The month of March is not an easy one for pro-Israel activists around the U.S. and the world. It is usually marked with a variety of anti-Israel events on campuses, as activists and members of the BDS boycott movement against Israel take to the stage to paint the complex shades of the Middle East and Israel with a one-colored brush, mainly blaming the State of Israel for all of the region’s malaise. This movement, opposed to the very existence of a Jewish state and to the mere idea of a peaceful co-existence between Israel and the Palestinians, makes heavy use of the South African experience and narrative in order to smear Israel’s reputation by employing simplistic portrayal of the current situation.
In addition, last October a Hamas delegation paid “an official” visit to South Africa and as recently as last week, South Africa denounced Israel again at the United Nations Human Rights Council.
However, there is much that is hidden from the media’s eye and public attention. A few weeks ago, in the course of the anti-Israel “March Madness,” I had the opportunity to visit the “belly of the beast”, Johannesburg/South Africa, speaking at the Israel Advocacy Conference of South African Friends of Israel (SAFI). StandWithUs’ global mission is Israel Education around the world and South Africa is one of the places where we work, sending students on dialogue missions to campuses and working with the wider pro-Israel community to educate, inform and enrich public discourse about Israel.
In the course of my short visit, I learned that behind the smokescreen of empty words and shallow slogans and statements, there is a steady stream of positive engagement with Israel in South Africa, not only on the governmental level, but also with the general public.
During March, Israel’s director general of the foreign ministry, Ambassador Dore Gold, visited South Africa for official meetings with his counterparts in the government. In the course of the visit, both parties announced they would strengthen their bilateral ties in the fields of agriculture, science and technology and improve their diplomatic relations. Mutual trade between Israel and South Africa amounts to about a billion dollars and keeps on growing. It is worth noting also that both countries are already engaged in various fields of cooperation, mainly on medical technologies, agriculture and water (South Africa is going through a terrible drought this year), bettering the economy and local living conditions and health of the general public.
Yes, Israel is making South Africans’ life better, as it does in so many other corners of the globe.
Even on campus, my visit to South Africa provided insight into some telling moments. Earlier in March, the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) “Palestinian Solidarity Committee” in Johannesburg was criticized as “racist” when it hung black mannequins said to represent “Zionist oppression.” Also, the anti-Israel movement had to call off a planned boycott protest against local businesses, due to lack of participants. When the pro-Israel community comes together, the results are positive.
The agenda of the anti-Israel movement in South Africa is clear: Use the historical context of South African struggle for human rights, and create a baseless analogy to Israel, with no real facts to back it, thus resorting only to name calling and falsehoods to “sell” their story.
It is in this context that the SAFI advocacy conference was so important because it combats ignorance on key issues about Israel. The anti-Israel movement attempts to fill the knowledge vacuum with deception and lies about Israel, to reframe the South African state of mind against Israel. Education is key to making a difference.
The SAFI Conference brought more than 500 pro-Israel activists together, mostly non-Jews. Israel’s Ambassador to South Africa, Arthur Lenk, opened the event with tremendous optimism about Israel’s place in the world and its growing and developing ties with South Africa and the African continent in general. He urged attendees to use social media and make their voices heard. South Africa’s Zionist Federation national chairman, Ben Swartz, mentioned that SAFI has come a long way since its first conference only a few years ago. “Then”, he said, “We had just 100 delegates as Jews were under fire. But a very different story played out last week, as Israel Apartheid Week on South African campuses had been a `dismal failure.”
It was inspiring to see and hear that there is passion in truth and true devotion for Israel in South Africa.
A tectonic shift? Maybe not just yet, but it is coming.
Shahar Azani is executive director of StandWithUs Northeast Region.