The BDS knee jerk: Almost a witch hunt?

Liel and rally in Jer 2012

Is a Palestinian state alongside Israel possible? Dr Alon Liel (right), former Director General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry and Ambassador to South Africa and Turkey, and Dr. Sufian Abu Zaida, a former Palestinian Authority Minister, say yes. The picture shows them at a peace rally in Jerusalem in 2012, where Israeli and Palestinian flags were waved. Liel was in South Africa in February to promote his views.

SOUTH AFRICA’S Jewish leaders have work to do concerning ANC members’ negative perceptions of Israel, exemplified in Parliament last week during a speech by then minister of science and technology Naledi Pandor. Her speech formed part of the debate following President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address and was meant to respond to the international co-operation objectives he’d announced. However, Pandor’s comments in this regard had nothing to do with foreign affairs and was instead used as an opportunity to slam Israel. Pandor was confirmed on Monday as  minister of higher education in Ramaphosa’s Cabinet reshuffle.

But how should Jewish leaders relate to Jews criticising Israel? For example, a group recently formed in South Africa calling for Israel to end the “occupation” of the West Bank. The group is called SISO (Save Israel Stop the Occupation). An unfortunate response in the Jewish community is a hunkering down whereby anyone, Jewish or not, who criticises Israel is labelled a BDS (Boycott Divestment and Sanctions) messenger.

Some Jews label anti-Israel activity as anti-Semitism, and might justifiably point to the distasteful comments by ANC MPL Sharon Davids in the Cape Legislature last Friday, who said Premier Helen Zille is “too much in love with the Jewish mafia.” She added that the Democratic Alliance “fabricated” Cape Town’s water crisis deadline so desalination contract kickbacks could occur. A sub-text can be easily inferred, that such contracts would come from the world’s expert in water affairs – the Jewish homeland, Israel.

There may be some truth in parts of that. But how should Jews debate amongst themselves about Israel? Such as when the abovementioned South African group made up of born and bred Israelis, Jews who have lived there, and Jews who simply love Israel, says current Israeli government policy is wrong and it should withdraw from the West Bank – the most contentious Israeli issue.

Amongst the Israelis, the group includes the former Israeli ambassador to South Africa at the time of Nelson Mandela’s ascendancy to power, Alon Liel, who was also previously director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, and who had a close relationship with the South African freedom icon. In a 2013 article in YNet he said: “I met [Mandela] just five days after assuming the position of Israel’s ambassador to South Africa. Even before I submitted my credentials, Mandela himself telephoned me at 6 am… and said, ‘I’ve heard Israel is changing its policy. Let’s talk.’”

When this group, which includes several South African notaries such as a judge of the high court, asked recently to engage with Jewish institutions, many Jewish community leaders – although not all – said no, and certain individuals were summarily labelled “BDS”. However, the Cape Board of Deputies hosted him, and the South African Jewish Board of Deputies – which supports a two state solution to the conflict, thus implying an end to the occupation – met with him and his wife and issued a statement afterwards.

Liel and his cohorts are hated by the political right in Israel, amongst other things for alleged ties to the leftist organisation Breaking the Silence, and promoting boycotts of goods from the “occupied territories” to make it clear the settlements endanger Israel’s future.

Are they too far left for most SA Jews? Organisations who shunned them included the SA Zionist Federation, Johannesburg’s main Jewish community centre, and the youth movement Habonim – which was warned not to host him. Although his group repeatedly asserted its opposition to BDS – which advocates total boycott of Israel and supports its destruction – some Jewish leaders still accused him of representing BDS.

Shunning people like this group is misguided. SA Jews miss the opportunity to strengthen their views by debating contesting perspectives even if they disagree, and they push to the margins Jews reluctant to express themselves in the mainstream for fear of being ostracised.

Other, larger Jewish communities successfully incorporate wide-ranging debate on Israel. But SA Jewry is small. It is essential not to provoke people to leave because of their Israel perspectives. The last thing we need is an echo chamber of identical views.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

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South Africa: Send me!

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From a catastrophe to a new dawn? New SA president Cyril Ramaphosa has promised to end corruption, fix government, give jobs to the youth and a host of other remedies, after the disastrous nine years of the Zuma presidency. In the picture, then deputy president Ramaphosa went jogging on the Seapoint beachfront in Cape Town the dawn after Zuma resigned, with former finance minister Trevor Manuel, and met some of  his citizens.

FROM the perspective of their new lives in London, New York and other places to which South African ex-pats have fled over the decades during apartheid and after it, will the revived spirit of hope brought to South Africa by new President Cyril Ramaphosa inspire any of them to consider coming back?

