OPINION: No room for nuance in Israel-Palestine debate - just ask Shashi Naidoo

Charisse Zeifert

There is a new war that seems to be erupting from beneath the surface in this country. It is not one that is based on race, religion or ethnicity, nor is it based on our own long and conflict-ridden past.

It is an imported conflict, yet the lines in the ground are clearly drawn. And the lines are as follows: You are either for Israel or against it. No longer is there an opportunity for a nuanced approach. Once, you could support Israel’s right to exist, but not each and every policy. An approach that would serve every single other country in the world. But not Israel. Not anymore.

Now, any expression of support for that country, whether it be simply stating the facts, or expressing a personal opinion on it, is regarded as beyond the pale. And anyone who does so is seen as a legitimate target for the most horrific bullying, including even death threats.

Take television personality and model Shashi Naidoo. This past weekend she wrote, in a series of comments on her Instagram account that with regard to the Israel – Gaza conflict, there were two sides to the story. She then proceeded to state the facts, to come up with the conclusion that Hamas has to take some responsibility for the deaths of Palestinians. There is nothing unreasonable or controversial in this (except the bit about referring to Gaza as a "s****hole").

Yet, the response to her was, frankly, insane. Within minutes she received no fewer than ten death threats. One of her sponsors dropped her, using nothing but the usual hysterical rhetoric. "Her support for Israel shows a total disdain towards the plight of the people of Palestine…" Why?

It is extremely possible and indeed quite common to support both Palestinians and Israelis in what is a seemingly intractable conflict where the leadership fails the people. Most people want to see peace. The sponsor continues: "For her to proclaim to side with Israel shows her total lack of understanding of the situation in Palestine and for me, this is totally unacceptable."

But things got worse for poor Shashi. She posted a tearful apology on Instagram, in which she apologised profusely for her comments, and that is when things got really vicious. The Twitterati came out in their dozens, and with their petty, personal and nasty comments not even warranting repeating. Yet, with all the vitriol, not one dealt with the issues, or engaged with her in a debate. She supported Israel and that was enough to vilify her.

Facts count for little in the Israeli – Palestine conflict. No-one wants to get bogged down by 35 centuries of history – that’s more or less when the connection between the Jewish people and the Holy Land began. Who really has the time, patience or interest to become acquainted with the complex unfolding of events, when Jews, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Christians and eventually Arab Muslims held sway over the territory?

Yet, those same people for whom facts and reality are irrelevant (and annoying), nevertheless refuse to accept any Jewish claim to the land, historical or otherwise. And in order to shut up those that do, they resort to blatant acts of bullying, blackmail and intimidation.

Writing in The Citizen newspaper earlier this month (07/06/18) journalist Simnikiwe Hlatshaneni observed (albeit not on this issue), "It is easy to hide your prejudices behind a virtuous and noble cause - … In the same way that a feminist can use a real struggle to spew hatred and bigotry on social media under the guise of activism, there are people whose 'social justice warrior' personas need closer inspection – and it really isn’t that hard to figure out."

Israel is not a perfect country, and it is (of course) legitimate to criticise its actions. Yet, the falsehoods levelled against it (including hysterical charges of "genocide") and the whipping up of emotions against it, to ensure that those who support it, are legitimate targets for condemnation, is surely problematic.

One does not have to be a supporter of Israel to deplore how extremists on the other side such as the BDS and their ilk are hijacking the conversation with a view to ensuring that their side only is heard. It is something that needs to be condemned across the board, not only as a threat to fundamental democratic freedom, but as an affront to common decency.  

Those who care for Israel in reality have a lot more support than the current hysteria on Instagram would suggest. For all the ugly invective that dominates social media networks, it is not a true reflection of South Africa's views on the Middle East.

One sees this in the thousands of people across the South African spectrum, who have joined in public rallies, in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town. Supporters of Israel will not be silent or silenced, regardless of the threats and vilification that they may be subjected to.

- Zeifert is head of communications for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.

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