Right of Reply: The future of South Africa?

Ours is a vital, united, proudly Zionist Jewish community, appreciated and respected by its government.

By AVROM KRENGEL
November 20, 2010 22:39
Avrom Krengel

Avrom Krengel. (photo credit: Courtesy)

A few weeks ago, the South African Zionist Federation, of which I am chairman, hosted Caroline Glick for a speaking tour. It was her first visit to South Africa. In Cape Town, she was keynote speaker at the federation’s Cape Council conference. In Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth, she received standing ovations from packed audiences.

One would subsequently have expected from Glick some kind of communication thanking the community for its hospitality, but what we received was something entirely different. Her article (“Out of Africa,” November 10) turned out to be highly critical not just of South Africa in general, but of its Jewish communal leadership in particular.

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The central theme of Glick’s article is not particularly new or original. Over the past 50 years, many overseas commentators have opined that South Africa’s complacent Jewish community should flee before it is too late.

Prior to dealing with Glick’s prophecies, some of her more glaring factual errors concerning South Africa and its Jewish community need to be addressed.

In providing an example of how the SA Jewry is besieged by anti-Semitic attacks, Glick mentions that some years back Jewish school buses were stoned. The only problem with this is that no such event has ever occurred. Actually, the only time SA Jewish students were stoned while on a bus was on an education program to Israel while travelling in the West Bank. South Africa has strikingly low levels of anti-Semitism. Last year it recorded only 95 anti- Semitic incidents, mainly of a nonviolent nature, while Australia, with a similar size Jewish population, recorded 765.

Glick claims that the role of Jewish individuals in the struggle against apartheid has not won the Jewish community any gratitude or friendship from the government, which, in deference to the larger Muslim community, has distanced itself from it. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Firstly, she is wrong in stating that Muslims hold most senior positions in the civil service. The latter’s composition is largely reflective of the demography of the country, where over 90 percent are Christian. While SA Jewry constitutes just 0.15% of the population, senior government leaders regularly attend Jewish events. Every president, from Nelson Mandela to Jacob Zuma, in addressing the Jewish community, has expressed appreciation and gratitude for the role its members played in creating a free, democratic South Africa.

The respect shown toward the community is actually quite remarkable. Last year, the general election date was changed because it clashed with the seventh day of Pessah.

South Africa must be the only Diaspora country that invites the chief rabbi to address the nation at every presidential inauguration. When a deputy minister made anti- Semitic remarks during Operation Cast Lead, the community received an apology from the president himself and within two months that minister was no longer in government.

Where government and the community primarily differ is over Israel. While it would be extremely convenient for us to keep our views about Israel to ourselves, we do exactly the opposite. Every available resource and opportunity is used to defend Israel in dealing with government, the media and society in general. Our efforts are not restricted to quiet diplomacy. When South Africa recalled its ambassador after the flotilla incident, the SA Union of Jewish Students held protests outside the relevant government offices and upon presentation of its petition was informed that the ambassador would return to Israel shortly (a promise duly kept).

South African Jews are open and proud Zionists. Our celebrations and demonstrations for Israel are attended by tens of thousands in the streets, parks and stadia, are publicly advertised and receive national media coverage. So far as local boycott, divestment, sanctions initiatives against Israel, to date the community has been successful in thwarting almost every one of these.

Glick alleges that the community’s fear of Jewish turncoats has prevented it from discrediting them. This, too, is nonsense; just one example to the contrary being the vociferous criticism of Judge Richard Goldstone for complicity in the disgraceful Goldstone report. If the establishment is careful not to go overboard in criticizing Jewish dissidents, it is because they are so small a minority and should not be given the publicity they seek to propagate their anti-Israel views.

We are a community that is not afraid to debate what it means to be a Zionist and hear views critical of certain Israeli policies. We make no apologies for this and find Glick’s singling out of Hayley Galgut, who intends moving to Israel and supports its right to exist as a Jewish democratic state even if she is highly critical of some of its policies, to be unnecessary and vindictive.

Perhaps the most insidious accusation Glick makes is that rather than attacking “anti-Semites” like Desmond Tutu, South African Jews have honored him by making him a patron of their Holocaust Foundation. Actually, Tutu was appointed as patron more than 11 years ago, when he played no role in any anti-Israel movement. His present conduct has met with wall-to-wall condemnation from the community, best expressed by Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein’s excellent article recently published in The Jerusalem Post (“An open letter to Archbishop Demond Tutu,” November 4).

Problems such as endemic corruption are not unique to South Africa (Israel, for one, also appears to have a revolving door between politics and prison). Despite poverty, unemployment, crime, AIDS and the threats of nationalization and curbing of press freedom, South Africans (like Israelis) are tenacious, resilient and creative in dealing with their country’s problems. An example is the innovative community policing initiatives which the Jewish community has introduced in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs and which have reduced crime in those areas by more than 90%.

South Africa has an independent and vibrant judiciary, media and civil society. No one takes our hard-won gains for granted. In the past 14 years the country has experienced almost uninterrupted economic growth, allowing millions of South Africans to escape poverty and receive housing, electricity, water and sanitation for the first time.

SA JEWRY has greatly benefited from and contributed to South Africa. In a little over 150 years, its members have created a unique community which, for its size, exhibits an energy, vitality and unity almost unprecedented within the Diaspora. We are one of a handful of communities whose children, because of an excellent Jewish day school system, religious and cultural institutions and Zionist youth movements, have a high probability of becoming active, identifying and practicing Jews and Zionists. It is not by coincidence that the present governor of the Bank of Israel and the director-general of the Jewish Agency were both graduates of Habonin Dror South Africa.

The federation agrees wholeheartedly with Glick that South African Jews should make aliya. In the past decade we have, with the Jewish Agency, increased aliya by 300% and reestablished Israel as the number one destination for Jewish émigrés. However, our reasons for encouraging aliya have nothing to do with any doomsday scenarios regarding our country’s future. Jews should immigrate to Israel because it is the center of Jewish life and destiny, filled with promise and opportunity.

As Zionists, rather than predicting the demise of others, let’s focus on fulfilling our own prophecies of an ingathering of the exiles to Eretz Yisrael.

The writer is chairman of the South African Zionist Federation.


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