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In shunning speakers, community mimics worst behaviour of BDS

The recent coercion of Limmud Cape Town to disinvite three presenters with links to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement raises serious questions about the commitment of some members of our community and institutional leadership to democratic modes of engagement.

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Voices

DAVID BILCHITZ AND JUDGE DENNIS DAVIS

Indeed, we should not be surprised if this kind of behaviour is a leftover from the authoritarian past of this country. We need to recognise and address it if we are to have a community more in line with the values of our Constitution.

A famous legal theorist, Etienne Mureinik, characterised the change from apartheid to democracy as a move from a culture of authority to a culture of justification. This meant that institutions and individuals with authority could not simply assert their will and be obeyed. Instead, in the new democratic order, authorities would be respected only for their ability to persuade and to justify their actions. Unfortunately, much behaviour in the Jewish community still exemplifies a culture of authority rather than one of justification.

The first dimension of the Limmud saga we want to highlight is bullying. As we understand it, pressure was placed on Herzlia School by some donors and parents to refuse Limmud the utilisation of its premises if it did not disinvite the three presenters. Herzlia should, of course, have simply stated that it had hired the school out to Limmud, and was not responsible for its programme.

Unfortunately, it acquiesced to the bullying, and threatened to withdraw its venue – shortly before the event. All of this is profoundly undemocratic. The approach to the Limmud organisers did not seek to persuade, it sought to coerce, forcing the organisation to bend to the will of its detractors.

What had Limmud done that merited such opprobrium? Among a programme with about 150 sessions and more than 100 presenters, it had allowed space for three local Jewish presenters with links to BDS to present a few sessions on topics which ranged from the history of left-wing Jewish groups, forced removals in Cape Town, to issues related to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Limmud was charged by its critics with somehow endorsing BDS by having these individuals on its programme.

This criticism highlights the second serious democratic flaw pervasive in our community: allowing someone to speak is in no way identical to endorsing what they say. Yet, the lack of understanding of this most basic point has led, for instance, the orthodox Rabbinate to refuse to present at Limmud because rabbis from other streams of Judaism do so.

At Limmud this year, it was wonderful to see an impressive Orthodox halachic authority, Rabbi David Bigman, entirely comfortable engaging with and showing respect for Rabbis of other streams of Judaism in public.

Sitting with people does not endorse what they say: it simply shows respect for their dignity as people. That is, indeed, not only core to the South African Constitution but, as Talmud Berachot makes clear, to Jewish tradition.

This failure to respect basic dignity highlights the third democratic flaw: attempting to excommunicate the disinvited presenters from the Jewish community for their political views. In other words, playing the person and not the ball.

We do not support the BDS movement, yet, we do not believe that the way to engage with people who differ politically is to shun or boycott them. The democratic approach is to engage, to have dialogue, to persuade. By disinviting these presenters, there was a lost opportunity for members of the community to challenge their perspectives in the few sessions they were giving on Israel.

Perhaps they could have come to learn in dialogue of the hurt BDS has caused many in our community. Instead of allowing them a space in the Jewish community to grow and learn, the bullying approach simply sought to alienate and exclude.

The counter-claim is that the BDS movement in South Africa has itself often adopted coercive tactics, and frequently failed to respect basic democratic norms by disrupting pro-Israel events and crossing the boundary into anti-Semitism. We accept that this is true, but why does our community need to learn our values and ethics from the worst behaviour of BDS?

In response to racism or sexism, we should not be racist or sexist back, rather, we must oppose racism and sexism. The same is true here. Where BDS often attempts to shut down sensible and reasoned conversations on Israeli and Palestinian issues across South Africa, Limmud showed a democratic maturity by being willing to enable complex and nuanced engagements to take place.

The ethos in evidence at Limmud is one that seeks to embody both South African and Jewish values in its emphasis on respect, dignity, and diversity. None of us must be silent any longer in demanding that our fellow community members and institutional leadership embrace and embody these democratic values.

David Bilchitz is a Professor of Fundamental Rights and Constitutional Law at the University of Johannesburg.

  • Judge Dennis Davis is a High Court judge, and the President of the Competition Appeal Court.

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Bev Goldman

    Aug 30, 2018 at 12:51 pm

    ‘Thank you for a most insightful, balanced and nuanced article.  BDS is a very contentious issue within the community; the words and actions of the organisation are anathema to most (including myself); yet allowing its representatives to speak in a closed and respectful environment could have been a positive move, if only to enable those who chose to attend that particular session to understand the motives behind it and the beliefs it holds, and then with understanding and knowledge to be able to refute an condemn its principles.    What a pity that free speech in SA is limited for fear of community censure.  ‘

  2. Ruth Friedmann

    Aug 31, 2018 at 9:43 am

    ‘Thanks you for an excellent article ‘

  3. Shalom Bayitt

    Aug 31, 2018 at 4:02 pm

    ‘Thank you wise men!

