Above Board 1 June 2012
At the time of writing last week’s column, a joint SAJBD-SA Zionist Federation delegation was about to meet with Minister of Trade and Industry Rob Davies to discuss the proposed re-labelling of products originating from Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Unfortunately, the meeting proved unsatisfactory in addressing our concerns, and we are currently reviewing our options going forward, including in the legal and political sphere. It will be a long and complicated process, but we will keep the community informed as and when things develop. The Board and SAZF have held a joint feed-back session for the general community in Johannesburg, and our other regions will likewise be reporting back to their constituents.
Certainly, we have seen a number of concerning developments regarding the relationship between Israel and South Africa over the past few weeks. It cannot be denied that those agitating against any kind of ties between the two countries can point to a number of successes during this period. In addition to the government’s support for relabeling West Bank products (which is intended by activists, although explicitly not by government itself, as a stepping stone to bringing about a boycott of those products), a Western Cape MC cancelled his visit to Israel under pressure from the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) and Deputy Ambassador Yaakov Finkelstein’s scheduled talk at the University of KZN was cancelled by that institution.
While we obviously feel uncomfortable when universities host speakers and events whose purpose is to level the most damning and extreme charges against Israel, we recognise that this falls within the parameters of freedom of expression as befits an academic environment. What is completely unacceptable is when contrary viewpoints are prevented from being expressed. This is bad enough when such de facto censorship comes about through the disruptive tactics of the anti-Israel activists, but it is even worse when the institution itself takes an active role. Thus was evidently the case with UKZN, whose endorsement of a stance that prevents the Israeli side from ever being heard both betrays the principles of academic freedom which it should as a matter of course be upholding and establishes a dangerous precedent that other institutions may follow.
An important point to emphasise is that while these latest developments are obviously unwelcome, they have not changed the situation in any fundamental way. The government has on frequent occasions reiterated that it has no intention of breaking off existing bilateral relations with Israel, nor is it supportive of economic, cultural, academic or other boycotts. (The cancellation of the UKZN talk was in fact explicitly condemned by a DIRCO spokesperson).
As the representative voice of the Jewish community, we are vigorously following up every action that goes against this policy of engagement. What captures the headlines are the occasional cancellations of official visits to Israel, but many more continue to take place, sometimes with our direct involvement. One also finds, on closer examination, that those actively campaigning for boycotts of Israel constitute at the end of the day no more than a fringe group, albeit a vociferous and media-savvy one. In dealing with the latter, our challenge is to remain focused, consistently supporting dialogue over boycotts and free discussion over censorship, demonstrating thereby to government and society at large that what we are seeking are solutions to and greater understanding of the greater Middle East debate.
This Above Board column first appeared in the South African Jewish Report of 1 June 2012