David Saks

Students Vilified for Israel Trip


What’s immoral about inviting young people to come and see Israel for themselves?
Shortly after their return from an investigative visit to Israel, ANC-affiliated members of the touring student group were subjected to an extraordinary diatribe by Obed Bapela, chairman of the ANC’s International Relations Committee. The ANC, warned Bapela, would ‘summon’ the students, who had taken part in what he called a “campaign by Israel to distort our stand on Palestine”. Anyone from the ANC who visited Israel, he added, would bring the ANC into ‘disrepute’. The SA Student Congress (SASCO) reacted similarly, announcing that it had suspended five of its members pending a disciplinary hearing.###bbb###From a principle point of view, Bapela’s attitude is also difficult to understand. It is a reality that Israel is continually being accused of every manner of human rights violation, including that it is an apartheid state. Is there something intrinsically immoral about its advocates saying, “This is simply not true – why not come and see Israel for yourselves?” And are people who take up that invitation, without in any way being expected to endorse the views of the sponsors on their return, really guilty of ‘selling out’ and betraying their party’s principles?

Whether those who went on the trip had their original views of Israel softened, hardened or simply confirmed is, in the context of this discussion, irrelevant. At issue is the growing campaign, both within and without the ruling party, to prevent South Africans from being exposed to the Israeli perspective at all. This was very evident in the weeks leading up to the visit, when participants were subjected to continual threats, intimidation and insults; several reported even being offered financial incentives if they were to withdraw. Given these pressures, it is remarkable that the trip was able to go ahead in the end.Why, in fact, do hard-line anti-Israel groupings like BDS-SA and their supporters within the ruling party campaign so strenuously – to the point of resorting to blatant bully-boy tactics – to prevent any constructive debate from taking place on the Israel-Palestine question? After all, if Israel is indeed an apartheid state, then it would be impossible to conceal that reality, regardless of what window-dressing tactics its advocates might resort to. 

The young student leaders brought out on the trip were not fools, nor were their views on Israel particularly favourable – indeed, the opposite was generally the case. Surely, if what the Israel boycotters say is true a first-hand visit to the country, one involving extensive engagement with a wide range of Israelis and Palestinians, would inevitably confirm that reality? It is not even as if the itinerary was tailored to present pro-Israel voices only. Some of those the participants met with were highly critical of aspects of Israeli policy, and at least one (a Jewish Israeli) was an open advocate of boycotts against Israel.

All this begs the obvious question: If Obed Bapela, SASCO, BDS-SA and others of their ilk are so certain that their understanding of the Israel-Palestine question is the correct one, then why are they so anxious to prevent their constituents from becoming acquainted with a contrary narrative? Are they, in fact, afraid that people will come to the ‘wrong’ conclusions if confronted with information that contradicts their interpretation? As things stand, what they seem to be saying is, “This is what we expect you to believe, and if you even listen to those who try to tell you otherwise, you will be punished”. Such tactics call to mind the ideological conformity so ruthlessly imposed by, amongst other totalitarian governments, the former Soviet Union and, yes, even the old National Party regime in South Africa. It will be recalled how the latter went to every length to prevent South Africans from traveling to Lusaka to meet with the exiled ANC leadership, and hear what they had to say about their visions for a future, post-apartheid society.

A common feature of totalitarian regimes is that the ruling elite does not trust the greater public to think for itself and hence, through parallel strategies of indoctrination and censorship, ensures that ‘dangerous’ ideological deviations are suppressed (or at least marginalised). South Africa, however, is not a totalitarian state, but a constitutional democracy that, at least theoretically, protects and values the right to freedom of belief, enquiry and expression. Regardless of what their views on the Middle East question might be, therefore, South Africans should be extremely concerned about the latest developments, which constitute a serious attack by elements of the ruling party on fundamental principles of democracy in this country.

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