A deepening crisis in Israel’s relationship with South Africa saw the Foreign Ministry’s spokesman in Jerusalem on Monday accuse Pretoria’s trade minister of “unbelievable ignorance” in pushing to ban the use of “Made in Israel” labels on settlement goods, while a South African university cancelled a lecture by Israel’s deputy ambassador because it could create “negative publicity” and damage the institution’s reputation.
The deputy ambassador, Yaakov Finkelstein, was scheduled to speak Monday at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), but the university’s deputy vice chancellor, Joseph Ayee, announced on Sunday afternoon that the lecture was canceled.
“I have re-considered the sensitivities that the visit of the Israeli deputy ambassador have generated,” Ayee said, according to a press release issued by a South African group advocating a boycott of Israel. Ayee scrapped the event in light of the “negative publicity” and “likely reputational damage” it would bring the university, the statement said.
The press release went on to cite politics professor Lubna Nadvi, who specializes in political Islam, who said the university’s decision represents the general sentiment among students and staff. “Israel is fast becoming a pariah state, like Apartheid South Africa did, that no one really wants to be associated with — including academics and students,” Nadvi was quoted as saying.
A spokeswoman at the Israeli Embassy in Pretoria, Hila Stern, said the event — a regular lecture appearance — was canceled in coordination with the university. A pro-Palestinian campaign of “intimidation and threats” reached a level where “there was a genuine threat to the diplomat’s well-being,” she said.
“Anti-Israeli elements have embarked on a campaign of intellectual terror which rejects everything that academia believes in, meaning dialogue, discussions, research, understanding and freedom of speech,” she said. “The use of bullying to silence freedom of expression in an academic setting is a very sad development. As the saying goes, ‘There’s none so deaf as those who will not hear.’”
Last year, the University of Johannesburg withdrew from a joint research project with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, becoming the first academic institution to formally cut ties with an Israeli university.
Jewish community to protest ban on ‘Made in Israel’ labels
Meanwhile, Jewish activists living in South Africa and Israel are mobilizing against the South African government’s proposal to ban the labeling of goods produced in the West Bank as “Made in Israel.”
The South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) released a statement saying it was “regrettable that the Minister has decided to gazette this issue without broad consultation. South Africa should not adopt a policy that is discriminatory and inconsistent with how it deals with similar questions relating to products imported from other parts of the world, as would seem to be the case now.”
David Saks, a senior SAJBD official, told The Times of Israel on Monday that his organization was currently investigating the legal and technical issues concerning the matter. The board intends to respond to the South African government’s invitation to comment on the proposal, but is still assessing the “correct procedures regarding the input of the public when it comes to government policy on such matters,” he said.
David Hersh, from the Cape Town-based South Africa Israel Public Affairs Committee, said: “We will be calling for this law, should it be promulgated, to be legally challenged in the South African Constitutional Court and we will pursue the possibility of doing so ourselves.”
Even Telfed – The South African Zionist Federation (Israel), an immigrant support group that usually shies away from political statements, came out against Pretoria’s planned regulation.
“Telfed urges the South African government to support and facilitate a continued dialogue rather than selecting Israel for sanctions and boycotts which do more harm to both Palestinians and Israelis than contribute to resolving the dispute,” the organization’s chairman, Dave Bloom, told The Times of Israel. He urged Pretoria to “withdraw this plan and rather exert its energies in bringing Israelis and Palestinians together for full and frank negotiations in order to create peace between the two nations.”
At the behest of a pro-Palestinian organization called Open Shuhada Street, South African Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies said he intended to issue an official notice “to require traders in South Africa not to incorrectly label products that originate from the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) as products of Israel.” Davies said that Pretoria recognized the State of Israel “only within the borders demarcated by the United Nations (UN) in 1948” and that these borders do not include territories occupied by Israel after 1967.
Davies has invited “comments from the public on this issue,” which must reach the ministry within 60 days of the notice’s posting. These comments should be sent to his department at +27 12 394 1383, or via e-mail to email@example.com.
