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Creating a different future for Israelis and Palestinians

As elections approach in Israel, many who care deeply for its future hope for positive change in the status quo. Sadly, in South Africa, the current discussion on Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) is caught in a disturbing polarity.

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Voices

PROFESSOR DAVID BILCHITZ

On the one hand, we have a section of our Jewish community who believes Israel can do no wrong. The formal leadership of the South African Jewish community has, for instance, not criticised Israel, even when its actions are clearly wrong and unjust.

By contrast, the United Kingdom Board of Deputies recently condemned both Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s demonisation of the Arab citizens of Israel, and his willingness to form a coalition with those who venerate the murderer of 29 Arabs. Even senior Conservative global Jewish community figures such as Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, and Sir Mick Davis in the UK have been similarly critical. Why is this important?

While living in Israel last year, I sadly was confronted with persistent violations of human rights in the OPT. I met Palestinians forcibly removed by the Israel military under the pretext of security, who now found themselves working for Jewish settlers on the land they previously had owned. I met a family of hard-working labourers on a date farm whose home was demolished by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) – the family having done nothing that threatens Israel.

I spoke to Israeli soldiers who told me about “operations of presence”: in the middle of the night, without any suspicion of wrongdoing, the IDF raid the homes of ordinary Palestinians, traumatising families. These actions are not only wrong in themselves, but they create new enmity on a daily basis, and render a resolution of the conflict less and less likely.

On the other side of the South African political spectrum, we have a raucous Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement that seeks to portray Israel as similar in nature to apartheid South Africa. The comparison makes no sense for anyone who considers the different origins of these conflicts.

More insidiously, though, the BDS movement denies a Jewish story around Israel and adopts wholesale a single narrative framework that portrays the Jewish return to Israel simply as a form of colonialism.

The narrative provides cover to those who claim justification for raining rockets on Israel or committing terrorist outrages. Entrenching polarisation and demonisation, rather than understanding and reconciliation, sustains the conflict instead of assisting in its resolution.

Seeking resolution requires each nation to hear and acknowledge the other’s narratives. Zionism was never an attempt to colonise another people. Jews came to Israel not as agents of European colonialism, but, in many cases, as refugees from oppressive regimes seeking a safe haven in a hostile world. Many of our parents and grandparents were those refugees. Denying these realities is not only deeply hurtful, it is a denial of an important truth.

Denial, however, works both ways. The pain and suffering Jews experienced blinds many of them to the cost that the conflict has inflicted on Palestinian inhabitants. Whatever the multiple historical causes, the creation of Israel resulted in the displacement of nearly 700 000 Palestinian people from their homes.

Many lived out the rest of their lives in refugee camps, and subsequent generations remain in squalid, precarious conditions in the OPT and neighbouring states. We need to listen to, acknowledge and engage with Palestinian narratives and their pain and suffering, as they must with ours.

Mutual recognition opens a space in which relationships can be built. What has been sorely missing in Israel, as well as in the South African discourse, are voices of moderation that understand this conflict is not written in stone.

A sizeable portion of the Jewish community in South Africa and globally – perhaps a vast majority – are keen to see a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is not because we are against Israel. Quite the contrary. It is because we believe such a resolution will not only be right from a moral point of view, but allow Israel fully to achieve the hatikvah (hope) that lies at its heart.

That hope is not simply a state that is economically successful. It is, rather, one that is faithful to the basic Jewish and democratic values enshrined in its Declaration of Independence. While the right-wing government in Israel continually undermines this original vision, many of us both in Israel and outside remain deeply invested in these ideals.

Many of us are thus setting up a movement in South Africa – the Jewish Democratic Initiative (JDI) – which seeks to reinvigorate this vision of Israel in this country. Connecting with like-minded groups internationally, we embrace an optimistic vision of two peoples with their own states living together in peace and cooperation.

The way to achieve this, we believe, cannot be through polarising rhetoric and demonisation. Rather, the focus must be on building trust, connections and understanding.

We are inspired by our own South African story of a negotiated settlement after centuries of oppression and conflict. We glimpsed the possibilities for Israel and Palestine, too, during the 1990s. Yet, both sides have allowed peace to recede from their vision.

