The Broomberg Affair – some thoughts in its aftermath

Now that passions appear to be subsiding in the aftermath of the Broomberg affair which raged within the Johannesburg Jewish community for several days earlier this month (and which was reported on within the pages of this web-site), it behooves us to take a somewhat closer look at this incident and in particular at the reactions it elicited from certain quarters within South Africa.

For those not aware of the ins and outs of the Broomberg affair the facts in a nutshell are as follows.  The deputy head-boy of King David Victory Park, Josh Broomberg, together with fellow debating-team members donned the symbol of Palestinian resistance to Israel, the kaffiyah, and posed for a picture which was subsequently posted to Facebook.   This went viral and led to a tsunami of Facebook posts, tweets, and letters from the local Jewish community decrying in sometimes vitriolic terms the actions of Broomberg and calling for his head.  Broomberg and Co defended themselves with equal passion and even the local mainstream media took notice of this spat, inevitably siding with the kaffiyah-clad youngster. The debate raged on for several days at which point the school attempted to de-escalate the situation.  Broomberg proffered an (according to some non-) apology for his act of defiance and the school stated it would not take any action against its deputy head-boy but would be having a “talk” with him upon his return.  Thus was calm restored and life now goes on in Jewish Johannesburg much the same as before.

Doubtless it can be argued that the reaction from certain quarters within the Jewish community was quite out of all proportion to the act of defiance from Broomberg which started it all.  With the explosion of the social media messages came the inevitable over-the-top attacks on Broomberg.  Suffice it to say than not all self-appointed spokesmen for the Jewish community covered themselves in glory.   Threats of physical violence and even death threats were allegedly leveled at him.  It must be said that nothing he did can possibly justify such a reaction.  Yet these reactions came generally by way of Twitter and Facebook and these media do not generally lend themselves to calm and deliberate communication.  There were however also some very thoughtful and articulate, though no less heartfelt or passionate, responses from Jews both in South Africa and in Israel who were deeply offended by Broomberg’s actions.

In response to the tsunami of criticisms and attacks on Broomberg the two chief protagonists, Broomberg himself and one of those who appear with him in the photograph, Mr Saul Musker, coined responses.  In their replies they reveal a deep and fundamental misunderstanding of the main issues at hand and in particular the characterization of their critics from within the Jewish community. Broomberg and Musker make the case in their respective articles that they have a moral obligation to stand up for human rights and against their violation by Israel and its army, and it can be no other way.  For this they were lauded as moral heroes by the “progressive” “right-minded” Jews and their comrades-in-arms for taking such a courageous moral stand on such a vital issue of the day.  And of course the flip side of this is that those Jews who thundered against Broomberg and Co were said to be morally reprehensible “fascists” (to quote Musker in his Daily Maverick piece) who display a bloodlust for Palestinian deaths and impliedly revel in the destruction of innocent children.

Admittedly the nature of the bitter debate on Israel and the Palestinians does not as a rule lend itself to a rational and reflective mind-set allowing for honest considerations.  But it is nonetheless appropriate for those defending Broomberg and Co to expend at least some energy to understand why the Jewish community took such umbrage at these actions.  It is surely true that some of these responses have been irrational outbursts.  But as mentioned above there were also respectful and rational responses.  To characterise all these responses as “fascist” and “right-wing” is to display no less a degree of anti-intellectual dishonesty.

In the mind of most South African Jews the Gaza conflict constitutes a very real life-and-death battle between Hamas and Israel’s inhabitants. The missiles are real, the tunnels are real, the Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists are real and nothing is more real than the threat they pose to the people (and yes the children!) in the cities and towns of the Jewish State.  It is puerile (and a display of utmost bad faith) to believe that the 90 percent + of Israeli Jews who support operation Protective Edge want to see the deaths of Palestinian children.  Amos Oz, the doyen of Israeli peaceniks, explains with pristine clarity the dilemma facing the Jews of Israel.  How would you respond, he puts it to his German interviewer, if your neighbor, sitting on his porch across the road from you with his child on his lap, opened up on your nursery with machine gun fire?  What would you do??  This is the very real dilemma faced by the people of Israel and those tasked with their defense on a daily basis.  It is often a heart-wrenching situation which presents itself as a Hobson’s choice of kill or be killed.

From six thousand kilometers away in the leafy suburbs of Johannesburg it may be easy to sit in judgment.  But at the same time it should be equally easy to understand why a smug seventeen year old wrapped up in the symbol of Palestinian anti-Israel resistance making vapid moral statements at a time of mortal danger to very many Jewish men women and children the width and breadth of Israel would generate an emotional and at times over-the-top response.  The Jews of Israel are embattled.  The close-knit Jewish community of South Africa many with family and friends in Israel feels similarly embattled.  Witness the unambiguous and virulent antisemitism displayed in the social media and spilling over into the political arena in South Africa over the last weeks.  Feelings are fragile and an understandable sensitivity prevails.  In the grand scheme of things such responses are indeed quite forgivable and hardly warrant the screeching denunciations we heard and read for days on end.

Which leads me to my second point.  Within the stirring declarations from those of self-proclaimed “Jewish descent” who shout “NOT IN MY NAME!” (as if anyone could ever be bothered to act in their names) come the inevitable tired accusations of the stifling of free speech and the trampling of dissent.  As in other locales where “progressives” bleat on and on about their lack of free speech  (whilst enjoying monopolistic access to the op-ed pages of the New York Times and the airwaves of most of the major broadcasters)  this claim is unadulterated nonsense.  People of “Jewish descent” are free to join their Muslim brethren to harangue and harass and decry the “Zionists” gathering to support Israel in Huddle Park or to march in lockstep with the Hamas supporters in District 6 in Cape Town, and no-one calls for any action to be taken against them.  They are held in utter contempt by the Jewish community and it goes no further than that.  But the right to free speech and dissent does not, cannot possibly extend to the right of someone standing there in his representative capacity of a Jewish communal institution to make public statements which run entirely against the proclaimed ethos and value systems of that institution which he has agreed to uphold, with impunity.  Surely that institution should be entitled to take steps to protect the values and principles which it holds dear?  And surely members of the community are likewise entitled to have that expectation? To suggest otherwise would be to negate the very concept of voluntary institutions in civil society, a far cry one would hope from the high-minded politics and principles of at least some of those of “Jewish descent” who now sit in judgment on the Jewish community.

The Broomberg affair appears mercifully to be at an end.  To be sure let us hope that with it will end the fratricidal infighting within the Jewish community of late.  But at the same time let us not be cowed by hypocrites who would dictate to us the positions we as a community should reflect and deny us the basic right of declaring our love for Israel and her people and their well-being during these trying times.  We deserve no less.

About the Author
Marc Furman is a born-and-bred resident of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a qualified lawyer who enjoys reading and writing about all things Jewish and Israel.