Saks, from the Jewish Board of Deputies, lamented that the board was not involved in the government deliberations that led to the decision. “We are further concerned that, on the basis of representations made by a pro-Palestinian lobby group only, the minister has to an extent pre-judged the issue and is already in favor of adopting a labeling policy that specifically refers to ‘Occupied Palestinian Territories’ and which would accordingly be highly partisan.”
The South African Zionist Federation, for its part, said it deeply regretted that Davies was singling out Israel for censure — “a country that has become a leading example in the fields of agricultural, water, technological and entrepreneurial innovation and a country that has remained committed to partnering and sharing with South Africa that expertise in which it excels.”
It charged that the minister had “relied on the narrow views of lobby groups whose stated aims are to enforce a regime of boycotts and sanctions against Israel” and “refused to meet and consult with interest groups opposed to his position.”
If the proposal takes effect, South Africa would become the first country to legally prohibit businesses from labeling products from beyond the Green Line as made in Israel.
Right-wing Israeli politicians have slammed Davies’ plan, saying it unfairly singled out Israel.
The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem said it “smacked of racism” and added that it would express its indignation to the South African ambassador, Ismail Coovadia. The ambassador was unavailable on Sunday, but was now being called in for a talk, the ministry said.
According to news reports, Denmark planned to follow suit with a similar regulation, but Jerusalem officials said Monday that only the Danish foreign minister had voiced this idea and that it did not represent official government policy.
According to Israeli law, the West Bank is not legally part of the State of Israel, as it was never officially annexed.
Some Israelis support South Africa’s planned move, saying Israel needs to realize the world is no longer willing to accept Israel’s occupation of the area.
Meretz chairwoman MK Zahava Gal-On, for instance, welcomed South Africa’s move, adding that she had herself introduced a similar bill in the Knesset.
And Jonathan Zausmer, the co-founder of the left-wing Tzora Forum, said that it was important Israelis understand that if no two-state solution is found in the near future, such developments will continue to increase.
“It’s very easy for Israel to describe such proposals as purely anti-Israel or anti-Semitic behavior. But the bottom line is that Israel is out of touch with how the world sees the occupation and the settlements in the West Bank,” he said.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman, Paul Hirschson, noted that there are more than 200 territorial conflicts in the world. The fact that South Africa has chosen to focus “on one side of one of these many conflicts raises very harsh questions about South Africa’s policies,” he said.
“There are 47 territorial disputes in Africa alone,” Hirschson told The Times of Israel. “South Africa itself is in a territorial dispute with Swaziland, with that country claiming that Pretoria is occupying Swazi territory. We understand that there is a territorial dispute in the West Bank. But to pick one party in one dispute raises uncomfortable questions about your motivation.”
Another Foreign Ministry spokesman, Yigal Palmor, told The Times of Israel that the very wording of Davies’ notice displays “unbelievable ignorance” about Israel’s history and has the potential to confuse South African customers to the extent that they will boycott all Israeli products. Davies had mentioned Israel’s borders as having been demarcated by the UN in 1948, but the UN never demarcated any borders that year, said Palmor. It stands to reason that Davies was referring to the 1947 partition plan, which the Arabs rejected, he went on. “This ignorant statement adds insult to injury,” Palmor said.
Bilateral relations are going south
Relations between Jerusalem and Pretoria have been strained for the last few years but the tone is becoming increasingly rough, insiders say.
“We have chosen harsh words to respond to the labeling issue because it is merely the latest in a long line of insults and undiplomatic behavior toward Israel, which sometimes smacked of racism, and we never said anything,” Palmor said.
While more hawkish Jewish South Africans are adamant about fighting Davies’ proposal, not everyone in the community shares that view, observed David Kaplan, a freelance journalist and active member of the expatriate community.
“People are split about this. There are some who actually agree that in order to keep the possibility of two-state solution alive, it’s necessary to relinquish the territories, and some Israelis themselves say it,” Kaplan said. He referred in particular to Forum Tzora, a left-wing group founded by South African immigrants actively advocating for an end of the Israeli occupation.
There are also those in the community who are dismayed about the South African government’s policies vis-à-vis Israel but feel South African Jews should pick their battles carefully. There are other, more worthwhile, issues to fight about, he said. “People are tired that their government comes out with something anti-Israel every week.”