    Bullying is bad. Let’s sit down with the bullies and talk it out.

    Explain to them about authority to justification.

    Here are two authorities who acted swiftly to stop the madness.

    Were they simply misguided due to a non-Democratic childhood?

    Prof. Gary Nathan was quick out of the blocks to condemn and ban.

    An habitual Limmudnik, Prof Nathan instinctively knew where he stood on the issue.

    Also quick to justify, the Herzlia Director of Education Geoff “chochem” Cohen.

    He has a tick list to check speakers’ credentials to qualify Herzlia admittance.

    Not believing in a 2 State solution is one immediate justification for exclusion.

    Hope Israel’s education Minister is not invited to speak to our schools.

    Name:    Naftali Bennett. He’s a one state man – so is his entire political party!

    Onto your verobten list Geoff.

    Perhaps these ban orders are taking their cue from the prevalence of intolerance trending internationally? Especially popular in Israel where “Leftist” is a swearword used to delegitimise opposing points of view. “Extreme Leftist” is reserved for particular erudite criticism.

    We have Canary Mission. A website established to create a database of Jews critical of Israel.

    Apparently used by the Shin Bet and Israeli border officials to harass those who have possibly overstepped the mark in their critique.

    I agree that SA is – in many ways – a nominal democracy. A society brutalised by an authoritarian past where democracy is slow to germinate and flourish. And is fragile where established.

    Which can explain – but not excuse – why our Community is so obediently loyal to an increasingly totalitarian Israel where dissent is often met with hostility and violence.

    Where the established culture of justification is rapidly descending into one of authority.

    Let the banning of speakers not be the harbingers of this trend.

    Rather a last gasp of those illiberal Zionists who aspire to defend but in doing so reveal a paucity of erudition in combatting those who deny the Jewish Homeland.

    I fear the opposite is true – despite SA’s democratic transition.’

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Voices

Do we have different standards for ‘others’?

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On 24 February, an article appeared in The Times of Israel claiming that 11 ultra-Orthodox Jews (Haredim) had tested positive for COVID-19 on landing in Israel.

More concerning was the fact that a passenger on board had claimed to have overheard some of the young men “boasting” that they had not taken a COVID-19 test but had simply managed to get a negative result. The passenger reported this to the authorities, who are investigating the claim.

After recounting the story on my morning show, I was challenged by a friend who questioned why I had chosen to use the identity of the group. Would I have used a group description to describe the passengers if they were modern Orthodox, Reform, or simply irreligious Jews? Would I have dared, he asked, to use the term Muslim (if they were) or any other description that he knew I wouldn’t use if it wasn’t relevant to the story.

He’s right of course. The identity isn’t at all important in this case.

Earlier in the week, I had also spoken about two incidents of antisemitism on NBC television in the United States. Listeners agreed that the episode of Saturday Night Live where the host suggested that Israel was providing a vaccine only to Jews was antisemitic. They also agreed that a scene from a show called Nurses, where it was implied that Jews wouldn’t accept a transplant from an Arab or a woman was also problematic. But that scene showcased Haredim, and some listeners felt that “they” had brought this type of thing on themselves as a result of their behaviour.

To me, it was no different to suggesting that a rape victim was “asking for it” or was to blame, but so entrenched was the thinking, I was unable to get my point across.

It was clearly acceptable to entertain bias against the ultra-Orthodox.

I’m concerned that my own reference in the case of the travellers, as well as my listeners’ reaction to the episode of Nurses reflect an internalised bias. One that cannot be ignored.

I believe very strongly that observant Jews should themselves demand to be held to a higher standard. And while there is no doubt that there has been problematic and outright reprehensible behaviour in some communities within the ultra-Orthodox fold, I’m deeply troubled that we are moving fast towards a hatred of “others” within our own community. And that we don’t even realise it.

We need to check our own behaviour.

Are we as outraged by the shenanigans at the Rage Festival that triggered the new variant and the second wave as we are by a shul that stayed open when it should have closed?

Are we as infuriated by secular Jews flying home from holiday with COVID-19 as we are by a wedding that shouldn’t have taken place? Are we quick to shake our heads when Haredim attend funerals in Jerusalem but justify gatherings in Tel Aviv because the right to protest is sacrosanct?

It begins with a recognition that there is bias. It begins with the acceptance that we are quicker to condemn an identifiable group. And it begins with treating our own with the respect that we would undoubtedly give to others.

It begins with me.

