South African security forces were put on high alert this week as a delegation of former Israeli soldiers arrived as part of a campaign by an Israeli group to promote Israel through talks and events at university campuses worldwide.The delegation was organized by the group ‘What Is rael’ (a play on the name Israel), which states on its Facebook page that the group aims to recruit ‘Students who consider themselves Zionists’ to travel around the world to speak on campuses to challenge the global movement for a campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel.
According to Israeli activists, the group has ties to the Israeli Foreign Ministry and the Jewish Agency, which have both been recently promoting ‘hasbara’, or propaganda campaigns promoting Israel as democratic and diverse, to try to counter groups that have sprung up worldwide to voice opposition to Israeli policies and ongoing occupation of the Palestinian Territories.
The South African Boycott Divestment and Sanctions Working group announced that their research into the visiting delegation of twenty ‘students’ had found that ‘two of the Israeli student delegates claiming to be students worked at the Israeli parliament. One is a deputy spokesperson and another is an official policy advisor.’
After a call was issued by the South African Students Congress last week to boycott and oppose what they called a ‘propaganda’ tour, dozens of students showed up at the airport to protest the arrival of the ‘What Is rael’ delegation, forcing the Israelis to exit the airport under heavy security through a back exit.
At the delegation’s first stop, the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, they were met by a number of protests, including a flash mob ‘die-in’, in which students all fell to the floor at the same moment to represent Palestinians killed by the Israeli military. According to one protest organizer, several of the former soldiers involved in the delegation have publicly bragged of involvement in the 2008-9 Israeli invasion of Gaza in which over 1400 Palestinians were killed, 400 of them children.
The University of Witwatersrand student newspaper quotes Stephanie Hodes, from the South African Union of Jewish Student (SAUJS), which sponsored the delegation, as saying, ‘the protest was sad, they should rather come inside and eat falafel.’ The falafel, a traditional food in Palestine and the rest of the Arab world, was being promoted at the event as an Israeli food, with no mention of its Arab origins.
South Africa has been a main organizing center for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, with activists who fought the racist system of apartheid in the seventies and eighties among the first to term Israel’s system of segregation, occupation and discrimination against Palestinians as an ‘apartheid’ system.
The Coalition of South African Trade Unions, COSATU, by far the nation’s largest, was one of the first trade unions to support the boycott of Israel, blocking Israeli ships from entering South African ports and preventing the import of Israeli goods.