Right of Reply: The South African way

By DAVID SAKS
May 12, 2010 21:45

Missing from outrage on Goldstone vs. South African Jewry crisis is any serious attempt to understand what motivated South African Zionist leadership's drastic course of action.




Right of Reply: The South African way

Judge Goldstone 248.88. (photo credit: Courtesy )

The last few weeks have not been easy ones for the mainstream Jewish leadership in South Africa. Outraged commentators the world over have been queuing up to pillory it either for actively planning to demonstrate against Judge Richard Goldstone at his grandson’s bar mitzva, and thereby compelling him to change his mind about attending it, or at the very least for standing aside and failing to oppose that decision.

Missing from the chorus of outrage – Larry Derfner’s two columns in this paper on April 22 (“Yasher Koah, Judge Goldstone”) and May 6 (“Yasher Koah, South African Jewry”) are good examples – is any serious attempt to understand what motivated the South African Zionist leadership to adopt what all involved realized was clearly a drastic course of action. Why, in fact, did the South African Zionist Federation, with the acquiescence (albeit often uneasy) of several other important Jewish organizations and leaders, initially take the unprecedented decision to demonstrate against one of the community’s members at a family simha?

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Up to a point, this lack of contextualization is understandable since the SAZF, in line with what had been agreed to with the Goldstone family, was for a long time deliberately tight-lipped about its motivations. With the controversy since having happily been resolved, with even a genuinely constructive outcome having emerged, such reticence is no longer necessary. Essentially it was thought that, given the enormous harm Goldstone had done to Israel through “kashering” by his respected presence a fundamentally unjust quasi-judicial process against it, his coming and going within the Jewish community from which he had emerged could not simply be ignored as if it was all “business as usual.”

The seriousness of his actions was considered to be such as to make even a private family occasion – in this case a bar mitzva – an appropriate forum in which to convey the community’s unhappiness toward him.

IN THE end, of course, the demonstration was called off and instead, as per a prior agreement between the parties, a Jewish leadership delegation met privately with Goldstone shortly after the ceremony. It was unquestionably an outcome that even those who had supported the planned protests will have welcomed. Against all expectations, in fact, what began as a painful, divisive controversy ultimately gave rise to something quite positive – a civilized process of engagement where previously there had been only polarization. Moreover, what had been a severe test for communal unity had resulted in the various organizations successfully working together to resolve the crisis, whose solution had by no means been straightforward.

Certainly this was how Zev Krengel, chairman of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, saw the matter. As chairman of the meeting, he chose to open with a quote from a speech made last year by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who said: “Never let a serious crisis go to waste. What I mean by that is it’s an opportunity to do things you couldn’t do before.”

In doing so, he later wrote, he wanted to convey how for all the unpleasantness of the previous few weeks, it had provided all concerned with the opportunity of engaging in honest, face-to-face dialogue. The very crisis in which everyone had found themselves had given rise to a forum in which frank, open but perhaps above all civilized discussion could take place.

The meeting between Goldstone and the community from which he had become so painfully alienated in one sense served a cathartic purpose, enabling the parties to express their hurt and anger and explain their respective positions. For South African Jewry, a close-knit, ardently Zionistic community, the importance of such a process should not be understated.

OF WIDER resonance was the significance of the meeting itself. While the subject matter of what was discussed was, by mutual agreement, kept confidential, the lengthy opening statements of Goldstone and SAZF chairman Avrom Krengel were released to the media. These, apart from a certain poignancy relating to the unique circumstances that gave rise to them, are of real value in the record of the still unfolding Goldstone enquiry saga.

Krengel’s powerful, pointed and eloquent attack on some of the Goldstone’s report’s glaring shortcomings was not just another item posted on the Internet or featured in the opinion pages of a newspaper but was presented in a face-to-face encounter on behalf of the community he represented.

Goldstone’s dignified and considered statement was perhaps even more interesting. One doesn’t have to engage in subjective reading between the lines to recognize that he, too, understands that the UN Human Rights Council’s glaring lack of evenhandedness is a serious problem that has to be remedied if any credible process of international human rights law enforcement is to take root. And while he can justly be criticized for his decision to continue heading the Gaza fact-finding mission even after it became clear that Israel would not participate, his contention that in boycotting the process instead of seeking to influence the outcome, Israel may have squandered a rare opportunity to put its case to the international community is by no means without merit.

Whatever one’s views on all of this, it can be said in the end that civilized discourse prevailed over mutually harmful antagonism, and that in achieving this outcome, the much maligned South African Jewish leadership deserves no small share of the credit. It would certainly be misleading to claim that no differences now remain between Richard Goldstone and South African Jewry; indeed, there remain many areas of profound disagreement even after the meeting. However, the very process of exchanging ideas and understanding one another’s point of view has been beneficial and that, to quote Zev Krengel once more is, after “the South African way.”


The writer is the associate director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.


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