JOHANNESBURG - A shiver went down the spines of South African Jews on Wednesday when street posters from Johannesburg’s major daily, The Star, and a front-page headline in The Cape Times said Jews were being told to “leave” or “flee” the country. With no mention of who was telling them this, most people probably assumed it was a South African.
But it wasn't a local figure playing ethnic politics, separating Jews from other South Africans, but an Israeli Knesset member of Soviet origin who has never been to South Africa – Avigdor Lieberman, the same Avigdor Lieberman who was acquitted of fraud charges this week and is set to return as foreign minister. On Facebook, Lieberman said the South African government had created an anti-Israel and anti-Semitic atmosphere - it was only a matter of time before a pogrom took place, so South African Jews should leave for Israel “before it is too late,” he said.
The papers’ blowing up of the Facebook comment won’t be obvious to average South Africans, who might assume that Jews are at risk of being thrown out of the country. But Jewish leaders are furious and have called Lieberman irresponsible.
The affair began after media reports that at a meeting of trade union federation Cosatu last Friday, South African International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said her government had agreed to “slow down and curtail senior leadership contact with the [Israeli] regime.” “The struggle of the people of Palestine is our struggle,” she is reported as saying.
In a press release, the SA Jewish Board of Deputies and SA Zionist Federation expressed outrage, saying Nkoana-Mashabane had contradicted assurances to Jewish leaders that her government wished to play a role in helping Israelis and Palestinians resolve their differences and “would engage with both parties to further that end.”
They said she also contradicted South African foreign policy in general, which is not to boycott governments but to continually engage with them. Excluding only Israel from such a policy amounted to “clear discrimination.”
But they also slammed Lieberman, pointing to South Africa’s consistently low rates of anti-Semitism. His claim that things might get “so extreme as to lead to actual pogroms” was misguided and irresponsible, they said.
In any case, Israel also has strong supporters in South African politics. African Christian Democratic Party President Kenneth Meshoe said Mashabane was hypocritical in talking about the ANC government curtailing contact with Israel “while praising Iran for its ‘respect for human rights.'” He called on her to “stop deceiving the public about events in the Middle East …. Trying to demonize Israel will never promote peace in the region.”
Solid interfaith relations
ANC Member of Parliament Ben Turok, a liberation struggle veteran who is Jewish but has little to do with the organized Jewish community, was reported saying that Jews live a safe and secure existence under an ANC government. If Lieberman needs to increase Israel’s Jewish population, “then he better find a different solution.”
On Wednesday the government officially responded to the crisis. “Cabinet expressed concern about the statements in the public regarding the South African Jews," the cabinet said in minutes of a meeting. "Cabinet recognises the right of Palestinian people for self-determination and the right of Israel to exist alongside a Palestinian state. Their endeavour to find a solution to the conflict which will be just should continue. The South African Jewish community should have nothing to fear. Government has not imposed a ban on travel to Israel by government officials.”
Some people are asking whether the papers’ headlines about Jews fleeing are merely sensationalist digs at a bumbling Israeli politician or have deeper significance. Whichever the case, the headlines and posters made many Jews feel separated from the general population – not as whites but as Jews.
It is true that Jews feel safe in South Africa and anti-Semitism is very low. Interfaith relations are generally good, including between Muslims and Jews. And it is publicly recognized that Jews played significant roles in the liberation struggle. For example, all five of the whites in the infamous Rivonia trial of anti-apartheid activists in 1963 were Jews. Jews are deeply involved in business, community development, the arts and every other aspect of society.
But despite all the assurances, there are always demagogues in the wings waiting for opportunities. While the ANC repeatedly affirms its opposition to racial or ethnic politics, others are not so restrained – and Jews are a convenient target.
Jewish leaders across the spectrum are fuming at the South African government, but also at Lieberman. Communal organizations like the SA Jewish Board of Deputies try hard to distinguish between Israel and South African Jewry when it comes to Israeli politics.
While most Jews here are strongly Zionistic, they feel thoroughly South African and hold diverse views that don't necessarily jibe with those of any particular Israeli government. But now an MK has lumped Israel and South African Jews into one bag, meaning that if the South African government has a difference with the Israeli government, there is a problem for South African Jews.
One veteran senior Jewish leader, Rabbi Yossy Goldman, said Lieberman’s comments were “untrue, uncalled for and, let us just say extremely unintelligent.”
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