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A view from the bleachers




And then, he wandered over to the podium with more swag than Mick Jagger. Flowing grey hair, an unbuttoned wing-tip shirt, a slightly dishevelled tailored black suite – this was Bernard-Henri Levy, rock star of French philosophers, towering intellectual and international media icon.

Suave and debonair, Levy in his poetic French accent, took to the stage at the Jewish Board of Deputies conference and erupted into animated gestures, impassioned pleas from the heart and a clarity of thought that cut through the fog of political posturing.

Flying in from the bloodstained streets of Paris, Levy let loose on the new anti-Semitism, on the rise of Islamic fundamentalist terror and on the bankrupt policies of the BDS movement.

“Israel is open to everyone,” said Levy “It is not an apartheid state.” He described the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, as a fascist movement led by idiots. Bernard-Henri Levy stole the show. 

The biannual conference of the Jewish Board of Deputies, left no room for questions or debate, it was a carefully orchestrated showcase presenting some of the best that world Jewry had to offer. Former President Kgalema Motlanthe and billionaire businessman Patrice Motsepe sat in the audience.

The 1 000 strong audience rose in muted smatterings of applause, welcoming President Jacob Zuma to the stage but offered waves of cheer to Public Protector Thuli Madonsela in the house. Even President Zuma was forced to join in the rapturous applause.

Zuma began his address with the standard recitation of the roll-call of Jews involved in the anti-apartheid Struggle, but appeared to lose his audience with the idea that “the organised attacks in Paris have brought sharp focus onto the problem of global terrorism… All these attacks, wherever they occur, put the spotlight on the Middle East peace process.

“It is difficult to imagine peace in the world without the achievement of peace in the Middle East. South Africa continues to contribute to attempts at finding peace in the Middle East, especially with the age-old Palestinian-Israeli question.”

The Times of Israel, maybe unfairly, immediately lead with a headline: “S African president links Paris attacks to Israeli-Palestinian conflict”.

When Zuma said: “We believe that the key to peace in the Middle East is the establishment of a free and sovereign Palestinian state, co-existing in peace with the State of Israel, based on the borders of June 1967, with East Jerusalem as its capital”, the audience hissed and booed the President, despite the fact that this formulation is identical to the offers made by Israeli Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert. The Citizen newspaper commented: “But this did not go down well… there were murmurings last night by a section of the crowd…”

Zuma reiterated that South Africa “shall, in the future, invite to our shores different groups that are involved in the Middle East Peace Process so as to share with them our past experiences and to also exchange views with them”. He failed to mention that no Israelis had been invited.

The speech was highlighted by Zuma’s continued support for a two-state solution, an acknowledgement that the manner the ANC had welcomed Hamas could have been handled better.

“The coming of Hamas into South Africa has caused some concern among the Jewish community. The manner in which Hamas was received concerned the Jewish community. We are aware of that, and it is noted.

“We are also aware that we did not communicate with the Jewish community beforehand. But we believe that South Africa can play a role and we are in the process of making a stronger interaction on both sides. I hope we work together, as we did before, with the Jewish community.”

Of far greater significance was the fact that President Zuma twice applauded the statement that Israel was not an apartheid state. That in itself made the Zuma appearance worthwhile and notable.

The dishevelled group of five lonely BDS demonstrators, claiming to be Jewish, protesting at the gates of the casino, must have felt deeply betrayed by Zuma’s applause.

Ambassador Ronald Lauder, businessman, art collector, philanthropist and scion of the Este Lauder cosmetics fortune, rose to the podium in his capacity as president of the World Jewish Congress.

“South Africa represents a beacon of hope in a very troubled world,” said Lauder, while reading from his American presidential style teleprompter.

“During a time where no one feels safe anywhere, where there are not many examples of conflicts resolved peacefully, South Africa stands out as a shining star…

“I am not naïve. I am aware of the difficulties. But I believe South Africa can engage all parties and explain why violence must be rejected. South Africa can show that compromise in the interest of peace with respect for the other side, can lead to a better future for all. And South Africa can show the importance of democratic values and the acceptance of other cultures.”

Lauder, condemned “terrorist organisations” like Hamas saying: “They continue to call for the destruction of Israel, I believe South Africa can engage all parties and explain why violence should be rejected.”

As famed as Lauder is for his Jewish work, his true claim to fame was his purchase in 2006 of Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I  for $135 million, the most expensive artwork ever purchased at the time.


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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Bev Goldman

    Nov 26, 2015 at 6:34 am

    ‘In a nutshell, Howard – in a nutshell you captured the atmosphere at the Conference.  Thank you for a most entertaining read.’

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