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South Africa in the Israeli media
WHEN Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, was asked his opinion about the United Nations’ propensity to castigate his country, he shrugged and answered, “Um, Shmum” (signifying dismissal or contempt).
This term is an apt description of how Israelis currently feel about South Africa. Once a country that fascinated the Israeli media and public, South Africa is still widely covered in the Israeli media – but for the wrong reasons.
South Africa and Israel have a tumultuous relationship. The historical parallels and shared challenges are often eclipsed by strained political relations between Jerusalem and Pretoria. Both countries share difficult pasts. Both countries have experienced persecution, fought British colonialism and are, relatively-peaking, young democracies. Both countries face similar challenges with regards to water shortages and the agriculture sector. Both countries are multicultural and need to find ways to ensure that racism and intolerance are not propagated. However, over the last decade or so, the relationship between the two states has deteriorated dramatically. This is abundantly clear in both the South African and Israeli media.
South Africa’s ruling party and the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Movement, now the Palestinian Authority) enjoy a historical relationship that dates back to the apartheid years when the PLO offered sanctuary to exiled ANC members, as well as ideological and military support. This is a relationship that has continued into post-apartheid South Africa. The public gulf between Pretoria and Jerusalem has been further widened by the support of boycotts and travels bans by the ANC. Statements such as the one below, co-signed by National Chairperson of the ANC, Gwede Mantashe, are but one of many such comments that emanate from ANC leadership:
As the Alliance we are now heightening our campaign aimed at boycotting and isolating Israel as a state founded on the basis of apartheid, which according to international law and several UN conventions is a crime against humanity.
The war of words and ideas between the two countries has found fertile ground in both the South African and Israeli media. In a democracy there is a common perception that the role of the media is to expose areas where democracy is failing. However the South African media might view its responsibility towards reporting on Israel, there is a clear line between legitimate criticism of a country’s foreign policy and a biased and myopic approach to bilateral relations between Israel and South Africa.
There are many who have argued that the South African media exhibits an inherent bias when it comes to reporting the situation in the Middle East and Israel in particular. For the last two decades, I have worked in media — including radio, TV and print — following how Israel and the Middle East are covered in the South African media. I have observed an increased bias against Israel. While it is not expected that the South African media will break out into Hatikvah anytime soon, would it not be more prudent for journalists to be more balanced? This trend could also be a result of media ownership or the dictates of the consumer. Some would argue that South African media is simply pandering to a popular narrative. Journalism has arguably changed from a noble profession that aims for truth and balance to a means of propagating sensationalism in order to generate headlines.
“There is nothing wrong with legitimate criticism of a country’s policies … but all too often, as is the case with the South African media, legitimate criticism quickly segues into exaggerated bias.”
This imbalance needs to be understood in the context of the ANC and the PLO’s historical relationship: the sympathy of the South African government very much lies with the Palestinians. This position has inevitably filtered down to the media, prompting many an angry and frustrated response from the Jewish community and supporters of Israel who feel that this bias is influencing South African public opinion and is, at times, fanning the flames of anti-Israel sentiment.
There is nothing wrong with legitimate criticism of a country’s policies — it is often joked that this is the national sport in Israel — but all too often, as is the case with the South African media, legitimate criticism quickly segues into exaggerated bias. Recognising such bias against Israel, in 2001, following the UN Conference against Racism that was held in Durban, the SAZF (South African Zionist Federation) and SAJBD (South African Jewish Board of Deputies) founded Media Team Israel. The conference brought to the surface an inherent anti-Israel bias in South African media and exposed the growing chasm between the two countries. Indeed, the establishment of Media Team Israel was an attempt to ensure balanced coverage of Israel in the South African media.
“As is commonly reflected in Israeli media, South Africa’s apartheid past, its transition to democracy and the intricacies of the South African political landscape are not always fully understood.”
Whilst there has been much written on how Israel is covered in South African media there is very little on how relations between the two states is covered in the Israeli media.
The Israeli media enjoys a reputation for being free and democratic. The media landscape is extremely robust, offering space for divergent opinions from the far-left to the ultra-right. In fact, many an Israeli is known to complain that perhaps the media is a little TOO democratic! Israeli society is very complex and this is reflected in the media. As such, the media has to be representative of all sectors of Israeli society – Israelis almost demand this. The left-leaning daily Ha’aretz will cover issues completely differently to The Times of Israel or the Jerusalem Post. One such example is the coverage of NGO’s like Breaking the Silence. Ha’aretz will publish an angle that is far more supportive of this controversial organisation and be highly critical of the government and the various security agencies, while the other two publications would castigate Breaking the Silence and support a much harsher stance against them.
