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Opponents of UCLA divestment ignore strong South African support for BDS

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The Reverend Kenneth Meshoe is opposed to comparisons between Israel and South Africa under apartheid. (Photo: JAMES OATWAY/ The Times (South Africa)

The Reverend Kenneth Meshoe is opposed to comparisons between Israel and South Africa under apartheid. (Photo: JAMES OATWAY/ The Times (South Africa)

On Tuesday, February 25th, the University of California, Los Angeles’ (UCLA) Undergraduate Student Council voted on a divestment resolution authored by UCLA’s Students for Justice in Palestine.

The resolution, which called upon the UC Regents to halt the investment of student tuition funds into five U.S. companies that profit from Israel’s illegal occupation—Caterpillar, Cemex, CRH, GE, and Hewlett Packard—was ultimately voted down. The public comments portion of the evening, during which students were allowed to voice their opinions on the resolution, lasted nine hours. During this period, one technique utilized by anti-divestment students was the repetition of talking points. In particular, a statement from South African politician Reverend Kenneth Meshoe that categorically rejected the pro-Palestinian activists’ descriptions of Israel as an apartheid state was read several times. Reverend Meshoe’s statement featured the following observations:

As a black South African under apartheid, I, among other things, could not vote, nor could I freely travel the landscape of South Africa. No person of color could hold high government office. The races were strictly segregated at sports arenas, public restrooms, schools and on public transportation. People of color had inferior hospitals, medical care and education. If a white doctor was willing to take a black patient, he had to examine him or her in a back room or some other hidden place. In my numerous visits to Israel, I did not see any of the above.

Ultimately, Reverend Meshoe claims that defining Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians as apartheid “trivializes the meaning of the word apartheid.[1]” While this might seem to be a powerful refutation, there are several important issues which need to be addressed.

In the first place, Reverend Meshoe and his party warrant a closer look. Reverend Meshoe is a member of the African Christian Democratic Party, a party which holds only three seats in the South African National Assembly, as opposed to the African National Congress, which holds 264 seats and is currently the governing party of South Africa[2].

This is especially important to remember in light of the fact that the ANC officially endorsed the BDS movement on December 21st, 2012[3]. At the time, ANC chairperson Baleka Mbete claimed that the situation faced by Palestinians in Israel is “far worse than apartheid South Africa”[4].

Archbishop Desmond Tutu has also referred to the treatment of Palestinians as apartheid [5], and though Nelson Mandela never made this comparison explicitly, Alon Liel, Israel’s ambassador to South Africa, claims that Mandela believed the freedom of black South Africans from apartheid “will not really be complete until our brothers the Palestinians, who fought with us and supported us, will achieve their freedom’” [6] (this also calls into question Netanyahu’s conspicuous absence from Mandela’s funeral[7]).

While it may not have been backed by every South African politician, endorsement of both the BDS movement and its central identification of Israeli treatment of Palestinians as apartheid (bdsmovement.net clearly defines BDS as “a movement against Israeli Apartheid”) constitutes mainstream political protocol within South Africa. What’s also interesting is that, while anti-divestment students are understandably eager to use the Reverend Meshoe’s statement, they never offer any details about the exact nature of his political work. Presumably this is because anti-divestment activists are primarily interested in Reverend Meshoe’s status as a black South African who lived under apartheid

Nevertheless, Reverend Meshoe’s party website reveals that The Christian Democratic Party, despite what its name may suggest, is actually a conservative party which advocates for the reduction of condom distribution as a means of curbing the epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases. As one of their press releases puts it, “The experience of other countries indicates that condom distribution alone actually encourages a culture of casual sex and risky sexual behavior”[8]. Another press release reflects endorsement for a statement which seemed to imply that government grants for struggling parents could actually encourage the sexual abuse of children because such grants lead to the devaluation of parenthood’s intrinsic worth[9]. Now, of course, the beliefs of Reverend Meshoe and his party are not a crime. But it’s worth considering: had anti-divestment students dug a little further, would they have really thought such an individual to be the best candidate to use in the defense of another nation’s progressivism?

Secondly, and most importantly, the Reverend’s remarks stand in stark contrast to the reality of life on the ground for Palestinians living in occupied Palestine. For instance, as the Seattle Mideast Awareness campaign describes:

Four million Palestinians in the Occupied Territories lack the right to vote for the government that controls their lives through a military occupation. In addition to controlling the borders, air space, water, tax revenues, and other vital matters pertaining to the Occupied Territories, Israel alone issues the identity cards that determine the ability of Palestinians to work and their freedom of movement [10].

