OPINION | South Africans supporting the boycott Israel movement are on the wrong side of change

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The world is changing fast, and South Africans supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel are finding themselves on the wrong side of such change, writes Charisse Zeifert.

I am one of the more than 1.1 million YouTube viewers who downloaded the song Ahlan Bik by Israeli singer Elkana Marziano and United Arab Emirates artist Walid Aljasim. It may, as one critic claimed, be a bit on the "cheesy" side, but nonetheless I watched it in its entirety, smiling throughout. 

Ahlan Bik is Arabic for Hello You. Two performers, one in Tel Aviv, the other in Dubai. The chorus, "I hear you friend far away, far away", is in three languages – Arabic, Hebrew and English. The song is an expression of joy resulting from the Abraham Accord, a normalisation agreement signed between the UAE, Bahrain and Israel.

It was the simplicity of the message that appealed to me. The song made me think of children on the playground who were told they were not allowed to play together, and then were able to do so.  It even made me think that this is what could have been had Romeo and Juliet been allowed to be lovers. The song showed that "A happy-ever-after" ending is possible. For once, the powers that be have acted in the best interests of the people, not themselves.

Both singers beam with happiness and their joy also reminded me of the importance of the response of "ordinary people" to peace. While the media described the accord in academic terms – its "hows" and "whys" - Ahlan Bik highlights the goodwill of ordinary Israel and UAE citizens who are affected by it. The song has a child-like quality in the way that the singers respond to the lifting of the artificial separation that was imposed on people. They show that "making friends" with the enemy is not only possible but desirable. This was the first musical collaboration between the UAE and Israel. There will surely be more.

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But something else struck me about this song. It highlighted the shared heritage of the peoples of the Middle East, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim. Marziano is an Arabic-speaking Jew much influenced by the Mizrahi culture of Jews from the Arab world. The music has a distinct Arabic feel. While little discussed, the effective expulsion of some 850 000 Jews from Arab Muslim countries from 1948 to the early 1970s has left its mark on the victims and their descendants, so the psychological impact of their ability to return to an Arab-speaking country is enormous.

Rabbi Dr Elie Abadie was himself a Jewish refugee who left the Middle East as a young boy. Soon, he will be taking up the position of senior rabbi in residence of the Jewish Council of the Emirates, representing the local Jewish community. The UAE's The National newspaper quotes him as saying: "I feel like I'm coming home to my roots, to the region where I was born, to the language that I first spoke, and to the beautiful traditions and customs with which I grew up."

This desire by people for peace and further cooperation is borne out by a recent survey (conducted by James Zogby, founder of Zogby Research Services and president of the Arab American Institute) showing that 7 in 10 people in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Jordan support the agreement and believe normalisation is coming, despite what Iran and Palestinian leaders do to resist peace with the Jewish state. More Arab countries are touted to develop ties with Israel and there is increasing talk of Saudi Arabia being one of them. Should this happen, pundits believe it will open the floodgates in the region for full normalisation.

The world is changing fast, and some South Africans are finding themselves on the wrong side of such change. Take, for example, the usual suspects of BDS and their fellow travellers currently threatening the Free State University for its ties to an Israeli institution. For the past three years, the FSU and Israel's Haifa University have engaged in a framework for academic collaboration, in the form of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). Recent collaborations have included seminars focusing on water security and trans-boundary water management from the perspective of the Middle East and the SADC – clearly a topic that is relevant and important to South Africa and its neighbours.

However, a webinar jointly hosted by the two institutions on the changing dynamics of Middle Eastern geo-politics held on 14 October has roused the displeasure of those ideologically opposed to any contacts with Israel regardless of what benefits might flow from this. They include BDS-aligned Cosatu and Nehawu, who have since come out calling for the cancellation of the MOU. Should they not get their way, they have threatened to picket at the university and mobilise against the agreement.

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For this agreement to be severed, particularly at a time when the world at large, including a former foe, is increasingly moving to formalise ties with Israel, makes no sense. Further than that, as my organisation has repeatedly pointed out, singling out Israel alone for an academic boycott is discriminatory, that such calls are predicated on a distorted, highly propagandist interpretation of the Israel-Palestine issue and that academic boycotts themselves are fundamentally objectionable to the ideals of the university as a space for the free expression and exchange of ideas.

In a changing global environment, not only are the views of the BDS movement out of sync with what is happening, but their true colours and motivation for their anti-Israel feelings are becoming increasingly obvious. If they truly desire to see a Palestinian state established (as do all peace-loving people), its acolytes surely should support peaceful engagement between the parties aimed at achieving that outcome? That their strategy is to shut down any such engagement, by threats and intimidation if necessary, shows that their real motivation is not sympathy for the Palestinians but hatred for the Jewish State and a desire to boycott that state out of existence. That shows them not only to be intellectual frauds, but bigots as well.  

"I hear you friend far away, far away..." May the chorus of the song Ahlan Bik one day be a reality for all peoples of the Middle East, Israelis and Palestinians included.

- Charisse Zeifert is the head of communications at the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.

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