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Voices

Backlash against Israel supporters undemocratic and disturbing

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One of the aspects of the recent Israel-Hamas conflict that should concern anyone committed to fundamental democratic values in South Africa was the disturbing extent to which even the most mild defences of Israel were met with intimidation, threats, and vitriolic abuse.

In a democratic society, it’s legitimate to disagree, however robustly, with such viewpoints, but the backlash against anyone – usually although not always Jewish – who declined to toe the anti-Israel line went far beyond this. Merely to raise the issue of, for example, Israel’s right to self-defence was to invite a storm of insults and inflammatory accusations which all too frequently went beyond mere denigration to incitement to cause harm, including advocating physical violence and economic harm in the form of demands that “heretics” be dismissed from their employ and boycott initiatives be initiated.

The South African Jewish Board of Deputies has devoted much effort both to exposing and denouncing these totalitarian tactics and to addressing some of the more egregious instances of intimidation that have arisen. One concerns the orchestrated campaign of vilification that a group calling itself the Redhill Parents and Alumni Concerns Committee conducted against Redhill School after its principal, alarmed by the hostility and division that the issue was generating within the student body (not least through the school’s own WhatsApp discussion platforms being spammed by anti-Israel propaganda) ruled that the debate be taken off campus. In response, an ugly demonstration was held outside the school, the principal himself was the target of an online hate campaign, and pressure was brought on Redhill to reject a young Muslim peace activist as an on-campus speaker in favour of one of the most extreme anti-Israel voices currently active, Ronnie Kasrils.

In a letter published in The Star this week in response to a paid advertisement insisting on Kasrils being invited to speak, Gauteng Council Chairperson Professor Karen Milner condemned how Redhill was “being bullied into choosing toxicity and vicious hatred over peace activism”. Thankfully, the school remained firm, and the original panellists spoke.

The previous week, Kasrils published a column in the Sunday Times that even by his rock-bottom standards was venomous and defamatory. Combining the standard demonisation of Israel with vicious asides concerning Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein and the Jewish religion itself, it resulted in our major communal bodies taking the unusual step of publishing a joint response by our Jewish communal leadership groups (see the Board’s Facebook and website) in the same paper.

Not content with demonising Israel, Kasrils “breached all standards of civil discourse” by crassly impugning the integrity of a senior representative of the Jewish faith community and by “propagating a particularly obnoxious form of religious bigotry”. Typically, Kasrils employed the classic totalitarian tactic of portraying those who disagreed with him not just of being wrong, but of being “so morally twisted as to make anything they might have to say entirely unworthy of notice”.

In addition to responding in the public arena, the Board has been engaging with various members of our community who have experienced cyber bullying and other forms of harassment, and extending to them whatever support we can in dealing with these attacks. We will continue to do so over the coming weeks while also following up on cases of intimidation involving a clear-cut infringement of the target’s civil rights.

  • Listen to Charisse Zeifert on Jewish Board Talk, 101.9 ChaiFM, every Friday from 12:00 to 13:00.

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