Monthly Archives: May 2013

At some point next week, I’m going to publish the first of what will probably be two or three posts about the limits of political discourse about “solutions” to “the conflict” and suggesting some ways to move beyond these limits in an effort to advance more detailed and realistic plans of action.

But I recently received a stark reminder of just how limited any talk about macro-politics necessarily is. I was on a walk with my wife in the beautiful Wadi Qelt in the Occupied West Bank. We were trying to have a normal, romantic day in which we disconnect from the daily racism and creeping fascism that mark life in Jerusalem. Unfortunately, we were not so successful.

While walking back up the very steep mountain to where we parked the car, a Jewish couple driving down into the valley pulled up along side of us:

Them: How is it?

Us: Very nice.

Them: Are there a lot of people down there today?

Us: Nope. There aren’t many people at all today.

Them: I mean, are there a lot of Arabs?

Us: Goodbye, racists.

We left without explaining that there were any number of Palestinian Arabs in the valley, including those who live at or work at St. George’s monastery, shepherds, and several houses inhabited by families.

What is one to do with a place where that sort of conversation is normal? How is one to deal with people who are not only racists themselves, but assume that any stranger they encounter on the street must likewise be a racist?

Come what may after apartheid ends, these people will remain. And, if other post-conflict scenarios are any guide, they will likely maintain at the very least economic, if not political, power. Do we just wait for them to die out and hope that the next generation is better? Do we make all of them go through massive anti-racism training as part of a transitional justice program? Or do we just have faith that, unlike many other places, this time the racists will disappear once the institutions that spawn them are overcome?

In some way these questions need to be tabled, as the political ones are clearly the most pressing at the moment. But, even as the grueling work must be done towards changing an unbearable and unjust political situation in Palestine-Israel, we shouldn’t forget that these sorts of social issues will in some ways be even harder to overcome.


Over the weekend, I saw a number of Israel-apologist on Facebook circulating the following story, whose logic is so powerful it could’ve come directly from the Colbert Report. According to

South African MP Rev. Dr. Kenneth Meshoe wrote in the San Francisco Examiner, “As a black South African who lived under apartheid, this system was implemented in South Africa to subjugate people of color and deny them a variety of their rights. In my view, Israel cannot be compared to apartheid in South Africa. Those who make the accusation expose their ignorance of what apartheid really is.” Meshoe made this statement upon visiting San Francisco, where he was shocked to learn of posters posted within the city comparing Israel to the apartheid regime in South Africa.

The article makes it sound as though your average Joe Southafrican wandered out of his hotel on a vacation to San Francisco and stumbled upon a group of rowdy Palestine solidarity activists and just couldn’t contain his outrage.

Who Is Rev. Dr. Kenneth Meshoe?

In fact, the good Rev. Dr. Meshoe is the founder of the Africa Christian Democratic Party, a conservative Christian Zionist party which currently holds three seats out of 400 in the South African National Assembly. His party is strongly pro-life to the point where they oppose the distribution of condoms and voted against the South African Constitution because it enshrined both abortion rights and contained anti-sexual orientation discrimination provisions. In short, Rev. Dr. Meshoe does not represent the mainstream South Africa political opinion.

Nor was this Rev. Dr. Meshoe’s first foray into Zionist speechmaking. In fact, Rev. Dr. Meshoe is one of South Africa’s leading Zionist activists and a frequent speaker in support of Israel in both his native country and in the United States. He is also one of the founders of “Africans for Israel,” an organization whose stated goal is to “stop attempts to crush Israel.”

Like Rev. Dr. Meshoe’s views on social issues, his views on Palestine and Israel are outside of the South African mainstream. Which is why South Africa’s ruling African National Congress party has been at the forefront of efforts to label goods made in Israeli settlement-colonies beyond the Green Line.

Of course, the mere fact that Rev. Dr. Meshoe’s views are not popular within his country should not invalidate his opinions. But is does raise some serious questions about UnitedWithIsrael’s representation of his op-ed.

Hasbara Through Tokinism

Why is there an attempt to portray Rev. Dr. Menshow as though he were speaking from the mainstream? Why are Israel apologists circulating this article with such glee? And why has this particular article gone viral? (At the time of this writing 3,695 Facebook users have shared the story, according to the counter UnitedWithIsrael’s the website).

The answer, of course, is obvious. They choose to highlight Rev. Dr. Meshoe only because he is a black South African. This is tokenism of the worst sort.

Rev. Dr. Meshoe’s actual arguments are not important to UnitedWithIsrael. Which is why they only highlight his personal background. When they do approach his own arguments about Israel, the blog rephrases Rev. Dr. Meshoe’s arguments in its own voice, rather than follow through the logic he lays out in his op-ed. Whereas the original op-ed proceeds to focus on areas of life within Israel’s 1948 borders where Jews and non-Jews share physical proximity, UnitedWithIsrael felt that the focus should have been on (misrepresented) legal protections. And so, they ignore the original explanation offered by the author in favor of their own interpretations of what he should have said. Rev. Dr. Meshoe’s opinions – his actual analysis – is not important to them.

