One step forward, two steps back – some thoughts following my return from South Africa

 Gusti Yehoshua-Braverman. Head of the Department of Irgoon and Israelis Abroad The World Zionist Organization. (photo credit:  Noa Lutsky)
Gusti Yehoshua-Braverman. Head of the Department of Irgoon and Israelis Abroad The World Zionist Organization.
(photo credit: Noa Lutsky)

A few months ago, I hosted Reverend Albert Mbenga at the Herzl Center in Jerusalem. Mbenga founded and heads Africa Bless Israel – an organization that seeks to strengthen the commitment of African countries to the State of Israel and make their views of Israel more favorable and supportive.

A short time ago, while at a conference that I led in Cape Town, I met Reverend Mbenga again. When I asked the Reverend what surprised him the most during his first visit to Israel, he answered without hesitation that he was surprised to see that the State of Israel is not an apartheid country. As someone who was born and raised in South Africa, he definitely knows what he’s talking about.

During my visit to Cape Town, I met with Mr. Pierre De Jager. He and his group of members stand every week across from the parliament in Cape Town.  They wave Israeli flags, carry signs that show support for Israel, and are exposed not only to the rain and sun, but also to insults and curses, and sometimes even to physical confrontations.

Recently, we held the seventh iVision Innovation conference in South Africa. iVision Innovation is a conference spearheaded by the Department of Irgoon and Israelis Abroad that is held in a different country each year. It aims to draw a straight line between the largest start-up in the world – Zionism – and the transformation of the State of Israel into the ‘start-up nation’ whose multiple technological advances benefit the entire world in general and the African continent in particular. The conference also seeks to initiate and encourage business collaborations between Israel and Jewish communities and other countries in the world.

In what was a highly unfortunate coincidence, while the conference was still in session, we heard a racist comment made by a senior minister of the Israeli government, who said: “My right, the right of my wife and children to travel on the roads of Judea and Samaria is more important than the freedom of movement of the Arabs…”

A comment like that, spoken offhandedly, ruins enormous efforts made over many years by the national institutions and Jewish communities, including our recent conference, to undermine those problematic views. 

It is doubtful whether the Israeli public understands the magnitude of the damage that comments of that nature cause to Jewish communities worldwide – all the more so to the community in South Africa.

For the benefit of those who are not familiar with the history of South African Jewry and its relations with the State of Israel, it should be stressed that the community is very pro-Zionist and that its Zionist Federation, which is celebrating its 125th anniversary, was among the first to be established – just one year after the First Zionist Congress in Basel.

The amount of money that the Jewish community has raised over the years to strengthen the State of Israel’s resilience is unprecedented. In fact, relative to its size, for many years, it has been the leading community in its donations to the State of Israel!

At present, not only is the Jewish community becoming smaller, and not only is it contending with antisemitic and anti-Zionist government policies, but it has to battle against the portrayal of the State of Israel as an apartheid country. The reason stems not only from South Africa’s past, but also from the fact that exactly 22 years ago, the United Nations held its World Conference Against Racism and Xenophobia in Durban, located on the eastern coast of South Africa – a conference that most people refer to as the Durban Conference. The conference was supposed to focus on advancing programs that combat racism and discrimination around the world, but it turned into a gathering that called for “the complete and total international isolation of Israel as an apartheid country.”

And after all these tough challenges, the frustration with a government that is unable to get through a single day without making comments that create huge controversy and damage, and without a leader who publicly denounces them, is compounded all the more!

Is it so difficult to understand that we are playing into the hands of those who hate us? That every comment thrown out here irresponsibly, reflecting a total lack of awareness, resonates at a much higher volume worldwide and places an unbearable burden on the shoulders of our brethren in the Diaspora?

We need to internalize what one of the members of the Jewish community, a major donor to the State of Israel, said to me – “When will you understand that when someone sneezes in Jerusalem, we get the flu here…??!!”