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Op-eds

In shunning speakers, community mimics worst behaviour of BDS

  • OPINION-4
The recent coercion of Limmud Cape Town to disinvite three presenters with links to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement raises serious questions about the commitment of some members of our community and institutional leadership to democratic modes of engagement.
by DAVID BILCHITZ AND JUDGE DENNIS DAVIS | Aug 30, 2018

Indeed, we should not be surprised if this kind of behaviour is a leftover from the authoritarian past of this country. We need to recognise and address it if we are to have a community more in line with the values of our Constitution.

A famous legal theorist, Etienne Mureinik, characterised the change from apartheid to democracy as a move from a culture of authority to a culture of justification. This meant that institutions and individuals with authority could not simply assert their will and be obeyed. Instead, in the new democratic order, authorities would be respected only for their ability to persuade and to justify their actions. Unfortunately, much behaviour in the Jewish community still exemplifies a culture of authority rather than one of justification.

The first dimension of the Limmud saga we want to highlight is bullying. As we understand it, pressure was placed on Herzlia School by some donors and parents to refuse Limmud the utilisation of its premises if it did not disinvite the three presenters. Herzlia should, of course, have simply stated that it had hired the school out to Limmud, and was not responsible for its programme.

Unfortunately, it acquiesced to the bullying, and threatened to withdraw its venue – shortly before the event. All of this is profoundly undemocratic. The approach to the Limmud organisers did not seek to persuade, it sought to coerce, forcing the organisation to bend to the will of its detractors.

What had Limmud done that merited such opprobrium? Among a programme with about 150 sessions and more than 100 presenters, it had allowed space for three local Jewish presenters with links to BDS to present a few sessions on topics which ranged from the history of left-wing Jewish groups, forced removals in Cape Town, to issues related to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Limmud was charged by its critics with somehow endorsing BDS by having these individuals on its programme.

This criticism highlights the second serious democratic flaw pervasive in our community: allowing someone to speak is in no way identical to endorsing what they say. Yet, the lack of understanding of this most basic point has led, for instance, the orthodox Rabbinate to refuse to present at Limmud because rabbis from other streams of Judaism do so.

At Limmud this year, it was wonderful to see an impressive Orthodox halachic authority, Rabbi David Bigman, entirely comfortable engaging with and showing respect for Rabbis of other streams of Judaism in public.

Sitting with people does not endorse what they say: it simply shows respect for their dignity as people. That is, indeed, not only core to the South African Constitution but, as Talmud Berachot makes clear, to Jewish tradition.

This failure to respect basic dignity highlights the third democratic flaw: attempting to excommunicate the disinvited presenters from the Jewish community for their political views. In other words, playing the person and not the ball.

We do not support the BDS movement, yet, we do not believe that the way to engage with people who differ politically is to shun or boycott them. The democratic approach is to engage, to have dialogue, to persuade. By disinviting these presenters, there was a lost opportunity for members of the community to challenge their perspectives in the few sessions they were giving on Israel.

Perhaps they could have come to learn in dialogue of the hurt BDS has caused many in our community. Instead of allowing them a space in the Jewish community to grow and learn, the bullying approach simply sought to alienate and exclude.

The counter-claim is that the BDS movement in South Africa has itself often adopted coercive tactics, and frequently failed to respect basic democratic norms by disrupting pro-Israel events and crossing the boundary into anti-Semitism. We accept that this is true, but why does our community need to learn our values and ethics from the worst behaviour of BDS?

In response to racism or sexism, we should not be racist or sexist back, rather, we must oppose racism and sexism. The same is true here. Where BDS often attempts to shut down sensible and reasoned conversations on Israeli and Palestinian issues across South Africa, Limmud showed a democratic maturity by being willing to enable complex and nuanced engagements to take place.

The ethos in evidence at Limmud is one that seeks to embody both South African and Jewish values in its emphasis on respect, dignity, and diversity. None of us must be silent any longer in demanding that our fellow community members and institutional leadership embrace and embody these democratic values.

David Bilchitz is a Professor of Fundamental Rights and Constitutional Law at the University of Johannesburg.

  • Judge Dennis Davis is a High Court judge, and the President of the Competition Appeal Court.

3 Comments

  1. 3 Bev Goldman 30 Aug
    Thank you for a most insightful, balanced and nuanced article.  BDS is a very contentious issue within the community; the words and actions of the organisation are anathema to most (including myself); yet allowing its representatives to speak in a closed and respectful environment could have been a positive move, if only to enable those who chose to attend that particular session to understand the motives behind it and the beliefs it holds, and then with understanding and knowledge to be able to refute an condemn its principles.    What a pity that free speech in SA is limited for fear of community censure.  
  2. 2 Ruth Friedmann 31 Aug
    Thanks you for an excellent article 
  3. 1 Shalom Bayitt 31 Aug
    Thank you wise men!
    Bullying is bad. Let’s sit down with the bullies and talk it out.
    Explain to them about authority to justification.

    Here are two authorities who acted swiftly to stop the madness.
    Were they simply misguided due to a non-Democratic childhood?

    Prof. Gary Nathan was quick out of the blocks to condemn and ban.
    An habitual Limmudnik, Prof Nathan instinctively knew where he stood on the issue.

    Also quick to justify, the Herzlia Director of Education Geoff “chochem” Cohen.
    He has a tick list to check speakers’ credentials to qualify Herzlia admittance.
    Not believing in a 2 State solution is one immediate justification for exclusion.
    Hope Israel’s education Minister is not invited to speak to our schools.
    Name:    Naftali Bennett. He’s a one state man – so is his entire political party!
    Onto your verobten list Geoff.

    Perhaps these ban orders are taking their cue from the prevalence of intolerance trending internationally? Especially popular in Israel where “Leftist” is a swearword used to delegitimise opposing points of view. “Extreme Leftist” is reserved for particular erudite criticism.

    We have Canary Mission. A website established to create a database of Jews critical of Israel.
    Apparently used by the Shin Bet and Israeli border officials to harass those who have possibly overstepped the mark in their critique.

    I agree that SA is – in many ways – a nominal democracy. A society brutalised by an authoritarian past where democracy is slow to germinate and flourish. And is fragile where established.

    Which can explain - but not excuse - why our Community is so obediently loyal to an increasingly totalitarian Israel where dissent is often met with hostility and violence.
    Where the established culture of justification is rapidly descending into one of authority.

    Let the banning of speakers not be the harbingers of this trend.
    Rather a last gasp of those illiberal Zionists who aspire to defend but in doing so reveal a paucity of erudition in combatting those who deny the Jewish Homeland.

    I fear the opposite is true – despite SA’s democratic transition.

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