What Peter Beinart gets wrong about South African support for Palestinian liberation

Israel/Palestine
on 11 Comments
SA BDS
Graffiti in Johannesburg, South Africa (Photo via BDS South Africa Facebook)

The Daily Beast‘s Peter Beinart traveled recently to Cape Town, South Africa and scribed a piece that tries to get to grips with the avid support among South Africans in general for Palestinian liberation and what he regards as a changing enthusiasm among South Africa’s Jews for Israel. He suggests a multiplicity of factors that explain South Africa’s passion for Palestine, and suggests that there may be some generational shifts (although this is not clearly elucidated) in Jewish support for Zionism. He thinks through these issues in reference perspectives on the USA, Jews and Zionism. In the end, he claims that in South Africa, like in the US, Zionism and liberalism are increasingly incompatible.

Well, the next time Beinart is in South Africa, he ought to spend more time, with more people, getting a deeper sense of the complexities of the country and its struggle history. He may learn then, for starters, that South Africa is not America on steroids. America is America on steroids. And he’ll also learn that the affinity of the masses of people to the Palestinian struggle is hardly as mysterious and convoluted as he would suggest. These two points are connected.

Beinart shouldn’t confuse American racism with the apartheid state. The fight against racism in the US was registered in a vocabulary of civil rights. For South Africa, the battle was for the fundamental transformation of a state that was colonial to its core. The language of liberation directed the struggle there. It was not about the extension of South African citizenship to include the majority; but it was to be a fundamental reordering of what it means to be South African. In many ways South Africa’s post-apartheid statehood has not lived up to these lofty struggle ideals. But the persistence of a notion of solidarity amongst colonized peoples informs much of its rhetoric and principle.

Until 1994, the South African state operated in the interests of whiteness. And Jews, in the main, unquestioningly embraced their whiteness. Contrary to the idea posited by Beinart about the sense of national belonging of Jews to South Africa, he should know that we sang the national anthem (on multiple occasions, including at day schools), we supported the whites only rugby and cricket teams, we participated in whites only elections, in white political parties, in prosecuting apartheid laws, in doing apartheid business.

But this is not why the post-apartheid polity supports the liberation of Palestine.

Because of course, as Beinart points out, there were many Jews who disavowed apartheid and risked everything in the fight against it. He is mistaken though that those same Jews disavowed their Jewishness in favour of a broader identity. He should know that it is possible to be Jewish and not be a Zionist. In other words, the support for Palestinian statehood is not about identity politics. Rather, it is ideological; it’s about ideas of freedom and justice.

If Beinart spent more time with more people in South Africa, he would know too that the support for Palestinian liberation is not produced through a more assertive Muslim current in the ruling party than a Jewish one. The role and place of Muslims in the ANC and support for the organization amongst Muslims is not so unequivocally established. Support for Palestinians is not support for Muslims over Jews in the ruling party. It is support for an occupied people over a repressive state.

Beinart might also become aware that the assumption that a post-apartheid polity breeds more progressive youth and a greater sense of belonging is not borne out by the record. South Africa’s so-called ‘born-frees,’ its post-apartheid generation, is often more conservative and more oriented towards ‘ethnic’ rather than ‘national’ identification. According to the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, more young people have an expectation that South Africans should move on from the past which is especially a relevant finding combined with the notion that more young white South Africans than their older counterparts do not believe that black poverty is related to past inequities. A deeper research effort might conclude that a generational shift among Jewish South Africans is real rather than imagined.

Hanging out a little longer in South Africa might afford Beinart the opportunity to learn that while in the US the word ‘liberal’ is dirty for the right-wing, liberalism is denigrated by South Africa’s left for its historical collusion with apartheid and its incapacity to extricate itself from the politics of white superiority. In other words, it is not Zionism’s incongruity with liberalism that is the concern in this polity, but its resonance with settler colonialism that fuels popular antagonism towards it. Democratic practice in Israel is thus seen as inadequate unless it is intimately bound to notions of decolonization.

Beinart correctly identifies Israel’s collusion with the apartheid state as grounds for some animosity in the post-apartheid polity. But he doesn’t concede the full implication of it. Beinart claims that “… apartheid turned many of the South Africans who were struggling to forge an inclusive, non-racial South African identity against the Jewish state” (my emphasis). But it wasn’t the apartheid devil that did it – it was the choice of the Israeli state to work with apartheid, to work with counter-revolutionary forces against the liberation of South Africa that solidified its place as pariah. And, frankly, ethnic and religious nationalism gives itself a bad name, wherever it asserts itself.

A version of this article originally appeared on the blog Africa is a Country.

About Melissa Levin

Melissa Levin is a teacher and student of politics and fiction. She hails from a small mining town in South Africa. She was an activist and employee for the African National Congress where she directed research and strategy and wrote speeches for presidents.

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11 Responses

  1. Avi_G.
    February 8, 2013, 12:06 pm

    Beinart correctly identifies Israel’s collusion with the apartheid state as grounds for some animosity in the post-apartheid polity. But he doesn’t concede the full implication of it. Beinart claims that “… apartheid turned many of the South Africans who were struggling to forge an inclusive, non-racial South African identity against the Jewish state” (my emphasis). But it wasn’t the apartheid devil that did it – it was the choice of the Israeli state to work with apartheid, to work with counter-revolutionary forces against the liberation of South Africa that solidified its place as pariah. And, frankly, ethnic and religious nationalism gives itself a bad name, wherever it asserts itself.

    Exactly. In addition, Israel owes a great part of its early military technology, especially it’s non-conventional weapons like chemical and atomic, to Apartheid South Africa.