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Voices

Inform Board about exam clashes timeously

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Having just celebrated Purim (duly adapting its laws and customs to COVID-19 conditions), we are now looking ahead to Pesach less than a month away. From the point of view of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), it means gearing up to address potential problems of university exams, tests, or compulsory practicals being set on yom tov. Later, of course, it will be time to plan for Shavuot, and after that, for the extended yamim tovim season commencing with Rosh Hashanah and concluding three weeks later with Shemini Atzeret.

Dealing with these issues is a significant part of our core mandate of upholding the civil rights and religious freedom of the Jewish community. We work closely with various academic institutions in resolving scheduling clashes, and over the years, have thankfully been very successful in that regard. This has been true even over the past 12 months, when all practical solutions had to be arrived at in the context of COVID-19 restrictions. However, in order for the SAJBD to take up these cases effectively with the relevant university, we need to be informed timeously by the students concerned whenever problems arise. I therefore urge religiously observant students to check their exam timetables for the entire year carefully, and in the event of finding any clashes with yom tov, to advise the SAJBD as soon as possible by writing to sajbd@sajbd.org.

COVID-19 Q&A

We are fast approaching the first anniversary of that unforgettable day when South Africa went into hard lockdown and everyone’s lives changed. This week, in response to steadily declining infection rates, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a move to level-one lockdown. While this will significantly ease many of the restrictions the country has been operating under, other restrictions, including curfews, the wearing of masks in public places, and limitations on the size of gatherings remain in place. It hardly needs to be emphasised that we must all resist the temptation to become complacent, and must scrupulously comply with these regulations.

The SAJBD’s COVID-19 Q&A series continues to provide expert advice and guidelines regarding various aspects of the pandemic. These are all readily accessible on our Facebook page, along with extensive information about the pandemic, its impact on the Jewish community, and responses by members of communal leadership that have been uploaded since the pandemic began. This week, we feature video presentations from psychologist David Abrahamson, looking at “The psychological impact of COVID-19 on our children/teens”, and Professor Barry Schoub, the chairperson of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on vaccines, exploring the COVID-19 variant and its impact on vaccines, reinfection, and other relevant questions. Please continue to send through your COVID-19 questions to sajbd@sajbd.org, or post them on our Facebook page and we will do our best to get relevant professional experts to answer them.

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

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Voices

Duty to remember from generation to generation

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Tribute to Veronica Phillips, o”h

When Holocaust survivor Veronica Phillips, who sadly passed away earlier this week, was the guest speaker at the Johannesburg Yom Hashoah ceremony many years ago, it was the first time that she had spoken in public about her harrowing experiences. From that time on, however, she was a regular speaker on Holocaust remembrance platforms, including at the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre, as well as in schools and media interviews. Veronica was a proud and committed member of our community, and an inspiration to those who knew her. One theme she continually stressed in her addresses was that of l’dor v’dor (the duty of passing down the torch of remembrance from generation to generation). This, indeed, is the keynote theme of this year’s Yom Hashoah ceremony, where survivors will stress the solemn responsibility of youth today to ensure that the stories of survivors and above all, those who perished, aren’t forgotten. Although this time, Veronica won’t be with us to drive home that message, her dedicated, unselfish work in doing so in the latter part of her life will always resonate with those who were privileged to hear her tell her story.

Jewish Affairs – 80 years young

This week, the first issue for 2021 of our journal Jewish Affairs (Vol. 76, No. 1, Summer 2021) was published. The articles cover a wide range of subjects, from the Biblical writings, history, and archaeology of ancient Israel, to Zionist pioneers in the modern era, to such noteworthy Jewish South Africans who made a difference like the late Clive Chipkin, a celebrated architect, architectural historian, and Johannesburg heritage activist who passed away earlier this year. To read it, along with all previous issues that have appeared since the journal switched to its online format, go to South African Jewish Board of Deputies (sajbd.org). PDF versions of all previous issues going back to 2009 can be found at Jewish Affairs – archived issues.

Exactly 80 years have passed since the appearance of the inaugural issue of Jewish Affairs in 1941. I warmly thank all the loyal subscribers, advertisers, and contributors who have enabled us to reach this milestone. The original purpose of the publication was to serve as a vehicle for reporting back to the community on the work of the SAJBD and provide information on issues of concern to the community. In succeeding years, it developed into the country’s leading Jewish current affairs, historical, and cultural journal, and is now a vital resource for academics, journalists, genealogical researchers, and others with an interest in the history of our community.

Jewish Affairs is housed on the main SAJBD website, but a new, standalone Jewish Affairs website is in an advanced stage of production. Those interested in taking full advantage of this rich communal resource can do so simply by signing up, at no cost, as a subscriber. Send your name and email to david@sajbd.org.

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

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