I invite members of our community to join the JDI and other Jews around the world, who are reaching out to our Israeli and Palestinian brothers and sisters in order to make peace a reality in this generation.

  • David Bilchitz is a professor of fundamental rights at the University of Johannesburg. If you are interested in connecting with the JDI, please write to jdimovement@gmail.com

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Voices

Challah – bread of Jewish men’s affliction

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There are many reasons why it isn’t easy to be a Jewish male. Expectation of performance begins at eight days, and hardly eases up until we shuffle off the mortal coil, well ahead of our time, exhausted from the effort and stress of it all.

The expectations are seemingly without end. We need to make our parents proud, we need to provide for our families, to be good husbands and better fathers, and we need to have run at least one marathon in a far-flung city by the time we are 45.

We need to be able to sing in front of the community at our Barmitzvahs, just when we are at our most awkward and when our voices are the most unreliable. We need to be able to intone anything at any given time.

And then, on the one night of the week when we can relax, we are required to cut the challah with the precision of a surgeon, the speed of Usain Bolt, and we need to do so while everyone watches in hungry expectation.

Following the kiddush prayer and the ritualistic washing of hands, there is a period of silence. With no speaking until the eating of the challah, it’s one of the most underrated aspects of being a Jewish male. It’s a moment that represents almost every aspect of “Jewish maleness”, and it happens week after week after week. Why?

Because no matter what, it will be done wrong. The slices will be too thick. Or thin. Or the wrong challah would have been selected. Too much, too little salt will have been added. And the challah serving plate will have been passed in the wrong direction. Eyes will be rolled, lips pursed, and heads will be slowly shaken. From side. To side. To side.

A Jewish male it would seem, cannot please a Jewish woman.

I have asked around. A friend’s wife told me that she can’t stand the way he cuts the challah, and prefers to do it herself. “He just can’t get it right. It’s got so bad that I hardly even let him carve the meat.”

She even went as far as to buy an electric carving knife, which she used before he got home from work on a Friday so that he didn’t need to. It might be worth mentioning that when he’s not “butchering” the challah, he’s a well-respected surgeon. At least he made his parents proud.

And there are those who are too precise for their own good. My father-in-law is one such case. Each piece of challah is measured to perfection. Sliced the way through, and then checked in case any remnants of attachment to the piece before remains, before moving on to slice number two. And so on.

Generally, we like to start Shabbat on Wednesday when visiting, as it takes about that long before we get to eat. All while we sit in silence.

The slicing of challah is the most underrated aspect of being a Jewish male. It carries with it all the expectation along with all the disappointment of generations of men who have failed before them.

It’s a moment that’s shared in all households across the Jewish world week after week. It bonds Jewish women to the past, and will link them to their great granddaughters, who will one day share knowing looks with their sisters as they watch their husband “butcher” the challah, just as their father did.

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Voices

Rebuilding hope and rewarding service

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This week, we have been hard at work finalising the upcoming South African Jewish Board of Deputies national conference, to take place on Sunday, 17 October, from 16:00 to 18:00.

The theme of the conference is “Hope and Recovery”, and as the title indicates, the focus will be on rebuilding following the testing and often traumatic events of the past two years. To share the challenges as well as the path of hope and recovery in areas of crucial concern, we have a panel of experts comprising Minister of Finance Enoch Godongwana, Eskom Chief Executive Andre de Ruyter, and Advocate Wim Trengove. We are further privileged to host Ambassador Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, and Israel’s Minister of Diaspora Affairs Nachman Shai, both of whom will be speaking.

The Board’s national conferences are also an opportunity to honour community members who have made a particularly noteworthy contribution to society, whether to the country as a whole or South African Jewry specifically. Since 1999, we have recognised those who have advanced the cause of human rights and democracy. The scope of the award, now called the Rabbi Cyril and Ann Harris Humanitarian Award, includes those involved in social outreach and upliftment work.

This year, it will be presented to Natie and Francis Kirsh and family in recognition of the unfailingly generous support they have provided to our community and our country over many years, but particularly during the COVID-19 period.

