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February 8, 2016 4:30 pm

Israel and the Apartheid Narrative: 2 South African Student Leaders Weigh In

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South African student leader Jamie Mithi speaks Feb. 4 at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) about the anti-Israel comparison of the Jewish state to apartheid-era South Africa. Photo: Courtesy StandWithUs.

South African student leader Jamie Mithi speaks Feb. 4 at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) about the anti-Israel comparison of the Jewish state to apartheid-era South Africa. Photo: Courtesy StandWithUs. – About two-dozen people file into Dodd 175 at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) campus on a Thursday night, scouting out seats and picking at the kosher pizza in the back of the lecture hall.

Miyelani Pinini knows the drill. A former student president of the University of Cape Town in South Africa, she’s attended and even organized her share of free-pizza events.

But now she and a fellow South African student leader were the stars of this one, brought to campus by StandWithUs, a pro-Israel education and advocacy organization, and Students Supporting Israel, a national network of pro-Israel campus groups.

Having traveled to Israel and the West Bank on the inaugural trip for the South Africa-Israel Forum (SAIF) in January 2015, she and law student Jamie Mithi undertook a whirlwind southern California speaking tour, weighing comparisons between Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and the South African apartheid regime.

“Our apartheid narrative is literally being stolen right under our feet just as our resources have,” Pinini told the lecture hall at UCLA on Feb. 4.

Having ridden the tides of campus politics — she was removed as the university’s student president, in part because of her Israel trip — she’s well versed in a political landscape where pro-Palestinian students build solidarity with South Africa’s black majority, winning by default on a playing field where opposing Israel is the norm. She views the connection as illicit.

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is well-traversed territory at American colleges, with pro-Palestinian students seeking to cut ties with companies doing business in Israel and pro-Israel students loudly objecting.

On American campuses, despite increased anti-Israel and antisemitic incidents in recent years, the chips often stack in favor of pro-Israel students, in part because many universities — including the 10-campus University of California system — defer questions about whether and when to divest to the State Department, which stands by Israel despite periodic policy disagreements.

In South Africa, the tables are turned. The ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), accepts BDS as a plank in its platform. There, BDS is government policy.

Natan Pollack, formerly the leader of the South African Union of Jewish Students and director of program development for SAIF, has been at the brunt of that policy.

Accompanying Mithi and Pinini at UCLA, he recalled an official from the ANC youth organization spitting on the ground in front of him and telling him, “effing Jew, bloody kyke, your people are taking over the Middle East, your people are taking over South Africa.”

Many members of the South African student leadership are both anti-Zionist and antisemitic, Pollack said.

But it was the non-Jewish students whose stories were on display that during the lecture and Q&A organized on the student end by Liat Menna, a campus Emerson Fellow for StandWithUs and as of last year the founder of UCLA’s chapter of Students Supporting Israel.

The speakers stood in front of a black board scrawled with the words, “Let’s talk about APARTHEID!!!” Both Pinini and Mithi spoke personally on that topic, having come into contact with the ghosts of South Africa’s racist regime.

For Pinini, one tangible connection is her mother, who after earning a medical degree outside of the country returned to find that her doctorate was treated as sub-equal.

“She wasn’t allowed to operate on white people’s bodies even though she could save their lives,” she said.

Pinini didn’t know much about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but discussions of divestment and boycott resolutions on her campus led her to take the free trip to Israel.

Watching people of different races mixing in the streets there, she saw a picture she couldn’t reconcile with what she knew about her country’s history.

“Something clicked in the back of my mind and I said, ‘You know prior to 1994 this was not allowed in South Africa,’” she said. “Black people were not allowed to walk side-by-side with white people.”

Mithi likewise came at the conflict sideways, deciding it would be beneficial to him as a debater (he ranked number one for Africa in the World Universities Public Speaking Championships) to read up.

Originally, the topic was not his strong suit.

“I always used to lose those debates,” he said. “Like consistently I would rank fourth in any debate that had to do with Israel and Palestine.”

He approached students from both sides of the divide to learn more and propose a debate on the issue. He found pro-Israel students ready to participate while pro-Palestinian students told him, “We won’t have that debate.”

A few years later, he was taken aback when students aligned with the BDS movement disrupted a piano recital on his campus, the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, because it was hosted by a Jewish organization.

He decided to take a stand against the impingement of free speech and breakdown of decorum.

“What people immediately assumed is that I’m pro-Israel and anti-Palestine, but I wasn’t even talking about that issue,” he said.

Pithi is a steadfast student of, “‘I want to hear the other side’ type thinking,” insisting that his most common response when asked for an opinion is, “I don’t know enough.”

He believes it difficult to question Israel’s right to exist. More generally, he views the Israeli position as defensible, even when he doesn’t go out of his way to defend it.

One thing of which he is certain: “An ad hominem attack does not lead to goodwill.”

Pithi’s main critique of the BDS movement is not the substance of the argument, but its form, believing that pro-Palestinian students are poisoning the well for productive and educational dialogue by attacking their opponents personally.

But beyond the rhetoric, he sees a practical difficulty in breaking ties with Israel. Traveling in the Negev, he saw firsthand how Israeli farmers have made the desert bloom.

“Africa has a lot of issues around food security, around water provision, and I was like, ‘We need to hook up with Israel, what’s the hold up?’” he said.

