01 August 2007

01 August 2007 - The Board's dangerous deal

South Africa’s ambassador to the UN, Dumisani Khumalo, recently protested the appearance of a well-known, largely-Muslim ethno-nationalist movement from the eastern Mediterranean region before the UN Security Council. This nationalist movement, whose political future remains in doubt, wanted to appear to answer the case put forth by the well-established state with which it has been in conflict for many decades—a conflict that has occasionally erupted into war.

As Profesor James S. Sutterlin put it in the most recent issue of Focus magazine:

“South Africa’s actions in the Security Council have shown a tendency to view even the non-African issue of [X] in this context. South Africa did not object to a representative of [Y] appearing before the council, as proposed by Russia, to explain the [Y] position on [X]’s future status. It strongly objected, however, to the presentation in the council of [X] views by a representative of the [X] administration. The ambassador explained to the author that, had a representative of [X] been allowed to speak on the same basis as the [Y] representative, it would have given the impression that [X] is an independent, sovereign state, just as [Y] is. This could have unfortunate repercussions, since there were many other groups that were seeking independence to the detriment of the principle of the territorial integrity of states.”

Who are [X] and [Y]? Not the Palestinians and Israel, but Kosovo and Serbia. One can hardly imagine South Africa opposing a Palestinian appearance before the Security Council (nor should it). But that highlights the absurdity of the petty rationalizations it invokes when it tries to block other human rights and security issues from being heard.

On the Palestinian issue, in fact, South Africa is on record in support of continued armed struggle against Israel. Intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils recently posted a video of his speech at Birzeit University in May on his ministry’s website in an attempt to refute charges made by the Israeli ambassador, who—quoting Palestinian news sources—said Kasrils had incited Palestinians to murder Israelis.

Watching the video—which is not presented in full—it is easy to see how, if the minister was indeed misquoted, the Palestinian journalists got the “wrong” idea. The speech is staunchly militant. The minister advises Palestinians to struggle in order to force the “oppressor colonialist” to negotiate—as if the first intifada, the Oslo negotiations, and the creation of the Palestinian Authority never happened.

Kasrils tells his audience that the ANC did not target all whites, or civilians. But he also tells them the “leaders” of the enemy were legitimate targets. In a democracy like Israel, the elected leaders are all civilians. Kasrils also claims: “we did not join the struggle to have a gun in our hands until the day we die.” In view of his role in Operation Vula, which nearly derailed negotiations, that is real chutzpah.

Natan Sharansky is not alone in observing that nations’ foreign policies have implications for the domestic political goals of their governments. In South Africa, the presentation of foreign affairs by the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), which is now basically the propaganda wing of the ruling party, is aimed at reinforcing the ANC’s self-image as the authentic voice of third world aspirations.

Recently, the SABC’s news director, Snuki Zikalala—a communist-trained propagandist and ruling party hack—came under fire for “blacklisting” several contributors who were thought to disagree with those of the ANC. Among them was Paula Slier, a journalist whose Middle East coverage was rejected because she is Jewish and thus supposedly out of line with the SABC’s pro-Palestinian stance.

The South African Jewish Board of Deputies then filed a complaint with the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa—and quite rightly, too. Not only were Zikalala’s action and justification explicitly antisemitic, but they also violated the constitutionally-mandated independence of the public broadcaster, as well as the SABC’s own editorial policy, which is committed to objectivity.

Recently, however, the Board withdrew its complaint after cutting a deal with the SABC, according to which the broadcaster committed to fair coverage in return. A close reading of the deal’s terms reveals the Board actually got nothing except the promise of a few meetings. The SABC never apologized for its anti-semitism, nor did it commit to any real change in its unbalanced approach to the Middle East conflict.

The Board’s decision to withdraw its complaint marks one of the low points of South African Jewish politics in the post-apartheid era. Not only has the Board backed away from its responsibility to fight antisemitism, but it has abandoned its civic duty to uphold freedom of expression and the independence of the public broadcaster. It has left it to others to defend the South African Constitution.

This sort of behavior, unfortunately, is a throwback to the Board’s conduct during era of segregation and apartheid in the twentieth century. Early on, the Board opposed legislation to exclude “non-European” immigrants on racial grounds. But rather than contesting the racism of the bills, the Board fought to ensure that Jews were considered European, leaving Indians to bear the legislation’s ill effects alone.

In 1937, the Board actually supported legislation that barred Jewish refugees from entering the country, fearing that additional immigration would fuel right-wing antisemitism. During the apartheid era, the Board refused for many decades to officially oppose apartheid, even—after coming under heavy pressure from the government—criticizing Israel for voting against South Africa at the UN.

The difference between now and then is that South Africa is a constitutional democracy. Fair coverage, media independence and non-racialism are rights, not privileges to be bargained for. The threat of right-wing antisemitism, which once constrained the Board’s response to bad government policies, no longer exists. The Board could—and should—speak out against antisemitism and bad ANC policies.

But it has decided to censor itself, at great cost to the community’s own political strength and to the common struggle of all South Africans to defend the constitution against the encroachments of a hegemonic ruling party. Worse, some Board leaders seem quite happy to lead the community into the arms of the ruling party and its prejudices; one recently argued publicly in defense of Iran’s nuclear program.

The danger of this short-sighted approach is that if things ever do get really dangerous for Jews in South Africa, there will be no one—according to the twisted logic of ANC foreign policy—to speak for the community in international institutions like the UN Security Council. Freedom is fragile, and indivisible, and the Board ought to defend it--whether the rights of Jews, or fellow South Africans, or persecuted peoples in distant lands are at stake.

Update
: The Freedom of Expression Institute—which is quite anti-Israel in a silly way, and an inconsistent advocate of free speech, having attacked tabloid newspapers and the South African Jewish Report’s right not to publish Kasrils—has now joined the fray. The SABC has responded with a press statement (here), proving that the Board has, in fact, received nothing in return for its wretched attempt at appeasement.

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