JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The little plastic device seemed ideal for South Africa's campaign to reduce HIV rates through medical circumcision — safe, inexpensive, nearly painless, and non-surgical. You put it on, the elastic shuts off the flow of blood to the foreskin, and the foreskin dies on its own, removed after a week. Only problem: it's made in Israel.
Whenever the Israeli-Palestinian conflict flares, it echoes in distant South Africa. And as the warring parties negotiate amid a five-day truce marred early on by rockets and airstrikes, the PrePex male circumcision ring is one of many products in South Africa being targeted by growing calls to boycott Israeli-made goods.
The issue resonates deeply here, with many South Africans supporting the Palestinians and drawing parallels with their struggle against apartheid. Many also remember that during the years of racist white minority rule, South Africa’s government maintained uncomfortably close ties with Israel — even though Israel formally opposed apartheid. Since the advent of democracy in 1994, the African National Congress-led government has been fiercely critical of Israeli policies.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel peace laureate who led South Africa's post-apartheid truth and reconciliation campaign, has been one of Israel’s sharpest critics. In recent years, he's championed a cultural boycott, arguing that it would be as inappropriate for artists to perform in Israel as it had been for them to do in apartheid South Africa, “a society founded on discriminatory laws and racial exclusivity.”
Former president Thabo Mbeki has also joined the boycott calls, declaring that Israel should “pay a price for the position that it is taking.” A popular target has been Woolworths, an upscale grocery store chain that stocks a small number of products made in Israel.
Cosatu, the powerful South African trade union federation allied with the ruling ANC, has been behind the calls for South Africa to boycott the PrePex circumcision device. Spokesman Patrick Craven has explained that “we cannot have exceptions” in the wholesale boycott of Israeli goods.
In some cases the rhetoric has been extreme. Tony Ehrenreich, a senior Cosatu official, in a Facebook post this week called for an “eye for an eye against Zionist aggression.” Ehrenreich also wrote that the South African Jewish Board of Deputies — an umbrella group that leads the country’s Jewish community — was “complicit in the murder of the people in Gaza.”
The Board of Deputies has officially complained to the South African human rights commission, saying, “Ehrenreich’s inflammatory post incites violence and hatred against the representative body for South African Jewry.”
“It also comes at a time of heightened tension over the Israel-Gaza conflict, thereby inflaming an already volatile situation,” chairwoman Mary Kluk added.
South Africa's Jewish population numbers about 70,000 people, some of whom played prominent roles in the anti-apartheid struggle. The recent conflict in Gaza has also sparked internal dissent within this community.
One controversy within the South African Jewish community has centered around a teenager named Joshua Broomberg, a student leader at a Jewish school in Johannesburg who is currently competing at the World Schools Debating Championships in Thailand.
Broomberg, 17, was photographed wearing a Palestinian keffiyeh scarf, with the caption reading: “Team South Africa wearing Palestinian badges and keffiyehs to show our opposition to human rights violations carried out against the people of Palestine. #WSDC2014.”
An online furor followed, including a petition that called for the teenager to face disciplinary action at his school, with some arguing that he should be stripped of his school honors.
Broomberg posted an apology on his Facebook page in response, saying that his position was “not designed to offend or upset.”
“In fact, I consider it my duty to contribute to the growing worldwide discussion surrounding the desperate need for a quick end and lasting solution to this pernicious conflict,” he wrote.
“In my eyes, this criticism is not a betrayal, but actually the only honest and true way to show my patriotism and commitment to Israel, as well as my belief in human rights and the entitlement of all citizens of all countries to those rights.
“To improve, we must criticize.”