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 UnitedWithIsrael.org:
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.