SOUTH AFRICAN Jews can be forgiven for being confused about Israel and South Africa, both of which concern them immensely. The abiding feeling is a conflict of loyalties.
This week’s conflagration in Israel looms large, with Monday’s lethal clash with some 40,000 Palestinians protesting along the Gaza border, and reports saying 60 were killed and 1200 wounded, with more expected in coming days.
SA Jews generally believe the United Nations is biased against Israel. Thus, when two-thirds of the Security Council expressed “profound concern” Monday night, complaining that a 2016 resolution demanding that Israel must stop building settlements on Palestinian land was being ignored, they were not surprised. Nor that Ireland – also considered anti-Israel – demanded an independent investigation into the killings.
But when, to many Jews’ dismay, the SA government, in crude and one-sided, inflammatory language, immediately recalled its ambassador to Israel and called on Israel to “withdraw from the Gaza Strip and bring to an end the violent and destructive incursions into Palestinian territories”, it was too much: South Africa didn’t seem to know that Israel withdrew in 2005.
All of this came just after Israel’s Independence Day celebration and opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem, which most SA Jews praised. So whose side to take?
The official response of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies and SA Zionist Federation said the government’s decision was “outrageous and displays gross double standards… against the Jewish state.” But many will criticise it harshly for entertaining no questions about any conceivable failures on both sides in the situation, even if they were unintentional – an “Israel is completely right, the Palestinians are completely wrong” attitude. They will see it as a blind closing of ranks with no grey areas, and not as a call for all South Africans to understand that there are many sides to the conflict.
The SAJBD’s long-standing mandate is looking after Jewish community welfare, not national politics. But where does the line lie? It will argue that SA policy towards Israel directly affects the welfare of the Jewish community and that SA criticism of Israel provokes anti-Semitism. Many Jews will agree. Some may not.
Numerous questions beg answers from Israel and South Africa. Israel had put in place measures to avoid loss of Palestinian lives, particularly because of criticisms after unarmed Palestinians were killed in previous weeks. What happened?
Who controls SA foreign policy? Is it President Cyril Ramaphosa, admired as the man who will repair the country? SA politics is as complex as Israel’s; no one knows what’s going on in the struggle between him and the old Zuma network of patronage. Until recently there was a feeling of ‘ramaphoria’ about him – the messiah coming to save the country.
He has begun fixing things and ejecting corrupt individuals. But his support is fragile; he treads carefully around powerful people. If he proposed a different Israel stance, would he anger ANC members? How important is his Jewish constituency? ANC policy supports the two-state solution – Israel living alongside Palestine. But ANC heavyweights strongly favour the Palestinians.
In the SA media, Israel was a front page story for some, but it won’t last. The truth is, most people are tired of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – it’s more of the same, year after year, with no solution in sight.
Most ordinary people watch the news and shrug. Some take an emotional position after watching a certain item, but change it soon after; there are too many variables, it’s too complex. Ultimately, many withdraw and go on with their lives. The danger is that at times like this, people get sucked into a mob mentality, separating everyone into ‘friend’ or ‘foe’ as if those on the other side are not human.
There are people on all sides with dreams and hopes for a better life.
GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org