The American journalist and thinker Peter Beinart wrote about “The Israel Debate in South Africa” for The Daily Beast. This involved visiting South Africa. It is unclear how much time he spent learning to meet the locals or get a more profound sense of the country’s complexities and its struggle history. He may learn then, for starters, that South Africa is not the United States on steroids. The United States is the United States on steroids. And he’ll also learn that the affinity of the masses of people to the Palestinian struggle is hardly as mysterious and convoluted as he would suggest. These two points are connected.
Beinart shouldn’t confuse American racism with the Apartheid state. The fight against racism in the United States was registered in a vocabulary of civil rights. For South Africa, the battle was for the fundamental transformation of a state that was colonial to its core. The language of liberation directed the struggle there. It was not about extending South African citizenship to include the majority, but it was a fundamental reordering of what it means to be South African. Until 1994, the South African state operated in the interests of whiteness. And Jews, in the main, unquestioningly embraced their whiteness. Contrary to the idea posited by Beinart about the sense of national belonging of Jews to South Africa, he should know that we sang the national anthem (on multiple occasions, including at day schools), we supported the whites-only rugby and cricket teams, we participated in whites-only elections, in white political parties, in prosecuting apartheid laws, in doing apartheid business.
But this is not why the post-apartheid polity supports the liberation of Palestine.
Because, of course, as Beinart points out, there were many Jews who disavowed apartheid and risked everything in the fight against it. He is mistaken, though, that those same Jews disavowed their Jewishness in favor of a broader identity. He should know that it is possible to be Jewish and not be a Zionist. In other words, the support for Palestinian statehood is not about identity politics. Instead, it is ideological about ideas of freedom and justice.
If Beinart spent more time with more people in South Africa, he would have discovered, too, that the support for Palestinian liberation is not produced through a more assertive Muslim current in the ruling party than a Jewish one. The role and place of Muslims in the ANC and support for the organization amongst Muslims is not so unequivocally established. Support for Palestinians is not support for Muslims over Jews in the ruling party. It is support for an occupied people over a repressive state.
Beinart correctly identifies Israel’s collusion with the apartheid state as grounds for some animosity in the post-apartheid polity. But he doesn’t concede the full implication of it. Beinart claims that “apartheid turned many South Africans who were struggling to forge an inclusive, non-racial South African identity against the Jewish state” (my emphasis). But it was the apartheid devil that did it – it was the choice of the Israeli state to work with apartheid, to work with counter-revolutionary forces against the liberation of South Africa, that solidified its place as pariah. And, frankly, ethnic and religious nationalism gives itself a bad name wherever it asserts itself.