South Africans have long enjoyed a complicated relationship with Limmud. The Office of the Chief Rabbi does not endorse the program, whilst there are those in the Orthodox community who still attend and even present at the event. Opinions and approach vary with many making peace with the fact that although presenters might not all adhere to their own ideology, in the interest of diversity and debate, it is worth tolerating the discomfort.
Up to a point.
That is what I believed until this past Sunday when I was copied on a letter that had been sent to the organisers. To date the writer has not had a reply:
Dear Limmud Organisers,
Last night to my horror I received an email with a list of the invited speakers at the Limmud in the Hood to take place in August. Three of your chosen speakers are advocates for BDS – Jeremy Phillips, Michael Hunter and Heidi Grunenbaum.
It is totally unacceptable that a Jewish organisation would give these people a platform, recognition and legitimacy. Those that were put in a position to make the decision to invite these speakers have failed Limmud and the Jewish community. The speakers support organisations that are clearly anti Semitic, blatantly anti-Israel, and their arguments are based on lies and half-truths, and the furthest thing from most of your stated core values of “Arguments for the sake of heaven”, “Community and mutual responsibility”,” Respect”.
The community is now placed at significant risk due to this decision as these speakers will surely need to be disinvited.
The entire Limmud in the Hood event is put at risk, due to the protests and negative press that will no doubt follow the decision to disinvite these activists who have no interest in the welfare of our community. The school and its learners will be placed in the spotlight and significant risk in the future as the event is taking place on Herzlia property. There needs to be accountability, and the decision makers should be forced to resign or be dismissed immediately. This is not simply a poor decision, it displays a level of incompetence, ignorance, and a lack of maturity to lead Limmud. In any self-respecting organisation, an error in judgement of this magnitude would result in dismissal.
Failure to disinvite them will send a signal to our community and future generations of Jews in Cape Town that their arguments and positions are legitimate. We will send a message to our brothers and sisters in Israel, who are on the front lines defending our country with their lives, that we have abandoned them. Our community will not allow you or any organisation that wishes to be a part of our community to cross this line.
On reading the above, I reached out to the National Chairperson of Limmud South Africa, Adina Roth, for comment, and invited her onto my morning show where I said that would be raising this topic for discussion. She was not available Monday but confirmed Tuesday.
That left this morning open for discussion. I read the letter to my listeners. I explained that we need to hear Limmud’s response before reacting and suggested that we reserve judgement until then. I did invite comments ahead of the discussion that I would have with Limmud Tuesday.
Johannesburg Jews and supporters of Israel would have none of it. They were livid, and they were quite comfortable to express themselves.
That Zimbabwe was about to engage in its first democratic free and fair elections moved them nought. That another flotilla had been apprehended was interesting but hardly earth shattering. That South Africa was doing decently in the cricket and that Pakistan was likely to have a cricketer as Prime Minister had some fascination. But not a lot.
Instead, all they wanted to talk about was the fact that Limmud had invited BDS sympathizers to dinner. In the minds of South African Jews, this was a “bridge too far!”
I don’t recall having witnessed such an emotional reaction from my listeners before. With the Sashi Naidoo debacle – where BDS had intimidated a model (with death threats) still fresh in their minds, with the aggression of Israel Apartheid Week a dreaded and unbearable aspect of Jewish student life, with the threat of an embassy downgrade an awful reality, listeners found it intolerable that Limmud South Africa would even think to provide a platform to supporters of the BDS Campaign.
The feedback continued after the show with speakers asking if they should withdraw and with participants threatening to boycott. In each case I suggested that they wait until Limmud responds before deciding.
I expected at least some listeners to say that debate is healthy and that we should engage and discuss. But there was not a single response that suggested such. What listeners were clear on is that the very nature of the BDS movement is to intimidate and through any means possible and to shut down dialogue. They saw no need to award a courtesy that BDS does not extend.
South African Jews are under tremendous pressure. It is no secret that the ANC government has an anti-Israel agenda, that Antisemitism is climbing, and that many feel insecure about their future. The result as with many environments under threat, is that they have circled the wagons and are less tolerant than they might be under different circumstances. With this in mind, I can’t help wondering how UK Jews would respond to a Jeremy Corbyn sympathizer participating at Limmud UK. Would the reaction be the same or would UK Jews tolerate this?
I am confident that Limmud South Africa will withdraw the BDS associated speakers. I have little doubt that they have heard the response of the community and that they will be guided by the response they have received. And I believe that they will not make this mistake again.
But they will have to do more than that. They are going to have convince South Africans that they can be relied on to make smart decisions. They are going to have to re build trust and make it clear that they don’t have an agenda that is different to the community. They will need to show that they are responsible and that they have a line that can’t be crossed- both with regard to Israel and with regard to Judaic practice.
And they need to tell the community exactly what that line is.
The leadership of Limmud has a responsibility to communicate what it deems acceptable and what it does not, and on the basis of that communication attendees and speakers can decide for themselves whether they choose to be associated or not.
It’s a watershed moment for Limmud South Africa. There is no room for bluster, or arrogance or further mistakes. They need to act decisively.
For the “Sake of heaven,” I hope that they do.
Let’s see what Tuesday heralds.