“I was like, ‘These are some skills that my people need,’ and I personally, just from an economic perspective, I wouldn’t boycott Israel, because I need some stuff that’s there. From a selfish motivation angle, I would refuse to boycott.”

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  • Ron Jontof-Hutter

    The Israel apartheid lie has taken root in Europe, where advocates like Tutu are warmly welcomed by political and church officials. Journalists who question the apartheid lie, are subjected to bullying and other threats. See my article” Apartheid Israel et tu Tutu?”

  • GOLUM…

    …”he recalled an official from the ANC youth organization spitting on the ground in front of him and telling him, “effing Jew, bloody kyke, your people are taking over the Middle East, your people are taking over South Africa.”
    Interesting how it’s the “JEWS” and NOT the Israelis that are soooooo hated???…..
    AND What the HELL would the Jews/Israelis want with South Africa and/or the entire Middle East????
    What are these so called college students (slime balls) learning in school…..and why isn’t there any rational thoughts coming out of their mouths???

    • Normanx

      South Africa used to be prosperous under white rule, now crimes committed by blacks against blacks sets the country backwards. Hate would never yield good result.

      • Hillmax

        At the termination of white rule in South Africa, the Rand was worth about $1.45 Today, you can buy Rands at between 12 and 15 cents each. That tells you how competent or incompetent the current government is. South Africa needs Israel as well as other advanced states, i.e., U.S.A., United Kingdom, etc. and modern technology to beef up it’s economy.

  • not good with south African students.

  • Ron Blower

    “…(Pithi) believing that pro-Palestinian students are poisoning the well for productive and educational dialogue by attacking their opponents personally.”

    Well, they can’t do it on the facts!! Without, rhetoric, ad hominem and personal attacks (ALL justifying rape and murderous attacks on women, children, babies… even the unborn) their whole religious/political facade falls to the ground, in view of everyone… including fellow Muslims.

  • Mike Chevers

    Hi Myelani Pinini,
    Very interesting article of you and Mr Pithi standing up for Israel and speaking out against the logic of BDS. I commend you for your stands and views.
    Anti Israel and pro BDS protagonists are so often absolutely ignorant of the realities of the situation. While many ignorantly support BDS, they fail to realize (or maybe just dont know) that many Palestinians earn their livelihood from Israel, and could be seriously disdavantaged by the BDS campaign.
    Interesting point you made about black people not being allowed to walk with white people in the pre 1994 South Africa. This is a great contrast to what is happening in Israel today where all can mix freely together, even though the current knife and other interfadas make it rather dangerous and many lives have been lost by this senseless hatred. This incidentally is another stark dis-similarity between Israel and the pre 1994 apartheid South Africa.
    I think people are like sheep sometimes. They follow without knowing the facts or even taking the trouble to find out what the realities of the situation are.
    I am a UCT graduate and have been to Israel several times and have friends on both sides of the divide. I would appreciate a response and also the opportunity of meeting with you one day.

  • A well-reasoned look at how to tackle BDS from a “Let’s take a look @ both sides of the argument” variety. The above author thinks for himself and comes to his own conclusions, himself.

  • Thank you South African students. We so seldom hear such honest voices.

  • stevenl

    Palestinians only and exclusive goal is self and others -destruction.
    Israel goal is construction with anyone of good will.
    Sub-equatorial Africa has NEVER had ANY benefit from any alliance with any Muslim country.
    Their stupidity is baffling! They are not interested in improving the condition of their respective people!

  • Peter Joffe

    The ANC has bankrupted South Africa with corruption and their policies are blatantly racist and anti white. South Africa is on the brink of collapse as another African Failed State. Who ever heard of a successful black state in Africa. I the people with the know how and experience are ‘aparthated’ the country is doomed. Anything white in South Africa is hated and has to be ‘reformed’. IN other words any thing and everything that once worked has to be Africanised or destroyed. Talk about burning down your own pantry!! Its is better to starve to death than to eat food produced by white farmers and that is why they are being murdered or leaving for lands that need food.

  • The double standards of these Moslems is unbelievable. They should be boycotting the liar Obama who has murderers innocent children with his drones, in Pakistan Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Yemen.

    • Linda Golden

      Mervyn Caplan…..are you for real? Drones in Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan , Libya and Yemen, have saved others from being terrorized at the hands of these “innocents”. No one wants to hurt children, including our President. Double standards of Moslems? What are you talking about? The terrorists in the countries you have mentioned, of which there are many, would not hesitate to kill you , your children or any other Westerner. Put your outrage where it is deserved, The countries you feel so sorry for, enslave their own people, suppress human rights, kill homosexuals, discriminate against women , traffic in child marriage , are not particularly deserving of sympathy. You are the one with the double standards.

    • SteveHC

      I sincerely hope you have, in retrospect, come to the realization that your post makes no sense and appears to be unrelated to the article.

  • Denise Rootenberg

    I lived in South Africa during apartheid and agree – it is an insult to South African blacks who lived during that time to compare it with the Arabs’ situation. The blacks had no opportunity to advance, get a proper education, get jobs etc. Many got beaten up or killed for doing nothing. They would have been ecstatic to have the opportunities and money that have been thrown at the Palestinians. If the Palestinians would stop feeling sorry for themselves and take a lesson from the Israelis, they too could be a start-up nation, successful farmers etc.

    • Michael Levy

      The Palestinians do not feel sorry for themselves, They just hate the Jews and Israel and would like to annihilate Israel and kill all Jews no matter where the Jews are