South Africans overseas have often felt smug looking at the country’s decline during the catastrophe of former president Jacob Zuma, when it hurtled towards becoming yet another failed African state. They, after all, had been smart enough to leave and were far from Africa’s problems.

The huge emigration of many whites and others started during apartheid, particularly after the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, continuing until Nelson Mandela’s release from jail and his ascendancy to the presidency. Amidst the euphoria, emigration slowed as South Africa seemed again a place with a future. There was talk of expats coming back.

This country’s story is about cycles of betrayal and hope, betrayal and hope, again and again. Can it now return to the spirit of hope?

Today the newspaper headlines on the street poles proclaim “goodbye Zuma” and “a new dawn begins.” Addressing the nation from parliament, Ramaphosa quoted from a song by legendary musician Hugh Masekela – known as the father of SA jazz – about everyone lending a hand.

Masekela’s life is a metaphor for this country. He left after the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, helped by anti-apartheid activist Archbishop Trevor Huddleston and international friends such as Yehudi Menuhin and John Dankworth, going to the UK, then to the US.

He married another South African icon, jazz singer Miriam Makeba. Masekela wrote well-known anti-apartheid songs, such as Bring Him Back Home, about the movement to free Mandela. He returned to South Africa in the 1990s after Mandela’s release and continued to compose and perform locally and on the world stage. The muso, affectionately known as Bra Hugh, died last month. A line from one of his songs, Thuma Mina, goes: “I wanna be there when the people start to turn it around.” Indeed, he was.

There are not many Masekelas, and it is unlikely many SA expats will return, no matter how rosy the South African dawn sounds. They have put down roots elsewhere; their children were raised as Canadians, Americans or with other identities. And the changes in South Africa are not yet solid enough. Can Ramaphosa pull off this gigantic task of renewing the country? It is not yet certain.

One consequence of this past decade is that the ANC – Mandela’s glorious liberation movement turned government – has tainted itself by supporting Zuma. Its hands are dirty. Can Ramaphosa cleanse it? Whether he succeeds or not, the manner in which Zuma was sent off into the wilderness according to strict constitutional principles, shows South African democracy’s solidity.

Many expat South Africans look down their noses at this new multiparty African democracy from the comfort of their mature European and American democracies. But maturity is a relative thing. The parliament building in Cape Town from where Ramaphosa spoke so elegantly to the nation this week, is the same place in which the apartheid rulers formulated the brutal racial policies of their time, and also the place where Zuma sat as president while his cronies looted the country’s coffers. Has betrayal turned to trust again? Can expats in London see it or not?

Ramaphosa, when he was still deputy president, was jogging recently along the Seapoint beachfront in Cape Town with former finance minister Trevor Manuel, and encountered some young Jewish women also jogging. A warm, happy selfie of all of them is circulating. Hopefully it will also reach the expats in London. He’s going to need that warmth and trust from everyone if he’s going to untangle the mess of this country.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

Filth, filth everywhere: who can you trust?

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has avoided being found guilty on numerous corruption charges. Israel’s highest court has now given police the go-ahead to publicize indictment recommendations in two long-running corruption investigations which could lead to a new scenario for him (Photo: Amir Cohen)

HOW do corrupt politicians cling to power even after being fingered? In Israel, something which shields Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been accused of corruption time and time again, is Israelis’ perception that he is tough on security, which is crucial in that neighbourhood. Although disliked and mistrusted by many, his security credentials win the day.

How did Jacob Zuma stay for so long as South Africa’s president when he was clearly destroying the country? Future historians will puzzle over it, but it has something to do with the ANC’s belief that it owns the country after leading the liberation struggle, and couldn’t allow itself to be seen as installing a crook as president.

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President Jacob Zuma

It was social critic Mark Twain who said: “Politicians and diapers must be changed often, and for the same reason.”

While South Africans fume at Zuma’s shenanigans, political corruption was not invented here. It is endemic in Africa, Latin America, Asia and elsewhere. It includes countries like Israel, to many Jews’ dismay. In the United States, law enforcement authorities are trying to nail President Donald Trump for the same thing.

Transparency International monitors sleaze in 176 countries. Its 2016 corruption perceptions index lists Denmark and New Zealand as the most squeaky-clean, least corrupt, both at number 1. At the list’s bottom, at 174-176, are the most corrupt – North Korea, South Sudan and Somalia. The United States is 18, Israel 28, and South Africa 64.

In Israel, several prime ministers in the last two decades have been criminally investigated, including Ehud Olmert, Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu, whose period in office is second only to Israel’s founding Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, has been investigated for a range of things, including receiving expensive gifts from businessmen, a newspaper collusion scandal, a submarine procurement affair, a problematic natural gas deal, a Bezeq (Israel’s telephone company) probe, a case involving furniture in the two Netanyahu residences, and others.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak has likened Netanyahu to a mafia boss. In July last year he listed on Facebook criminal investigations linked to Netanyahu, and he posed the question to Israelis: “Hasn’t the time come to put an end to all of this? Have we all gone crazy?”

