Nathan Geffen: Why is the South African Jewish Board of Deputies rejecting a two-state solution?

Why is the SAJBD rejecting a two-state solution?

Nathan Geffen
30 October 2011


Nathan Geffen says board shouldn’t be defending narrow interests of current Israeli govt

On 12 May 1948 the Provisional State Council of Israel decided by 6 votes to
4 to declare their state on the expiration of the British Mandate for Palestine,
two days later. It was also decided not to indicate the borders of the new state
in the declaration on independence, so as to leave open the possibility of
expansion beyond the 1947 UN partition plan.

Under Ben Gurion’s leadership, the early state began using a combination of
diplomacy and military force to acquire territory. Even in 1948 Israel had
military supremacy. Although it had a technological disadvantage until an arms
shipment arrived from Czechoslovakia, Israelies outnumbered the opposing forces
at all stages of the war.

Ben Gurion put the world to terms on recognizing Israel’s existence. He also
understood then something that has been true for the following 62 years:
non-specification of borders suits the strong.

The leadership of the Arabs in Palestine rejected the UN partition plan. As a
matter of principle we can understand it; they were allocated one third of the
land while constituting two thirds of the population. But the 1948-49 war left
them with less land and the permanent displacement of 700,000 men, women and

The bid by the Palestinian Authority for United Nations recognition is an
attempt to transcend this history. It has opponents both left and right. Some on
the left advocate a single state, hoping to put aside national and religious
identities in a secular country. Considering that Germany and France – which in
two world wars killed millions of each other’s soldiers – now have an open
border and a common currency, it is possible that one day there will be normal
relations between Israelis and Palestinians, but a one-state solution is
currently inconceivable.

Unlike in South Africa where urbanization made black people the majority in
the cities, in Israel there is effective territorial separation, due in part to
the substitution of Palestinian labour by migrant workers from Asia. This is a
political fact which must be reckoned with by proponents of a one-state
solution. The Israeli military cannot be wished away, nor the root of its
support: a combination of Jewish nationalism across the world and the fear of

For those interested in moving towards a just solution in
Israel and Palestine, stopping the settlement enterprise must be the first
objective. And this is the great strength of the current Palestinian move
towards recognition of statehood; although it won’t immediately give them the
reality of independence, it does define their aspirations in crystal clear
terms, drawing the border along the internationally recognized pre-1967 line,
rendering every settlement a violation of sovereignty, exposing the Israeli
occupation for the unilateral annexation that it is, and showing that the goal
of the Palestinian Authority is not to drive the Jews into the sea.

The Israeli right-wing, which is firmly in control of the country, opposes UN
recognition of Palestinian statehood precisely because it brings to a head the
questions they were hoping to spin out into eternity. They argue that the move
is ‘unilateral’ and therefore wrong. But as Yael Dayan, the chair of the Tel
Aviv city council asked recently: “Isn’t the occupation unilateral? Are both
sides occupying?”

What do the Palestinian, Israeli, US, EU and South African governments have
in common? They all claim to support a two-state solution to the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the Palestinian bid has exposed very clearly
that Israel and its allies are only ready to pay lip-service to the idea. The
truth is that the current Israeli government –and indeed all recent ones– are
not ready for a two-state solution. The occupation is not a source of sufficient
moral discomfort to Israelis. Except for the minority who do combat military
service, the oppression of Palestinians is out of sight and mind for the average

It is against this background that the Palestinian Authority has played its
gambit. It is undoubtedly risky, but what else is left for the Palestinian
leadership to do to try and shake the status quo? Betrayed by successive US
governments, increasingly excluded from the Israeli economy and with its
citizens suffering severe restrictions on movement and political organisation
what other options are left?

The Jewish Board of Deputies and South African Zionist Federation expressed regret that the South
African government has indicated its support for the Palestinian bid, with the
feeble excuse that the Palestinian decision is unilateral. They never oppose
Israel’s unilateral actions. The Zionist Federation’s position is unsurprising.
Its agenda as a front for the settler movement is barely disguised. It is
consistently to the right of even the Israeli ambassadors sent to South Africa.
Former Ambassador Alon Liel recently endorsed the Palestinian bid, stating: “I’d
like to see a state that will vote against Palestinian statehood. History will
judge them, and that includes Israel.”

It is however deeply disappointing, albeit expected, that the Board of
Deputies took the same position.

The Board has an important mission:

“The SAJBD works for the betterment of human relations between Jews and all
other peoples of South Africa based on mutual respect, understanding and
goodwill, and to protect the civil liberties of South African Jews. It is
committed to a South Africa where everyone will enjoy freedom from the evils of
prejudice, intolerance and discrimination.”

There is nothing about
supporting the narrow interests of the current Israeli government.

To a large extent the Board tries hard to fulfil its mission, especially the
Cape Town chapter. But it consistently fails when it takes positions on Israel.
The Board’s job is to represent South African Jews, defend our civil rights –no
matter what our positions on Israel– and to build ties with other communities.
By publicly opposing the Palestinian bid and our government’s position on it,
the Board does a disservice to its mission and to South African Jews.

Opposition to Palestinian statehood also does a disservice to Israelis.
International recognition of Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza, with its
capital in East Jerusalem, would give Israel recognition of West Jerusalem,
something it has never had before.

Let us hope that sense prevails before it is too late.

Nathan Geffen is visiting researcher at the Centre for Social
Science Research, UCT.


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