PennBDS – Lessons from South Africa

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series BDS and 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.