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ANC refuses debate at Jewish museum



The African National Congress (ANC) demanded that an election debate be moved from the historic South African Jewish Museum (SAJM) in Cape Town because it didn’t want to attend an event at a Jewish venue. When the host, eNCA, refused to move it, the ANC boycotted the live televised event, held on the evening of Sunday, 19 May.

“The ANC’s decision to not participate in a debate because it was held at a Jewish institution is insulting and discriminatory, and contradicts our constitutional value of South Africa belonging to all who live in it,” says Cape SAJBD Chairperson Adrienne Jacobson. “Sadly, the ANC decided to put its political agenda first, and missed an opportunity to engage with voters.”

As ChaiFM host, Howard Feldman, said on his morning show the next day, “This is an important turning point because the ANC has spent a lot of time trying to convince us and themselves that it isn’t antisemitic.”

When the Cape South African Jewish Board of Deputies (Cape SAJBD) joined forces with broadcaster eNCA to host the “town hall” election debate, it aimed to ensure that tough questions regarding the Western Cape were put to the parties who will stand in this historic election.

Spurred on by extremists on social media and the rabidly antisemitic Media Review Network, the ANC asked that the debate by held at a “neutral venue” on the day of the event, even though it had agreed to attend at the SAJM in April. In a victory for the Jewish community and freedom-loving people in the country, the debate went ahead at the SAJM, and was broadcast internationally, with the ANC’s seat glaringly empty.

The debate was hosted in the Old Shul section of the museum, which is the oldest synagogue in the country. The SAJM is a widely-utilised event venue, and is a totally separate building and campus to the SAJBD and South African Zionist Federation.

“We’ve done these debates with eNCA many times – the last was during the mayoral election in 2021,” says Cape SAJBD Executive Director Daniel Bloch. “It was about the Western Cape, and had nothing to do with international politics. Host JJ Tabane ran it well.”

The SAJBD invited participants from a variety of parties on 25 March. “ANC Member of the Provincial Legislature Cameron Dugmore was keen from the get-go, confirming participation on 6 April. The ANC later informed us that Khalid Sayed was the ANC’s premier candidate for the Western Cape, and would participate in the debate. Even though Sayed has targeted the Jewish community and tried to get a Jewish school closed, the SAJBD agreed that he should participate.”

However, on the evening of 18 May, the Cape SAJBD picked up on social media that “anti-Israel groups were asking how eNCA could allow this to happen at a ‘pro-Israel venue’,” says Bloch. This included Sayed sharing an ANC letter to the SAJBD asking for the venue to be moved.

“Mr Dugmore called me on Sunday morning to ask us to change the venue,” Bloch says. “I explained that it was the Jewish Museum, and had nothing to do with Israel. I asked if he ever asked other town hall debates to change venues. He said no, but ‘it’s Israel, it’s sensitive’. I said this wasn’t about Israel, and explained that if they withdrew because it was held at the Jewish Museum, it would be seen as antisemitic.”

“We accepted the invitation to the 2024 debate, and then were approached by members and civil society who raised reservations about the venue,” Dugmore told the SA Jewish Report.

“The SAJBD openly supports the conduct of the Israeli state, promotes Zionism, spreads propaganda that being anti-Zionist equates to being antisemitic, and attacks our government’s application to the ICJ,” he says. “We communicated concern early on the Sunday morning in writing and telephonically to both the SAJBD and eNCA, and asked that they consider changing the date, given that there may be logistical challenges.”

On social media, one user questioned if the SAJBD had paid eNCA to host the debate with it, leaning towards the antisemitic trope of Jews paying to control media and government. In response, on social media, Dugmore replied that it was a “good question”.

“It’s a fair question to get clarity on the actual agreement between the SAJBD and eNCA,” he told the SA Jewish Report. “If an entity is in any way financially or logistically supporting a debate hosted by a news channel, questions of impartiality arise.”

However, “eNCA said we couldn’t move the broadcast”, says Bloch. “It’s a huge production to put on a live broadcast. It had no problem with keeping the ANC podium with the logo on it to show the ANC was meant to be there. On air, Tabane explained that the ANC withdrew at the last moment. When it re-broadcast the debate, eNCA made the point of saying that ‘The [Jewish] community shouldn’t be held responsible for the ongoing conflict in the Middle East’, and that ‘some commentators are questioning if this decision [to withdraw] demonises the Jewish community in South Africa’.”

The managing director of eNCA, John Bailey, told the SA Jewish Report, “Anybody who knows anything about TV production knows it’s virtually impossible to change venues for a production of this size at that point.

“The reason we’ve created this platform is to allow political parties to debate,” he says. “It was a missed opportunity for the ANC. These debates allow for a variety of people to engage, and is a form of ‘outreach’ from our side.”

Expressing his disappointment, Bloch says, “We’ve had a good relationship with the ANC in the Western Cape. We met with them last year, and some members came to our sukkah lunch. When we speak, we agree that we don’t agree on Israel, but they have always respected us and said they want to work with the Jewish community.”

Dugmore agrees that “the ANC has a long relationship with the Jewish community, not only due to the fact that many South Africans of Jewish origin were freedom fighters in the struggle, but there has always been engagement with the SAJBD over the years”.

However, “hundreds of Jewish South Africans have also said that the Israeli government isn’t acting in their name,” he says. “We strongly object to the propaganda pushed by the SAJBD that being anti-Zionist is antisemitic. Our appeal is to respect the diversity of views, both within the Jewish community and in the broader society.”

“Irrespective of who rules South Africa after 29 May, the Jewish community will continue to be proud and vocal South Africans,” says Jacobson. “We call on the ANC to accept that for our country to succeed, it will need the support of every South African, including the Jewish community.”

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