KWAZULU-NATAL (EJP) --- Already strained Israeli-South African diplomatic ties were further tested on Monday, as a planned visit by an Israeli special envoy to a South African university was cancelled at the eleventh hour.
Israeli Deputy-Ambassador Yaakov Finkelstein was due to give a non-political speech at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in eastern South Africa, but his invitation was withdrawn mere hours before his planned visit on account of “sensitivities” due to its timing.
University deputy vice-chancellor Professor Joseph Ayee admitted the cancellation was affected because of the institutions concerns about “reputational damage” and “the negative publicity”.
Mr Finkelstein attacked the university’s decision to block his planned address:
“The lecture was non-political, there was no reason to call it off but when threats and violence put pressure to prevent the presentation, it is a problem”, he claimed. “There are several factions who want to sabotage academic freedom to politicise this, some are from the university and some outside.”
These ‘outside’ influences alludes to rising political tensions between the former Apartheid State and Israel, following the country’s Department of Trade and Industry’s decision to institute policy change that any products originating from West Bank settlements can no longer be labelled as Israeli products. Instead, labels would indicate the products were ‘made in Occupied Palestinian Territories”. Affected products would include Ahava cosmetics and Soda Stream.
Israel reacted with outrage to the move by trade minister Rob Davies, which it claims is targeted, considering similar laws do not apply to products originating from other conflicted territories, such s the Falklands, Kashmir or north Cyprus.
Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Pau Hirschson said the ministry would be taking up the matter the South African ambassador and alluded to obvious comparisons being made between Apartheid South Africa and Israel:
“The singing out of one side of one conflict out of all the conflict in the world is verging on racism”, he said, adding “this is sad coming from South Africa, which should know better”.
The Israeli embassy in Pretoria also criticised the proposed legislation, with a statement saying: “We regret the decision to adopt this notice, which carries an unpleasant scent of singling out Israel on a national and political basis.”
Palestinian groups, however, greeted the move as “significant”, with a joint statement by Palestinian lobby groups in South Africa paying tribute to legislation which would “render Israeli trade with South Africa far more difficult and is a serious setback for Israeli companies wanting to do business in South Africa”.
Israeli government’s fears this move, by an albeit minor trading partner of Israel, to enforce economic sanctions on Israel could spread wider were proved founded when Denmark swiftly followed with similar suggested legislation.
Meanwhile, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies responded to the university scandal by expressing disappointment the ambassador’s invitation had been barred from “a place of dialogue, communication and debating”.
“This would have been a perfect platform to discuss pressing issues”, continued spokeswoman Mary Kluk. Speaking more generally on the wave on anti-Israel political sentiment in the country, the board criticised disproportionate “communications with lobby groups that have a pronounced anti-Israel political agenda”.
Last year, the University of Johannesburg turned its back on its historic ties with Israel’s Ben Gurion University, when it voted in favour of an academic boycott on Israel.
The Jewish community of South Africa has fallen in size from a peak of 119,000 in 1980 to approximately 75,000 today, 85% of who live in either Johannesburg or Cape Town. The decline of the community is largely attributed to political uncertainty during this period.