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The Jewish Report Editorial

What does being at ground zero mean for us?

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Why is it that we so often don’t see the full reality of the situation we are living in until it is reflected through someone else’s eyes?
by PETA KROST MAUNDER | Nov 29, 2018

This week, I am in Israel for the international Jewish Media Summit, and it has been an eye-opener on many levels, not least of all for how our community’s situation is viewed by Jewish people elsewhere.

During the conference, I met media folk from all over the world, including the Ukraine, Hungary, Serbia, Russia, Italy, Hong Kong, Spain, England, and the United States. I met people from countries I had no idea had Jewish communities, but they mostly knew about us.

They were aware that we had a very close-knit and Zionist community. Many were aware that we were mostly orthodox, although our orthodoxy was more open-minded than most. In other words, our secular Jewish community was also orthodox, which for some was quite strange.

Many told me how concerning it was that we were at “ground zero” of the BDS problem, and that South Africa was leading the anti-Israel campaign.

I would have been far more astonished by this repeated claim – and would have wondered who was putting out this misinformation – if I hadn’t been faced with this very issue a few weeks earlier.

Let me backtrack to the initial scenario.

I heard about the formation of an organisation in Israel called the South African Israel Policy Forum that consisted mostly of South African olim and one or two political experts sympathetic to our community.

I was intrigued, and so approached one of the experts, Dan Diker, Project Director of the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs Program to Counter BDS and Political Warfare, to write an opinion piece about it. I wanted him to explain why this group felt there was a need for such an organisation, and what it planned to do.

They agreed. The piece spoke of how the South African ruling party was “BDS-captured”, and that “BDS SA, and ANC offices have today transformed South Africa into the world’s leader of boycott warfare against Israel”.

I went back to Diker, and suggested that this was a tad exaggerated, and things weren’t so bad. Surely, I said, there are places that are far more anti-Israel.

I went on to say that as South Africans, we are sensitive to those who have emigrated and enjoy lambasting what they have left behind. We are aware of the Shabbos table South Africa-bashing that takes place in some countries by some ex-South Africans.

I thought I could almost hear Diker sighing in disbelief as he retorted, “Your answer reveals why the article and forum are important. South Africa is BDS ground zero. The worst country for BDS in the world. Israel apartheid is South African branding, and it is the heart and soul of the international BDS movement.”

It made me sit up, listen, and start asking questions. Turns out he was not wrong, unfortunately!

Now, being in Israel, with all these people reiterating what he was saying, made me realise just how easy it is to be in the thick of things and not see the bigger picture.

On the other hand, I met media folk from France and other countries where traditional anti-Semitism is rife. They cannot walk the streets of Paris wearing kippot or a magen david without being under threat. Their lives as Jews are being made intolerable. To my mind, they have real problems.

However, I find it hard to compare our situation to theirs.

Just this weekend, we had President Cyril Ramaphosa address the SA Jewish Board of Deputies conference. He spoke about his admiration for us as a community. There is nothing in what he or any member of government said that would have a negative impact on our lives as Jews.

He mentioned the resolution taken in December to downgrade the embassy, and how we were upset about it, saying that the government was intent on being involved in garnering peace talks with Israel.

It sounds fantastic, and I believe that is what he wants to do. However, there are so many ANC members and BDS-supporting ministers who are way too anti-Israel to be involved in orchestrating peace in the Middle East.

It brings me back to the question whether being critical of Israel is anti-Semitic? It isn’t. Israelis criticise their government and various aspects of the country all the time – as do so many Jewish people around the world. They are not anti-Semites.

However, there is a clear distinction. BDS supporters see Israel as all bad, the oppressor, and don’t believe it has a right to defend and protect its people. They are anti-Semites. What exactly is Israel supposed to do if not defend itself and protect its people? Should it sit back and let its enemies – people who want to drive Israel into the sea – destroy the country?

There are a great number of such people in South Africa, and they stand strongly behind BDS. There are indeed many such people in the top echelons of government.

It is clearly problematic as it alienates South Africa from Israel, and puts South African Jews in a very precarious situation. Hence, Lindiwe Sisulu, the Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, calling on South African Jews to condemn Israel’s actions a while back.

No other country outside of the Arab world has a governing party that so clearly supports BDS. The ANC has welcomed Hamas leaders to its conferences, and apparently doesn’t believe Israel should use force to protect its people.

And so, those journalists at the conference looked sympathetically at me as if we had much to be concerned about.

I am still not convinced the situation is as bad as that. Perhaps I know more than they do, or perhaps I am an ostrich with my head in the sand.

I trust Ramaphosa, and do believe he will do his best to do the right thing. Will he triumph? I can’t say.

Does being at BDS ground zero mean we are in trouble? Just how will this play out for us? I cannot say.

It is clearly murky ground that hasn’t been traversed before. We live in a country where our right to be Jewish in all its glory is sacrosanct, and in that we are safe. We go forward step by step because this is our country.

Shabbat Shalom!

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