SAJBD Gauteng Conference report-back
Gap between haves, have-nots remains a source of concern
Speakers, including Michael Katz and Colin Coleman, emphasised how much the country had accomplished, despite the serious challenges it still faced, how much the Jewish community as a whole had benefited from this and what part Jews had played, and could still play, in building on those achievements.
It was also stressed that while the recent rise of anti-Semitic activity was a cause for concern, South Africa’s robust democratic culture provided the necessary vehicles through which to address such threats and bring those responsible to book. The conference took place at Investec in Sandton.
Outgoing Gauteng Council Chairman Jeff Katz, said that democracy was about more than just being able to vote every couple of years or so. What was even more important was that such basic democratic rights as freedom of expression, thought and religion and protection against unfair discrimination, freedoms were respected.
“It is because these fundamental democratic values are so firmly upheld in our country that the Jewish way of life has been protected and indeed is thriving,” he said.
SAJBD National Director Wendy Kahn gave an overview of anti-Semitic incidents recorded since the commencement of the Gaza war and how the Board had responded to them.
Whereas only 52 incidents had been logged during the whole of 2013, 116 cases had been recorded in the July-August period alone. A high proportion of these had come about through what Kahn referred to as the anti-social media, that is, via Twitter and Facebook, as well as on other online forums.
RIGHT: Wendy Kahn address the conference
This, she pointed out, was an international phenomenon, as shown by the popularity of the “hitlerwasright” hashtag. Holocaust-themed anti-Semitism, whether framed in terms of wishing that Hitler had “finished the job” or saying that Jews were themselves acting like Nazis, typified the kind of invective directed against the community and Jews in general.
In response, the Board had among other things, laid criminal charges against four individuals, instituted proceedings on the basis of hate speech against four others at the SA Human Rights Commission and in several cases lodged complaints with the employers of those responsible.
What made the task more difficult was that in numerous cases, threats and racist abuse against the community were made under false names and accounts, and sometimes via the wholesale identity of real individuals who were completely unaware that their profiles had been thus hijacked.
The Board was working closely with local law enforcement and international Jewish organisations in tracing those responsible.
Charisse Zeifert, SAJBD Head of Communications, said the coverage of the mainstream media of the Gaza conflict had been overtly biased, with the overwhelming emphasis being on Palestinian suffering and with references to military actions by Hamas being rare or omitted altogether.
It had helped that Benjamin Pogrund was in the country during the latter stages of the war to promote his new book. He had worked tirelessly to bring a more reasoned perspective to the debate, through media interviews, meetings with academics and journalists and addressing various public forums.
The Board had also been able to get a number of opinion pieces published. However, overall it had been a case of working in an environment where Israel’s guilt was assumed to be a given and where there was very little openness to hearing a different perspective.
About 60 people took part in a demonstration outside the venue under the auspices of the ANC Youth League. ANCYL provincial chairman Matome Chiloane, whose call, “Down with SAJBD, down”, was greeted with loud cheers, said: “South Africa is not going to be free for them if the people of Palestine are not free.”
LEFT: Zev Krengel, Phanyaza Lesufi (Gauteng Education MEC) and Jeff Katz
By contrast Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi, deputising for Premier David Makhura who had to be at the Union Buildings, thanked Jewish South Africans for their role in the struggle against apartheid, saying that the Jewish community enjoyed a special place in the struggle for democracy and freedom.
Lesufi further called on citizens from all cultures, to work together to fight high levels of poverty and inequality. With reference to the Jewish community, he said: “In the next 20 years, we hope you will assist us… in ensuring our economy is accessible to everyone.”
Colin Coleman, head of the South African office of Goldman Sachs and a former anti-apartheid activist, identified some of the major accomplishments of the past two decades, among them a GDP that had increased three-fold and a redistribution of public spending aimed at alleviating the poorest members of society.
The most serious problems were unemployment, amounting to one-third of the potential workforce and including a high proportion of youth, and the enduring inequality along racial lines of wealth distribution.
Michael Katz said that while the community had declined somewhat in numbers, in terms of quality Jewish communal life had been strengthened in nearly every sphere. Anti-Semitism existed, but it was not state policy. The jewel in society’s crown was the Constitution, which not only protected individual human rights, but ensured that office-bearers were consistently called to account.
However, while South Africa had won the fight against legal inequality, the fight against social inequality and poverty still had to be overcome. For a society to move forward and achieve its potential, there had to be a unity of vision, and this could not be accomplished so long as it was divided between those who were affluent and looking to protect what they had and those fighting to obtain a fairer share of the pie.