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The Jewish Report Editorial

WHERE WAS NETANYAHU?

The larger question in the minds of SA Jewish leaders was not answered satisfactorily: Why was it not Netanyahu talking to them in this room, why didn’t he come to represent Israel?
by GEOFF SIFRIN | Dec 12, 2013

When a delegation of six Israeli parliamentarians came to South Africa to attend Wednesday’s Mandela memorial at the FNB stadium in Johannesburg, one who provoked intense interest was 32-year old Penina Tamanu-Shata of Yesh Atid, the first Ethiopian woman MK in the Knesset. Previously deputy speaker of the Knesset, she is well known to some South Africans because of help to the Israel Now tours organised by Reeva Forman. “I was also born in Africa,” she said with pride. In Israel she became a lawyer, assisting distressed children. She worked as a journalist and was involved in hasbara. She said people must understand that Israel is about more than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “It is also about Operation Moses (which brought Ethiopian Jews to Israel), the immigration of Russian Jews to Israel, Operation Solomon, and so on. Mandela said that people are not born hating. He taught that human beings are human beings no matter their race or religion.”

The MKs addressed some thirty members of Johannesburg’s Jewish community at Beyachad on Wednesday evening. Many expressed disappointment that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had not arrived to join the other world leaders. He had cited the trip’s high cost as the reason for cancelling at the last minute, but it probably also had to do with politics. The Israel-South Africa relationship is a troubled one, and there is hostility towards Israel in parts of the SA population and political circles, who label it an apartheid society because of its treatment of the Palestinians.

The MKs’ identities presented a fascinating picture of Israel’s diversity. Each spoke briefly about himself or herself. Hilik Bar, the Labour Party secretary-general, had previously visited South Africa in 2002 with Shimon Peres for the UN Summit on Sustainable Development with the objective of preventing it being highjacked by anti-Israel groups, who wanted to exploit it to show Israel was violating proper environmental policies. “At one point Mandela arrived. When he entered the room everyone stood up – he was like a god.” Bar referred to the conflict with the Palestinians: “I want to separate from them – it is the only way to a solution. There should be two states.”

It was inspiring, said Gila Gamliel of Likud, to see people dancing and singing for Mandela, rather than being engulfed in tears. “I will take this experience back with me to Israel”, she said emotionally.

Nitzan Horowitz of Meretz had visited South Africa as a journalist during apartheid. “Everyone thought at the time that there would be major bloodshed. Yet now I come to a peaceful South Africa for this tribute to Mandela. It is a form of closure. I also take home the experience of South Africans singing in celebration of Mandela’s life. Mandela will always be with us.”

American-born Dov Lipman of Yesh Atid, told how he got involved in politics in his home town of Bet Shemesh because of tensions between Jews of different lifestyles. He posed the question of how to find the balance between a democratic and a Jewish state. “In all the heartache of Mandela’s death,” he said, “today at the memorial I saw peoples’ spirits raised.”

Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein grew up in Russia and was a “prisoner of conscience” in the Soviet Union. He has been an MK for 17 years, during which time he has travelled to South Africa to meet every President of the country. He said it was a “great privilege” to chair the Knesset, a place of diverse debate with people like the delegation’s MKs. “I hope one day in Israel we will see leadership like we have seen in South Africa.” It won’t be easy to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he said, “but it wasn’t easy in South Africa either. Aside from the people on the fringes in both populations, the majority of people on both sides want peace.”

Edelstein had helped SA Jewry over the years in many ways, said SA Zionist Federation chairman Avrom Krengel. For example, when El Al was considering stopping flights to South Africa, which would have been a blow to its morale, Edelstein was instrumental in preventing it.

Community members left the room impressed by the MKs. Some gathered around to talk. But the larger question in their minds was not answered satisfactorily: Why was it not Netanyahu talking to them in this room, why didn’t he come to represent Israel? And why had he caused such a public relations disaster for Israel by precipitously cancelling the trip at the last minute?

2 Comments

  1. 2 Chaya 12 Dec
    A golden opportunity lost.The legacy of Madiba--his belief that people can live in harmony, plus the atmosphere that governed the acknowledgement of his greatness brought leaders here that Netanyahu would not meet in such benign circumstances.Imagine the hand shaking that could have happened!
  2. 1 lammie 16 Jan
    I live in Israel

    I am almost sure that the security people were not happy
    for him to be in the crowd.  If so, they were proved correct, because whatever security the South Africans provided allowed a person to be an "interpreter" who could have been a real threat to the President of the United states, besides for our Prime Minister.  What happened was a huge security disgrace. disgrace. I too feared for the safety of Netanyahu because of the antisemitism and anti-Israel rhetoric prevalent today amongst the people in power.  

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