The role of non-executive chairman of the South African Jewish Report is mostly a very enjoyable and rewarding one; if one excludes the fact that the paper is a nonprofit and exist for the good of the community. I have no editorial say unless it pertains to policy (although everyone thinks that I am the editor when accusing me of crimes against humanity, while I am trying to order my coffee) but I get to be part of a very dynamic and exciting environment. That is until something goes wrong, as it did last week.
I refer to an op-ed piece in the SAJR Online where Leon Reich, representative of Likud SA, writes a scathing, angry and heartfelt attack on Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s approach to Israel, to Jews and to the rest of the world. In the article he compares Tutu to Hitler and to Stalin.
The reaction from the South African press was immediate and the article very swiftly became an important news item on both online and in print editions. The Jewish Board of Deputies started to receive pressure and a decision was called for. Defend freedom of speech even if we don’t like the article, or remove the offending piece?
Whereas I am not sure that many Jews would ever mistake Tutu as being a friend of our people, or a fair and objective commentator on the subject, the article concerned me for the following reasons: Tutu is simply not Hitler and he is not Stalin. He might be many things, including anti-Semitic, but he is not responsible for the deaths of six million of our people. And comparing him as such is to denigrate the Holocaust and the brutality of the time.
We cannot allow others to do that and we certainly cannot do it ourselves. That period will always remain bitter and painful for us, and which loss will stay with us for generations to come. And whereas Reich might not have stated it as such, and might have had no intention of doing this, the article does allow for this broad comparison, which is not acceptable.
The fact that Tutu might have used the Nazi theme along with the comparison of Israel to an apartheid South Africa on multiple occasions himself, is not a reason for us to do so. We need to hold ourselves to a higher standard than Tutu does. It is what we stand for, it is what we strive for and it is who we are as a people.
At the same time I am uncomfortable by the speed of the criticism of the article by the Mail and Guardian and others. The question is whether they are as quick to condemn Jessie Duarte (ANC deputy secretary-general) for her Nazi comparisons along with other who have done so.
At the same time the Jewish community was accused of being bullies and curtailing freedom of speech when a schoolboy chose the wrong accessory. They screamed for us to allow him to express himself and not stifle his voice, even if we disagreed with him, whereas in this case there seems to be no discussion of this concept at all.
Freedom of speech it seems belongs to mainstream press where articles and cartoons commonly depict horrendous images of Jews as caricatured murders. I am not sure that the Mail and Guardian has ever objected to this portrayal.
And so, even though I believe that it was the correct decision to remove the article, for so many reasons it is not an easy or comfortable one.
I believe that we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves either. We are living in difficult and emotional times. The community is under threat and we have been let down by the likes of Tutu and so many others. It is no wonder that articles like the Reich one will be written with the anger that he feels. In many respect it is frustration that we all feel.
The decision that we took at the SAJR was that so long as we stand by the editorial policy of the paper, that there is the responsibility to present all views. But these views need to be expressed with respect and with dignity. That is what we strive for, and that is who we are as a South African community and as a Jewish people.