SA Jews condemn vote to suspend Israel ties
The South African National Assembly voted this week to suspend ties with Israel and shut the Israeli embassy, delivering a morale-shattering blow to the heart of the community.
A majority of South African legislators voted on Tuesday, 21 November, in favour of a motion calling for the closure of the embassy and the cutting of diplomatic ties until Israel agreed to a ceasefire in Gaza.
As the final votes were tallied, members of parliament (MPs) from the benches of the African National Congress (ANC) and Economic Freedom fighters (EFF), supported by the one and two-seater Al Jama-ah; the National Freedom Party; the African Transformation Movement; and Pan Africanist Congress – many draped in keffiyehs – chanted “Free, free Palestine” and “From the river to the sea”.
The vote came a day after Israel’s foreign ministry recalled its ambassador to South Africa, Eli Belotsercovsky, back to Jerusalem “for consultation” following the “latest statements from South Africa”.
The motion in the House tabled by the EFF last week was supported by the ruling ANC and received the support of 248 MPs, while 91 legislators opposed it.
ANC chief whip Pemmy Majodina amended the last point of the EFF draft resolution calling for the embassy’s closure and diplomatic suspension to include the words: “Until a ceasefire is agreed to by Israel and Israel commits to binding United Nations-facilitated negotiations whose outcome must be a just, sustainable, and lasting peace.”
The resolution is largely symbolic as it will be up to President Cyril Ramaphosa and the national executive whether to implement it. Presiding officer and House chairperson Cedric Frolick said, “Such a resolution will be politically persuasive rather than instructive.”
If it gets the rubber stamp, it may put the government, desperately keen to see itself as an international player and negotiator, on the back foot. This is something Ramaphosa and Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Dr Naledi Pandor are aware of. Pandor was quoted ahead of Tuesday’s vote saying that the closure of the embassy was unlikely and that the “breaking of diplomatic relations with Israel will be counterproductive as it will also affect our representative office in Ramallah”.
South African Zionist Federation National Chairperson Rowan Polovin said that for now, the embassy remained open and operational in South Africa with all consular services, flights to and from Israel, and other interactions taking place in the usual manner.
The resolution is “prejudicial to the constitutional rights of the South African Jewish community alongside Christians and all those who have religious and spiritual ties to the holy land”, Polovin said.
“The ANC has chosen sides – Hamas and Qatar,” said Dr Glen Segell, visiting professor in the department of political studies and governance at the University of the Free State. “It’s seen as a hero with those that support terrorism and are anti-Western. It shouldn’t expect to be welcomed into any forum that allies with Israel. Certainly, relations between South African and the United States will deteriorate as a consequence.
“South African Jewry must get to grips with the reality that their government actively supports a terrorist organisation that perpetrated a violent pogrom and whose goal and actions are to annihilate the state of Israel. Iran, Hamas, and the ANC actively promote a Palestine “from the river to the sea”, which is the eradication of Israel and Zionism – the Jewish national home – and by violent means,” Segell said.
He and other political commentators said the recall decision was made within the context of the ANC government’s continual support for Hamas and as a direct response to the bellicose statements and intents against Israel.
“These were initially its refusal to condemn the massacre of 7 October and not to acknowledge the plight of the hostages including children and women, where some of these are South African citizens. The catalyst was the referral to the International Criminal Court,” said Segell.
“It’s a sad situation and will definitely unsettle the South African Jewish community and the thousands of Israelis in the country,” said political analyst Steven Gruzd. “It may spur more people to emigrate, with South Africa losing much-needed skilled professionals. Practically it would make it harder for people to get passports and other diplomatic services. Will the embassy close? We don’t know.”
Political commentator Daniel Silke said South Africa had “failed dismally” to address the nuances of the broader Palestinian problem. “We have witnessed the use of selective morality on the part of South Africa since the attacks of 7 October. It has erred on the side of myopia, supporting one side without even for a second thinking about the broader more complex issues and, of course, the security issues that Israel faces as well.”
In light of this he said South Africa had effectively “excluded itself from any kind of potential arbiter in the Middle East despite pronouncements from the ANC over the years that it would be ready to provide assistance in terms of conflict resolution. This puts the nail in that coffin.”
Ramaphosa “knows that any pretence at playing some sort of mediatory role has ended”, said Sara Gon of the Institute of Race Relations. “South Africa will have no influence whatsoever with whatever may pan out from here onwards. He also knows that the relationship with the Jewish community is over, and he daren’t ask anything of it. The South African mission in Ramallah is likely to be left adrift without a South African embassy in Israel, which has to be a necessary consequence of his decision.
“He must know that the decision doesn’t just affect the rights of South African Jews; it will affect South Africans of all stripes negatively. All of this is likely not to override the need to save his presidency.”
She said the ANC did create a “get-out-of-jail card” by amending the EFF’s resolution.
“In other words, Ramaphosa will be relying on a ceasefire or something he can call a ceasefire – like the hostage deal – to not have to close down the embassy for good.”
Professor Karen Milner, the national chairperson of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, said the Israeli ambassador’s recall took place against the background of a “sustained campaign of demonisation and bullying of the Israeli ambassador by the ANC and the South African government in a way that was unconducive to dialogue and engagement”.
She said the debate in Parliament was a pointless exercise as it doesn’t determine the international relations, and especially pointless given Israel’s decision to withdraw its ambassador for consultation.