Is BDS still a four-letter word for SA Jews?

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Although BDS consists of only a few activists in South Africa, it has achieved a higher profile due to connections with people in the ANC, trade unions and other organisations. It has pressurised the SA government to sever ties with Israel, posing a dilemma for SA Jews on how to react

In 2014, a furore erupted in the South African Jewish community when a student at a Jewish school wore a keffiyah in public, which was interpreted by many as support for Israel’s enemies. Hundreds of people signed an online petition calling on the school to remove the student from all his leadership roles as deputy head boy and SRC member. Later, a new petition by former head boys and head girls as well as their deputies emerged, calling for the attacks on him to stop. Eventually the school board supported his right to express his own views but to be aware of how it might affect others.

In 2018, two  Jewish pupils at Herzlia Middle School in Cape Town, took a knee during the singing of Hatikva, causing outrage. In the same year, Limmud had to drop three speakers from its programme because they supported BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions), which is intensely hostile to Israel, though they were not scheduled to speak about BDS.

What do South African Jews think about criticism of Israel today? Traditionally, they have been extremely sensitive, taking it almost as a personal affront. Attitudes have softened, but it remains a hot topic liable to provoke a vehement reaction, even if it involves only a small number of people.

Support for BDS is more serious than mere criticism of Israel, but isn’t a mass phenomenon in South Africa. However, since Israel regards it as an important enemy in international forums, and actually passed legislation in 2017 barring anyone supporting BDS from entering, diaspora Jews are uncertain about what stance to take. BDS characterises itself as a non-violent human rights group. But is its priority human rights, or annihilating Israel? Most portray it as the latter.

What about South Africa? As part of a general survey of attitudes among the Cape Town Jewish community, the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at UCT asked interviewees on their attitudes around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and whether the community should engage with Jews who support BDS. Findings were presented at Limmud two weeks ago. The survey did not ask about direct engagement with BDS, only the extent of interaction with community members who support BDS. More generally, should Diaspora Jews feel free to criticise Israeli policy?

Jews younger than 30 were relatively more often open to public criticism of Israel and engaging with community members who support BDS, relative to older Jews. It is possible this result stems from Diaspora Jews’ diminishing attachment or even alienation towards Israel, and a lesser sense of what nationhood means to them generally. Among the middle aged group (30-50) attitudes are more mixed. As would be consistent with this age range, one might assume that professionals and academics are more likely to be open to both criticism of Israeli policy and BDS, while others still believe BDS’ only aim is Israel’s annihilation. Also, during their entire lives Israel has been criticised for occupying the West Bank; they want to know more. Older Jews (50+) are still likely to maintain past attitudes and oppose all public criticism of Israel. It is likely that this age cohort still considers Israel a precious haven for persecuted Jews after the Holocaust; if Israel acts harshly, it has no choice but to defend itself; and criticism is mostly anti-Semitic.

Aside from the survey, what about SA politics? BDS-SA has very loudly pressurised the ANC government to sever ties with Israel, often bringing trade unions and similar groups into the picture to paint Israel as an unqualified evil. In a dramatic development in April, the Minister of International Relations announced the downgrading of South Africa’s Embassy in Tel Aviv to a Liaison Office, to the justified outrage of SA Jews who felt that cutting ties is completely the wrong way to go.

With the Israeli-Palestinian conflict far from resolution and SA politics in turmoil, attitudes towards Israel will stay fluid and often expedient. Many SA Jews report that in work and social environments, they hesitate to say they support Israel because of the hostile reaction. Unfortunately, the chance for open discussion remains slim and may have to wait until there is real movement on Israeli-Palestinian peace.


Boycott to and fro: Be careful what you ban


If I stop buying your goods, can I change you? Boycotts are a common political tactic, but they are sometimes more fashionable than successful, and their outcomes are not entirely predictable

SOUTH AFRICANS know a few things about boycotts, and Israel and those who want to boycott it could learn a bit, even though the two countries are worlds apart culturally and historically. From the 1960s until almost the end of apartheid, the trade, cultural, sports, academic and other sanctions against South Africa were intended to force the white regime to abandon its racist policies and its suppression of the black majority.

Historians will forever argue over how much the sanctions were responsible for apartheid’s demise, compared to other factors such as the collapse of the Soviet Union, which changed the political environment. Nevertheless, being cut off from the world was painful; even travelling overseas on a South African passport was uncomfortable.

The Anti-Apartheid Movement’s first major victory, in 1961, forced South Africa to leave the Commonwealth. In 1962, the UN General Assembly asked member states to impose a trade boycott. In 1963, the Security Council called for a partial arms ban.