Netanyahu was initially investigated for fraud and breach of trust in 1997 during his first term as prime minister, and was accused of appointing an attorney general who would deal favourably with a political ally. Two years later, he was investigated for fraud regarding accusations about a government contractor.

Other prime ministers have been no less suspect. In the late 1990s, Sharon was believed to have taken hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes in the “Greek Island Affair.” The accusation involved Israeli businessman David Appel bribing Sharon, who was then Foreign Minister, to help Appel win approval for a development in Greece.

Olmert was given a prison sentence in 2014 for fraud and breach of trust in the “Holyland Affair”, a housing project in Jerusalem where he was mayor before becoming prime minister. He was also convicted in 2016 of taking bribes in the “Talansky Affair” where American businessman Morris Talansky testified that he gave Olmert envelopes stuffed with cash.

Do South Africa and Israel share anything on this topic? Both countries have the sense of a grand mission. The former soared to euphoric heights through Mandela’s vision, and although things have since gone wobbly, it still resonates, although not as potently. Israel was seen by its founders as the glorious redemption of a Jewish state after the Holocaust, an inspiration and a haven for the Jewish people.

But politics is politics, and Mark Twain rings true regardless of grand ideals.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

Refugees: home is not where the heart is – a voice from SA Jews?

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Equal pay, equal work? Israeli activists and African asylum-seekers protest outside Tel Aviv Museum of Art in April 2017 against special conditions on migrants’ salaries, designed to encourage them to leave the country (photo:Eliyahu Kamisher)

WHEN acrimonious debates arise in the Jewish world, such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial intention to deport 38 000 African refugees from Israel back to Africa, voices from tiny Jewish communities such as South Africa seem very muted.

South African Jewry has long been in distress because of political chaos in the country, its attempts to find its place here as a minority group, and its rapidly shrinking size – it is less than half what it was in the 1970s and many of its best and brightest have left for safer shores. Given these internal problems, it appears there is little appetite for involvement in wider matters such as the migrants.

Jews are justifiably proud of Israel without having to trumpet its achievements to the world. However there are moments in a nation’s history when it must do something extremely public to affirm its core. This is such a moment. The status of ‘refugee’ is central to the Jewish historical experience, and Jews are being put in the position one generation later of making such a decision for others.

Some 72 percent of the migrants are Eritrean and 20 percent Sudanese who arrived between 2006 and 2012 to escape war and repression. Many live in south Tel Aviv. The Knesset gave Netanyahu the power to deport them or imprison those refusing to leave ‘voluntarily.’ There have been accusations from Israelis that they have contributed to rising crime in the area and other misdemeanors. Many Israelis want them out.

Does this little South African Jewish community have anything useful to say? The mandate of its representative organisations is to ‘protect the Jewish way of life’. Could this way of life include something about treating migrants? We have witnessed a myriad times in South African history, the effects on helpless people of governments shunting them off to inhospitable places.

Menachem Begin gave us the opposite example in 1977 when, in one of his first acts after becoming Israeli prime minister, he welcomed 66 Vietnamese ‘boat people’ who had been rescued at sea, comparing them to Jewish refugees seeking refuge during the Holocaust. He granted them citizenship. Israel was praised for its humanity.

Refugees from war and disaster zones globally are more numerous today than any time since the Second World War, estimated at 66 million. Some Western countries have taken a number in, others have refused. The 38 000 in Israel constitute one-half of 1 percent of Israel’s population – currently no threat to its demography, although obviously the future is uncertain.

Netanyahu’s intention to eject them has evoked protest in the Jewish world. Nearly 800 American Jewish clergymen signed an open letter urging him to cancel the deportations; two former heads of the Foreign Ministry, Nissim Ben Sheetrit and Alon Liel have protested; and 147 Israeli academics, 35 former diplomats, and Israeli Holocaust survivors.

El-Al pilots have said they will refuse to fly deportees to Africa; the New Israel Fund, refugee support group HIAS and rights group T’ruah have joined; ADL’s national director and CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt has protested, as well as the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. Irwin Cotler, former justice minister in Canada who chairs the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights in Montreal and has dealt with African migrant matters for over a decade, has lobbied against deportation. Netanyahu has accused George Soros, international humanitarian and philanthropist, of backing protests.

Are there any voices from rabbis, leaders or others here which might add a South African angle to the debate?

It would be interesting to hear the views of South African Jews – whether they agree with Netanyahu’s plan or not – on something that is not about running Israel, but about a moral issue.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )