Op-eds

Ehrenreich ruling proves power of words

  • AboveBoardShaunZagnoev (3)
Some items appear to have been on the agenda of the council of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) forever, and one of these has been our case against former Congress of South African Trade Unions Western Cape leader Tony Ehrenreich.
by SHAUN ZAGNOEV | Jul 30, 2020

Last week, we were finally able to draw a line under this six-year-long matter when we accepted a suitably worded apology from Ehrenreich for inciting violence against the SAJBD and others who express support for Israel. The significance of Ehrenreich’s apology shouldn’t be underplayed. It amounts to a public admission of guilt on his part, putting to an end all previous attempts to justify his unacceptable conduct by posing as a champion of human rights. It further establishes a crucial precedent, namely that it’s never acceptable to threaten and incite violence against those who disagree with you.

In spite of the many lengthy delays, we stuck to our guns through every stage of the process until it reached a satisfactory conclusion. In doing so, we will have sent a strong message that regardless of political connections and no matter what spoiling tactics are resorted to, when our community’s civil rights have been infringed, the Board won’t rest until those responsible have been held properly accountable.

In its statement on the acceptance of the apology, the SA Human Rights Commission made the critical point that words have immense power, and that therefore the consequences of irresponsible speech can be extremely negative, particularly in a society as traumatised as our own. Consequently, all people, but especially those in leadership positions, have a responsibility to be mindful of the manner in which they communicate, whether on social media or any other public forum. This, indeed, is an area in which the SAJBD has been continuously active over the years, from the level of unsavoury comments made in a junior school playground right through to the Constitutional Court. The right to freedom of expression is a cornerstone of democracy, but not when it crosses over into incitement of hatred and causing harm.

Today, the vast majority of hate-speech incidents reported to us occur on social media, which has on the one hand given ordinary people a vast public platform on which to air their views, but which by its very free, unregulated nature lends itself to all kinds of abuse. Confronting these issues has become a global challenge, to the extent of boycotts being called for against such online giants as Facebook and Twitter. The owners of such platforms do, indeed, have a responsibility to prevent them from becoming vehicles for propagating hatred, but it’s also incumbent on individuals to refrain from misusing them in this way. Whatever is posted online amounts to publication, and consequently, it’s no defence to claim simply to be airing your private opinions.

I urge you all therefore to ponder before you post, and think before you tweet. Publishing a comment can be a matter of a few seconds, but its negative consequences can last for a very long time indeed. Just ask Tony Ehrenreich.

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

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