Misrepresenting the SA Jewish past

Israeli Jews pray in the Tombs of the Patriarchs, the world's most ancient Jewish site and the second holiest place for the Jewish people, in the centre of Hebron in the occupied West Bank. (AFP)

Israeli Jews pray in the Tombs of the Patriarchs, the world's most ancient Jewish site and the second holiest place for the Jewish people, in the centre of Hebron in the occupied West Bank. (AFP)

Who will shake SA Jewry’s faith in Israel? asks Kevin Bloom in his opinion piece of the same name posted on the Mail & Guardian.

He doesn’t really provide an answer but that is because the question itself is rhetorical.

What Bloom seeks to do is create a sense of direct linkage between the mainstream Jewish community’s record under apartheid and its approach towards the Israel-Palestine question today. Just as the community’s apartheid-era behaviour on a collective level was, as he believes, morally tainted, so is it morally tainted when it comes to Israel today. And, just as under apartheid, it was a minority of individuals who defied the quiescent majority to stand up for what was right, so it is only a handful of brave dissidents challenging the morally obtuse mainstream when it comes to justice for Palestine.

I have serious problems with this whole approach.
There is — for one thing — something very distasteful about the way the collective Jewish record under apartheid continues to be dragged up, as if Jews alone out of all the various components of the white population, were somehow uniquely guilty of the abuses that took place. In addition, Bloom’s depiction of the communal leadership as being entirely silent and fearful during that time is an unfair caricature — the reality was a great deal more nuanced.

My purpose in responding is not to dredge up the tired debate about what the Jews did do/didn’t do/should have done under apartheid.

Frankly, it has become a stale topic — even in Jewish circles. Primarily, I wish to address the whole linkage question, in which Bloom likens the failure of the mainstream Jewish community to toe what he believes to be the morally correct line over Israel-Palestine to its historic failure to take a collective stand against apartheid.

In making this linkage, Bloom very obviously wishes to expose a thread of moral obtuseness that he believes runs through the ranks of the Jewish leadership from many years back to now.

It is a clever sleight of hand because it automatically positions mainstream Jewry as perennially blinkered verkramptes whose failure to confront apartheid must mean that nothing its leaders have to say in the here and now need be taken seriously. When depicted in such terms, it becomes easy to simply dismiss what the latter has to say about Israel without having to engage with the substance of their arguments.

Also coming through is the emotionally compelling — but equally baseless — intimation that just as Jewish anti-apartheid activists “got it right” back then while the benighted majority got it wrong, so can it be assumed that they are the one’s getting it right on the Israel-Palestine question as well.

In this connection, Bloom cites the case of Rivonia trialist and veteran anti-Israel campaigner Dennis Goldberg. Why this immediately falls down is because it suggests — quite falsely — that being anti-apartheid and anti-Zionist has necessarily always gone hand in hand.

The reality is that some of the most stalwart anti-apartheid campaigners — the legendary human rights lawyer Isie Maisels comes to mind — were also staunch Zionists. Others — while not being particularly vocal or involved in the question — nevertheless would have no truck with the clearly unbalanced and brazenly partisan anti-Israelism of the hard Left. Helen Suzman was a good example of this, even if it harmed her reputation in ‘struggle’ circles.

The biggest sleight of hand in the article, though, is the way the struggle against associate director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and the Palestinian struggle against Israel are depicted as being, on a moral, human rights level, essentially the same, even if the details inevitably differ.

Here one is confronted with one of the unquestioning leaps of faith that those on the left routinely make on the Middle East question.

On closer examination, in fact, that glib assumption rapidly falls apart. For a start, in contrast to the principled non-racialism of the South African liberation movements, Palestinian nationalism is underpinned by naked and unapologetic racism. This is evident, inter alia, in the charter of the ruling Hamas movement, the Palestinian National Covenant and the anti-Semitic indoctrination that is rife in schools, the media and popular culture.

Then there is the question of violence.

Whereas in South Africa, the liberation movements pursued a course of peaceful negotiations for as long as they could before reluctantly turning to violence, for the Palestinian leadership, violence — specifically terrorism — has always been a first and not a last resort.

The Palestinians, again in stark contrast to their South African counterparts, oppose peaceful co-existence. Rather, they deny the Jewish people any share — historical or otherwise — in any part of ‘Palestine’. Had the Palestinians been prepared to live peacefully with their neighbours, as black South Africans have always been with regard to their white compatriots, then peace would have been achieved in the Middle East a long time ago.

Is it so very difficult, one has to ask, for left-leaning Jews who dissent from the majority view to accept that the other side might have plausible, coherent reasons for believing what they do? This does indeed seem to be the case. One also senses a growing frustration within left-leaning Jewish circles over the refusal of the larger body of world Jewry to come over to their way of thinking.

For them, the situation is so incontestably a case of oppressive Israelis versus down-trodden Palestinians that any deviation from that line towards the Israeli point of view must be regarded as a perverse heresy. Most Jews in South Africa will have none of that, not out of knee-jerk tribal loyalty but because — and for good reason — they believe it to be demonstrably false.

As far as they are concerned, the real wilful blindness on display here is on the part of those who cannot bring themselves to hold the Palestinians accountable for their actions but rather to treat them entirely as passive entities enjoying only rights but having no reciprocal responsibilities.

The mainstream Jewish community in South Africa will continue to take a stand against what it regards as dishonest, selective, unjust and partisan positions taken against the state of Israel.

One hopes the broader public will at least engage with the substance of what its spokespeople have to say, without being influenced by cynical smear tactics based on misrepresentations of this country’s own history.

David Saks is the associate director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.

This article was written in response to Kevin Bloom’s article “Who will shake SA Jewry’s faith in Israel” which appeared on the Mail & Guardian on May 7.

Read Israeli-born South African journalist Amir Mizroch’s response here.

Client Media Releases