I read yesterday that there was a small victory for Boycott Israel Movement in South Africa. The University of Johannesburg (UJ) announced a conditional boycott against Ben-Gurion University (BGU) in Israel. It’s conditional in the sense that it is not a boycott but the threat of one. UJ has committed to ending any relationship (teaching and or research) with BGU unless it severs any direct or indirect military links it currently has. But of course this means that the links are not yet severed and they may never be as long as BGU agrees to certain conditions about forging ties with Palestinian universities and organisations.

I have always felt a tension with the Palestinian/Israeli conflict that makes me despair for the human condition. The two sides seem intractable on so many issues and yet my initial sympathies lie with the Palestinians as the clearly occupied peoples here. But my secular concerns over basic human rights also extend into the Palestinian territories where I am not certain they are widely shared.

I was part of a human-rights movement in Canada that was calling for an end to Israeli occupation and to allow Palestinians the right to return home. Many Palestinian refugees in Canada still hang onto keys and land deeds from their properties in parts of Israel and the occupied territories. These have become poignant symbols of their longing to go home and a clear sign of their forced removals. Yet, I cannot help but wonder what an independent Palestine would look like.

Every march I attended would degenerate into calls for the death to Israelis and proclamations that there is no God but Allah, and all the good he will do to help in their military victory against the Jews. Similarly, in South Africa I attended a march against the American consulate in Durban calling for a no to the war in Iraq. A memorandum was to be handed in and a number of speakers were lined up to discuss peace. The event was strange for so many reasons and right from the start when a mullah told “all the sisters to move to the back”.

After a little tension between more enlightened women and men who felt that women could march wherever they damn well pleased and some rather staunch Muslims who felt it violated their beliefs to be forced to treat women as equals it began. As the march proceeded a huge banner was unfurled, once again, proclaiming there is no God but Allah. I felt strange marching there so I shifted positions in the march and ended up besides a series of “no war”, “peace now” and “death to Israel”. The march went around downtown with ridiculous, but scary, segues to threaten the staff at McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken as symbols of American imperialism. The talks were again highjacked by Ashwin Desai (who also led the assault on the chicken and burgers) and Ecopeace lamenting the fluoride in the water in Durban. The last part is serious, it was a scene straight out of Dr Strangelove. Another speaker spoke of driving Israel into the sea and a number of people chanted death to Israel despite the purported focus on Iraq. I felt conned and upset that Islamic fascists overrode the event with hatred and violence.

How does one balance beliefs in secular human rights with Islamic fascists who highjack human-rights movements in the Middle East?

What would an independent Palestine look like? Would women and girls attend school? Would there be a bill of rights or a constitution? Can other religions flourish and be practised? All these and more need answers. The peace movement needs to reject and actively push out the Islamists who would condemn the country to being a religious backwater full of repression and bigotry.

We can rightly condemn the Israeli occupation and building of settlements. It is historically accurate to discuss land theft and the forced migration of Palestinians. We can loathe the idea of an ethnic state that excludes many who were born there while offering right of return to those whose families lived elsewhere for generations.

Yet I cannot help but feel that both sides are actually really crap poster boys for anything representing human rights and notions of justice.

While I have no solution to the conflict I do think that the US should no longer be allowed to discuss the region or to be involved in anything resembling peace talks. They are clearly not honest brokers and their policy on Israel is about their foreign policy and not peace or security for the locals.

I also wonder about a one-state solution. Why is it never discussed? Seems to me to be a little more realistic model than a continuous Israel with little islands of Palestine, which would look rather like apartheid-era Zululand and Natal. This state would need to have a bill of rights or some form of constitution that is grounded in secular human rights that allows the freedom to practice any religion and to live anywhere in the borders. Women and girls are allowed to wear bikinis if they so choose and show their hair and especially to go to school.

I cannot help but think that Jerusalem should be made an independent city state with a focus on tourism; kind of one big museum that everyone is allowed to look at and nobody to own. Desmond Tutu can oversee it between giving tours of the Holy Land.

And just once I would like peace to be discussed as the absence of conflict and not simply a ceasefire.

Of course none of this will happen and both sides will point fingers and apportion blame. Each will proclaim the absolute right to the land either through divine right or from previous occupation. They will decry racism and rights violations committed by the other while committing acts of hatred and violence against the other, ad nauseum.

So to return to the conditional boycott that may be launched against Ben-Gurion University, I think it has a potential to be a good and a fair thing. But that if there are to be actual boycotts then they must be extended to Palestinian groups who extol hatred and have military connections of their own. The idea of forcing these groups into dialogue is an excellent idea and one that should be pursued. If the duelling governments are not going to talk then it is up to the people living there to do so through other means.


  • I have returned to South Africa. I now teach Economic History and Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. I am happy to be back after a couple years away. I had been teaching anthropology at a Canadian University, but Africa called and I returned.


Michael Francis

I have returned to South Africa. I now teach Economic History and Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. I am happy to be back after a couple years away. I had been teaching anthropology...

Leave a comment