PennBDS – Lessons from South Africa

This is part of a series of articles based on the program of the upcoming PennBDS conference.  Check out this landing page to find out more.

South Africa is so central to the BDS narrative that it’s warranted considerable coverage on this blog.  While I’ll be consolidating themes written about elsewhere in this PennBDS-related entry, anyone interested in learning more can start out here.

First off, remember that BDS is simply a tactic in the service of a wider strategy: to “brand” Israel as the new South Africa, the focal point of racism in the modern age which ultimately deserves the same fate as the Apartheid regime which ended in the early 1990s.

BDS practitioners tend to fall into two categories: people old enough to have participated in anti-Apartheid campus activities in the 1980s (a history I share, at least with regard to age), and those who were too young to remember anything that happened back then.

The former wear any political activity they may have participated in during that period (even if it consisted of nothing more than being on a campus when others were engaged in anti-Apartheid protests) as a badge of honor, entitling them to judge who is the inheritor of the Apartheid tradition they claim to have helped vanquish.

Putting aside the questionable link between campus protests and ultimate political change in South Africa, and putting aside the question as to whether being right about the nature of one national regime entitles one to judge all others (well, one anyway), it has never been clear why past anti-Apartheid activists who attack Israel deserve any more consideration than former anti-Apartheid activists who support it.

At the other end of the age spectrum, you have people attending college today who may not have even been born when Apartheid fell.  For them, “Apartheid” is a catch-all term for racism as national policy, rather than an historical event (which is why you routinely see the term misspelled on signs at “Israel Aparthied” or “Israel Aparthide” themed rallies).

The fact that the South Africa story is complex, with blacks and whites acting in the camps of both oppressors and liberators is lost on both of these groups, as is the true role of different states in supporting or protesting the Apartheid regime. This is why every aspect of the complex relationship between Israel and South Africa (no matter how marginal) is cast in the starkest terms as though these two states alone acted as brothers in bigotry.  Meanwhile the fact that it was Israel’s political rivals (notably the Gulf States) who supplied Apartheid South Africa with all of the oil needed to fund its machinery of repression has been dumped down the memory hole.

The support of actual South Africans of the BDS program is the key to the Israel=Apartheid narrative, saying in effect that if South Africans say Israel is an Apartheid state, then it must be true.  This is why the name of Desmond Tutu (one of two South African names most Americans would recognize and a strong BDS supporter) is invoked on nearly every anti-Israel petition, on nearly every BDS web site and in every BDS letter to the editor, speech and article.

The other universally recognized name is, of course, Nelson Mandela whose relationship with the Jewish state is more ambiguous than Tutu’s (which is why anti-Israel activists have gone so far as to create fraudulent anti-Israel quotes to stuff into Mandela’s mouth).

Beyond these two, the names and activities of other South Africans (including the many South African Jews who formed the backbone of anti-Apartheid protest within South Africa) are lost on both young and old BDSers, as is the fact that Israel as a multi-racial society bears no resemblance to Apartheid, a term that would be much better applied to state policies regarding gender, sexuality, religion and even race practiced by Israel’s self-declared political enemies (including the ones who rule in Gaza).

Underlying the need to wrap their anti-Israel branding exercise with South African flag is the assumption by BDSers that the political trials suffered by black South Africans has turned them into saints who cannot be criticized in any way, which is why any criticism of Desmond Tutu’s stance on Israel (for example) is used to support accusations of racism against Israel’s defenders.

Interestingly, this formula of suffering = sainthood is not applied to anyone else, especially to Jews who also suffered murderous racism (in Europe in the 1930s and 40s, and in the Middle East today).  Instead, many boycotters make the case that Jewish suffering created damaged souls whose suffering destroyed their empathy for others.  Some go even farther, suggesting that rather than learning mercy from the Holocaust experience, many Jews learned at the feet of their former tormentors, becoming Nazis (or Nazi-like) in the process.

This apparent double moral standard makes sense only if you understand that the BDSers have no moral standards, and no actual concern for Jews, for South Africans or for Palestinians for that matter, despite endlessly repeating and tweeting their universal love for all mankind.  For them, “Apartheid” (like racism generally) is not an actual thing suffered by actual people, but rather it is a slur and a weapon to be thrown at their political foes while ignoring it when practiced by their political allies.

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10 Responses to PennBDS – Lessons from South Africa

  1. Marni Jane January 10, 2012 at 3:34 pm #

    Do you really encounter that many people who were *actually* involved in anti-apartheid activities? I ask because while the older BDS folks in Iowa City (which, it should be noted, are the only group of such dolts in the state i've encountered) certainly use “apartheid” to describe Israel, i never got the distinct impression that any were involved as relates to Africa.

