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Missing moral backbone

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The South African Jewish Board of Deputies has frequently criticised the South African government for its palpable anti-Israel bias, but the recent shocking response, not just by government spokespeople and the ruling African National Congress but President Cyril Ramaphosa himself, went beyond mere bias to all but justify the murderous actions of Hamas.

For a full week, our community waited in vain for our country’s leader to condemn the barbaric murder of more than 1 400 Jews and convey his sympathy to our community at this time of great grief and trauma. Instead, there was a stream of statements from him, his government, and his party doubling down on their condemnation of the Jewish state and expressing unqualified support for the Palestinians.

The culminating insult took place on Shabbat, exactly a week after the worst mass atrocities against the Jewish people since the Holocaust, when Ramaphosa, pointedly wearing a keffiyeh, attended and spoke at a Gaza solidarity rally. International Relations Minister Dr Naledi Pandor, meanwhile, has gone even further, including calling for a boycott of Israeli products. Her cosy call to Hamas earlier this week truly crossed the bounds of all decency, and has shown the world the ugly truth of South Africa’s hypocritical foreign policy in the Middle East.

It has required a change in response from us. In this week’s Sunday Times, we took the unprecedented step of publishing a full-page open letter to Ramaphosa to convey the hurt, outrage, and overwhelming sense of betrayal our community is feeling at this time. Our letter pulled no punches, declaring that the stunning silence from the Union Buildings and the hostility of Ramaphosa’s party, with its proud history of liberation from the repressive apartheid regime, amounted in this instance to complicity. In a filmed voice note that has since reverberated internationally, I reiterated the letter’s essential themes, concluding, “Mr President, today you have joined a long list of people throughout history who have justified the wholesale murder of Jews. As your citizens, we feel betrayed.”

Since then, we have witnessed something of a shift from government. There has been at least some level of condemnation expressed for Hamas’ hideous atrocities, however disgracefully late, qualified, and “balanced” by ritual denouncements of Israel it might have been. Our community can take some comfort from the fact that we live in a constitutional democracy where it remains possible to speak out in such strong terms against our government and at least receive some level of acknowledgement from it as to how we are feeling.

We remain very much in the trenches, fighting the fight alongside our allies in the South African Zionist Federation, South African Union of Jewish Students, and other organisations. In stark contrast to the government’s reaction, we have been overwhelmed by the depth and breadth of the compassion and kindness shown by so many ordinary South Africans, who have reached out to their Jewish brothers and sisters in solidarity. They have helped to strengthen and energise us in our fight for truth and justice, a fight we know will be a long and bitter one as the tragic events in the Middle East play out in the weeks and perhaps months to come.

In the same way that we provide social, security, educational, and health services when our government fails us, so we will provide a moral backbone in the face of the government’s shameful failure to stand by the democratic, humanitarian principles for which its predecessors fought. Our call now is for the world at large, South Africa included, to join us in calling for the release of the hostages. Let our people go!

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

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