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

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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, researcher and writer. Her work focuses primarily on the place of memory in building communal solidarities. She has worked for, among others, the African National Congress. Part of her role was to write speeches for Nelson Mandela.

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