A BDS debate involving South Africa usually follows certain predictable patterns. BDS advocates claim that those involved in the struggle to topple Apartheid in SA see the Arab-Israeli conflict in the same terms with Israelis serving as stand-ins for the Boers. Various names are dropped, but since most Americans are unfamiliar with the cast of characters (and because most students at schools targeted for BDS campaigns weren’t even born when Apartheid existed or ended), the only two names with any resonance are Desmond Tutu and, of course, Nelson Mandela.
Because Reverend Tutu is a four-square champion for BDS, his support for a boycott or divestment program can only be trumped by invoking the name of Mandela whose relationship with Jews and Israel is more ambiguous. One of the reasons the recent attempt to break ties between the University of Johannesburg and Ben-Gurion University in Israel failed was because of Mandela’s involvement in the relationship between the two centers of learning. This is why the endorsement of Mandela is so sought after that BDS advocates are not beyond using fraud to pretend to obtain it.
Like most things, the actual relationship between Israel and South Africa (like the relationship between South Africa and every other country in the world – including Israel’s loudest critics) was and is a complicated affair. As is usually the case when $$$s mix with global politics, few hands are clean when it comes to international affairs vis-à-vis pre-Mandela SA. And South Africa’s relationship with Israel since Apartheid fell is as multi-faceted as one would expect between two such intense and vibrant societies.
But when BDSers lay down their Tutu card (as they do in nearly every BDS battle) or supporters and opponents of boycotts try to read the Mandela tea leaves, they are taking for granted the assumption that the South African experience gives those that fought against Apartheid unique moral weight in discussion on other topics (notably the Middle East). But, without diminishing the courage and patience of all those involved with the successful overthrow of Apartheid, is this a reasonable assumption?
After all, if suffering and courage lent all who practiced it unquestioned moral authority, why are Jews (who suffered one of history’s greatest mass murders only to revive and build a thriving nation and Diaspora) treated by BDSers as uniquely damaged by these experiences? Apparently, if the South African experience created saints who cannot be criticized in any way (lest critics be banished from decent society), the Holocaust turned Jews into proto-Nazis who learned nothing from the experience other than how to behave like their former tormentors.
This knot can be untangled if you look at the world not through the lens of ideological need, but of actual human experience. As has been pointed out before, the BDS “movement” is part of an “Apartheid Strategy” designed to brand Israel as the inheritor of the mantle of the late 20th century’s most reviled nation and political system. But on its own, the “Apartheid Strategy” is simply an accusation, one that can be counter by facts and blunted by counter-accusation of the Apartheid-like nature of Israel’s most vocal critics.
Which is why the endorsement of those involved with the original fight against the original Apartheid becomes so critical. And just as importantly, we are asked to take it on faith that any South African endorsing the Israel=Apartheid analogy must be doing so based on nothing more than an unvarnished quest for justice.
But South Africa is a real place containing real people involved with real political (now geopolitical) decision-making. Yes, they won a marvelous victory against a vile and bigoted political system, and projects like Truth and Reconciliation commissions showed the world that there were options other than vengeance when old orders make way for new. But why were the Arabs states who supplied Apartheid with the oil it needed to run its machinery of repression given a unique pass from this Truth and Reconciliation process? Why do South Africa’s leaders, considered saints when they hurl their barbs at the Jewish state, behave with the same mix of vision, patriotism, virtue, venality, greed and hypocrisy seen in every other political leader in human history?
The voice of South Africans with regard to the Middle East (as with any other issue) are many and varied and the motivation behind some South Africans (including Tutu) endorsing BDS projects can and should be subjected to the same scrutiny as any political statement made by any other political leader. No supporter of Israel I have ever met has demanded that all political discussion stop because a Jew (even a Holocaust survivor) has spoken (quite the opposite, in fact). And without in any way diminishing the valor of those who helped bring down the Apartheid system, It is well past time that the same approach be taken with regard to South Africans.