For those who have excelled in communal service, we will be presenting the Eric Samson Mendel Kaplan Award. Two presentations are made, one to a lay leader and the other to a professional. In the “lay” category, the recipients are Professor Barry Schoub and Dr Richard Friedland, two leading medical experts who during the COVID-19 pandemic, have shown extraordinary commitment and played such a pivotal role in guiding our community. In the “professional” category, we will honour Vivienne Anstey, the exemplar of a thoroughly professional, innovative Jewish public servant for more than 30 years, and Uriel Rosen, Hatzolah’s operations manager and the originator of its Wellness Monitoring Programme that has been so transformative in helping those suffering from COVID-19.

Please join us for what promises to be a fascinating conversation about how to move forward and rebuild. To register, go to https://www.corpcam.com/SAJBD17102021

#MakeUsCount events

Along with preparing for conference, the Board has been running its #MakeUsCount pre-election awareness campaign. During the past week, our Gauteng, Cape Town, and Durban branches have hosted lively and well attended “Great Debates” between representatives of the main competing parties. At the time of writing, Gauteng is preparing for a second event, a webinar with leading political journalist Stephen Grootes in conversation with political and election experts and analysts Wayne Sussman, Nompumelelo Runji, and Dr Ralph Mathekga. I look forward to updating you about further #MakeUsCount events in the days leading up to the municipal elections on 1 November.

This being my last Above Board before my term as National Chair comes to an end, I take this opportunity of recording how great an honour it has been to serve our community for the past four years and wishing my successor everything of the best.

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

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Voices

Board calls for practical implementation of hate-crime legislation

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This week, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) submitted written comments on the Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill after its release for public comment by the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Justice and Correctional Services. We have requested an opportunity for the SAJBD to give an oral submission on the Bill in due course. As a steering committee member representing the Board on the Hate Crimes Working Group (HCWG), our representative, Alana Baranov, was also involved in the drafting of the HCWG submission on the Bill.

The genesis of this important piece of legislation goes back to 2016, when the first draft of the Bill was released. The Board, at its own behest and through the HCWG, has been involved in the process from the outset, including making previous submissions. While we have raised certain legal-technical concerns over aspects of the Bill, in general we have welcomed it as being aimed at giving practical effect to the prevention of racism and discrimination and providing for the prosecution and prevention of hate crimes and hate speech.

The SAJBD’s submission on the Bill focused on the specific concerns of the Jewish community regarding antisemitism. It further stressed that the Act must be so framed as to make its practical implementation possible, and to this end, recommended expanding the reach and effectiveness of current legislation and mechanisms for dealing with incidents of hate, such as the South African Human Rights Commission and Equality Courts. These institutions have been of critical value to the Board in addressing numerous antisemitic incidents that have arisen over the past two decades, including those involving senior office bearers in government and trade unions. It’s therefore vital that they are adequately empowered and resourced.

JSC drops ball a second time at Concourt interviews

Earlier this year, the way in which two Jewish candidates for Constitutional Court positions were treated during their interviews by the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) generated much justified outrage. As previously recounted in this column, both were subjected to a barrage of irrelevant and inappropriate questions pertaining to their Jewish identity, association with the SAJBD, and views on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Other candidates were also subjected to inappropriate treatment. In response, the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution launched a successful challenge to that process in the High Court, resulting in the JSC being directed to re-interview the candidates.

Unfortunately, the second round of interviews, conducted earlier this week, amounted to “Groundhog Day” for the Jewish community. Following their stinging rebuke at the hands of civil society and the courts, one would have expected the JSC to steer clear this time round of offensive questions concerning a candidate’s Jewish affiliations, yet once again, a Jewish candidate was so targeted, specifically for his previous association with the SAJBD. The characterisation by one of the commissioners of the SAJBD as a “pro-Zionist body that is bullying their people and organisations who are objecting to the Israeli establishment in the Palestine region” was especially out of line. This was specifically referred to in our media release issued this week, and will be one of the key issues we will address with the JSC.

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

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