As is commonly reflected in Israeli media, South Africa’s apartheid past, its transition to democracy and the intricacies of the South African political landscape are not always fully understood. This has allowed for the word apartheid to enter the lexicon of Israelis. In part, this is because they do not fully understand what apartheid was, and that it is unique to the South African experience. We have seen this manifest in the discourse of Israeli politicians and journalists, who commonly use the term to describe incidents of racism in Israel. While racism is abhorrent, the distinction between it and apartheid must be made clear. On the whole Israelis are perturbed and angered by the comparison of Israel to apartheid South Africa by, for example, controversial Israeli commentators such as Ha’aretz journalist, Gideon Levy. Very often, when there is coverage of South Africa’s BDS movement’s attempts to isolate Israel from the international community and call into question her existence as a state, it results in a barrage of comments and letters from angry Israelis, predominantly Anglos (immigrants from English speaking countries).
Coverage of South Africa in the English media has increased, largely because of the rise of BDS in South Africa. BDS activities in South Africa receive much coverage in the Israeli media, in particular the English press. The South African BDS movement and its actions are of great interest to English speaking ex-pats because very often they impact on their communities of origin. Ex-pat South Africans, in particular, are very concerned that the actions of BDS may cause a rise in antisemitism or even violence against the South African Jewish community.
There are four main online English publications – the Jerusalem Post, Times of Israel, Yedioth Aharonot (Ynet) and Ha’aretz. What is of interest is that the news reported in Hebrew differs to that offered in English. The English media covers a lot more international news than the Hebrew speaking press. Ha’aretz will more often than not give a voice to the far-left and organisations seen as anti-Israel, whereas the Hebrew media tends to castigate South Africa.
Many Israelis have become increasingly alarmed at the scurrilous comparison of Israel to apartheid South Africa, the BDS movement and its activities in the country, and the hostility shown to the Jewish state by the ANC and the EFF (Economic Freedom Front). Recent statements by Lindiwe Sisulu, Chairperson of the ANC International Relations committee, recommending that Israel withdraw from Gaza after we had done so 12 years ago drew comments of amusement on social media platforms, such as the following tweet by Avi Mayer, spokesperson to the International Media for The Jewish Agency for Israel:
Dear South Africa: thank you for your helpful advice, which we heeded TWELVE YEARS before you offered it. Any suggestions as to what we might do about the thousands of rockets that have poured onto our citizens’ homes ever since?
The water crisis in Cape Town and controversy around the rejection of proposed solutions from Israel has garnered its fair share of headlines. Events on campus during Israel Apartheid Week also makes headlines. Israelis view the manifestation of antisemitism in South Africa to be very different to the trends in the USA or Europe. In Europe or the USA, antisemitism is seen as manifesting itself in ‘traditional ways’ – in other words, the spraying of swastika’s, the desecration of gravestones, marches and activity by the alt-right and far left. In South Africa, it is evident that it manifests in attacks on Israel and how Jews identify themselves as Zionists. The message seems to be “we love Jews! Mazel Tov! Gefilte Fish! We just hate Zionists”.
The Jerusalem Post and Times of Israel include a section for blogs that allows space not just for divergent opinions but ensures that a range of voices, including many South African, have a space to share their voices, perspectives and experiences. South African bloggers are very popular because there is much interest from the English speaking community, including many ex-pat South Africans, about the South African Jewish community and events in the country. The Jerusalem Post even has a dedicated journalist who covers South Africa as part of her beat, with stories published almost on a weekly basis.
When it does cover global events, the Hebrew-speaking media, by contrast, focuses mainly on the United States, Europe and our own volatile region, the Middle East. Unless something controversial has happened or threatens bilateral relations between the two countries, South Africa receives very little coverage in the Hebrew-speaking media. Is it because South Africa is not THAT newsworthy in the eyes of the non-Anglo public in Israel?
The attention given to South Africa in Israeli papers, and to Israel in South African papers, does matter. The media is a very powerful tool not only for disseminating information and news but, I would argue, for building – or breaking – bilateral relations between countries. South Africa continues to be subjects of fascination for the Israeli media and as concern rises about the situation for Jews in South Africa, interest in South Africa will continue to grow in Israel and the Israeli media.