Schalk van Zuydam/AP

When Gaza bleeds, South Africa rages

Origin of apartheid now center of global solidarity with Palestinians, causing divisions among its Jewish citizenry

It's not often that the wardrobe choices of an 18-year-old schoolboy are commended in a statement by South Africa's ruling African National Congress – but that’s exactly what happened this week, in a sign of the prominence that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has assumed here during the current Gaza violence.

"The actions of Josh Broomberg and his SA National Debate teammates to symbolically support the Palestinian people by wearing Palestinian scarves, are an embodiment of [the] principles that many South Africans and peoples of the world died for," the ANC said, calling on "all progressive and peace loving South Africans, including people of the Jewish faith, to support the actions of Joshua Broomberg and others like him who are prepared to stand up for a better world."

Broomberg, deputy head of a Jewish day school in Johannesburg, had been representing his country at the finals of an international debating competition in Thailand last Wednesday when he and his teammates posted pictures of themselves on Facebook wearing keffiyehs “to show our opposition to human rights violations carried out against the people of Palestine.”

And the reason the ANC felt compelled to rally to Broomberg’s defense was the backlash his gesture had ignited among many strongly pro-Israel elements in South Africa’s small Jewish community. An online petition calling for Broomberg to be stripped of his leadership role and any honors bestowed on him by the school quickly collected thousands of signatures, although hundreds of people also signed counter-petitions defending the young man’s right to express his views and urging the school not to bow to community pressure.

At a different time, the Broomberg furor might have been confined to the parochial local Jewish media, but given the massive public outrage over the past month’s events in Gaza, the perceived censorship of a schoolboy who refused to toe the dominant pro-Israel line in the Jewish community has grabbed headlines.

At the time of writing, King David Victory Park had said it wouldn't be swayed by online petitions or shouting on social media, and looked forward to "having a conversation" with its deputy head boy when he returns home Friday. He's also not the only young Jew in the community's firing line: South African newspapers reported Thursday that an unnamed pupil of the King David school in the Johannesburg suburb of Linksfield had complained to the country's Human Rights Commission, alleging that he was being victimized by teachers because of his pro-Palestinian stance.

An estimated 15,100 adults self-identified as Jewish at the time of South Africa’s 2011 Census, although the Jewish Board of Deputies put the number closer to 75,000 when children and secular Jews were included. Still, a decade earlier the number of self-identifying Jewish adults in the census stood at 75,000, that total denuded by emigration of younger South African Jews and attrition among older ones.

The majority of the community are passionately pro-Israel and are feeling increasingly embattled amid a rise of vocal and sometimes aggressive anti-Israel sentiment in South Africa since Operation Protective Edge was launched on July 8. Protests against Israel’s military offensive reached a crescendo on August 9 in Cape Town, when a crowd estimated at somewhere between 40,000 and 200,000 people took to the streets. (A pro-Israel march the following day drew between 3,000 and 5,000 people.)

One reason the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains a volatile fault line in South Africa is the country’s own history. At the August 9 protest in Cape Town, many people carried placards denouncing Israel an "apartheid state."

Having lived for decades under a system that denied democratic rights on racial grounds to millions of people over which it ruled, many South Africans – including the likes of Nobel Peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu and senior ANC leaders – feel an intimate connection with Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. (The close working relationship during the 1970s and early ‘80s between Israel and the former apartheid regime in South Africa has reinforced that view.)

Heidi-Jane Esakov, a researcher whose pro-Palestinian, non-Zionist politics have seen her labeled a "self-hating Jew," summarized the emotions aroused by the connection in a post on the Israeli web magazine, +972.

"For many South Africans this conflict feels deeply personal,” she wrote. “Across religion and race many identify with the Palestinian cause and see the conflict as an extension of their own struggle against apartheid. In turn, for many Jewish South Africans, Zionism is central to their identity. The relevance for South Africans is further heightened with South Africa’s apartheid experience playing a significant role in how the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is being framed and understood at the global level."

Esakov is engaged to be married to David Jacobson of the Cape Town Jewish Board of Deputies – a bulwark of pro-Israel sentiment. The couple admits their relationship is a sometimes fractious microcosm of the conflict. Still, Jacobson agrees with his fiancée regarding the connection drawn by many of those expressing sympathy for the Palestinians.

"Our apartheid past has left us with a sense of unfinished business,” he said. “There's transference here, (the conflict in Gaza) is personal. It's seen as another colonial exercise."

But, he says, many South Africans who say they support Palestinians also support Hamas, which he labeled "an extremist position."

Jacobson says anti-Semitism is on the rise in South Africa, despite it being outlawed and denounced by the ruling party. "I've never experienced anything like this,” said Jacobson. “The veneer has been stripped."

The Jewish Board of Deputies’ Facebook page has had comments like "Get out of South Africa" and "We're going to send you back to Auschwitz."

A senior member of the country's Jewish community, who asked not to be identified, says the conflict is bleeding into all areas. At Cape Town's Herzlia school – sister to Johannesburg's King David – an interfaith football league is in jeopardy after a local Islamic school withdrew, temporarily, saying it couldn't play in the shadow of the Gaza war. And anecdotes abound of personal friendships stretching back years crumbling over differences about Gaza.

South Africa’s government is also under pressure to take a tougher stand against Israel. Israel's ambassador, Arthur Lenk, last week told the local paper City Press that he believed there was only a "small lobby" calling for severing of diplomatic ties with Israel and a boycott of its exports. But he may be underestimating the groundswell: the call for a consumer boycott is loudest within the ANC, and senior party leaders have demanded that Lenk be expelled.

Former president Thabo Mbeki is among those calling for an economic boycott in order to make Israel "pay a price for the position that it is taking." Two years ago, South Africa passed legislation requiring that products made in the occupied West Bank be labeled as such, rather than as “made in Israel.”

One of the most vocal supporters of the Palestinian cause in South African politicians is Braam Hanekom, a member of the task team running the ANC's Youth League and an active member of the ruling party. Hanekom says it should come as no surprise that many South Africans "can relate to institutionalized oppression of a people by another" – but that this goes beyond a simple analogy of Israel as the white apartheid regime and the Palestinians as the oppressed indigenous majority, he insists.

Hanekom points out that both the United States and the United Kingdom are "so supportive of Israel like they were with apartheid" – although those countries condemned apartheid as a policy, they resisted efforts to isolate and weaken a regime deemed a Cold War ally.

The example of former President Nelson Mandela is often invoked when South Africans talk about Israel and the Palestinians. One of his first international trips after his release from prison in 1990 was to visit PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, and he declared in 1997, that “our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”

That view has prompted ANC and the government it leads to periodically seek a mediating role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, mindful of South Africa’s own experience in ending minority rule at the negotiating table.

“As a movement, we recognize the legitimacy of Palestinian nationalism just as we recognize the legitimacy of Zionism as a Jewish nationalism,” Mandela said in 1993. “We insist on the right of the State of Israel to exist within secure borders, but with equal vigor support the Palestinian right to national self-determination.”

Pretoria did send a delegation of senior figures to engage with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Tel Aviv and Ramallah at the height of the recent clashes to promote a negotiated solution, but their efforts were extraneous to the mediation efforts of Egypt, the U.S. and other key players.

Absent a comprehensive political solution, though, many analysts expect further upsurges of violence between Israelis and Palestinians. And if that happens, events of recent weeks suggest that the impact of any renewed clashes will be vividly felt in faraway South Africa. 

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