In effect, UnitedWithIsrael is placing a black South African front and center not because they think he actually has something relevant to say, but only because his racial and national background make him a convenient face for advancing their own narrow opinions. Hence the reason Rev. Dr. Meshoe’s written argument is minimized in favor of their own. This also explains why none of the people I saw share this article on Facebook  discuss, quote, or even reference Rev. Dr. Meshoe’s substantive arguments. I would guess that the vast majority of the other 3,500 some-odd Facebook shares similarly don’t care about the content of Rev. Dr. Meshoe’s op-ed.

Frankly, the Rev. Dr. deserves better. He deserved to be read and thought about critically, not just paraded around due to the color of his skin and his passport. And so, I now will do something that UnitedWithIsrael apparently has no interest in doing: engage with Rev. Dr. Meshoe’s argument.

Rev. Dr. Meshoe: In His Own Words

The core of Rev. Dr. Meshoe’s argument against comparing Israel’s policies to those of apartheid South Africa boil down to a series of claims about what life in Palestine and Israel is like for non-Jews who live under Israeli sovereignty:

As a black South African under apartheid, I, among other things, could not vote, nor could I freely travel the landscape of South Africa. No person of color could hold high government office. The races were strictly segregated at sports arenas, public restrooms, schools and on public transportation. People of color had inferior hospitals, medical care and education. If a white doctor was willing to take a black patient, he had to examine him or her in a back room or some other hidden place. In my numerous visits to Israel, I did not see any of the above. My understanding of the Israeli legal system is that equal rights are enshrined in law.

These claims (like many other smaller claims made in the article) range from contestable to flat out wrong. The 4.5 million Palestinians living under Israeli Occupation in Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip cannot vote for their rulers (at least not beyond their municipal government). Nor can they freely travel the landscape of Palestine-Israel. Even Leftist parties refuse to sit in government with the so-called “Arab Parties” in the Kenesset, effectively barring Palestinian Citizens of Israel from holding high government office. Sports arenas feature some of the most vile and violent racism anywhere in Israel, and that is some high competition. Israel features segregated busses on both sides of the Green Line, not to mention on roads within the West Bank. And health services in the West Bank are disastrous, in large part thanks to the Israeli Occupation, while in Gaza repeated Israeli attacks on basic infrastructure have meant that doctors must regularly work without electricity and clean water, let alone basic medical supplies. Finally, as Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel repeatedly points out, even among the subset of Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship, the law does not enshrine equal rights for all of its citizens, but rather encodes legal discrimination in all areas of life. And , of course, Palestinians living under Occupation live under a separate system of martial law.

Rev. Dr. Meshoe may not have seen any of this discrimination on his trip through the Holy Land, but it exists. If these are the criteria that he lays out by which to judge Israel, then I think it is pretty clear that Israel meets Rev. Dr. Meshoe’s definition of an apartheid state.

But, of course, the Israel-apologists who have promoted this article could care less about Rev. Dr. Meshoe’s criteria nor the content of his arguments. All they care about is his race and nationality. As such, their own advocacy betrays a deep and worrisome racism that should worry even supporters of the State of Israel. But somehow, I doubt it will.

This week we have one of the most beautiful and straightforward Haftarot of the year from the book of Zachariah. The portion offers one of the clearest condemnation of the particular blend  of militarism, nationalism, and state-driven religion that dominates the government of Israel today.

The prophet Zachariah falls asleep and receives a vision from God of Joshua standing in between Satan (lit: the adversary) and the angel of God. After telling off Satan, God tells Joshua that he shall get to rule over the people of Israel:

So said the Lord of Hosts: If you walk in My ways, and if you keep My charge, you, too, shall judge My house, and you, too, shall guard My courtyards, and I will give you free access among these who stand by.

God proceeds to place a special seven-sided stone in front of Joshua, which in the next chapter (a few verses after the conclusion of the haftarah) it is explained is the cornerstone for the new Temple.

All of the modern elements of religious nationalism are here: political power and religious power stand together, united in the person of Zachariah. However, the Bible specifically warns us against this interpretation, with one of the most famous verses to emerge from the Prophets:

And he answered and spoke to me, saying, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel, saying: ‘Not by military force and not by physical strength, but by My spirit,’ says the Lord of Hosts.

Or, as I learned this verse back when I was doing labor organizing and (ironically) USY: Not by might, and not by power. But by Spirit alone. Shall we all live in peace!

Though to be honest, I actually like the Chabad translation I am quoting from here better as the biblical word for might – חיל – is the same root that the modern Hebrew word for soldier is derived from.

The Bible recognizes that mixing religion and military power in the way that the modern State of Israel has done is a particularly dangerous combination. In this week’s haftarah we are explicitly warned against thinking that a strong military force has any connection whatsoever to Judaism as God wants it practiced.

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