In light of week four’s Palestinian Awareness Week, in which Students for Justice in Palestine set up their annual “Apartheid Wall” comparing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to South African apartheid, Students Supporting Israel (SSI) teamed up with StandWIthUs on Feb. 4 for their event “Let’s talk about Apartheid,” which examined the definition of apartheid in relation to Israeli policy. Two black South African student leaders were invited to speak about their personal experiences as South Africans who have visited Israel.
SSI President Liat Menna hoped that this event would not only allow students to understand what effect words like “apartheid” have on certain communities, but in addition, that “it is important we make an effort to listen to other people’s stories, and not politicize anyone’s identity,” she said.
The lecture opened with a brief introduction from Natan Pollack, a Jewish member of the South Africa-Israel Forum and an alumnus of the University of Johannesburg. The purpose of the event, Pollack said, was to change the conversation on campus concerning BDS and apartheid at a time when Israel has been facing severe accusations globally.
First of the guests to speak was University of Capetown student Kanyisa “Baz” Pnini, who began her speech with a tongue-twister native to the Xhosa tribe, which is also the tribe Nelson Mandela belonged to. Pnini defined apartheid as “a legal system in South Africa implemented by the minority rights group which sanctioned the rights of black Africans.” Under apartheid, black education was limited to the eighth grade, black doctors could not operate on white patients and white Africans would not take orders from blacks. These were just a few of the ways the black majority were subjected to the racist rule of a white minority.
Apartheid in South Africa ended in 1994, the same year Pnini was born, and was replaced by democracy. Twenty-one years later, Pnini reflected on how the meticulous system of oppression still trickles into everyday life. Black South Africans still struggle to receive the same access to food and education as whites.
This struggle, however, is not analogous to the situation in Israel. As a student activist, Pnini witnessed this firsthand when she visited Israel last year in order to find out more about the BDS movement, which has made substantial traction as one of the largest groups among black South African college students by employing sympathetic tactics which compare the black apartheid struggle to the Palestinian narrative.
Recalling her visit to the state of Israel in 2015, Pnini said, “I remember seeing a white man walking side-by-side with a black woman. Prior to 1994, this was not allowed in South Africa.”
Pnini cited more examples of the false stock comparisons between Israel and South African apartheid, noting that while all citizens of Israel can move freely, own property and vote regardless of race or religion, this was not the case in South Africa.
Next of the two speakers was Zambian-born Jamie Mithi, who initially had no interest in the Israel/Palestine conflict. As a once-homeless med school dropout, Mithi joined a debate team in order to stay close to education while he did not have the money to pursue it on his own. Knowing close to nothing about the conflict, Mithi would often lose debates centered around that subject. He then made it a priority to educate himself about the conflict by speaking with both Jewish and Palestinian communities, but while the Jewish communities he approached were open to discussion, he noticed that the Palestinians refused to engage in dialogue about the topic.
Mithi paid this observation no mind until he attended a university piano recital featuring a Jewish musician and anti-Zionist students interrupted the performance in protest simply on the basis of the pianist’s religion. Mithi deemed the outburst an infringement on the pianist’s freedom of association, and from then on he vowed to take a stand against this type of polarizing injustice.
He admitted that, “no one [himself included] knew anything” about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and positions of hate had often been taken from insufficient information they read online. When Mithi had the opportunity to go to Israel last year, he accepted it as a major step in his effort of self-education. As an initially neutral party with no inherent ties to Israel, he became a target of hate among students by taking a stand for Zionism.
“The State of Israel is a democratic state, and all citizens have equal rights,” he said. “Under apartheid,” he continued, “if you were black, there were certain things you could not do.” He brought up discriminatory pieces of African legislation which included the Mixed Marriage Act, Immorality Act, and property acts, all of which barred blacks from opportunities which were open to whites. On the other hand, he stressed, “Israeli citizens have equal rights; there’s no distinction of citizens.”
Speaking as someone with a legal background, Mithi pointed to the problem of ad hominem attacks, or attacks against people, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He stated three consequences of these types of attacks: first, that it does not lead to good will between people in negotiations. Second, that ad hominem attacks in the hands of extremists can lead to illegitimate tactics and a loss of logical morality. “Most people are not extremists, but there are enough extremists to ruin negotiations,” he emphasized. Lastly, ad hominems force people to take sides, creating “team Israel/Palestine” instead of “team peace.” Both sides, Mithi held, are incomplete.
During the question-and-answer portion of the evening, Pnini spoke more about the issue of BDS on college campuses in an explanation that sounded familiar to the experience of American college students. “[The BDS movement] constantly spews rhetoric to blacks. A large number of black people don’t have access to education. BDS often plays on the poverty and hunger of South Africans. The poverty and ignorance of the population of South Africa is exploited by the movement,” she shared. Mithi had strong feelings about the BDS movement as well, saying that the organization exists just to exist rather than to advance peace.
Pollack said that in his outreach to South African students, he also faced supporters of BDS who were opposed to peaceful debate. A BDS supporter and member of the African National Congress Youth League once called Pollack a “filthy, Jewish, Zionist pig” before spitting on the ground at his feet. This rhetoric was blatantly anti-Semitic, not just anti-Israel.
Mithi suggested that in order to promote peace between both sides of the conflict, our societies must foster an environment conducive to open discourse and debate. Noting the attendance of about 20 at the event, he said, “observing this room…this would be a non-event because there are not enough people to start a conversation. If there are no people in the room the message doesn’t get out.” He also recommended that students should start conversations with the uninformed population rather than those already taking a hard stance on the issue. Furthermore, he said, “You shouldn’t be afraid to take a position, because the other side isn’t afraid to take a position.”
Pnini added that “students in general are quite apathetic about issues,” and that the reason for people not wanting to engage may come from place of hurt or simply not understanding the other side.
Mithi argued that “people who think critically are the least-inclined to be swayed by rhetoric.” He continued with the proposal for “a community of Obamas rather than a community of deciders,” referring to President Obama’s notoriety for taking his time in making important decisions.
When asked how they might suggest black students in America to resist the rhetoric of uninformed bias, Pnini replied that black philosophy teaches the community to stand for themselves and build themselves as a people. In an ironic twist, she compared the white settlers of South Africa to BDS supporters, saying that these groups “are also stealing our narrative just as [the white settlers] have stolen our resources.”
Mithi, on the other hand, opted to place the burden of responsibility from the black community itself, to those appealing to the black community, stating that pro-Israel representatives, for example, must build relationships with the black community just as those in the BDS movement have already done.
Mithi makes a fair point. If Zionists on campus want communities such as the black community to hear them out, they must make the effort to offer help and engagement, and this type of trust does not simply appear overnight. In the words of Mithi, “it takes time to build street cred, even for Obama.”