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Board vows to keep fighting anti-Semitism

  • GautengConference
The South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) has promised the community it will leave no stone unturned in its fight against anti-Semitism to ensure that the community continues to enjoy the freedoms central to its vibrant way of life.
by NICOLA MILTZ | Oct 11, 2018

This was the message of the SAJBD Gauteng Council’s biennial conference held at the weekend.

Gauteng Chairman Marc Pozniak insisted, “To be an anti-Semite in South Africa must and will have consequences. For now, our community is free to walk to shul and free to wear kippot loudly and proudly, but we remain vigilant.”

He said levels of anti-Semitic activity in South Africa remained low compared with other diaspora communities. Over the past two years, there were on average 50 incidents a year, the majority of which took place in Gauteng, where about two-thirds of the community lives.

He said the main source of anti-Semitic sentiment and behaviour was the conflict between Israel and its neighbours. Anti-Israel campaigning sometimes crossed over into an outright attacks on Jews. The ongoing vilification of the Jewish state, he said, continued to threaten the community’s sense of security and comfort.

Nearly all the incidents were non-violent, and were characterised by hate mail or verbal abuse. “Despite this, we can never afford to become complacent. In a volatile, racially divided society like South Africa, there is always a risk that anti-Semitic modes of thinking will become increasingly prevalent, even coming to be regarded as socially acceptable.

“In today’s interconnected world, anyone with a computer and an internet connection has a readily available audience… anyone can be an influencer or opinion maker with minimal regulation or oversight,” said Pozniak.

Almost all of the cases the Board has taken up over the past decade have concerned offensive slurs on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Pozniak said that the rules of the game had changed, and with that the Board’s way of tackling the issue also had to change, all while making sure that battles were chosen carefully.

Realistically, not every incident could be taken up with the relevant existing statutory bodies, so the Board concentrated its efforts on slurs and statements made by prominent public figures.

“Anti-Semitic comments obviously need to be taken more seriously when they are made by political leaders as opposed to ordinary members of the public,” Pozniak said.

He highlighted recent successful outcomes including three hate-speech cases which involved public figures. Two of the cases confirmed that threatening Jews for supporting Israel constituted prohibited hate speech.

“This is important in an environment where the traditionally strong Zionist loyalties of the Jewish community are coming under continual pressure as a result of the aggressive activities of radical anti-Israel lobbies like BDS-SA, and its sympathisers within certain political parties,” Pozniak said.

He said the Board tried where possible to resolve incidents through dialogue and conciliation rather than going the legal route, and highlighted two cases where conciliation had been very successful.

“We firmly believe that where perpetrators display genuine contrition, these are the kinds of outcomes we need to strive towards.”

Pozniak acknowledged that not everyone in the community agreed with this approach, with some saying contrition was not enough, that education was insufficient, and that the Board should adopt a less forgiving approach.

It begged the larger question of how the community and more importantly how we as South Africans should confront the deeply fractured society in the world today.

“Will we side with intolerance and divisiveness, or will we honour the legacy of Mandela and choose the path of unity and forgiveness? We choose the latter.”

Pozniak stressed that tolerance and forgiveness should not be misinterpreted as weakness.

The Board’s efforts over the past year have been largely taken up with the campaign against the proposed downgrade of the South African Embassy in Israel.

“The hours upon hours of work that has gone into keeping the enactment of this resolution at bay is simply not translatable into words,” said Pozniak.

After his presentation, some time was spent discussing the draft amended constitution of the SAJBD Gauteng Council.

Wendy Kahn, the National Chairperson of the Board, told those present about a poignant and meaningful moment she had experienced over the past year when she visited the Soweto house of mourning of the late Winnie Madikizela Mandela soon after the struggle stalwart’s passing.

Accompanied by the Board’s Charisse Zeifert, and her daughter of 13, the three were welcomed with open arms into the home and enveloped with warmth and a spirit of unity. They were struck by the similarities to Judaism of deep soulful mourning taking place at the house.

“This was a shiva house. The mourners were red-eyed and seated on low benches, and seemed genuinely touched by and grateful for our visit. They embraced us with such warmth during their time of sorrow. It is something I will never forget. They kept saying, ‘Shalom, shalom, shalom!’ It was very moving,” said Kahn.

The moment highlighted for her the vital importance of finding areas of commonality and unity amongst all South Africans. “There is so much that unites us in South Africa, we just have to find the areas of commonality, find the places where we can truly connect.”

The election of the Gauteng executive will be conducted at the next Gauteng Council meeting on 25 November, where President Cyril Ramaphosa is scheduled to speak.

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