Redi Tlhabi: On Israel, Maimane and (un)fair criticism

Dear Rolene

I want to thank you for the magnanimous and constructive tone of your letter to me. It is a welcomed change from the usual aggression, name calling and bullying to which I and many of my colleagues who hold a different view on Middle East politics, have become accustomed. We are often lobbied and blackmailed to fully see this complicated, painful history from one side and one side only.

I expressed a view that given our history in South Africa, it is symbolically problematic and imprudent to privilege close ties with an occupying force, rather than the occupied one and that Mmusi Maimane should have been sensitive to that. The history to which I was referring was less about Palestine and Israel – that was more complicated than what my radio platform allowed in a 5 minute interview. Such a detailed granular account of history would require more time and more voices. 

Instead, the basis of my objection was on apartheid South Africa’s history with Israel. You will know that Israel supported apartheid South Africa with weapons and technology and this happened during sanctions when the whole world was spitting on apartheid. What cemented these ties was a similar interest by both states to spread their axis and appropriate for themselves better land and property at the expense of indigenous populations and fellow countrymen and women. H.F. Verwoerd and his successor John Vorster were great admirers of Israel’s occupation and expansion plan.

It is impractical to not have relations with states that supported apartheid. But the point is, if such states are currently involved in conflicts that dispossess and deny others their rights, then our condemnation must be clear and unequivocal first.

Given the persecution of Jews and years of enduring anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe, I understand the instinct to strengthen the homeland, to neutralise any threat, real or perceived. But this does not negate the historical fact of dispossession and continued occupation – the key word here being continued.

You say that Israelis just want peace with their neighbours. I have no doubt that this is true and is a reflection of how most citizens feel. But sadly, the actions of the state communicate a different message.

I agree that this is a complex and multi-layered conflict and that there have been painful losses on both sides. The difference here is that one side to the conflict has the economic and military hegemony, while the other, doesn’t.

This is not a justification for firing rockets into Israel – that act is abominable. But rather an assertion that the two sides to the conflict are unequal in many ways.

The TRC exposed how those who fought against apartheid also committed violations but I doubt that there is any sane person who would argue that their actions negated the just cause or legitimised apartheid. Regardless of how flawed some of the methods used to fight it were, apartheid and its concomitant dispossession, remained an unjust ideology.

You paint a picture of life in Israel and its flawed but vibrant democracy. I have heard this from so many who visit Israel. But surely that IS the one side against which you caution me. The other side is settlement building, military checkpoints, control of the airspace and a history of unbridled military action.

You mention how on the same day that Maimane was being criticised, Israel and the Palestinian authority signed a deal that would improve water supply. That is a great development indeed, but I am not sure how it addresses the bigger ideological issues. You will know that the apartheid government also pumped a lot of money into development in the Bantustans and funded some other initiatives in our townships, during apartheid. 

We grew up watching state officials bussing visitors into our townships to show them how happy black people were and how the condemnation against apartheid did not reflect this ‘success’ story. Perhaps it would have been helpful to also explain that this recently signed water deal was necessitated by years of the Israeli national water company Mekorot, restricting and controlling water supply to villages and towns in the West Bank.

You graciously invite all peace-loving South Africans to build bridges. We have been and continue to do so. The invitation itself, coming in the context of this topic implies that those who are critical of Israel or its Prime Minister are not peace-loving.

You end by inviting me to a discussion, on or off air. I have over a period of 12 years given ALL sides to this conflict a hearing. From ambassadors to activists, academics and supporters on both sides. This is not about to change. A seminal moment was a joint discussion with the Chief Rabbi and the Chief Imam to articulate fully, the dreams, disappointments, pain and hurdles that each side was feeling.

Off air, I respectfully decline because every time I express a view that is critical of some aspects of Israel’s position, I am inundated with letters, books, documentaries, that are all pro-Israel in tone. In the last two weeks, I have received no less than a dozen invitations to have coffee and talk. I simply cannot have that much coffee.

Previously I have taken up these invitations but realise that they are designed to promote a pro-Israeli stance and patronise those who hold a different view by claiming they are ‘ignorant’, ‘ill-informed’, etc. I concede that it is impossible to know all the granular details of this complex conflict but I am as informed as any reasonably bright, fair and open minded person can be. I simply hold a different view.

These invitations also do amuse me in a way because those who issue them assume that I am not exposed to a contrary view. Perhaps it is a reflection of their own insular world, which is not reflective of a diversity of races, cultures, religions and ideologies. All their friends look like them, sound like them and believe everything that they too believe.

To join the ‘some of my friends are black’ brigade, let me BOLDLY state that half of my friends are Jewish – some culturally, others culturally and religiously. Amongst them, there are some who are Pro-Palestine, some Pro- Israel, others support a two state solution and some want one country where the majority rules, with rights for minorities. It is an eclectic mix of educated friends with different ideological gravitations. We can live together, share meals together, create memories, and still disagree without assuming that those who hold a different view are fools.

You will remember former Constitutional Court Judge Richard Goldstone who chaired a UN report that accused Israel of war crimes in Gaza? He was barred from attending the synagogue service for his grandson’s bar mitzvah? He was eventually allowed to attend but the fact that some decided they were arbiters of what could and could not be said about Israel and even go as far as dividing families, was instructive. It showed that to have legitimacy and acceptance, only a pro-Israel stance would be allowed.

I have criticised the actions of Hamas and Hezbollah. I have spoken out against knife and rocket attacks and when that happens, I receive ‘Redi for president’. But as soon as I criticise Israel, I am an ignorant anti-Semite. Respectfully, I can live with this title.

- Redi Tlhabi is a journalist, producer, presenter and author.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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