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But he is good for Israel

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Voices

The happenings at the Capitol building left most sane people winded. And whereas many were quick to blame 2021 for letting us down so spectacularly and so early into the year, it clearly had little to do with the calendar and everything to do with the former president of the United States, Donald Trump.

Instead of accepting his loss with a hint of dignity and a smattering of grace, Trump chose to cry “Foul!” In doing so, he set off a chain reaction that would not only result in the death of four people but would give his detractors the perfect opportunity to say, “I told you so.” Which they wasted no time at all in doing. And who could blame them, given that they had spent the past five years screaming that this was going to happen.

And happen it did.

Soon after the events, I found myself in a public argument with journalist Richard Poplak, who tweeted, “Yes, but he’s good for Israel”, referring to Trump. I responded with, “You have to be pretty obsessed to try and turn the focus towards Israel. Besides, I’m pretty sure that those white males dressed as Vikings aren’t Zionists.” Whereas I loved the smartness of my answer, the point that he was making was a valid one.

He knew that too, which is why after a series of tweets he wrote, “My tweet points out a prevailing moral failure of many in our community during the Trump era. If this is a time for reflection, no one is better poised to lead it than you.”

I’m uncertain that “no one is better poised to lead” than me, but I will nevertheless give it a try. Because maybe some introspection is required. Although I wasn’t a Trump supporter and publicly stated that I wanted both Biden and Trump to lose, I still hoped that Trump would lose less badly (in other words, to win). It might have been more to do with my thoughts on Biden, but it would nevertheless be disingenuous not to own it. Whereas I have also mentioned numerous times that I abhor many aspects of Trump’s personality and a lot of what he stands for, indeed, he was good for Israel as well as the Middle East (in my view).

I respected how he tried to engage with North Korea as well as his stand against Iran. Although he might not have succeeded in terms of China, I do think his effort was a decent one.

What I liked most about Trump was that I didn’t. Like him. To me, he represented a rare opportunity for nuance and complexity, something that’s largely absent in the world of politics.

Over the last while, we have distilled our view of politicians. We either love them or hate them. We either see no good or we see only bad. Trump awarded us the opportunity to see both in one politician. Through his behaviour, however, he has robbed us of even that.

Whereas I don’t agree with some of Poplak’s views on Israel, he nevertheless raises a point that we should consider. Did Trump’s support for Israel indeed blind us to the reality of what he always was? And if this is the case, what does it say about us and how do we treat the next one that comes along? Whereas I have no clear answer, I know that it is worth thinking about.

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4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Wendy Kaplan Lewis

    Jan 14, 2021 at 12:53 pm

    Love your writing as always

  2. Peter

    Jan 16, 2021 at 5:44 am

    It is a sorry situation, that so many Jews can only relate to US politics by it’s presumed impact on Israel.

    And being blinded is never a good thing, while engaging in introspection does present an opportunity for change.

    The author disparages Biden, and by inference, the Democrats. Yet he should be aware that twice in the 21st century, the Republicans and their presidents have precipitated global economic crises in addition to many additional crises with international implications. And it has fallen to Democrats to take over in the depths of these crises and try to clean up the messes they have inherited. In the case of W Bush, it was the Great Recession and the invasion of Iraq, which ceded undue power to Iran (great for Israel, no?). And Trump leaves us democracy under siege, the dual Covid crises of a pandemic and economic disruption, and more time lost before we start to address climate change. How are those things playing out in SA?

  3. Sharon Suttner

    Jan 16, 2021 at 4:20 pm

    I also thought he was good for Israel and he did appoint Nikki Hayley to the UN
    But I could never look at him on the TV or listen to him talk
    He appeared to have a personality disorder
    A very sad ending
    I hope it is the end

  4. Bendeta Gordon

    Jan 17, 2021 at 3:23 am

    Insightful and thought -provoking.

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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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Voices

‘G-d isn’t playing around’

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So, there we were in the desert waiting to enter the land of Israel, when the spies returned from their reconnaissance mission. They had news which we didn’t like. And, because we complained, G-d, who wasn’t having a particularly good day, decided that for the next while, we would be destined to wander. And while we did that, said G-d, who wasn’t happy at all, the older generation would die out and only then would He allow us to enter the promised land.

