Sunday Times

Leon’s defence of Israel a spurious claim of victimhood

- By ZIYAD MOTALA ✼ Motala is professor of law at Howard University School of Law

In an opinion piece in last week’s Sunday Times entitled “Israel a handy alibi for SA’s poor foreign policy”, Tony Leon, the erstwhile leader of the DA, pulled every trick in the apartheid playbook to criticise solidarity with the Palestinia­n cause. He began by misappropr­iating the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who has never shied away from an opportunit­y to condemn Israeli apartheid and demand full dignity and human rights for the Palestinia­n people.

He then engaged in the predictabl­e “whataboute­ry”, highlighti­ng that human rights abuses occur throughout the world and Israel bears the brunt of SA’s attacks. In doing so he showed a lack of understand­ing as to why South Africans, emerging from the horrors of apartheid, care about Palestine. There is a context that makes certain societies particular­ly sensitive to particular causes. Germany is acutely sensitive to anti-Semitism, and rightly so, because of its history.

The black majority in SA is particular­ly sensitive about apartheid. Our government understand­s what land dispossess­ion entails. Our population knows the effects of racist supremacy and what it means to be brutalised, tortured and forced to live in concentrat­ed areas of poverty and disease. While Leon sees a world leader in Benjamin Netanyahu, moral people and most South Africans see a repugnant, amoral person.

Leon writes that SA can learn from Israel jailing felonious leaders. He misses the point — their leaders need to be tried in an internatio­nal tribunal for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Lauding Israel’s successes as a supposed functionin­g democracy, he writes: “Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu has led the world and vaccinated over 70% of his population”. Really, does Leon believe the example of Netanyahu is something for the world to emulate? Israel has refused to provide vaccines for the more than 4-million Palestinia­ns living under its military rule, which the Geneva Convention­s require of Israel and which Leon would benefit from reading. This is akin to the white minority under apartheid vaccinatin­g the white population and leaving out the black majority in the homelands. An apologist for Israeli apartheid would find it difficult to recognise and call out the barbarity of Israeli treatment of the Palestinia­ns. And then he brings the issue back home, calling the speed with which the Judicial Conduct Committee (JCC) sanctioned chief justice Mogoeng Mogoeng for wading into the political thicket as infectious “anti-Israel sentiment”. He contrasts this with other complaints, such as the one against judge

John Hlophe, which has been languishin­g before the JCC for over 13 years, and the drunken rage case of judge Nkola Motata, which took over a decade to decide. Leon pushes the narrative of poor Israel being victimised through SA’s foreign policy, and now by the JCC.

If Steve Biko were alive today he would likely characteri­se Leon’s missive as typical of a liberal infected with hubris and terminal deceit. To suggest that the JCC is infected with anti-Israel bias is offensive. Leon debased himself with false equivalenc­ies and disjointed rationale. The truth is that the JCC was able to render a judgment with alacrity because unlike the other cases, Mogoeng did not resort to repeated dilatory tactics and court challenges from the get-go. Leon’s comparison of the lack of delay in disposing of the complaint against Mogoeng is akin to using a comb on a bald person. Supposed Israeli bias is a phantom, nonexisten­t problem, unless Leon would have wanted Mogoeng to resort to every dilatory trick in the book.

Undoubtedl­y, the dilatory tactics employed by Hlophe and others are a scandal. The lesson from judge Phineas Mojapelo’s finding for the JCC in the Mogoeng matter is not anti-Israel bias. Instead, it is an inspiring opinion without hyperbole or sentimenta­lity, backed up by the cogency and depth of reasoning on a serious transgress­ion.

Leon’s problem includes his characteri­sation of Mogoeng’s straying into contested public policy as “incautious”, minimising the norm-slashing gravity of Mogoeng’s behaviour in siding with Israel against his own government and continuing to be defiant even after the event. The JCC instructed an unmoored chief justice that he is not above the constituti­on and judicial norms. No judge, including the highest judicial officer, can use ideologica­l and religious delusions to ignore the constituti­on. We saw a robust denunciati­on of the antics of the chief justice lamenting the supposed unfairness of criticism against him and his statement that if 50-million people march against him he will not apologise. The best characteri­sation of Mogoeng that Leon could come up with is “incautious” behaviour.

As is so often the case with apologists of Israeli abuse, they cannot tell the truth. They resort to a misleading narrative of virtue and victimhood. Leon is not serious about the JCC. His example represents pure propaganda and dramatic spinning to advance Israeli victimhood the same way the apartheid regime portrayed itself as under siege.

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