Expecting South Africa to capitulate, there was one effect the boycotters didn’t adequately foresee. Among certain sectors of the population, particularly conservative Afrikaners who wielded power, the boycotts induced a stubborn, creative camaraderie, a determination to hold things together and flourish despite sanctions – the opposite of the demoralisation the boycotters wanted. It was the midst of the Cold War, and politicians rallied conservative white groups by labelling liberal anti-apartheid protestors ‘communists’ – a damning indictment in the Cold War mindset. So South Africa continued stubbornly, for decades, to endure while the world was busy with the Cold War.

There is much talk today about partial or full boycotts of Israel. Anti-Israel movements use the South African boycotts as their model. But it is misguided. Africa is not the Middle East, and despite its flaws, Israel is not South African apartheid. Internationally, a major destabilising factor today is the complex conflict between the Islamic and western worlds. And boycotts can have the opposite effect to what is intended.

BDS makes a lot of noise, but achieving a full boycott of Israel is highly unlikely. It can only be symbolic. Israel stands on the highway of the world and is as strong as it has ever been. Most participants in ‘boycott’ groups know this.

So one wonders why Israel bothered to detain at Ben Gurion airport the 22-year-old American student Lara Alqasem who arrived on October 2 on a study visa. It was absurd when security officials who blocked her, cited her membership of a chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Florida, and her alleged support for BDS. All it did was raise the boycotters’ profile; it had no practical effect. And by coming to Israel to study at the Hebrew University, Alqasem gave up any claim to represent the boycott movement.

Fortunately Israel’s Supreme Court has now overturned the decision of the Minister of the Interior to deny her entry, and she has entered the country after a two-week delay.

Pressuring Israel to change policies towards the Palestinians is urgently necessary. Its occupation of the West Bank will, if unchecked, foreclose any possibly of a two-state solution. But contrary to their intentions, supporters of boycotts are only giving the current government and its prime minister more politically expedient ammunition to tell Israelis that once again, ‘the whole world is against the Jewish state’. He will elevate BDS to the level of an existential threat, and rally Israelis behind him as if they were fighting yet another mortal, ‘anti-Semitic’ enemy.

South African sanctions had a huge effect on the country. But BDS will ultimately fail. Opposition to Israeli policies must come from within the Israeli and Jewish world. The question is how much damage, through overreacting, the prime minister will allow it to do to Israel’s image in the meantime.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: 


The BDS knee jerk: Almost a witch hunt?

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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: )

Criticism of Israel: Whose right is it, anyway?

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 To criticize or praise Israel? When South African Jews filled a Johannesburg park in August 2014 to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day, other Jews from a group called Jewish Voice For A Just Peace gathered across the road to protest Israel’s policy towards the Palestinian territories 

IT is not unusual for elder South African politicians to use their anti-apartheid struggle credentials as political capital, as if their views are superior to others.

The issue found a reverse echo in Israel last week, when Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely – an ardent right-winger and settlement supporter – contemptuously criticised American Jews who “never send their children to fight for their country (America)… most of them are having quite convenient lives.” And they don’t really care about the kotel, she added. She, on the other hand, lives in Israel and serves in the IDF, as if that makes her views superior to Jews who don’t – which means most American Jews. Her comments outraged sections of American Jewry. A response in Israeli media from a high-ranking US military officer listed Jews who fought with the US army in World War Two, and hold high military positions today.

Hotovely also disparages Diaspora Jews who criticise Israel’s weakening of liberal values, and the occupation. Sadly, many American Jews – the world’s second largest Jewish community after Israel – who are overwhelmingly liberal, do not see Israel as part of their identity, but a problem evoking antagonism from other people because of the occupation. US Jews dislike racism and religious extremism. Despite being only 2 percent of America’s population, they played a huge part in the civil rights movement, and continue to do so in culture, the arts, politics and the economy.

Their relationship with Israel has weakened as the country has moved towards right-wing extremism and nationalism. If they have a Reform or Conservative religious identity – as the majority of American Jews do – they accuse Israel of acting arrogantly as if it held a copyright on Judaism. They perceive Israel’s Orthodox establishment as being contemptuous of other streams.

Israel was created as a worldwide Jewish project to be a moral, democratic state for all inhabitants, with the intention of being intimately connected to the Diaspora. Do Israeli public officials have the right to criticise Diaspora communities. Could Hotovely’s attack on US Jews also be applied to South African Jewry?

And should South African Jews criticise Israel, against the accusation that they don’t live there, face Middle East dangers, serve in the IDF, and so on?

