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Positivity persists at SAZF Conference

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This past weekend saw a notable gathering of Jewish communal leaders at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg for the 48th Annual South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) Conference.
by VANESSA VALKIN | Mar 11, 2015

The theme was Israel: Nation of Creation, a very welcome, positive paradigm in which to narrate and think about Israel in a week that saw university campuses grapple with Israel Apartheid Week and Sandton police and our own Community Security Organisation hold off a crowd of BDS South Africa supporters outside the Convention centre.  

The conference, which is held every four years, kicked off on Saturday night with a formidable line-up of speakers. These included Chairman of the Jewish Agency Natan Sharansky; Mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat; Israeli Ambassador Arthur Lenk; and Canadian Member of Parliament, former minister of Justice, and attorney general of Canada Irwin Cotler.

All the speakers expressed deep admiration for the work of the SAZF to strengthen bonds between South African Jews and Israel, and in nurturing the South African community’s support for Israel. Much homage was paid to outgoing SAZF Chairman Avrom Krengel for his committed 13 years of service. The new chairman is Ben Swartz and vice-chairmen are Harold Jacobs, Mark Hyman, Nicci Raz, Stuart Stone, and Tamar Lazarus. Krengel will remain on as president.  

On Sunday special observers and delegates of the various organisations under the umbrella of the SAZF, participated in a series of sessions. The first one, Unity, Diversity and Dissent, became quite heated, much to the audience’s delight, as youth leaders from Habonim, Netzer and community activist and organiser Ari Kruger, crossed the lines into dissent themselves.

Particularly interesting was a session called, Africa Rising: Does Israel have a Role to Play? Caylee Talpert from the Pears Programme for Global Innovation at Tel Aviv University, spoke about their work in creating Israeli ventures that address challenges in the developing world.

She also pointed to the ironic fact that the most impoverished segment, those 3,7 billion people living on less than $3 a day, represented a $5 trillion dollar market for enterprises in communications and energy, among others. Itai Melchior, trade representative for the Israeli Embassy, noted that there was more than R10 billion in trade between South Africa and Israel a year.

At the same time as the sessions, the first ever South Africa/Israel Expo took place on the ground floor. More than 120 exhibitors including local and Israeli communal organisations as well as local and Israeli businesses, had a much needed opportunity to educate visitors on their ideologies, products and programmes.

And ironically, as the Expo drew crowds, and delegates discussed Israel’s contributions to the world, down below at the corner of Maude Street, about 200 (although estimates of numbers varied) protesters gathered under the auspices of BDS-SA, chanting “You think this is Israel, we are going to kill you” and “no Zionist conference be held on our soil”.

Although Bheki Cele, deputy minister and member of the ANC’s National Executive Committee, was scheduled to attend the protest, he did not. But others like Deputy Minister Obed Bapela spoke, attacking the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, and falsely accusing a Jewish marshal of assaulting a protester.

The police and CSO did a remarkable job of keeping the protesters at bay, even though a few of them did try to approach the entrance.  

As the protest outside drew to a close, the last session occurring upstairs was probably the most poignant. The topic was The Four Horsemen of the Middle East: Major Threats to the Jewish World. While an internationally acclaimed reporter who did not want her name mentioned, dissected the major threat we know as ISIS, new SAZF Chairman Ben Swartz and Professor Cotler, in different ways, called on the community and its leaders to step up and defend itself against outside threats.

Talking about Iran, Cotler urged the audience to focus less on the now too familiar threat of its nuclear capability and more on its horrific human rights abuses, as a way to move decision-makers to comprehend the real threat of that country and to protect against it.

Swartz talked about the domino effect of the BDS movement in South Africa, from the Durban Conference in 2000 to recent months where students on campuses have stood up and said “Shoot the Jew” or called for the deregistration of Jewish students.

“In the Diaspora, Jews have an obligation to defend and support Israel, and we need to step up and bat and get involved in our community, and thereby strengthen Israel,” Swartz said.

“BDS threatened to destroy our conference but we took them out,” he said in reflection after the weekend.

“We went out on the campuses (for Apartheid week) with beautiful messages and we topped off this week at the SAZF Conference talking about uplifting Africa and agricultural miracles in Israel. We had nothing to do with their (BDS) narrative of hate. We left the police to deal with the haters, while we focused on what is good and exciting.”

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