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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

Don’t vote, don’t complain

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The conversation would go something along these lines. “Mrs Feldman,” they would say, on seeing my late grandmother, “You are looking too wonderful!” A pregnant pause would follow as she contemplated the horror of what had been said. “Really?” she would finally answer, lips pursed, eyes narrowed, “You should only know how terrible I feel.”

And then, just to prove her point. Or to make them suffer, she would tell them. Complaint by complaint. Ailment by ailment, punctuated with a detailed description of her matching medication. At a family function, my grandmother would find desserts “too sweet” and the band too loud. She was never happy with where she had been seated, and there was always someone who didn’t greet her appropriately.

She wouldn’t have it any other way. Because complaining made her happy.

Whereas our generation might not complain about the same things, we’re hardly different. Social media is a complainer’s dream, where at a whim and at any time, we have the ability to slate, moan, and denigrate anything or anyone we choose. The “Hello Peters”, Google Reviews, and Facebook groups all provide fertile environments for anyone having a bad experience or simply a bad day. Because like it or not, complaining makes us happy.

It does, however, have its limits. And there are conditions attached to our ability and right to complain. We might, for instance, not be happy with the state of our roads, or the water pipes or electricity, but we forfeit the right to complain about them if we choose not to vote in the forthcoming municipal elections. No one will stop us, and maybe no one will even know, but electing not to participate in the choosing of representatives for our neighbourhoods and cities renders our complaining voices silent on a moral level.

The refrain of, “There’s no one to vote for” isn’t only inaccurate, it’s also lazy. The options might not be perfect, but each presents an opportunity for change and improvement.

The decision not to vote is a vote for the status quo. Which means that it’s affirmation that things are just as they should be. It means that the roads are pristine, that our water sparkles and is reliable, and that our lights switch on with the predictability and consistency of high school Charidy callers. It means that everything is just as it should be. Because, why else would anyone choose not to choose?

In conversations with the leaders of the Democratic Alliance, Action SA, and the African Christian Democratic Party, each told me the same thing: this election is all about service delivery. It’s about selecting the party and person who has the highest chance of getting the job done.

It might be true that there’s no perfect party and no perfect candidate, but then it might be worth choosing the one that’s the least imperfect of them all. Failure to do that will result the loss of the right to complain about all the things we love to complain about.

Which would make our grandmothers very unhappy.

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Voices

Making us count in the conversation

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Let me introduce myself. My name is Karen Milner, and I’m the newly elected chairperson of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD). I look forward to engaging with all of you through this column, and welcome any feedback, comments, and input.

It’s my pleasure to start my tenure by announcing the results of the elections of the SAJBD national positions:

Shaun Zagnoev – national president

Mary Kluk – national vice-president

Zev Krengel – national vice-president

David Kuming – national treasurer

Marc Pozniak – national vice-chairperson (Gauteng)

Rael Kaimowitz – national vice-chairperson (Western Cape)

Susan Abro – national vice-chairperson (KZN)

Our elections took place last Sunday, 17 October, as part of the SAJBD’s biennial national conference, and it’s an amazing privilege for us to begin our term of office on the back of such an inspiring and thought-provoking event. The Board’s national conferences are typically a hybrid of past, present, and future, where reflecting on the events of the previous two years goes hand in hand with assessing current realities and looking to the potential challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. This conference was no exception, addressing issues of real substance while also showcasing what the Board has done on behalf of its constituency.

We were honoured to have an exceptional panel, comprising Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana, Advocate Wim Trengove, and Eskom Chief Executive Andre de Ruyter to address the critical challenges facing our country – the economy, the rule of law, and electricity. None of the speakers attempted to airbrush the sobering reality of the difficulties ahead, but they also relayed a message of genuine hope. This message was reinforced as we learned about the remarkable work done by the recipients of our communal leadership awards – the Kirsh family; Professor Barry Schoub; Dr Richard Friedland; Uriel Rosen (the initiator of the Hatzolah COVID-19 Wellness Programme); and Vivienne Anstey. We are humbled and inspired by their example. They showed the truth of Margaret Mead’s profound words, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Upholding Jewish civil rights remains the core mandate of the SAJBD, but its mission includes leading the community in being an active, identifying part of society. By addressing at our conference such critical issues as the economy, the role of the judiciary, and the Eskom question, we helped ensure that the community, in spite of its small number, continues to be a dynamic part of the national conversation. I congratulate all those who helped to put this very successful event together, and in particular, our superb professional staff team headed by Wendy Kahn. The widespread media coverage that the conference generated, together with the interest shown in such recent Board events as the #MakeUsCount pre-election debates, also shows how our community continues to be regarded as a significant voice

I thank my colleagues for the trust they have placed in me, and look forward to working with them in protecting and promoting the welfare of our vibrant, resilient Jewish community.

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

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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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