A recent Amnesty International report states that Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip “traps over 1.6 million Palestinian civilians. Many are cut off from jobs, medical care, and educational opportunities. 70% of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip now depend on humanitarian aid as a result [11].”

There are segregated buses [12] and roads [13] within the West Bank. Palestinian freedom of movement is greatly impeded by the existence of hundreds of checkpoints, which often make something as simple as going to work or school impossible and cause degradation and even death. According to ifamericansknew.org, in some cases “Palestinian men and boys are held in metal cages or required to strip to their underwear, in many cases, they are blindfolded and their hands are tied with plastic ties that cut deeply into their wrists.” Furthermore, refusing Palestinians the right to pass through a checkpoint for medical purposes is all too frequent, a practice which has resulted in 46 women having to give birth at checkpoints and lead to at least 83 deaths [14]. The infamous Separation Wall, which upon completion will measure around 403 miles and is around 25 feet high [14], was created with the purpose of restricting Palestinian movement into Israel [16] and, according to the International Court of Justice, “severely impedes the exercise by the Palestinian people of its right to self-determination and is therefore a breach of Israel’s obligation to respect that right [17].”

The human rights center Adalah has compiled an exhaustive list of over fifty laws that discriminate against Palestinians “in all areas of life, including their rights to political participation, access to land, education, state budget resources, and criminal procedures [18].” However one chooses to label them, Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians clearly constitute systemic oppression, separation and the denial of basic human rights. The Reverend’s refutation of this, though unfortunate, is by no means damning. It is merely another instance of how he is in the minority among his coevals, many of whom also lived under the same state sanctioned segregation and view the plight of the Palestinians as all too familiar.

A version of this article originally appeared here.

Notes:

[1] http://unitedwithisrael.org/south-african-mp-israel-is-not-an-apartheid-state/

[2] www.southafrica.info/about/democracy/polparties.htm#.UxJ9PIUXc6Z

[3] www.commondreams.org/headline/2012/12/21-2

[4] http://electronicintifada.net/blogs/ali-abunimah/israel-far-worse-apartheid-south-africa-says-anc-chair-pretoria-conference-backs

[5] http://www.thenational.ae/thenationalconversation/comment/israels-similarity-to-south-africas-apartheid-is-more-than-skin-deep

[6] http://www.timesofisrael.com/nelson-mandela-was-close-to-jews-resolutely-loyal-to-palestinians/

[7] http://www.christianpost.com/news/missing-at-nelson-mandelas-funeral-israeli-prime-minister-netanyahu-110705/

[8] http://www.acdp.org.za/26022014-acdp-welcomes-parliaments-sticondom-awareness-week/

[9] http://www.acdp.org.za/04102013-abuse-of-child-grants-has-devalued-parenthood-says-acdp/

[10] http://www.seamac.org/EqualRights.htm

[11] http://www.amnestyusa.org/our-work/countries/middle-east-and-north-africa/israel-and-occupied-palestinian-territories/help-palestinians-in-gaza-access-edu

[12] http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2013/0304/Israel-takes-heat-for-de-facto-segregation-on-new-West-Bank-buses

[13] http://www.ifamericansknew.org/cur_sit/checkpoints.html

[14] http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/may/17/israel-palestine-highway-443-segregation

[15] http://www.vtjp.org/background/Separation_Wall_Report.htm

[16] http://www.btselem.org/separation_barrier/map

[17] http://unispal.un.org/UNISPAL.NSF/0/B59ECB7F4C73BDBC85256EEB004F6D20

[18] http://adalah.org/eng/Israeli-Discriminatory-Law-Database

Omar Zahzah
About Omar Zahzah

Omar Zahzah is the programming director for UCLA's chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine.

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8 Responses

  1. Hostage
    Hostage
    March 4, 2014, 10:46 am

    and though Nelson Mandela never made this comparison explicitly, Alon Liel, Israel’s ambassador to South Africa, claims that Mandela believed the freedom of black South Africans from apartheid “will not really be complete until our brothers the Palestinians, who fought with us and supported us, will achieve their freedom

    No, he actually did comment on the two situations and equated the Palestinian-Israeli conflict with the struggle of South African blacks. See “South African and U.S. Leaders Dismayed over Mandela’s Remarks” http://www.jta.org/1990/03/02/archive/south-african-and-u-s-leaders-dismayed-over-Mandelas-remarks

  2. Citizen
    Citizen
    March 4, 2014, 3:15 pm

    I’d like to see Reverend Kenneth Meshoe respond to this MW article, wouldn’t you?

