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Remembering Rhoda Kadalie, feisty friend of Israel

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Rhoda Kadalie, a passionate human-rights supporter, strident critic of the corruption of the South African government, and lover of Israel, was remembered at a service at the Rondebosch United Church in Cape Town on 26 June 2022.

Kadalie died from lung cancer on 16 April in Los Angeles, California, aged 68. She had moved to the United States four years ago to be with her daughter, Julia, son-in-law Joel Pollak – a well-known political author on the American right – and her grandchildren Maya, Alex, and Amira.

Kadalie was born in District Six in 1953, the granddaughter of Clements Kadalie, South Africa’s first black trade union leader. Her family was forcibly removed from the white suburb of Mowbray.

Kadalie was a fearless and fierce supporter of Israel. “Rhoda defended Israel, even when it cost her friendships and relationships,” Pollak said in his eulogy at the memorial service.

Kadalie served on the South African Human Rights Commission during the Nelson Mandela presidency, and used the platform to speak out against growing antisemitism in South Africa. This stance didn’t make her popular in leftist political circles. She refused to be cowed, however.

The naked and vicious antisemitism on display at the 2001 World Conference Against Racism in Durban spurred Kadalie to become even more of an outspoken advocate for Israel and the Jewish community. She condemned the Durban conference for obsessing about Israel to the detriment of real racism issues, and for promoting Jew-hatred.

Kadalie went on record to say that the African National Congress (ANC) had used the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a smokescreen to obscure burning local issues and fissures. She also disparaged the ANC’s loyalty to its struggle comrades in its foreign policy, including the Palestinians and Cubans.

She attacked Jewish-born ANC stalwart Ronnie Kasrils for his vocal anti-Zionism in the early 2000s, saying it was pandering to the Muslim vote, especially in the Western Cape.

The Jewish community in South Africa embraced her, just as she was shunned and pilloried by the political left. She frequently spoke at Jewish events. Kadalie sat on the boards of the Cape Town Holocaust Centre and the Jewish Museum.

Her support for Israel had deep roots in her Christian faith – she had learned from her parents to pray for Jerusalem. In 2008, she co-authored, with her daughter, Julia Bertelsmann, a blistering critique of odious comparisons between Israel and apartheid South Africa. This was a repeated refrain in her provocative columns. “She believed that human rights meant nothing unless equally applied to all,” Pollak said.

In that report, she wrote, “On the one hand, the use of the apartheid metaphor is hardly unusual in the South African political context. Almost every political debate is framed in terms of apartheid … On the other hand, Israel is different. The ANC devotes more attention to Israel than to many domestic issues and conflicts closer to home. It denies that anti-Israel protest is often antisemitic, but on no other issue has the party been more willing to abandon its supposedly non-racial ideals.”

She visited Israel in 2010, and wrote in Business Day, “Those who are prejudiced against Israel for ideological reasons do us a disservice when they portray the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in black-and-white terms.”

Kadalie fiercely opposed the severing of ties between the University of Johannesburg and Ben Gurion University, and other attempts at an academic boycott of Israeli institutions. She called the boycott “politically correct nonsense” to mask the failure of South African universities. She also went after the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu, taking the cleric to task for his criticism of Israel in the press and his efforts to prevent the Cape Town Opera from performing in Israel. She was also unafraid to take on left-wing Jews, including Judge Dennis Davis.

She wrote, “Bashing Israel has become a self-promotion industry, and the disinvestment campaign is its marketing tool. We should be attracting Israelis to our shores as the ideal foreign direct investment destination for Israelis.”

Kadalie also championed the rights of Christians in the Middle East, a much persecuted minority, a cause routinely ignored by the pro-Palestinian lobby.

At the service, former Western Cape Premier Helen Zille spoke fondly of her friendship and regular verbal sparring with Kadalie. “I experienced the icy chill of her wrath and the warmth of her forgiving embrace. She hated hypocrisy, double standards, and dissembling.” Zille joked that Kadalie could have made a success of anything “except a diplomatic career!”

Pollak mentioned how devoted Kadalie was to her Christian faith and reading her Bible, yet helped organise her daughter’s Orthodox Jewish wedding. “She mastered the rules of kashrut,” Pollak said, and learned to keep meat and milk dishes separate.

  • Pollak has been writing a biography titled “Rhoda: Comrade Kadalie, You Are Out of Order!” to be published by the University of Johannesburg Press. He is thanked for providing some background material used in this article.

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