There is something biblical about the COVID-19 pandemic. Something unnatural and suggestive of a plague from another realm. It has felt even more like this over the past few weeks with the older members of the community being particularly hard hit. Day after day, we are assailed by news of the passing of friends and their parents and each time, the shock seems to be less but the weariness a lot greater. With each death, our spirits sink lower, and we wonder what our world will look like on the other side of this.

A Facebook advert posted by one of the kosher restaurants in Johannesburg as follows: “Winter Warmer. Ready to eat meal – serves 3-4 (also great for shiva house meal or family in isolation/quarantine)” reflects the gravity of the situation. No doubt more than it intended to. Whether the post was in good, bad, or no taste at all, is irrelevant, but it does indicate the need and the demand. We’re a community that’s alternating between quarantine and shiva. And we need to eat.

The situation in Gauteng is grave. Hospitals are on divert, beds are scarce, and schools are trying the best as they can to remain open. Netcare has announced the suspension of visitors to protect patients, and educators are forced to decide daily which grades and classes need to be quarantined so as to protect the environment. Daily shul services are now filled with those saying kaddish for lost parents, and it’s hard to keep track of the bereavements.

As a friend put it, “G-d isn’t playing around.”

I write this having returned from yet another COVID-19 funeral. Yet another passing of a person who seemed to be in their prime, who had children, who although adults, are too young to be mourning. And a wife far too young to be a widow. My fingers are tired and my heart is weary from sending WhatsApps to people asking if they would prefer me not to attend a service because of the numbers and regulations. And although I might process the world through words, I find that I have none that can be any comfort.

Not to the bereaved and not to myself.

The list of names that I include in my prayers is too long. And then just like that, it’s too short. We’re living through a time that is infused with loss and punctuated with sorrow. We’re seeing those a few years older than us disappear before our eyes. And we seem unable to stop it.

The only thing that we can do is to be as cautious and careful as possible. We have tested the alternative, and the results speak for themselves. We might not understand why this is happening and why our generation has been chosen to live through it. But I do know that we need to introspect, reconnect with faith, and accept that we don’t control this world.

G-d, it seems, isn’t playing around.

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Voices

Open season on Jews

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As expected, the Gaza conflict resulted in a sharp upsurge in antisemitic attacks the world over. The focus of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) over the past week has been on following up several of the more serious instances of anti-Jewish abuse and intimidation. We assisted a university student in laying criminal charges against two classmates who cyberbullied and threatened him, and are assisting a community member who was threatened in a Johannesburg gym and subjected to disturbing rhetoric. We have further worked closely with children at non-Jewish schools, university students, professionals, and business people who have likewise been victimised.

Another area of concern has been the growing prevalence of calls for Jewish-owned businesses to be boycotted. It’s noteworthy that the ostensible distinction that Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS)-aligned activists routinely make between “Zionists” and Jews has been distinctly absent regarding these initiatives. Those responsible have quite unabashedly identified those they wish to target on the basis of them being Jewish. In one case that has come to our attention, a store was singled out for boycott because it stocks kosher products. These actions very obviously amount to incitement to cause harm on the basis of both religion and ethnicity, and as such, are expressly prohibited in South African law.

Such is the intensity of the anti-Israel frenzy whipped up in times of heightened conflict in the Middle East, many consider it to be open season on anyone who takes a contrary position. In practice, that usually means Jews, although we are now also seeing people outside of our community targeted, most notably a Laudium school teacher who was reportedly fired for expressing what was no more than a mildly pro-Israel view.

Fortunately, in a democratic society, the law states otherwise, and in cases where people have crossed the line, the Board has always gone to whatever lengths necessary to hold them accountable. Among those who have learned this to their cost are former Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Fatima Hajaig; Bongani Masuku, the international relations secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU); and international relations secretary and former COSATU Western Cape leader Tony Ehrenreich.

Upholding the right of the Jewish community to dignity and equality is the core mandate of the SAJBD, and that includes safeguarding the right of its members to support and identify with Israel without being threatened, racially abused, or unfairly disadvantaged.

Striving to inject more balance in the media is another area in which the Board, in tandem with the South African Zionist Federation and other communal organisations working in that field, continues to be much involved. This week, we have co-ordinated a united response by leading Jewish organisations to a scurrilous and thoroughly disgraceful attack on our chief rabbi that appeared in a leading weekly newspaper over the weekend. This, together with the many interviews and comments provided by our spokespeople and opinion pieces published have at least got our community’s voice out there and ensured that the media’s coverage of issues hasn’t been one-way traffic.

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

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