SA Organisations

Future shift of focus for transformed SAJBD

  • 15-Jeff lo-res
While the SA Jewish Board of Deputies is a completely transformed and well-oiled machine, says newly inducted national chairman Jeff Katz, he hopes to add a new, personal focus “to enhance the wonderful work” that it has already done - he told Jewish Report in an exclusive interview this week. Jeff Katz spoke openly and transparently on issues such as BDS, Hamas, anti-Semitism and where he would like to see SA Jewry going in the next few years. He is upbeat both about the country and the role the community can play in it.
by ANT KATZ | Dec 08, 2015

Over the past eight years the SAJBD “has been completely transformed,” says Jeff Katz, particularly through the time, work and effort put in by Zev Krengel (who served two terms as chairman and two as president) Mary Kluk (who served the penultimate two terms as chairman and is now president) and Wendy Kahn and her team.

“They have built a great foundation and I hope to be able to continue the work they have done.”

However, says Katz, if the Jewish community in SA is to succeed, as has no doubt it will, “the country as a whole must succeed.” For this reason one of his own points of focus will be to encourage SA Jewry to participate in all spheres of SA society.

15-Jeff and Kgalema“We need to become more involved in the country,” he says. “We can help to better the country - and that will, in turn, enhance our wonderful life here.” He is full of confidence.

RIGHT: Jeff Katz with former President Kgalema Motlante at the Board's elective conference last month

But, he recognises pragmatically: “There is a lot of negative sentiment.

But look around and see what a wonderful life we have as Jews here in SA, we really are thriving.”

He says that he doesn’t believe that there is a comparable Jewish community anywhere else in the world.

To maintain this way of life, however, SA Jewry must make a bigger contribution. “The reality is that we make a major contribution in (areas such as) commerce and industry.

There is no doubt that we have problems and SA Jewry needs to widen its contribution to society as a whole in all realms – such as politics and welfare.

Tricky time for SA Jewry

Asked if he thought he was taking over the reins during a tricky time for SA Jewry, Katz said that he did not see it as a time of difficulty, but as one of an opportunity to participate.

He acknowledged that “BDS is a pain – a thorn in the side,” but said that if one looked at the overall picture, they had enjoyed little success.

“The relationship between SA and Israel is pretty good,” he said. “Trade is increasing, the ANC believe in a two-state solution and the government have a relatively stable approach to the Middle East.”

Despite the ANC’s historical links to the PLO, said Katz, “credit must be given to the government” for their even handedness in handling Israeli issues.

Jeff Katz’ view on Hamas

On the thorny issue of Hamas, the new Board chairman made it abundantly clear that “from the Board’s perspective, we will have no talks with Hamas in any way.” The board could not and would not recognise the organisation.

In fact, he said, the SAJBD had told (ANC secretary general) Gwede Mantashe that what was a problem to Jews, is that Hamas is terror organisation set on the annihilation of Israel.

Always the pragmatist, Jeff Katz says, Mantashe “has told me that you have to speak to your enemies as well.” He understands this position, and that “Hamas is part of the equation” in seeking peace in the Middle East. “Having the ANC talking to them is probably better than (if it was) anyone else.”

During their recent visit as guests of the ANC, Hamas had told Mantashe that they were prepared to talk to Israel. President Zuma repeated that in Parliament. The following week, however, as keynote speaker at the Board’s elective conference, Zuma acknowledged that SA Jewry was angered by the ANC having viewed Hamas in a Mandela-like manner.

The ANC believe what Hamas told them, says Katz, but the SAJBD “will never, and can never, talk to Hamas as long as they are designated a terror organisation.”

What the Board does

The Jewish lay-leadership works closely, as a strong collective at communal level, says Katz. “At the end of the day, that’s what we are here for, to protect the civil liberties of SA Jewry.”

By and large, he adds, these almost always manifest themselves as anti-Semitism. He reiterated the Board’s zero-tolerance in this regard and reminded the community that the Board should always be their “first point of call” when experiencing anti-Semitism.

Of course the Board deals with many other community issues, says Katz.

The levels of anti-Semitism “are remarkably low in SA, he says. They could even be the lowest in the world in terms of reported incidents for communities of comparable size.” He acknowledges that racism against Jews tends to spike in SA (and globally) when there is military activity in the Middle East. He can recall “only one incident of a physically violent assault” in the recent past, that being the case where Jewish kids were attacked at the Rosebank Zone.

That has been Jeff’s personal case from the outset. He has dealt with the police and other authorities, laid criminal charges and is working closely with the ongoing investigation.

“I have never met any member of government or official not sympathetic to (eradicating) anti-Semitism,” says Katz. He says that the SA Equality Act and the Constitution, which covers racism (anti-Semitism), hate speech and incitement to violence are the Board’s primary tool. And the SA Human Rights Commission l is their primary source of adjudication.

The Board also uses Civil Courts to prosecute anti-Semitism and has a pending case in Durban. Last week Katz asked the Media Ombudsman to investigate the Independent Media Group based on stories that had been published. “Their facts on the alleged Turkish arrest warrants following the Mavi Marmara incident were factually incorrect,” he says.


Does all this, a day-job and family!

Jeff Katz matriculated at King David Victory Park before studying law. He started his studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and completed them at Wits. After doing his articles, he was employed as an attorney at Discovery in 1998 where he has since served in many legal positions, including heading the corporate legal department.

Jeff has always been a community-minded man. He has been a member of the national Board for some time. He served on the Gauteng branch of the Board for almost a dozen years, first as a member, then as vice-chairman and, before moving up to chair the national  Board, he served two terms as chairman of Gauteng.

Other current communal organisations that Jeff Katz does voluntary work for includes: The SA Friends of Hebrew University – in which he has been active for around seven years and chairman for the past three; and he is the local representative the Israeli Jewish human rights law firm Shurat Hadim, well-known for their ‘lawfare’ activities, for whom he acts pro bono. When he had more time, he was also an active CSO volunteer.

He is married to Terry and they have two children: Jaime, 13 who goes to Crawford and Alexa, 11, who attends King David Sandton.


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