  2. Cliff
    February 8, 2013, 12:14 pm

    Thank you for this article, Ms. Levin.

  3. eGuard
    February 8, 2013, 2:26 pm

    Beinart: Under apartheid, because South Africa’s government ruthlessly prevented racial and ethnic mixing, group identity flourished while national identity did not. When Jews looked at South Africa’s flag and national anthem, they saw Afrikaner symbols, not ones they could embrace as their own. [...] In South Africa, therefore, Jews focused the emotional attachment they did not feel toward their own country on Israel. And this made them even more Zionistic than Jews in the United States

    Jews were being set Apart really? Jews were, like, on the right side of Apartheid? Jews were Aparted so they had to become Israel Firsters? Their flag and national anthem there showed strange symbols (unlike these other flags in the world we must understand), so they turned to Israel?

    Beinart is trying to separate South African Zionists from Apartheid.

  4. mcohen
    February 8, 2013, 3:32 pm

    spot on.sort of.
    south african jews donated millions of dollars to israel and in return israel protected jews and jewish interests.israel also had military ties with the south african defence establishment-the upgrade of mirage fighter jets for instance but lets us not forget that some of the afrikaaner establishment supported the nazis and the
    whites only policy was based on aryan attitudes.

    today in south africa oil rich arab countries have invested heavily in south africa and are actively engaged in converting black south africans to islam.that is what is driving the anti israel sentiment.it is a readily available attitude among africans that can assist the islamic cause.the slogan of islam from cape to cairo is a reality

    • Annie Robbins
      February 9, 2013, 12:21 pm

      south africa and are actively engaged in converting black south africans to islam.that is what is driving the anti israel sentiment.

      you don’t think it has anything to do with south africans rejecting apartheid because of their own history? come on mcohen, be realistic.

      • Bumblebye
        February 9, 2013, 12:44 pm

        I think there is a grain of truth in mcohen’s comment about the proselytizing of Africans – it’s over 25years now, but i recall being shocked by an Arab professor’s comments in a program i watched – his argument was that Africa was sort of ‘Islam’s’ backyard, and the natural place for the expansion of the religion. This was at a time when Central and South America were constantly being referred to as America’s ‘backyard’, and thus all interference was somehow legitimate. And we all know what sort of cr*p was going on there then!
        This of course, does not detract from the toxic residue of Israel’s history with apartheid South Africa.

        • gamal
          March 1, 2013, 1:46 pm

          “I think there is a grain of truth in mcohen’s comment about the proselytizing of Africans” really, what that SA oppostion to Zionist policies stems from the progressive Islamization of SA, any evidence, to support either arm of this hypothesis?

          “it’s over 25years now, but i recall being shocked by an Arab professor’s comments in a program i watched”, ah some “Arab” shocked you, by making a remark so common place as to hardly merit comment. Are you sure you know what he was saying, If Africa is “Islams” backyard, where is Islam Headquartered these days?

          “his argument was that Africa was sort of ‘Islam’s’ backyard, and the natural place for the expansion of the religion.” i havent detected an argument, suppose it would qualify as an observation, again your problem is?

          ” and thus all interference was somehow legitimate. And we all know what sort of cr*p was going on there then!”

          you dont think your logic is a bit tortured, was Islam interfering in Africa, how so running contra’s, deposing democratically elected governments and opposing just termas of trade to African states.

          Islam and Christianity are indigenous to Africa, i have lived in African muslim communities in mixed areas and back then conversion amongst Africans was common, people convert and convert again in a couple of years, it didnt seem to have the same significance that outsiders seem to attach to these things.

          I am really puzzled whats bothering about those remarks from your scary “Arab Professor”, is Islam expanding, you seem to have to gone to some trouble to freak yourself out, but over what i am not sure.

          you seem to be implying that Islam is akin to US imperialism how so?
          Who is running this Islamic imperialism, Arab professors?

  5. a blah chick
    February 8, 2013, 4:58 pm

    “Until 1994, the South African state operated in the interests of whiteness. And Jews, in the main, unquestioningly embraced their whiteness.”

    Didn’t Southern Jews make similar choices during the Civil Rights era? I seem to recall an interview decades ago with a nice Jewish lady from the deep south trying to assure her Christian counterparts that she and her family had no truck with those loudmouth Jews from up north.

  6. Kathleen
    February 8, 2013, 5:16 pm

    Zionism and liberalism have ALWAYS been incompatible. Now folks are getting called out on the hypocritical stance. Because Zionism at its very core is racist. There is no way around this unless you are spinning and spinning

  7. Kathleen
    February 8, 2013, 5:41 pm

    There were many Jews in South Africa who along with other ethnic groups who took full advantage of apartheid in South Africa. Taking advantage of cheap labor etc. I know this because I had Jewish friends living in South Africa during apartheid. Let’s not kid ourselves about some Jews being very involved with supporting apartheid in South Africa for decades as well as other ethnic groups

    I know that Beinart has family history in South Africa.

  8. eljay
    February 9, 2013, 11:02 am

    >> When Jews looked at South Africa’s flag and national anthem, they saw Afrikaner symbols, not ones they could embrace as their own.

    When non-Jewish Israelis look at Israel’s flag and national anthem, they see Jewish symbols, not ones they can embrace as their own.

    Does Mr. “liberal Zionist” Beinart propose reforming Israel’s flag and national anthem – and Israel – from supremacist “Jewish State” to secular, democratic and egalitarian “Israeli State”, a state of and for all its citizens, equally?

    Unless he’s managed to find his misplaced liberalism, I suspect not.

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