  3. Citizen
    Citizen
    March 4, 2014, 3:26 pm

    Meshoe founded DEISI–from that organization’s web page:

    The organisation’s main objective is to advance Christian education in churches, schools, tertiary institutions and universities by such means as the organization shall in it’s discretion thinks fit.

    The organisation’s secondary objective will be to promote the teachings of the Holy Scriptures as set out in the Bible with respect to the land and people of Israel.

    The organisation’s other objective will be to organise educational tours for students to visit Biblical sites in the land of Israel.

  4. Citizen
    Citizen
    March 4, 2014, 4:03 pm

    Here Meshoe explains why he does not agree that life in Israel is not comparable to life in apartheid South Africa: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=se5xTh8uwyo

    He claims there’s no restrictions on right to travel inside Israel as their was for blacks, and that there were hospitals and clinics for whites only, and if a white doctor was nice enough to help a black, he had to do so in a back room; so too, separate transportation and judicial systems. And blacks had to representation or vote re parliament. His example was a Palestinian judge who presided over the proceedings where a Jew was a party in conflict. It appears he doesn’t even think about the Israeli OT conditions.

  5. Citizen
    Citizen
    March 4, 2014, 4:18 pm

    Sherry Wolf goes into detail why Israel is an apartheid state here, while she’s speaking at a Socialist convention: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C6txhiOtLEM

    But, recall that Jimmy Carter held the same view as Meshoe regarding Israel behind the green line, that is, he made it clear in his book Israel was only conducting apartheid as to the OT. I don’t know if Carter ever changed his mind, do you?

    • DICKERSON3870
      DICKERSON3870
      March 4, 2014, 6:52 pm

      SEE: “Carter Says Sorry to Jews, Apology Not Linked to Grandson’s Political Ambitions”, FoxNews.com, 11-23-14

      [EXCERPTS] Jimmy Carter’s recent apology to Jews for actions he acknowledged have stigmatized Israel is not timed to a decision by his grandson on whether to enter Georgia politics, the former president told an online Jewish news agency this week.

      Atlanta attorney Jason Carter, 34, is debating whether to run for Georgia’s state Senate from the district representing suburban DeKalb County, which has a significant Jewish population in the area around Emory University. Jason Carter, whose father is Jimmy Carter’s eldest son, Jack, would aim to succeed David Adelman, President Obama’s nominee to be ambassador to Singapore.

      Carter told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that electoral considerations had nothing to do with his recent outreach to the Jewish community, although he did not outright deny it. . .

      . . . Carter told the news agency that he shouldn’t have named his book, “Palestine: Peace not Apartheid,” saying Palestinians in the disputed West Bank are not suffering under apartheid, though they could if a two-state solution with Israel is not achieved.

      “I never intended or wanted to stigmatize the nation of Israel, even though I have disagreed with the settlement policy all the way back to the White House,” he reportedly said, while repeating his criticism of Israel’s recent decision to allow existing settlements to continue their “natural growth.” . . .

      ENTIRE ARTICLE – http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2009/12/23/carter-says-sorry-jews-apology-linked-grandsons-political-ambitions/

  6. DICKERSON3870
    DICKERSON3870
    March 4, 2014, 6:38 pm

    RE: “Reverend Meshoe’s party website reveals that The Christian Democratic Party, despite what its name may suggest, is actually a conservative party which advocates for the reduction of condom distribution as a means of curbing the epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases.” ~ Omar Zahzah

    MY COMMENT: I’m willing to bet that Meshoe’s party also believes that gays should virtually be burned at the stake (although I doubt they would admit to it).

    SEE: “US Christian Right Behind Anti-Gay Law Passed in Uganda”, By Jessica Desvarieux, The Real News Network, 2/25/14
    LINK – http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/22101-us-christian-right-behind-anti-gay-law-passed-in-uganda

    AND SEE: “US Religious Right Propelling Homophobia in African Countries”, by Common Dreams, 7/24/12
    LINK – http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2012/07/24-7

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