South Africa and its truth about Israel

Demonstrators take part in a rally, organised by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), to protest against Israel's plan to annex parts of the occupied West Bank, in Jericho. Photo by: REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman

There is a story told in the Talmud of the angels wanting to break into songs of rejoicing upon seeing the Egyptians drowning in the Red Sea. But God admonished them saying: “How dare you sing for joy when My creatures are dying!”

If we are to bring God into this then we must admit that God is both God of the Israelis and of the Palestinians. We are all God’s creatures and therefore it does not really help to locate this conflict within the realm of religion. 

We have only to look at our own history as a country when the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk believed and taught that apartheid was willed by God. Some would even argue that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had to be chaired by two Christian clerics, one an Anglican the other a Methodist, in order to correct this error of Christianity. 

Just as apartheid came through Christianity so too by Christianity came reconciliation, to paraphrase Paul of Tarsus. 

The Chief Justice, Mogoeng Mogoeng, has come under severe criticism over the last few days for his religious comments on Israel. In response to his webinar with the Jerusalem Post, law professors, special advisors and a number of other commentators have come out to ‘set the record straight.’

The ANC even requested the Speaker of the National Assembly, Thandi Modise, to engage, and one would assume reprimand, the Chief Justice for his criticisms of what he perceives as South Africa’s foreign policy towards Israel. 

Yet despite all the condemnation that the Chief Justice received from well-placed individuals and organisations one could not help but smell the tinge of hypocrisy in all of it. No one has dared to point out what the Chief Justice was really wrong about. 

The fact remains that contrary to what the Chief Justice articulated, South Africa continues to enjoy diplomatic relations with the apartheid state of Israel. There has been no expulsion of the Israeli ambassador despite the former minister of international relations and cooperation, Lindwe Sisulu, suggesting such a move two years ago. Rumours continue to abound that Ms Sisulu was moved from the post precisely because of her stance against Israel. 

In fact, even with the lingering plans to start annexation on 1 July 2020, South Africa has not even issued a démarche to the Israeli ambassador. These plans are so devastating that the Palestinian Authority, the government of the Palestinian territories, is considering to dissolve itself and other Palestinian institutions.  

The International Trade Centre, on its useful website providing trade data between countries and regions, indicates that South Africa imported goods from Israel to the tune of over US$193 million in 2019. While the figures are reliably skewed, both for Israel and Palestine, the figure for Palestine in the same year was only US$10 thousand.

Also in 2019, Israel imported products from South Africa to the tune of just below US$91 thousand while there is no data available for South African goods being imported by the Palestinian Territories. The trade between South Africa and Israel therefore remains overwhelming in Israel’s favour despite the brouhaha over the boycott, disinvest and sanctions campaign. 

The same website suggests that in 2019, Africa imported over US$500 million worth of products from Israel making South Africa one of the biggest, if not the biggest, importer of Israeli products on the African continent. 

South Africa’s foreign policy may be guided by principles of human rights and freedoms of people but these meaning hardly anything when it is not matched by concrete efforts to ensure that sustainable livelihoods are created for all in the region. 

It is time that South Africa’s foreign policy catches up with the rest of the world and moves from idealism to realism. 

Words will not change Palestinian lives. Ideals will not ensure that Israel halts its annexation of the parts of the West Bank. South Africa must put its money where its mouth is and make real the criticisms that the Chief Justice spoke about. 

Those of us who have had the great fortune of attending a Jewish wedding would know that it is custom to break a glass at the end of the wedding ceremony. A medieval commentary of the Tosafot suggests that the custom is born out of the belief that we, like the angels, should never rejoice in the misfortunes of others. 

It is for the same reason that drops of wine are spilt on Seder night, to remind those attending that the cup of deliverance and the celebration thereof cannot be full when others are to suffer. 

Israel, Jerusalem, will never be at peace as long as the Palestinians are suffering. It is time the South African government realises this.

Wesley Seale has a PhD in international relations. He writes from Beijing.