of the Witwatersrand. “Despite all the hard work and preparation, SAUJS decided to postpone, and we are reallocating our efforts and resources. BDS is continuing its campaign online, while we are rather choosing to focus on ways to help [stop] the spread of Covid-19.”

One reason given for the change in AFP’s focus is to “push back against Israel’s creeping infiltration into our continent”. It is an indication that Israel’s overtures to African countries are really starting to rattle the anti-Israel lobby. Note that the phrase “creeping infiltration” feeds into ancient anti-Semitic tropes of Jews as treacherous vermin.

AFP notes that its members undertook visits to southern African countries in 2019 to drum up support for their cause. “In the course of this work, we became acutely aware of the need for Palestine solidarity work to expand into the African continent,” AFP said. “Africa for Palestine will seek to build alliances and partnerships across the continent, reinforce direct support for Palestine, and assist the Palestinian diaspora.”

As Ben Cohen wrote for JNS.org, “Where Israel offers technology and material assistance, from clean-water supplies to AIDS prevention, from post-natal clinics to higher education, the local allies of the Palestinian cause offer ideology - and nothing more.”

He also said AFP’s “understanding of what constitutes Palestine is displayed in its logo, which shows a Palestinian keffiyeh (scarf) carefully folded into a map of the entire territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan.” No place for Israel then.

It remains to be seen whether the “Israeli-apartheid” canard has as much resonance north of the Limpopo River as it has in South Africa.

In the coming months, the struggle for hearts and minds will move to new battlefields in Africa. Israel’s accomplishments on the continent will be more fiercely challenged if AFP gets its way. Israel and its supporters must be alive to this shifting emphasis, and not let up on countering fake news and half-truths. Those who love Israel must prepare for a fight on familiar and unfamiliar terrain.

  • Steven Gruzd is an analyst at the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg.

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