Forget Leon, SA must fight Israeli apartheid
There is much to legitimately criticise about SA’s foreign policy and our judiciary. Tony Leon’s op-ed (March 28, 2021), however, is a criticism of neither, but simply an attempt to defend Israel and its supporters in SA. In doing so, he uses the well-worn pro-Israeli tactic of “whataboutery”, deflecting attention from Israel’s egregious human rights violations and apartheid.
According to professor Salim Vally, “in attempting to isolate the erstwhile South African apartheid regime we were confronted with responses by apartheid apologists that often ended with the diversionary, ‘What about Pol Pot?’ or ‘What about Idi Amin?’ Once again supporters of Israel, and unfortunately even well-meaning liberals, voice similar evasive sentiments, including the indignant cousin of ‘whataboutery’, the complaint ‘Why single out Israel?’”
Over the years the countries and groups referred to by the “whatabout” brigade included Sudan, Iran, Syria, Boko Haram and now Islamic State. Sudan was bombed and stiff sanctions implemented, Iran has been under sanctions since 1979, Syria since 2003; atavistic groups such as Boko Haram and Islamic State are actively hunted by the US and other Western powers.
Ilan Pappé, the Israeli historian, put it succinctly: “There are horrific cases where dehumanisation has reaped unimaginable horrors. But there is a crucial difference between these cases and Israel’s brutality: the former are condemned as barbarous and inhuman worldwide, while those committed by Israel are still publicly licensed and approved by Western governments.”
Leon can present no cogent argument for why chief justice Mogoeng Mogoeng should not have been censured for interference in the domain of the executive or why SA should not take a principled position on the occupation of Palestinian territory.
Justice Phineas Mojapelo of the Judicial Conduct Committee (JCC) agreed with us — Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) SA — that the chief justice knowingly criticised the government position on Palestine. Comments concerning the diplomatic relationship between SA and Israel, which was “clearly political territory”, breached the requirement in the Judicial Service Commission Act that judges should not get “involved in any political controversy or activity”.
The JCC gave the chief justice 10 days to apologise for his pro-Israel comments. It subsequently issued a statement indicating that Mogoeng “has signified his intention to appeal the decision”. This disregard for
Mojapelo’s ruling demonstrates he is not interested in upholding the constitutionality of his office by respecting the decision of his peers.
Leon disingenuously deploys Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s completely unrelated quote. Tutu is well known for his condemnation of Israeli apartheid, and his statement that the situation for Palestinians is worse than South African apartheid.
Leon then attempts to use Nelson Mandela too, but Mandela’s comment that “human rights will be the light that guides our foreign affairs” is precisely what Leon does not want to see. He does not want the South African government to criticise Israel’s human rights abuses; he does not want a judge who is an apologist for Israel’s crimes against humanity to be censured.
His lauding of Israel’s racist prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, for having vaccinated “over 70% of his population”, is a deliberate lie. Israel exercises full control over the lives of Palestinians in the occupied territories. Under international law, Israel is responsible for the provision of health services to that population too.
Instead, Israel uses its vaccine supply to buy political support from poorer countries, leaving Palestinians to the mercy of Covid-19. The term “vaccine apartheid” applies to Israel more than to any other country.
Leon asserts, astoundingly, that the fact that the Israeli prime minister might be convicted of corruption at some point is a good example for
SA. A prime minister who has manipulated the political system and launched wars to keep himself and his wife out of prison is hardly best practice!
An indication of Netanyahu’s politics is his political partners. The leader of one of these, Itamar Ben-Gvir of Otzma Yehudit, openly admires the extremist Meir Kahane, whose Kach party was barred from running in the 1988 Israeli elections for inciting violence; he was too racist even for the racist Israeli system. The movement was later banned in Israel under anti-terrorism laws.
Finally, we wonder how Leon represented SA as an ambassador if he believes that SA has no foreign policy “beyond a series of outdated impulses and struggle-retro gestures”. Hypocrisy certainly becomes the former leader of the opposition known for his famous “fight back” election slogan, which black people interpreted as “fight black”.
The only example Israel presents us with is that of an apartheid state. SA is morally and politically bound to decisively support the call for the re-establishment of the UN Special
Committee on Apartheid and to champion the call for full economic and military sanctions to be imposed against Israel.