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Op-eds

Public figures taking sides (mostly) against Israel

  • Howard Feldman 2018
The recent events in Israel and on the Gaza border have garnered the attention of South African public figures and personalities.
by HOWARD FELDMAN | May 31, 2018

In South Africa, and around the world, the sentiment is largely negative towards Israel, with many commentators hovering precariously on the edge of being anti-Semitic. Some have undoubtedly crossed over into full prejudice.

The use of hyperbole, coupled with blatant untruths, seems to fuel the outrage, resulting in some talk-show hosts being unable to contain their emotion and outrage about what they understand the situation to be.

Broadcast journalist Bongani Bingwa was one such case. His comments about Israel were scathing and his tone matched his words. The reaction from many people was aggressive and expressed outrage. This prompted him to tweet: “My comment this morning about Palestine and Israel. I have never received more vitriol and personal attacks – even or especially from people I considered friends.”

Replies were equally divided between those pointing out that he had no idea of the facts and those who claimed that the Zionists hate to hear the truth. It was, in essence, Twitter at its best. Or worst.

Redi Tlhabi, fellow broadcast journalist, came to his assistance with the following tweet, “I must tell you… I spoke at a shul 9 years ago. Addressing young people. Rabbi’s sermon was on how they were special people. I left my world to speak a message of diversity, hope and less paranoia. My gifts at the end of the talk? Flowers. Nice! & Literature on why they are so special.”

And just like that, it was no longer about Israel or Palestine or the conflict, but rather, about Jews. How the rabbi made them think they are special. And of course, it was about the gifts.

Tlhabi’s response out of context may seem puzzling. On the face of it, it seems strange to have engaged as she did. Surely, if she was speaking to a group of young women, she might tell them they are special and that they have unlimited power to change the world. Same as to a group of young men. Why, then, was she so offended that young Jews were told the same?

When challenged by author (and self-proclaimed “leftie”) Nechama Brodie, Tlhabi refused to take ownership of her comment and defended it by saying that one of her Jewish friends felt the same. Indeed, she employed the “some of my best friends are Jewish” line to qualify the awfulness of her approach.

Tlhabi is fully entitled to be anti-Israel. It is her right and her decision. But she is not entitled to be anti-Semitic, which is what she appears to have become. It is surprising, on the face of it, that the very person who has spent her life seeking balance and trying to do good in the world would have succumbed to this.

The uncomfortable question is what role Jews or supporters of Israel played in this descent. Some years ago, when Mmusi Maimane visited Israel, Tlhabi was highly critical of his visit. She was called out on what some believed was an inconsistent stance and when she didn’t change her view, the conversation escalated. Rolene Marks, media personality in Israel, wrote an op-ed for News24, inviting Tlhabi to have a coffee and to discuss why she believed that Tlhabi was mistaken in her outlook. Tlhabi responded in turn in what I believe was a patronising and dismissive piece.

Her response included comments along the line that she didn’t have enough time in the day for all the coffees she was offered, and again made reference to the reading material that Zionists kept sending her.

With that, her position was entrenched. One that she very clearly refuses to engage with, for reasons that only she can understand.

But whether the magnitude of the response from Jews and from supporters of Israel resulted in her feeling bullied and pressured contributed to attitude is something that needs to be considered.

When a commentator does defend Israel, as in the case of Gareth Cliff, the response that he receives from those who are anti must be equally frustrating. It cannot serve them to lambaste and to attack him just because they don’t agree with him.

And yet we do the same.

There is, unfortunately, no simple answer. I do know that we react the same to fellow Jews who criticise Israel. And by doing so, we not only push them away but “prove” to them what narrow-minded bigots we are, whether true or not.

I had a recent Twitter argument with Jewish South African comedian Deep Fried Man, who is outspokenly anti-Israel. My view was that by refusing to acknowledge the role of Hamas in the Gaza conflict, he was not reflecting the truth or any form of balance. The argument went back and forth until I got bored and left it alone.

It was the next day that he tweeted: “The amount of times I’ve been told that I’ve lost the support of my community because I refuse to accept Israel’s behaviour. I wonder how many South African Jews would speak out if they weren’t afraid of social and economic exclusion?”

I responded: “As you know, I strongly disagree with your view on Israel – but I am equally critical of a community that excludes anyone based on a view. You are always welcome on my show, in my home and I hope the Jewish community supports you based on the merit of your talent and not your view.”

I honestly have no idea if my approach is the right one. All I know is that the current strategy is not working. And it needs to be reconsidered.

  • You can hear Howard Feldman every weekday morning from 6-9am on 101.9 ChaiFM.

1 Comment

  1. 1 Louis Gavin 31 May
    I responded: “As you know, I strongly disagree with your view on Israel – but I am equally critical of a community that excludes anyone based on a view. You are always welcome on my show, in my home and I hope the Jewish community supports you based on the merit of your talent and not your view.”

    " I honestly have no idea if my approach is the right one. All I know is that the current strategy is not working. And it needs to be reconsidered." 

    Absolutely, unequivocally the right approach. 

    Despite the fact that most anti-Israel, anti Zionist views and sentiments appear to be absurdly and disturbingly irrational - and also unmoving in the face of inconvenient facts, I nevertheless do believe that concerned SA Jews need to broaden the debate by actively informing and educating themselves on the ‘other narratives’ and historical perspectives, which is a necessary context (but not necessarily a justification of anyone’s hatred and violence). No genuine communication can take place without broadening the basis from which everything else is inferred. As you say, Howard, the current strategy is not working. ( In my view that’s because it is not a strategy, it is a ‘reaction’ struggling to be rational.)"

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