    And i suspect the tendency to brandish around one's far left pedigree is universal and would have come up at some point if this was the case. Instead, most of the ones i come across here at least are the remnants of a sad little socialist group.

    One other thing, being one of these younger people (though not pro-BDS), i know that the rest of us who don't remember apartheid south africa do indeed know of it as an histoical event, i can't imagine it's otherwise with the younger BDS crowd. It may be that they also consider the term apartheid to mean “racist state” in general, but history lessons being what they are, and their tendency to conflate being what it is, that's hardly surprising. I'll grant you though, the overwhelming majority of BDSers i run into are late middle aged.

  2. Jon January 10, 2012 at 7:11 pm #

    I suspect that involvement with the anti-Apartheid movement is similar to Woodstock in that if everyone who says they were there really attended, New York would have collapsed into the center of the earth with the weight.

    Just as *being* South African lends weight amongst Israel’s critics (as long as they say the right thing, of course, since South African supporters of Israel are always ignored), so too being involved with anti-Apartheid politics in the 1980s is seen as a +3 amulet of enlightenment (which is why I suspect people claim to have been instrumental in the movement, even if they never did more than sign a petition while in college).

    Regarding my other generational comment, I was probably a bit glib in terms of the knowledge base of today’s college attendees. Certainly I’ve met a number of university students who embarrass me with their depth of knowledge and experience, although I will also attest to meeting lots of people carrying “Isreal = Apartide” banners who couldn’t find Africa on a map tattooed across their backside.

    (Actually, that would be kind of hard, come to think of it – although I’d rather not.)
    Sorry – What were we talking about?


  3. Anonymous January 10, 2012 at 9:26 pm #

    Are there any former activists that resisted Apartheid South Africa that are pro-Israel?

  4. Jon January 10, 2012 at 9:52 pm #

    Why not start at the top:

  5. The Stop BDS Team January 11, 2012 at 4:07 am #

    This article argues that the divestment movement outside of S.A. had little influence compared to S.A.'s own economic woes and the collapse of the U.S.S.R.

    Last August, the NY Observer did an article about our food coop. One of the comment writers on the article claimed to be a South African and berated those trying to compare Israel to S.A. I reposted his eloquent comment at my blog.


  6. Marni Jane January 11, 2012 at 4:41 am #

    Oh, i suspected the comment was glib but as i don't exactly have the highest opinion of BDSers grasp on history also did legitimately wonder how many DO think apartheid is just a word that means racism.

    Then again, i suppose that's not really fair, their leaders–at least the ones i've come across–should be recognized for what they are, smart enough to be insidious, long winded enough to put their own supporters to sleep. (True story that, i spied someone snoring at an allison weir event and multiple folks napping at a richard falk talk)

  7. DrMike January 11, 2012 at 5:03 am #

    Maurice Ostroff, former South African who now lives in Israel, and who from his writings clearly knew many of the anti-apartheid activists personally, writes at Articles about South Africa and the bogus charge of apartheid against Israel are at

  8. fizziks January 11, 2012 at 5:43 am #

    Richard Goldstone was a major anti-Apartheid South African and served as a judge, and has also been a critic of Isreal. He wrote a New York Times editorial explaining why applying the term 'apartheid' to Israel is incorrect.

  9. Bella Center January 11, 2012 at 2:49 pm #

    From Harry's Place: something to throw back at Israel Apartheid accusers: ANC Youth Wing's eulogy upon Kim Jong Ill's death.

  10. Thermblog February 1, 2012 at 6:20 pm #

    Whilst there’s much to be said regarding why Israel is not an Apartheid state, even arguing it confers the idea some legitimacy.

    My preferred form of argument is to first expose the hypocrisy of the accusers. With that established, a perfunctory demolition of the Apartheid premise can follow if necessary.

    The NEW South Africa has draconian affirmative action laws. There’s the Black Economic Empowerment agenda and here’s a recent article about university admissions:

    The rationale for this focus on race was that something needed to be done to correct decades of Apartheid. (Having lived in SA I do not disagree but some limits need to be put on it. When the appropriate minister was asked in Parliament when the bias would end, the answer was, “never.”)

    The argument then is whether BDS people support blatant discrimination of whites in South Africa. If “no” then one may ask why nothing is being done about it. This should be vital seeing as BDS uses the South Africa story as a central pillar. If the answer is, “yes” then of course it has to be explained. The “special situation” will probably come up and of course, Israel and the Jews are also something of a special situation. If one considers “Islamic States” to be in order then of course Israel need not be a special situation but simply another state geared towards a particular religion.

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