Who will shake SA Jewry’s faith in Israel?

Not since Justice Richard Goldstone released the Goldstone Report has the Jewish world been this at odds over one of its own. If you’re a Jew who pays close attention to world events, there’s no middle ground — you either believe American journalist and author Peter Beinart is a dangerous traitor, and behind closed doors you tell your kids he’s the worst kind of anti-Semite, or you welcome him as a saviour, as a man who may finally break the political stranglehold of the Jewish American lobby.

A lack of opinion means you haven’t read The Crisis of Zionism, the recently published book-length version of Beinart’s 2010 cover feature for the New York Review of Books, which was titled, explosively, “The Failure of the Jewish American Establishment“. You don’t know that Beinart has become a folk hero for a growing movement of young American Jews who reject the philosophy, espoused by their parents, that Israel should be supported “right or wrong”. You don’t know that this movement, encouraged by Beinart’s writings, believes the occupation of the territories is the cause of Israel’s security problems, not the result of them. And you don’t know that, in large part thanks to Beinart, the hegemony of the Jewish American mainstream is beginning to fracture.

But that’s just the situation in the United States, where a clique of aging philanthropists — sworn to ensuring that the Holocaust doesn’t happen again — are being censured by their children for refusing to acknowledge that the government of Israel consistently violates the basic human rights of Palestinians. In South Africa’s Jewish community, where no sizeable oppositional force has yet gained traction, the status quo remains. Here, when Israeli fighter jets fly over Auschwitz on Holocaust Memorial Day, there’s no one to explain to us that what’s being celebrated is in fact the opposite of victimhood — that we are no longer persecuted, that we can no longer look for justification of Israel’s actions to a devastating, pre-1945 past.

Question is: Why does South African Jewry not have a countervailing faction as strong as the movement championed by Beinart in the United States? On one level, the answer is purely circumstantial. Beinart’s parents were South African liberals who couldn’t abide the hypocrisies of apartheid, and so chose to abandon the country for the United States before he was born. On another level, loosely related to the first, the answer is historical, structural and (for most of the remaining local Jewish community) profoundly uncomfortable. Put simply, apartheid placed mainstream South African Jewry in a much closer — and therefore much less critical — association with the state of Israel.

Of all the studies conducted on the position of the Jewish establishment during apartheid, perhaps the most authoritative has been Gideon Shimoni’s Community and Conscience: The Jews in Apartheid South Africa. Published in 2003, the text argues that while individual Jews protested the laws of the National Party regime in numbers disproportionate to the relative size of the community — Jews, after all, never made up more than 4% of the white minority — the semi-official leadership tacitly accepted the policies of race-based discrimination.

Shimoni, a professor emeritus at Hebrew University who himself left South Africa for Israel in 1961, provides as background the fact that Jews were deemed undesirable aliens during the years of Adolf Hitler’s ascendancy. The Quota Act of 1930, which was introduced to Parliament by a young Dr DF Malan, was followed in 1937 by the Aliens Bill, which effectively abandoned the quota system in favour of the criteria of “desirability” and “assimilability,” thereby further limiting the influx of Jews from an increasingly hostile Europe.It was this same Dr Malan who, upon the National Party’s electoral victory in 1948, received a visit from the leadership of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD). Initially, the new prime minister indicated that he could not be moved on the immigration question, but in the years to come his attitude would change.

As Shimoni writes: “Local political considerations and confidence that the problem of Jewish immigration had been resolved by the creation of the state of Israel no doubt played a part in this change. But quite apart from these factors, the revision of [Malan’s] former views appears to have been mediated by a genuine admiration for the courage and achievements of the young state of Israel. Indeed, in 1953 he visited Israel, becoming the first head of government in the world ever to do so while in office.”

The die, as Shimoni suggests, was cast. Deeply fearful that the National Party could at any moment revert back to its anti-Semitic origins, the SAJBD, as the highest organ representing South African Jewish concerns, decided to steer clear of making any overt statements about the immorality of apartheid philosophy or policy. Instead, all statements of a political nature that came out of the SAJBD — and its sister organisations, the Zionist Federation and the Orthodox rabbinate — were directed towards the situation (whatever it happened to be) in Israel.

Of course, this position was not without its pitfalls. In the early 1960s, when Israel voted to strike from the record a racist speech made at the United Nations by South Africa’s foreign minister Eric Louw, the untenable nature of the SAJBD’s strategy was thrown into embarrassing focus. For starters, there was the fact that Louw had been the man who’d most vociferously urged Malan not to abandon the National Party’s “anti-Semitic plank” prior to the 1948 elections (he felt, at the time, that it would cost the vote of the Nazi-sympathising Greyshirts). Then there was the fact that Louw appealed to the Jews of South Africa to support him in a public statement. Finally, there was the fact that the Jews of South Africa felt they had been abandoned by Israel.

The SAJBD responded with a statement that was mildly critical of Israel, the gist being that Louw was entitled to his freedom of speech. Shimoni writes: “A few letters from anti-apartheid activists reached the board of deputies complaining that the board’s statement was a hypocritical departure from the hallowed principle of noninvolvement in South African political issues. One radical leftist opponent of apartheid, Jack Tarshish, wrote a letter in the Rand Daily Mail [telling] the Board of Deputies that only when it suited itself did it ‘trot out its stock expedient of political neutrality in order to evade its responsibilities to the Jewish community.’ ‘Is Mr Louw’s freedom of speech more important than Mr. Luthuli’s?’ he asked.”

But the SAJBD somehow survived the crisis, and throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s continued to cope with its conscience by remaining steadfastly apolitical on the apartheid question, while becoming ever more vocal on the Israel question. There were two chief reasons that a culture of resistance did not develop within the broader community during those decades: first, unlike in America, the major Jewish icons of resistance — people such as Joe Slovo, Ruth First, Albie Sachs, and Denis Goldberg — were either in exile, in prison, or had been assassinated; second, unlike the real victims of apartheid, South African Jews were living comfortable lives.

Is it any coincidence that Goldberg, upon his release from prison after 22 years, remained vigorous in his criticism of Israel even though the Jewish state negotiated with the apartheid regime on his behalf? Is it any coincidence that the South African Board of Deputies, the Zionist Federation, and the Orthodox Rabbinate remain amongst the most ardent supporters of the Israeli government in the entire Jewish Diaspora, even though further evidence of human rights violations emerges by the week?

In the introduction to The Crisis of Zionism Beinart makes a point that’s directly addressed to the Jewish American lobby, yet the three organisations mentioned above would do well to take note. “The shift from Jewish powerlessness to Jewish power has been so profound,” he writes, “and in historical terms so rapid, that it has outpaced the way many Jews think about themselves.”

There are some Jews in South Africa who, while fully supporting the principles on which the Jewish state was formed, do not support the Netanyahu administration “right or wrong”. Unfortunately, this is not a minority that is growing nearly as fast as the Beinart faction in America, and most evidence would suggest it is not growing at all. Young South African Jews appear either to be turning to religion (where old ways of thinking predominate), are failing to respond to the Israel question with an updated set of facts (for instance, the fact that the Netanyahu administration is once again offering Israelis incentives for settling in the territories), or are abandoning the debate altogether.

So the South African Jewish community, given its compromised history, may have greater need of a voice like Peter Beinart’s than the Jews of the United States. A cause for hope is that South African Jewry can also claim a list of names that spoke against the mainstream when the consequences were more severe than excommunication.

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Kevin Bloom
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