Gaza Conflict Exposes Deep Divisions Among South African Jews

Official community website deplores the 'highly charged emotional mood among South African Jews about Israel.'

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Pro-Palestinian demonstration in Cape Town last weekend.
Pro-Palestinian demonstration in Cape Town last weekend.Credit: Screenshot

The reverberations of the conflict in Gaza are buffeting the South African Jewish community, already on edge as a tiny, pro-Israel bastion in an aggressively anti-Zionist country.

Now, however, most of the knocks are self-inflicted, as members of the community have taken to social media en masse with posts and petitions alternately supporting and condemning Israel's actions in Gaza and the public positions taken by members of the community.

In an online post on Tuesday, the South African Jewish Report, the official mouthpiece of the community, spoke of "this heated atmosphere" and deplored the "highly charged emotional mood among South African Jews about Israel."

Two incidents in particular have inflamed the passions of South African Jews. The first was a Facebook post a few days ago which showed a picture of three youths from the prestigious Johannesburg Jewish school King David Victory Park wearing traditional Palestinian scarves, or keffiyeh, in sympathy with the Palestinian victims in Gaza.

One of the youths was Joshua Broomberg, the school's deputy head boy and head of the national debating team.

The picture provoked a furor, with over 1,200 signatories on an online petition calling for Broomberg's dismissal as deputy head boy. That was followed by a counter-petition, also claiming more than 1 000 signatories, from numerous former head boys, head girls and others, defending Broomberg’s right to freedom of expression.

The South African Jewish Board of Education, the body responsible for Jewish day schools in the country, issued a statement saying that no action would be taken against the boys.

“The emotional reaction in the community has gone completely out of proportion with these petitions,” said SABJE director-general Rabbi Craig Kacev.

“Regarding Israel, the policy of the King David schools is that they support the existence of the State of Israel, but they do not take specific political positions.

"Furthermore, the King David schools support diversity of thinking and opinion among its students, who are encouraged to think for themselves and explore diverse ideas.”

Broomberg himself said: “While I apologize for the hurt we seem to have caused, I do not apologize for standing with Palestine on this issue. This is not because I do not believe in Israel or its people. I do believe in Israel, and I take this stand because I can love and support the State of Israel, but still reject and criticize some of its actions.

The second incident was a letter published in the South African Sunday Times newspaper last weekend, which began, "We, as South African Jews, are appalled and devastated by Israel’s assault on Gaza."

Signed by over 500 prominent members of the community, the letter continued: "We are proudly Jewish. We know that every human being is invested with inherent dignity, every life equal. Just as we resist anti-Semitism, we refuse to dehumanize Palestinians in order to make their deaths lighter on our collective conscience. We sign this statement in order to affirm their humanity and our own.

"We distance ourselves from South African Jewish organizations whose blind support for Israel’s disproportionate actions moves us further from a just resolution to the conflict."

Among the signatories to the letter were prominent Jewish academics, including professors Anton Harber and Steven Friedman, Gillian and Robyn Slovo, daughters of the late cabinet minister Joe Slovo, journalist Jeremy Gordin, publisher of the country's largest daily newspaper, and prominent cultural figures.

As a background to the fraternal mud-slinging in the community, an estimated 200,000 South Africans marched through central Cape Town on Saturday, holding flags, signs and banners with messages such as "“South African government must stop selling arms to Israel" and "Africans understand colonialism."

And if that wasn't enough, former president Thabo Mbeki on Tuesday called on South Africans to boycott Israeli goods in order to show solidarity with Palestinians. The public should mobilize against Israel so that it "pays a price for the position that it is taking," Mbeki said in Pretoria.

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