ADAM MENDELSOHN: The SA government uses the language of a no-state solution
Jews fear Pretoria speaks of a two-state solution but really prefers Israel not to exist
Carpet bombing, ethnic cleansing, genocide. Local politicians, pundits and government officials in SA have not held back in condemning Israel’s actions in Gaza. Lost amid this violent language is what seems like an innocuous phrase but is even greater import: 75 years of occupation.
President Cyril Ramaphosa was recently quoted as saying that “the Palestinians have been under occupation for 75 years”, and has offered several variations on this claim. This language was also used by Alvin Botes, writing as deputy international relations & co-operation minister. Many others now routinely use this language too.
Few dispute that Israel has occupied the West Bank and Golan Heights since it captured them in the Six-Day War of 1967. (It left Gaza in 2005.) Yet the language of the 75-year occupation refers not to 1967 but to 1948, the year in which Israel fought its way into existence.
The 1949 borders of Israel — known as the Green Line — are the borders of Israel proper. These are no different from the borders of other states that were drawn or significantly redrawn in the period after World War 2. Germany, Poland, Ukraine, India, Pakistan and many other states exist within borders that were settled after wrenching war or mass population movements. These borders are recognised by the UN and are a bedrock of our current world order.
One of the reasons Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine caused such angst in Europe was that it threatened to open a Pandora’s box. If Vladimir Putin could disavow Ukraine’s borders, why should any other border be sacrosanct?
This is not an idle issue. After all, Western Ukraine was eastern Poland before World War 2. Western Poland, and all the cities and towns in it, were in Germany. What would happen if Germans expelled from Breslau sought to reclaim Wroclaw? Or if Poles wanted Lviv back?
Talk of a 75-year occupation is not dissimilar to Putin’s questioning of Ukraine’s existence as a sovereign state: it suggests that Israel itself is illegitimate. It infers that Israel has a dubious claim to the land within its original borders and that it exists as an occupying force within this territory. And it implies support for a no-state solution — that Israel should cease to exist.
SA is now applying the language of post-1967 occupation to Israel proper. This is the sloganeering of Hamas and Iran, and totally at odds with SA’s own stated support for the “two-state solution”.
The latter is premised on the creation of a Palestinian state in territories occupied by Israel in 1967 and the removal of settlements built within the occupied territories, not on questioning whether Israel has the right to its original borders. Among other things, the use of such language undermines SA’s credibility as a potential mediator. Why would Israel trust a government that seems to dispute its existence?
By using the language of 75 years of occupation our government also affronts much of the SA Jewish community. This community has a deep sense of attachment to Israel and to Zionism. Scholars have long suggested that Zionism has been the civil religion of SA Jews, in some ways more important than Judaism as the glue that has kept the community together.
This was confirmed in the most recent national survey of the Jewish population of SA: 90% of all Jews reported feeling at least moderately attached to Israel; two-thirds described this attachment as strong. About 69% of Jews defined themselves as Zionists; only 18% did not.
What do they mean when they describe themselves as Zionists? They support the idea that Jews should have a state of their own. Contrary to the many caricatured claims — malicious, ignorant and often both — about Zionism, few Zionists want or expect this state to be exclusive and exclusionary. Zionists are as inclined to be critical of Israel’s government as anyone else — indeed are often fiercely so — and hold a range of political views that span the spectrum from right to left.
Many support the creation of a Palestinian state and worry about the rights of Arabs in Israel and Palestinians in the occupied territories. Many are upset about the war in Gaza and some have demanded a ceasefire. Whatever their views, SA Jews are not representatives of Israel or of its policies. They are South Africans who happen to support the idea of a Jewish state and should be free to express this as they see fit.
Given the breadth and depth of their attachment to Israel, SA Jews are closely attuned to how the SA government has responded to Hamas’s attack on civilians within the original borders of Israel, and to Israel’s invasion of Gaza. They have noticed how the government now uses the language of a 75-year occupation. Most interpret this as a direct assault on a basic belief they hold dear: that Israel is entitled to exist within its original borders, no different from any other state.
They sense that the government mouths words about two states but prefers a no-state solution. They feel Zionism has been turned into a term of hate, and that this has provided cover for saying outrageous things about Israel and sometimes about Jews. And they are acutely conscious of the government’s silence in response to local agitators who use inflammatory language against Zionists and Zionism. Since most Jews are Zionists, they interpret this as a call for action against themselves and against Jewish institutions.
They understand the implications of talk of a 75-year occupation. Despite all the official talk of supporting a two-state solution, they fear the president of SA and his government understand the implications of using this language too. And this terrifies them.
• Prof Mendelsohn is director of the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Cape Town.