Downgrade the ‘biggest issue to affect SA Jewry in modern times’

  • Lindiwe
The Jewish community has been shaken to its core by Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Lindiwe Sisulu’s announcement last week that all relations with Israel were being severed. She also categorically stated that the downgrade of the South African Embassy in Israel was already in progress.
by NICOLA MILTZ | Apr 11, 2019

“This is the single biggest issue to affect South African Jewry in modern times,” Zev Krengel, the vice-president of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), told the SA Jewish Report this week.

Asked why an embassy downgrade in Israel and possibly in South Africa was such a big issue for the community, Krengel responded by saying it was emotional.

“We’ve had an Israeli representative in South Africa and Israel since 1950. It is a little piece of Israel sitting in our country. We are a proud Zionist community, we love South Africa, we love Israel, and it gives us a biblical link to our Jewish state. It will be a devastating blow if Israel recalls its ambassador. We live at a time where there is a Jewish state, so to live without diplomatic relations is like going to shul and not having a Torah in the ark.”

The SA Jewish Report revealed last week that in her address to foreign dignitaries and media at the South African Institute of International Affairs, Sisulu responded to a question by saying, “We are putting together a programme of downgrading our relations with Israel in line with the resolutions that were taken by the ANC [African National Congress].”

However, she skipped over her prepared statement on this issue which went further, saying that “stage one [of the downgrade] has been completed”.

The written speech went on, “Our ambassador is back in South Africa, and we will not be replacing him. Our liaison office in Tel Aviv will have no political mandate, no trade mandate, and no development co-operation mandate. It will not be responsible for trade and commercial activities. The focus of the liaison office will be consular, and the facilitation of people-to-people relations.”

A shocked Krengel responded this week by saying, “It has been a rough few days.”

This is not surprising considering that President Cyril Ramaphosa has on a number of occasions assured the community of the government’s desire to continue to play a meaningful and constructive role in peace negotiations in the troubled Middle East region.

Krengel said the announcements came as a surprise last week because, “Our view was always that a certain level of common sense would prevail. You can’t play a diplomatic role in peace negotiations if you have no diplomatic relations.”

He said more and more countries were establishing strong diplomatic and other ties with Israel, not only in Africa but even in the Middle East itself, and within the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) association.

“I think what hurts the most is that Israel is the only country being singled out.”

Said Krengel, “If the downgrade of the South African Embassy in Israel goes ahead, which the minister says it will, it’s the single worst government legislation to affect our community in recent history.”

Over the past week, the SAJBD has been tirelessly meeting with role players at the highest level in a frantic bid to sway impending downgrade decisions. It has reached out to the Presidency, the Department of International Relations and Cooperation, the Israeli Foreign Ministry, and the ANC.

Said Krengel, “We have asked Israel not to overreact and recall its ambassador.” As would generally happen, once an ambassador of one country is recalled, the other country would likely do the same. “We have asked the Israeli government not to abandon South Africa and South African Jewry. Israel is helping to uplift the lives of South Africans daily with major projects in the fields of water, technology, and security.”

Sisulu, meanwhile, has received wide-ranging support for her announcement from traditionally anti-Israel organisations such as the ANC, the Congress of South Africa Trade Unions, the South African Communist Party, and other pro-Palestinian lobby groups.

Sara Gon of the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) told the SA Jewish Report, “We can be sure that the ANC and some opposition parties want to be seen to punish Israel.”

She said that while they wanted Jewish investment, “a Jewish population of 60 000 is electorally irrelevant”.

“I don’t think the ANC realises how irrelevant South Africa has become globally in the past decade. It won’t affect Israel, which offers the world very much more than we do. It may bolster the ANC’s credentials for a while with itself, BDS [the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement] and Hamas, but it will have absolutely no role to play in resolving the conflict.

“If the ANC really wanted to do something, it would push the Palestinians to get to the negotiating table soonest. If it did, it would discover that the Palestinians are very unlikely to heed its calls.”

In an article she penned in The Daily Friend, the online news platform of the IRR, Gon said, “The position seems to be that on the one hand, the ANC is going to sever all and any relationships with Israel, and has no desire to play a conciliatory role in the Middle East conflict. On the other, the ANC wants Israeli and South African Jewish money, and Ramaphosa will flatter the community to deceive. The ANC is nothing if not pragmatic – Jews can contribute economically, but they have nothing to offer electorally.”

Darren Bergman, the Democratic Alliance (DA) Shadow Minister of International Relations, said South Africa was using international relations to canvas for elections.

“Israel and South Africa, in contradiction to the minister’s statement, enjoy major bilateral trade, and South Africa absorbs a lot of the technology emanating from Israel,” said Bergman. “To boycott Israel from a South African perspective would harm South Africa more than it would Israel.

Bergman said that while the DA shared the concerns of the government about the attacks and deaths on both Israeli and Palestinian sides, it continued to push for “sincere attempts at finding peace in a diplomatic manner” as the best way to achieve resolution.

DA member of the national assembly, Michael Bagraim, who sits on the portfolio committee on labour told the SA Jewish Report that Sisulu was “trying her luck.”

“The minister is on a frolic of her own,” he said. “This is partly for political reasons. She is trying to hoodwink the Muslim community to get it to align itself with the ANC. I don’t think it’s a community that is easily hoodwinked.”

Krengel said he stood by Ramaphosa, and did not feel betrayed by the president.

“He has many balls in the air. He needs breathing space. He is literally trying to keep the lights on, and keep the ship afloat. We just hope our issue doesn’t go the wrong way.”

Israeli Ambassador Lior Keinan said he was not in a position to comment. However, a response from Israel is expected soon.


  1. 3 Elona Steinfeld 11 Apr
    Lindiwe Sisulu is contradicting what the president has conveyed to the Jewish people of South Africa.
  2. 2 Ian Goddard 12 Apr
    How utterly puerile of So.Africa's ANC government. 
    Talk about cutting off one's nose to spite one's face. 
    All rather laughable if the downgrading gesture in itself wasn't so myopic.
  3. 1 Brian Fink 14 Apr
    Surely a downgrade is not a severance and a severance is not a downgrade. They are mutually exclusive.


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