Mercury Eye on Civil Society column, 4 February 2009 South Africa
Patrick Bond reports on new pressures to free Palestine
Yesterday’s decision by dockworkers to boycott the handling of Israeli imports is of enormous importance, and will prod more Durban citizens – including academics and cultural activists – to also raise concerns about institutional linkages that give the Israeli state legitimacy.
On Sunday, the SA Transport and Allied Workers Union aim to repeat last year’s feat of turning back a huge ship symbolizing and contributing to oppression. A protest with Congress of SA Trade Unions president Sdumo Dlamini will be held at the mouth of the port that day at 10am.
Recall last April that the contents of the Chinese ship “An Yue Jiang”were destined for Robert Mugabe’s army, including three million bullets and sophisticated weaponry. The ship was repelled from a series of southern African ports by dockworkers once local Anglican Bishop Rubin Philip raised the alarm.
The ship scheduled to arrive Sunday, the “Johanna Russ” (flying an Antigua flag), is owned by M.Dizengoff and Co., an established “pioneer of the modern era of shipping business in the Middle East” and shipping agent for the ironically named Zim Israel Navigation Company. It probably does not have bullets in the hold, but does bring revenues to the Israeli economy.
The anti-apartheid movement’s success was due in part to economic pain inflicted on the racist state and English-speaking businesses by sanctions, leading to a partial break in August 1985 immediately following PW Botha’s “Rubicon” speech here in Durban. That split in turn led to a nine-year process of power transfer and democratization.
Can local civil society activists promote a similar non-violent democratization of Israel/Palestine, by breaking relations between Israel and Durban importers? The SA Zionist Federation’s Bev Goldman warned the Daily News last week, “A boycott would undermine relations between Israel and SA and result in a negative impact on the economy.”
An end to such relations is what the Cosatu demands, even if they themselves sacrifice some jobs in the process, on behalf of Gaza Palestinians suffering what are called by leading United Nations officials – and will probably also be known in The Hague International Criminal Court – as Israel’s crimes against humanity.
Cosatu and the Palestine Support Committee remind us of the long history in which injustice travels to docks: “In 1963, just four years after the Anti-Apartheid Movement was formed, Danish dock workers refused to offload a ship with South African goods. When the ship docked in Sweden, Swedish workers followed suit. Dock workers in Liverpool and, later, in the San Francisco Bay Area also refused to offload South African goods.”
Last week, Western Australian dockworkers announced a similar move against Israeli shipping.
And in spite of what is known as “The Israel Lobby” that influences Washington’s foreign policy, more than 300 US academics pledged an Israel boycott last month, restarting a movement that has traveled from Britain to Canada with mixed results.
On January 14, the Israel Lobby – especially the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC) – was stupidly misnamed by SA’s deputy foreign affairs minister Fatima Hajaig as “Jews” (there are plenty of right-wing Christian zealots who also support Israel’s barbaric policies): “If Jewish money controls their country, you cannot expect anything else.”
Though she obviously should have used the adjective “Zionist” not “Jew”, Hajaig’s basic point is correct. Assuming she corrects the phraseology, she should not face discipline in the Human Rights Commission, especially if Hajaig can turn around SA foreign policy towards consistent solidarity with the oppressed, in view of Pretoria’s “talk left, walk right” tendency and abominable recent record of oppression-nurture in the UN Security Council.
After all, as the two leading experts on the Israel Lobby – the University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer and Harvard’s Stephen Walt – pointed out in the London Review of Books, both Fortune magazine and the National Journal rated AIPAC in second place “in the Washington ‘muscle rankings’.”
How did AIPAC build its muscles? Just like Hajaig says: with money. According to Mearsheimer and Walt, “Its success is due to its ability to reward legislators and congressional candidates who support its agenda, and to punish those who challenge it. Money is critical to US elections (as the scandal over the lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s shady dealings reminds us), and AIPAC makes sure that its friends get strong financial support from the many pro-Israel political action committees. Anyone who is seen as hostile to Israel can be sure that AIPAC will direct campaign contributions to his or her political opponents.”
As Mearsheimer and Walt conclude, “The bottom line is that AIPAC, a de facto agent for a foreign government, has a stranglehold on Congress…The Lobby’s influence causes trouble on several fronts. It increases the terrorist danger that all states face – including America’s European allies. It has made it impossible to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Campaigning against apartheid for many years, many of us in international civil society found sanctions and divestment a useful tool under these conditions, so as to reduce the monetary incentive for ongoing racism.
The parallel is real. Remarks Harvard law professor Duncan Kennedy on the past month’s carnage: “It is important to understand the 1,300 Palestinian casualties, including 400 children as well as many, many women, versus 13 Israeli casualties, as typical of a particular kind of ‘police action’ that Western colonial powers and Western ‘ethnocratic settler regimes’ like ours in the US, Canada, Australia, Serbia and particularly apartheid South Africa, have historically undertaken to convince resisting native populations that unless they stop resisting they will suffer unbearable death and deprivation.”
“What is to be done?”, asks Kennedy. “You might consider some small step, perhaps just a contribution to humanitarian relief for Gaza, or e-mailing the White House, or something more, like advocating for Harvard to divest.”
Fully aware of the role that progressive white SA academics played in the anti-apartheid struggle, including divestment/sanctions advocacy, we at the UKZN Centre for Civil Society are deep in debate on this matter.
Although CCS staff have conflicting views, four of our senior academics – myself and honorary professors Alan Fowler (former International Society for Third Sector Research president), Adam Habib (University of Johannesburg Deputy Vice Chancellor) and Dennis Brutus – issued a statement this week to confirm our own concern about the Ben Gurion University Israeli Centre for Third Sector Research.
Our attempts last week to suggest that an international conference they are holding in Israel next month introduce meaningful Palestinian inputs on the incursion into Gaza were unsuccessful, so we simply cannot endorse attendance.
On the cultural front there is a similar debate. Three weeks ago, Israeli ambassador Dov Segev-Steinberg visited the Catalina Theatre at Wilson’s Wharf, where protesters from the Action Group for Palestine protesters demanded that the Musho festival cease Israeli-sponsored events.
The lead here comes from the UKZN Centre for Creative Arts, which since 2001 has not accepted Israeli state cultural funding, according to the CCA’s Monica Rorvik.
It may be that some Israeli academic and cultural activities promote Palestinian liberation, and deserve exemption, although Brutus suggests a full boycott.
Regardless, the higher consciousness civil society activists seek by raising the ethics of SA-Israeli relationships can do some good. Just witness last week’s Mercury letter from well-known conservationist Ian Player in reference to the non-violent demonstration that Durban city manager Mike Sutcliffe squelched against last month’s Dusi canoe marathon: “I cannot imagine that a single canoeist would have taken umbrage at the Qadi people making a silent protest [against land dispossession] by standing on the banks.”
I read the letter to Qadi leader O’Brien Gcabashe on the phone and he replied, “We are going back to the next Dusi marathon at the Inanda Dam this Friday – fewer than 15 of us so as to not violate the Gatherings Act – and we expect the police to let us exercise our constitutional right to protest this time.”
Such a gesture – like boycotting Israeli economic, sporting, academic and cultural activities in solidarity with Palestinians – may, to borrow Player’s words, “highlight the critical importance of resolving their plight.”
(Patrick Bond directs the UKZN Centre for Civil Society.)