Why South Africa’s Decision to Rebrand Some Israeli Imports Packs a Punch

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ALEXANDER JOE / AFP / Getty Images

Former South African President Nelson Mandela (R) meets then Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, 3 May 2001. Many South Africans and Palestinians see an emotive link between their defining political struggles — one against apartheid, the other against Israeli occupation.

The international effort to boycott products made in Israeli settlements got a boost recently from a formidable quarter. South Africa announced it would label imports from the West Bank not “Made in Israel” but perhaps “Made in Occupied Palestine.”  It seems a small thing. The new regulation stops well short of calling for a boycott on Ahava beauty products and other exports manufactured or grown by Israeli companies on Palestinian land occupied by the Israeli military since 1967.

But the labeling regulation makes such a boycott more feasible, which is one reason Israel is making a big deal of it.  Another reason, of course, is that on the question of moral heft, South Africa ranks as a heavyweight. From the 1960s to the end of the 80s, an international boycott and disinvestment campaign against the Pretoria regime was one of the factors that led to abandoning the apartheid system that long let the white minority rule the black majority.

“It hurts, yes,” says Itzhak Galnoor, a political scientist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “It does send a message to the Israeli people and the Israeli government that the stalemate between Israel and the Palestinians is not acceptable. And I think that countries have the right to send the message.”

Galnoor is among the minority of Israelis who have long boycotted settlement products – making a point at the supermarket of not purchasing goods produced by Israeli companies on the Palestinian territory.  Mostly that’s fruits and vegetables – Israeli plantation agriculture has turned the occupied Jordan River Valley into one big truck farm – but also fine wines and other temptations.  To avoid “normalizing” the occupation, some Israelis also refuse to drive on Hwy. 443, a freeway cut into the West Bank for the convenience of Israelis commuting to Jerusalem from the coastal plain. (This can be a real sacrifice: The 443 is the only alternative to the steeper, almost alpine and frequently backed up Hwy 1, which except for a short span on “no-man’s land” lies entirely within Israel’s 1948 sovereign borders). The settlement product boycott is also being debated among American Jews at the urging of author Peter Beinart whose book The Crisis of Zionism  argues that the occupation is endangering Israeli democracy.

But being judged by South Africa carries a special weight. The country went from pariah state to paragon overnight when the white President F.W. DeKlerk freed Nelson Mandela and agreed to give the black majority the vote. Galnoor himself worked as an advisor to the African National Congress, helping organize voter education seminars and bearing witness to the moving April 1994 election that brought the presidency to Mandela, followed by forgiveness to former oppressors, the dismantling of South Africa’s nuclear arsenal and a new constitution regarded as a modern model of a liberal democracy.

Israeli officials, for their part, termed South Africa’s action “racist.”  Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and others lumped the South African regulation with the far more aggressive, and less discerning BDS Movement, a largely Palestinian effort that calls for Boycotts Disinvestment and Sanctions on all of Israel. Many Israelis see those as an attempt to “de-legitimize” the Jewish State and roll back 1948.

Calling for a boycott on settlement products, on the other hand, is a targeted, discreet action recently endorsed by the United Methodists, for example, and Tesco, the British grocery chain. The idea is framed as encouraging the two-state solution envisioned by the Oslo Accords nearly 20 years ago but still not realized – not least because Israel’s hold on the West Bank grows ever-deeper. In fact, one reason South Africa’s action packs a punch is the specter of apartheid that hangs over the West Bank the longer the occupation continues. There’s a bitter ongoing debate over whether Israel’s tight control of the Palestinian population can be equated with South Africa’s old system. A 2009 study by South Africa’s state-sponsored think tank judged that it could  — and also invoked the legacy of colonialism.

Beyond the legal definitions, however, there’s the matter of appearances. At a 2010 journalism conference inside Israel, Ethan Bronner, at the time the Jerusalem bureau chief for the New York Times, was quoted addressing Israelis sensitive to international coverage of the situation as follows: “There aren’t many other places in the world where white people with guns tell brown people what to do.”

Says Galnoor, the Hebrew University professor:  “For other countries to accuse South Africa of racism requires, what’s the word? Chutzpah.”