An attack on the Jewish community – that is how South African Jewish community organizations are describing proposed changes to the country's dual-citizenship laws.
A deputy cabinet minister and senior official in the ruling African National Congress (ANC) made headlines at the weekend when he was quoted as saying that the government should look at changing current laws so as to prevent South African citizens from fighting for the Israel Defense Forces.
The South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) and South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) condemned the comments made by Obed Bapela, who is also head of the ANC’s national executive committee's panel on international relations.
"He has undermined the very core value of South Africa’s democracy by proposing a change to our law purely to prevent one sector of our society, in this case, South African Jews, from having a relationship with Israel," the SAJBD and SAZF said.
"The South African Jewish community will not be bullied or intimidated by his threats and have sought a meeting with President Jacob Zuma and will request further meetings to clarify Bapela’s statement."
SAJBD chairwoman Mary Kluk told Haaretz that she didn't know how many South Africans have served with the IDF in recent years.
Asked if she believed that Bapela's views reflected those of the senior ANC leadership, she said: "No. I strongly believe that these are Bapela's personal views and that he uses every opportunity provided to him to put them out there."
Bapela rejected the notion that the proposed policy changes were aimed only at Israel.
In a radio interview, he said that Israel was used as simply an example, but that the government was also concerned about South Africans serving with other nations' armies.
Several citizens had served with the American and British militaries during the invasion of Iraq, he said, and that others take part in mercenary wars and escape prosecution by adopting another country's citizenship.
Responding to the assertion that the South African Jewish community was being singled out, Bapela said: "Not at all. We are not anti-Jewish. We are not anti-Semitic. That is why even the policy says 'the Israeli state co-existing with that of Palestine.'
"That's recognition of Israel as an independent state and the Jewish community as citizens of the world. It's the policies of the government of Israel we oppose and are against."
He added, however, that if a "specific group" is sending boys to a country every year to receive military training, it was something that goes against ANC policies and would have to be looked at.
Speaking to Haaretz, SAZF President Avrom Krengel said that although the organization doesn't keep track of how many South Africans have served in the IDF in recent years, it was definitely far less than the number who serve in the British armed forces.
"A year or two ago, the U.K. High Commissioner said that there were over 1,000 South Africans serving as British Marines," Krengel said.
He added that while the children of South Africans who make aliyah would eventually end up in the IDF when they reached conscription age, it could not be interpreted as a case of South African Jews sending their children to Israel to be part of the army.
The fewer than 200 families who make aliyah every year come from a big cross-section of the community and are motivated to immigrate to Israel for various reasons, Krengel said.
"They are not going there to join the IDF," he said.
He described Bapela as being part of a very vociferous anti-Israel camp in the ANC, but said his views weren't shared by the country's president, deputy president or senior cabinet ministers.
The mooted change to the law also drew sharp criticism from Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who for 10 years served as Minister of Home Affairs and is head of the opposition Inkatha Freedom Party.
Buthelezi said he felt frustrated by the ANC's intention to "instruct" government to change its citizenship laws "purely on the basis that a few South Africans are also citizens of Israel, and a few among them may be receiving military training in Israel."
Buthelezi pointed out that under current laws a citizen can only lose his or her citizenship for serving in the armed forces of a country with which South Africa is at war.
"We are not at war with Israel," he noted.
"One can reach no other conclusion than that the ANC has moved from being 'pro-Palestine' to being 'anti-Israeli'."
Bapela was in the news less than two months ago for comments related to Israel.
He had harsh words for South African students who visited Israel under the auspices of the South Africa-Israel Forum, saying that they had brought the ANC into disrepute and promising to launch a probe.
At the time he accused Israel of “offering free trips and holidays to embarrass the ANC."
Bapela was also a featured speaker at a protest in March of this year against the South Africa-Israel Expo in Johannesburg.
During the BDS event, participants were heard shouting “You think this is Israel, we are going to kill you!” and “You Jews do not belong here in South Africa!”
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