Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s blog post Getting the Apartheid-Israel Equation Right covers a number of interesting if contentious points. He certainly does dispel some of the Apartheid accusations leveled against Israel and raises important issues like the conditions of dhimmitude that Jews lived under in Arab land, which were tantamount to Apartheid, but he also makes some unfounded accusations against the South African Jewish community.
As we approach the tour of racism known as International Israel Apartheid Week, South Africa and in particular, the Jewish community comes yet again under the microscope of scrutiny. One of the communal leaders aptly named South Africa the “ground zero” of the BDS movement. This is the country in which Apartheid was born and eventually defeated and it is from South Africa that some of the most vocal detractors of Israel originate – Tutu, Pillay, Dugard et al.
South Africa cannot and should not be ignored or taken lightly because of its lack of influence vis-a-vis Israel and Palestine. In fact, this is the first place pro-Israel activists should go to, to spot the alarming trends.
In 2001 at the UN Conference against Racism, held in Durban, the voice of the BDS movement really gained momentum. Where else but in the home of Apartheid? The symbolism of this is not lost or diluted by either side. Over the last few years, relations between Jerusalem and Pretoria have seriously deteriorated, culminating in the push to re-label products originating from the West bank or outside of the 1948 borders, as “goods from the Occupied Palestinian Territories” and finally a resolution adopted by the ruling ANC to start investigating the possibility of sanctions against the Jewish state.
But it is Boteach’s accusations against the community that must be challenged.
As a veteran of pro-Israel activism in South Africa, and still active after my Aliyah, I feel it incumbent to address these accusations.
South African Jews traditionally are fierce Zionists but their voice is becoming increasingly muted. Faced as they are with a post-apartheid landscape that has changed dramatically in its posture toward Israel, they do not wish to be too out of the step with government and national sentiments.
Rabbi Boteach is correct, South African Jews are fiercely Zionist. This is evident in the number of olim but also in the incredible efforts made by members of the community, organised and private, to make the case for Israel in the media. These efforts are spearheaded by groups like the Media Team Israel, South African Friends of Israel, the SAZF, the SAJBOD and SA Union of Jewish Students. For Jews in South Africa,Israel = Apartheid is not a week long event that happens once a year but rather a daily occurrence, replete with venom and vitriol.
Boteach says that we do not wish to be too out of step with the government and national sentiments. The South African Jewish narrative is far too complex and intricate to understand and sum up in one or two visits. It is a politically delicate situation that requires a great deal of thought and careful manoeuvering. It is a phenomenon that needs to be accurately understood and contextualised before such loaded statements are made. South African Jewish communal leaders have not stayed silent in the face of “government sentiment.” Rather, numerous attempts been made in both a legal framework and diplomatic framework. Sometimes when one goes to battle the more direct route is not the best, and sometimes alternative tactics are needed. Just because they do not make headlines, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. At a time when legislation like the Freedom of Expression Act threatens to curtail the democratic right to criticise the ANC government, the community punches above its weight by continuing to voice its dissatisfaction. Loudly.
The Jewish community of South Africa must learn that if they’re not vocal and don’t defend Israel gallantly and publicly with the facts at their disposal, their de facto spokespeople will be journalists like Zapiro who malign Israel and trivialize the Holocaust.
It is very easy to point fingers at South African Jewry but instead of criticising, I invite Boteach and others to hear some of the success stories. A statement like the above is confusing to those of us who labour so hard to fight the ongoing anti-Israel sentiment. Our Media Team was once told that outside of the Arab world, the South African media is the most hostile. Our answer has been to build bridges with other communities and this was evident last year when overwhelming support was shown both for Israel and the community by Christian Zionists, King Goodwill Zwelithini and the Zulu nation, the Shembe tribe and their leadership and the African Christian Democratic Party led by the indomitable Rev. Kenneth Meshoe. Just weeks ago, over 250 people participated in an advocacy day for Israel. Most were Christian Zionists. The sterling work done by organisations like the Jewish National Fund and their outreach into impoverished communities builds trust and cooperation. The sheer chutzpah of the community led by its youth who have protested, made demands and embarked on fierce campaigns makes sure that Israel’s side is heard. These efforts are most gallant.
While journalists like Zapiro are controversial enough to warrant column inches and headlines, assuming that the community is not vocal in their defence of Israel is at once insulting and shows a lack of understanding of the situation at hand.
Rolene Marks is a member of the Media Team Israel, a voluntary body associated with the South African Zionist Federation that counters bias against Israel in the media.
Rolene Marks has written numerous published opinion-editorials, addressed groups and has been featured on radio and television countering bias against Israel. Follow Rolemarks on Twitter or read her blog: www.rorosrantings.wordpress.com