Fact is stranger than fiction. Who would think that Avigdor Liberman and Maite Nkaona-Mashabane share so much in common?
Liberman, Israel’s former Foreign Minister, and Nkoana-Mashabane, South Africa’s Minister of International Relations, have both recently brought their governments and proud countries into disrepute and further polarised divided societies, through their simplistic, ignorant and inflammatory caricatures of complex political and moral issues.
In response to Nkoana-Mashabane’s statement that South Africa would continue to curtail its diplomatic relations with the Israeli government, Liberman lashed out, saying, “The same government that just one year ago, its police indiscriminately shot and killed thirty four miners because they ‘dared’ to strike…is concerned about what is happening to the Palestinians thousands of kilometres away.”
He went on to say, “The South African government is creating an anti-Israel and anti-Semitic atmosphere, which will result in pogroms against the country’s Jews. I call on all the Jews still living there to emigrate to Israel as soon as possible, before it is too late.”
Liberman’s bombastic comments betray profound ignorance of South Africa. The ethos of the new South Africa – stated, practiced and celebrated – is unity in diversity. The South African Constitution, its government and indeed the very spirit of the society are all firmly rooted in the equality of all human beings, irrespective of race, religion or beliefs, affording all citizens of the country the freedom and dignity to be who they are.
Numerous studies have objectively verified that, proportionately, South Africa has one of the lowest rates of anti-Semitic incidents of any country in the world. It is, therefore, grotesquely false and deeply insulting to accuse South Africans of harbouring genocidal anti-Semitic tendencies. The South African Jewish community lives and thrives as a dynamic contributing part of the society, proudly committed to its religious heritage and values, to its Zionism and to its moral duties as good citizens intimately involved in the rebuilding a society recovering from apartheid.
All South Africans who lived through the very painful events of the Marikana shootings know the deep complexities of that incident. At the time, I was part of a delegation of religious leaders who went to meet with the mine’s management and miners to understand and assist with the volatile and tragic situation. An independent judicial enquiry is currently underway to determine what happened at Marikana. The findings have not yet been made, and for Liberman to pronounce his verdict on such a complex situation is absurd. South Africa has laws and policies which protect, and indeed encourage, industrial action. Collective bargaining and worker strikes are a part of daily life in the country. To simplistically describe it as “the South African government shooting people who dared to strike” is a statement of monstrous ignorance – matched only by Nkoana-Mashabane’s one-sided condemnation of Israel.
Her libellous accusation that Israel is guilty of apartheid is a brutish caricature which is as grotesquely false as Liberman’s accusing South Africans of widespread genocidal anti-Semitism and the wilful shooting of striking workers. Nkoana-Mashabane’s prejudiced and thoughtless characterisation of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as having comparison to the South African experience, is based on bizarre distortions of the truth. In the State of Israel, all citizens, Jew and Arab alike, are equal before the law. Israel has none of the apartheid legislative machinery designed to discriminate against, and separate people. It has no Population and Registration Act, no Group Areas Act, no Mixed Marriages and Immorality Act, no Separate Representation of Voters Act, no separate Amenities Act, no pass laws or any other of the myriad apartheid laws. On the contrary – Israel is a vibrant, liberal democracy which accords full political, civil and other human rights to all, including its one million plus Arab citizens, many of whom hold positions of authority in all areas of public life across the Jewish state. There are Arab Cabinet Ministers, Arab Knesset members and Arab judges at every level of the judiciary, the Supreme Court included.
There is, however, a bitter dispute on how to establish a Palestinian State in the areas of the West Bank and Gaza, which, before they were under Israel’s jurisdiction, were Jordanian and Egyptian territory, respectively. The Arab/Israeli conflict regarding the future of these territories and other issues, is more than a century old, and is rooted in deep historical, religious and political forces, many of which go back thousands of years. These negotiations have been tortuous and protracted and currently are in a very fragile state. The only hope for peace is a balanced and sophisticated approach by world leaders of intellectual and moral substance. And indeed, Nkoana-Mashabane’s divisive approach puts her at odds with many of her fellow citizens, who prefer policies which favour peace. In an open letter, religious leaders representing more than 10 million South Africans called on politicians the not to take sides in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, saying: “South Africa has no just cause for choosing sides. We should support both sides in their struggle for a peaceful solution. When South Africa’s ruling party chooses sides in this bitter conflict, our country loses the credibility to be a voice for peace between the parties, and only the agenda of conflict is served.”
Nkoana-Mashabane and Liberman through their inflammatory statements and grotesque caricatures of countries they do not understand, have exacerbated the tensions in both of their societies, and have made achieving peace even more difficult in a world which is filled with enemies of reconciliation.
South Africa and Israel are both proud, vibrant, thriving democracies. Both countries deserve better. The cause of peace deserves better.