Cape Town: 'Conscientious objectors' visit may spur anti-Semitism'

Cape Town Conscientious

Jews in Cape Town expressed deep concern Tuesday that a visit to their city by three representatives of the Shministim, conscientious objectors to IDF service, could fuel anti-Israel sentiment and even anti-Semitism. Sponsored by South Africa's End Conscription Campaign (ECC) and the Open Shuhada Street (OSS), a non-profit organization campaigning to open a Hebron street, Yuval Ophir-Auron, 20, Omer Goldman, 20 and Sahar Vardi, 19 arrived in the country on October 2. Among their scheduled appearances are interviews on television and radio shows, as well as numerous presentations at local schools and universities. "They are speaking out to the greater South African population, that does not really know or understand the complex issues of the conflict in Israel," commented National Vice Chairman of the South African Zionist Federation David Hirsch. Hirsch has actively voiced his concern that the three will present a one-sided view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and could ultimately strengthen the anti-Israel lobby. "One of the main problems is that it could be used by other groups in a very negative way," concurred Owen Futeran, chairman of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies in Cape Town, pointing out that the ECC fought against conscription based on human rights, "which cannot be compared to the existential threat that Israel faces every day." In addition, he said: "This visit could cause major problems for the Jewish community, because many of the non-Jewish schools where they are speaking will not take the time to explain the Jews' 3,000-year-old historical claim to Israel or the last 62 years of Israel's modern history." The three will also speak at a Jewish community center, but were refused a chance to give a talk at the city's largest Jewish day school, out of fears that their stance did not address Israel's right to defend itself. A story published in the local newspaper Cape Times on Tuesday morning about the Shministim's visit, described conscription into the IDF as a violation of human rights and told of how IDF soldiers routinely deny millions of Palestinians their civil freedoms. "Obviously providing a full picture of what is happening in Israel cannot be done in just one talk," acknowledged Ilan Strauss, a volunteer for Open Shuhada Street and one of those behind the Shministim's visit. "However, it is important that South Africans are exposed to these courageous, non-violent perspectives, which adhere to human rights for both parties and aim to ensure a just resolution to the ongoing violence." He said that the aim of the visit was to "build solidarity in South Africa for human rights that cuts across gender, class and ethnic boundaries and seeks full civil rights for Israeli and Palestinians, as well as an end to Israeli occupation." Strauss maintained he is a Zionist. "If Zionism means equality for all individuals regardless of whether they are Jews, Muslims or Christians, then I am a Zionist," he said. "However, if it means enforcing the maximalist concept of the Israeli state and a clear disregard for human rights and rule of law, then I am not a Zionist" Strauss did not seem fazed that members of the Jewish community, including the largest Jewish school, had spoken out against the Shministim's visit to Cape Town. "[The school's] decision not to allow them in means they have limited the variety of opinions their students are exposed to," he said. "It goes against freedom of speech and a desire to form an opinion based on different expressions." "Like any institution, we reserve the right to vet which speakers address our learners," responded Geoff Cohen, director of education at the Herzlia Jewish Day School, which has a student body of some 1,800. "To this end, we have decided not to provide a platform for this particular group, specifically as their basic premise seeks to undermine the ability of Israel to defend itself." He added, however, that the school had allowed the Shministim to advertise its event, which will be held Wednesday at a restaurant near the school. Futeran said the local Board of Deputies accepted the school's decision to ban the speakers and commended it for allowing publicity material to be displayed. "We are asking people to be rational and to engage different opinions with their fellow Jews like any other community would," he said. The Shministim, (Hebrew slang for "12th graders"), are a small group of young Israelis who object to what they believe is Israel's illegal occupation of the territories by refusing compulsory army service. Last year, roughly 100 Israeli youngsters signed the Shministim letter, which lays out the basis for their refusal.