South African Jewish institutions are loath to criticise Israel, believing it gives ammunition to anti-Israel groups such as BDS. The recent controversy provoked by a Johannesburg Reform shul inviting people with BDS connections to its sukkah, highlighted the issue. At Israeli-oriented events such as Yom Ha’atzmaut in Johannesburg, left-wing Jews demonstrate against Israeli actions, and promote the Palestinian cause, evoking anger among mainstream Jewry. Even moderate Jewish groups who support Israel passionately, but demand an end to the occupation of Palestinian territories are often branded, without any evidence, as belonging to BDS in order to silence them. They are accused of being traitors.

The SA political environment is receptive to attacks on Israel. The Deputy Secretary General of the African National Congress, Jesse Duarte, for example, published an article in the Daily Maverick this week in anticipation of the ANC leadership conference later this month, saying: “Israel has continued to violate international law, occupation continues and the brutality of the Israeli system of oppression has, rightly, been likened to apartheid … As the ANC therefore prepares for its National Conference, South Africa’s future relations with Israel hangs in the balance and rightly so.”

For SA Jews who support Israel but oppose the occupation, it is a difficult line to tread. But it must not stifle meaningful debate about Israel, including praise and criticism where necessary. Like South African struggle veterans’ critiques of the ANC and South Africa, this kind of engagement is crucial.

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


Could Israel-Palestine peace rest on personal stories?

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CAN individual Palestinians and Israelis get past their violent history and see each other as people? A documentary screened in the past two weeks in Johannesburg and Cape Town shows attempts at this by a group calling itself Combatants for Peace. It has tiny echoes of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation commission, in which Israelis and Palestinians tell their personal stories to each other face to face, not sparing the pain.

Called “Disturbing the Peace”, the film, directed by Stephen Apkon and Andrew Young and feted by international film critics in the New York Times and elsewhere, was released last year and portrays real people and events, using archival and re-created material, describing the group’s genesis and formal establishment in 2005.

In the film, an Israeli soldier in an elite commando unit, Chen Alon, is ordered to deny passage at a checkpoint to a Palestinian father desperate to take sick children to hospital. Alon, a father himself, is appalled. Other Israelis are as well.

Another protagonist, Palestinian woman Shifa al-Qudsi, decides to become a suicide bomber to kill Israelis, but is arrested before carrying out the mission. She spends six years in an Israeli jail, where she encounters a guard whose brother was killed in a Palestinian suicide attack. She is horrified. The film is peppered with grisly scenes of Israeli buses blown up by suicide bombers and Palestinian families grieving as they watch their homes being demolished by Israeli bulldozers.

In one of the most potent scenes, a Palestinian man and woman watch on television the bodies of dead Israelis strewn on the ground after a Jerusalem bus bombing. The woman expresses sadness. The man is perplexed: “They are the oppressors! This is our struggle”. She retorts that Israeli mothers losing children suffer like Palestinian mothers.

Through a hush-hush message, the small Israeli group is invited to meet similar-minded Palestinians in the territories, secretly. They enter a room and are seated on a row of chairs facing several Palestinians. Both sides begin, tensely, telling their personal stories. The Israelis had friends and relatives killed in terrorist attacks; the Palestinians have lost friends and relatives, been held in Israeli prisons, and had homes demolished. It is an incredibly moving moment.

Through the formation of Combatants for Peace, the Israelis declare they will continue serving in the army defending Israel, but will refuse service in the occupied territories; the Palestinians renounce violence. Both sides call for a two-state solution to the conflict.

The Israelis in the group are despised by some other Israelis as leftist radicals. At a Tel Aviv rally, a man swears at a demonstrator: “You piece of shit! You are traitors! Go and live with them!”

The film’s weakness, yet paradoxically also its strength, is its focus solely on Israelis’ and Palestinians’ human side, not the macro-reality. Can a solution emerge from this level? Or are they naïve? Does a tiny group like this have relevance amidst the harsh reality of a century-old conflict in a region engulfed in turmoil, with terrorist group Hamas still vowing to eliminate Israel, and Iran, Russia and the United States embroiled with their own interests? And with the most right wing government in Israel’s history, still building settlements.

One vignette shows the group addressed by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu through a specially recorded video, encouraging them to pursue their dream, as South Africans did.

In the last decade, the political centre supporting the two-state solution and opposing the occupation has withered in South Africa, leaving moderate Israeli-oriented Jews without a political home. Extremes such as BDS and the Jewish right-wing are dominant. This film contributes to a more hopeful approach which says people on the other side are human beings, not just killers. Cynics may roll their eyes and call it naïve, yet everything else has failed to solve the conflict.

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

  • Screening of Disturbing the Peace in Cape Town and Johannesburg arranged by South African branch of pro-peace organisation SISO (Save Israel Stop the Occupation)