One morning, they visited Rahat to see a project that aims to help Negev Bedouin find jobs. That night, they met the first Ethiopian woman in the Knesset. They spent an afternoon watching a debate in the Knesset plenum and, that night, heard Mohammad Darawshe, an expert on Jewish-Arab relations, challenge aspects of the parliamentary democracy they had just witnessed. Another day, they visited Ramallah, where Palestinian Authority officials told them that Israel was responsible for the ongoing conflict. That evening, an Israeli-Arab and former PLO journalist told them the Palestinian leadership was to blame.

They were eight prominent South African journalists, economists, and professors, and they came to Israel under the auspices of an organization called Israel Now Tour of South Africa, together with the World Zionist Organization. The trip, from February 7-14, was intended to enable them “to understand the complexity of Israel’s situation on the ground,” according to organizer Reeva Forman.

Funded by the South African Zionist Federation and the WZO’s Department of Zionist Operations under the direction of Dr. David Breakstone, the trip’s itinerary was specifically geared for the South Africans, who have grown up with words like “apartheid,” “racism,” and “segregation” in the context of apartheid South Africa — and have seen those terms applied to Israel in recent years via the BDS movement.

Relations between the two countries are poor. The Congress of South African Trade Unions joined a boycott of Israeli products in 2006; South Africa temporarily pulled its ambassador from Israel after the Gaza flotilla raid in 2010; the University of Johannesburg cut ties with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in 2011.

The week-long visit, therefore, marked an effort to reengage a country that has often shown limited sympathy for Israel’s complex narrative. Forman, a life president of the SAZF, said she invited the eight participants because of their anti-apartheid work in South Africa as well as the platforms they possess to speak their mind about Israel and South African-Israel relations. “If people can hear and see what is actually in the hearts and minds of people in all spectra — political, social, economic,” said Forman of the thinking behind the trip, “they will discern for themselves the complexity of the issues.”

The group members’ diverse responses to sights and sounds throughout the week underlined how complex the issues can be.

Members of a visiting South African group meet with Nir Barkat, Mayor of Jerusalem, at City Hall, February 2016. (Eliana Rudee)

Members of a visiting South African group meet with Nir Barkat, mayor of Jerusalem, at City Hall, February 2016. (Eliana Rudee)

The delegation arrived prepared with tough questions. Early in the trip, they pressured Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat about the status, rights, and quality of life for Arabs in the city. Barkat said his administration is investing heavily in the Arab sector, and that Arabs in East Jerusalem areas annexed by Israel after 1967 can choose to become full citizens with voting rights at any time.

The mayor’s generally upbeat view was complicated days later by Mohammad Darawshe, the Israeli-Arab co-director of Givat Haviva (a nonprofit educational institute that supports Israeli-Palestinian coexistence efforts), who argued that “the mother of all evil” is the separate education system for Jews and Arabs in most of Israel, and noted that “Arab schools receive less money per student from the government.”

This notion of separation bothered delegate Jana Marais, editor of the South African business weekly Finweek: “Particularly given our own history. I really feel it’s a loss for everyone,” she said.

Others in the group, though, were impressed by Darawshe’s noting that 50 percent of medical students at Haifa’s Technion are Arab, and some members of the group cited it as a factor undermining comparisons to apartheid.

‘The challenge for me is to distinguish which of the criticisms [of Israel] are motivated by fear and a hatred of Jewish people, and which would improve the lot of Jews and non-Jews’

The delegates toured the Gaza border region and learned about local residents hearing “clinks” beneath the ground, which sound to them like terrorists digging tunnels into their yards from Gaza. “Fear is the overriding feeling I get from Israel,” one of the delegates said later. “The devil resides in fear, and that is why this tension will remain as it is.”

Several fellows were struck by the fact that Israel still facilitates the entrance of goods and aid to the Hamas-run Gaza Strip. “I don’t understand why Israel is giving so much to the Palestinians, especially in Gaza,” said delegate Rabelani Dagada, a professor at Wits Business School.

“Irrespective of the genesis of what happened in Gaza, those people who live there in 2016 have a hard time,” reflected Waldimar Pelser, editor of the Sunday newspaper Rapport, later.

Dr. Frans Cronje and Professor Rabelani Dagada, members of a visiting South African group, in Ramallah, February 2016. (courtesy: Dr. Frans Cronje)

Dr. Frans Cronje and Professor Rabelani Dagada, members of a visiting South African group, in Ramallah, February 2016 (Courtesy Dr. Frans Cronje)

In Ramallah, the delegates met Qadura Fares, a former Palestinian Authority minister, and Dr. Husam Zomlot, ambassador-at-large for the PA. The two spoke at length about the plight of the Palestinian people, and charged that Israel constrains economic development within the West Bank. They asserted that Israel used the Oslo Accords to deepen control of Area C — the 60 percent of the West Bank where Israel maintains full civilian and security control. They also said Israel puts obstacles in the way of the advancement of Arab citizens of Israel.

“There were a lot of things that made me very uncomfortable [about the trip to the West Bank],” said delegate Jana Marais, “like the segregation and the fences and the checkpoints.”

Others in the group commented on the quality of life in Ramallah being better than for many people living in South Africa. “Ramallah was a refreshing surprise, with its modernity and development,” said Graham McIntosh, a retired member of parliament. “I sensed that the PLO folks told us what they thought we wanted to hear. If they were prepared to repeat what they told us in the boardrooms about respecting Israel’s right to exist, in Arabic, and on the streets outside in Ramallah, I would have felt that there was real leadership towards achieving peace.”

Speaking after a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, Pelser was emphatic that “the [Israeli] 1948 claim is a just one, and I think that reasonable people should recognize that.”

Beyond that, he said, “I think the challenge for me is to distinguish which of the criticisms [of Israel] are motivated by fear and a hatred of Jewish people — some are, but not all are — and which criticisms would improve the lot of Jews and non-Jews, and those in the neighborhood.”

Members of a visiting South African group in the Knesset with former MK Dov Lipman, February 2016. (WZO)

Members of a visiting South African group in the Knesset with former MK Dov Lipman, February 2016 (WZO)

Former Member of Knesset Rabbi Dov Lipman (Yesh Atid), the WZO’s director of public diplomacy — who arranged and coordinated the logistics of the visit — said that the experience of this specific delegation confirmed his strong belief that “our truth is compelling and convincing, so let’s bring them here to experience the complete story.” Lipman accompanied the group, fielding their questions about everything from land ownership in Israel, to the cost of living, religious factions, and the quality of life for Israeli Arabs.

Comparing impressions at the end of the trip, the eight said they were returning to South Africa with a greater understanding of the complexities of the situation in Israel, and better equipped to discuss it. “I can tell you that I’m going home with a feeling that I can comment and write about what is truly happening in Israel, with some degree of authoritative basis,” said Temba Nolutshungu, director of the Free Market Foundation.

“The program was not biased. We would have objected to that,” said Professor Dagada. “Our views were broadened. It was such an enriching week.”

Members of a visiting South African group at the Western Wall, February 2016. (WZO)

Members of a visiting South African group at the Western Wall, February 2016 (WZO)