Peter Beinart went to South Africa and concludes government is sympathetic to Palestinians because South Africa has more Muslims than Jews

By Melissa Levin

The next time Peter Beinart, who wrote a post on “The Israel Debate in South Africa” for The Daily Beast, visits South Africa, he ought to spend more time, with more people, getting a deeper sense of the complexities of the country and its struggle history. He may learn then, for starters, that South Africa is not America on steroids.  America is America 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 the extension of South African citizenship to include the majority; but it was to be 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 favour 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. Rather, it is ideological; it’s about ideas of freedom and justice.

If Beinart spent more time with more people in South Africa, he would know 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 of the 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.

10 thoughts on “Peter Beinart went to South Africa and concludes government is sympathetic to Palestinians because South Africa has more Muslims than Jews

  1. Melissa Levin wrote: “(Beinart) 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. Rather, it is ideological; it’s about ideas of freedom and justice.”

    One born of a Jewish mother is a Jew according to Jewish law, no question about it. A Jew can be Jewish and not be a Zionist; he or she can support a Palestinian state in Israel but I would submit that is not authentic Judaism. There are all kinds of different Jews.

    • oy, Steve Klein. while you are correct to say that halachically a person is Jewish if her mother is Jewish, that is not the definition applied by the Israeli state. the state defines a Jew for the purposes of the law of return as someone who is a quarter jewish which is the formula used by the nazis in determining who would be annihilated. let’s leave a judgment of authenticity to Hashem.

      • torontoisacontinent, maybe the Germans were on to something our rabbis should have recognized, but that was not my larger point.

  2. Melissa
    I agree with everything you say in the entire piece and have RT’d.
    BUT. I take issue simply with your last sentence
    The Palestinian struggle is an ethnic nationalist one. So was the Zionist one.
    What does create conflict is attempts to create singular states where none exist. If one looks at the primary unitary states in Africa then it is clear they are rife with ethnic struggle. Whilst the opposite induces peace.
    Sudan, Nigeria, DRC, Somalia and Ethiopia are all examples of ethnically diverse nations. They also have something else in common. Incessant unending ethnic violence. Zimbabwe is an excellent example. The majority party is primarily Shona whilst the oppressed ethnic group is primarily Matabele. To claim that ethno nationalism is somehow troublesome is nonsensical. In most cases the states of Africa were created by Western colonial masters arbitrarily throwing borders up where and how it suited their wont for power at the time. Good examples are how Tutsis are spread over Rwanda, Burundi and DRC. In South Africa Shanganis are spread over Zimbabwe, South Africa and Mozambique. This has seen incessant and sometimes repressive and genocidal ethnic conflict.
    On the other hand states in Africa which have been peaceful (note – not necessarily democratic) have been ones with huge majorities of one ethnic group or ethnically homogeneous. Botswana, Namibia, Swaziland, Lesotho. All recent conflict in Africa has been ethnic and NOT ideological and successful completion has created peace. Eritrea and South Sudan are outstanding examples.
    By the same token the shattering of Yugoslavia has seen ethnic tensions removed from ethnic unitarianism and created small but ethnically homogenuous states that are peaceful and prosperous.
    In all said… your final remark detracts from the thoughtful intelligence of the remainder of your piece.

    • Vry Burger, thank you for your comments. I think that ethnicity is not a given, a category that is static and ahistorical. I think rather that it is made through everyday practices of inclusion and exclusion. I support the struggles of people against oppression. As for ideas of ethnic belonging, I prefer to imagine other forms of solidarity among people; i prefer to embrace Adorno’s notion that the atrocities of the Holocaust should encourage us to be at home nowhere.

  3. Interesting that Ms Levin seems to single out Israel for its relationship with Apartheid South Africa but not China or Saudi Arabia (who gave Apartheid SA its oil) and the tons of other countries that did business with the old regime?

  4. Your response to Beinart does not address the main claims of his piece: that Zionism flourished in apartheid South Africa but has become increasingly questioned by young South African Jewish activists as a result of the onset of nonracial democracy and the legacy of the successful anti-apartheid struggle, who would rather direct their energies toward South African society that Israel. It should also be said that the civil rights struggle in the US and the SA anti-apartheid struggle are not that different after all: both extended political rights to disenfranchised groups (granted, a majority instead of a minority) but did not fundamentally reorder economic conditions that perpetuated inequality.

    • Hi Michael, I’m not sure that that is the main claim of the article. There is a suggestion that the division between young secular Jews and the growing number of religious Jews in South Africa maps onto support for Israel. I’m not sure there has been a reduction in the number of Habonim members who identify as Zionists. In my generation and the one before, camp was not a destination for the production of Zionist subjects, but for engaging in youthful distractions away from the confines of the household. Many people I know were introduced to socialist ideals and even anti-Zionist ones at these camps.
      As for the character of the state, I do agree that post-apartheid statehood is more continuous than not with its apartheid predecessor and amounts to an extension of citizenship to the majority. I do not think though that that detracts from the character of anti-apartheid struggle, from the solidarities that were formed globally, from the understanding that the apartheid state was a kind of racism on steroids, a racism of a special type.

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