South African Jews may vary widely on their stance to the Israeli state, but official bodies for the community are fiercely pro-Israel.
“As far as our stance on Israel goes, we are a strong Zionist community,” said Mary Kluk, chairperson of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD). The South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) and South Africa’s chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein are also vocal defenders of the state.
But respected academic Steven Friedman – who is also Jewish – doesn’t think the official line is representative of the community. “There was a survey done seven or eight years ago by people who were themselves very supportive of the Israeli state and attitudes in the community were not nearly as uncritically pro-Israel as we are led to believe.”
This finding would be in keeping with the broader South African public. According to a Pew Global Attitudes Project in 2007 28% of South Africans said they sympathized more with Israel while 19% sided more with Palestine.
Friedman once served on the SAJBD but said he was ousted in a vicious campaign for his critical views on Israel.
Respected Jewish figures have experienced a similar backlash from the community’s mainstream organisations for their critical views. Jewish leaders slammed a declaration of conscience in 2001, led by Kasrils and called “Not in my name”. It was signed by leading intellectuals, artists, politicians and professionals like Nobel literature laureate Nadine Gordimer, cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro, and Rivonia trialists Arthur Goldreich and Denis Goldberg.
The SAJBD has attempted to reach out to the many Jewish veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle from whom the local Jewish establishment was long estranged, according to Helen Suzman fellow Claudia Braude. The SAJBD has publicly apologised for its lack of action and uses its humanitarian award as a way to make amends.
But Friedman deplores its hardline stance on Israel.
“The mainstream organisations are violating their mandate,” said Friedman. “They’re supposed to be the representative body of the community, not an agent of a state of the Middle East.”
He is scathing of Pogrund’s views. “It doesn’t matter if you’ve had a heart-warming experience lying on a hospital bed,” he said.
But new spaces are opening up for a plurality of views within the Jewish community in SA, which is numbered at about 75 000. Limmud is an annual conference which welcomes a broad range of views.
Limmud has won the support of the both the SAJBD and the SAZF – but not the South African rabbinate who have a ban on the gathering.