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The real meaning of ‘sorry’



As South Africans, we are pretty famous for saying sorry. We say sorry if we want to get past someone, if we want to ask the time, if we accidentally bump someone, or brush past them. We even apologise if we want to ask a question, “Sorry, can you tell me where the nearest toilet is?”

Sometimes we say sorry when there is absolutely no need for it, and sometimes when we think we should be sorry. At other times, we say it when we are genuinely sorry. We use sorry instead of “excuse me”. We use it so often, we mostly don’t think about its meaning.

So, when a South African says he or she is sorry, should we believe them?

Late last week, former Congress of South African Trade Unions Western Cape leader Tony Ehrenreich finally made an apology that was accepted by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD).

This was six years after initially making the most hate-filled statements on Facebook. He called for revenge attacks on the SAJBD and South African Jews in response to Palestinian deaths during the violence in Gaza in 2014.

However, while the Board accepted his latest apology, it wasn’t his first attempt to close this door with a “sorry”. A year ago, it was thrown back at him by the SAJBD, saying that his apology was fake and reinforced his original hateful intent. And, he responded with a tirade of hatred in return, which exacerbated the issue and created further antagonism.

Clearly, this isn’t a man who is ever going to be our friend or change his mind about us or his hatred for Israel. He has made this clear.

So, why insist on an apology? There’s no doubt that being forced to say sorry is never going to result in a real, believable apology.

However, what his “sorry” does amount to is a public admission of guilt from someone who was high profile. This is really important, according to the SAJBD, because it’s from someone who fought for six years to avoid doing this.

And, after holding himself up as a champion of human rights, he is now on record as violating such rights. This is why getting him to say sorry publicly is a political coup. “The important point is that he was ultimately compelled by law to publicly back down and concede that he has been guilty of propagating hate speech against those who contest his views on Israel,” says Mary Kluk of the SAJBD.

It also sets a precedent that if you don’t like Israel, it can’t and doesn’t justify threatening or inciting violence against Jews or anyone who supports or defends Israel. This is really important in the political climate today where there are many who use support for the Palestinian cause as a weapon of antisemitism. This form of antisemitism is particularly prevalent in South Africa, and so the outcome of this case is an even bigger victory for us.

What the conclusion of this case has clearly shown is that if you want to cross the line from bashing Israel to inciting harm against Jews who support it, you won’t get away with it.

I commend the SAJBD for its work in fighting antisemitism and not backing down, not allowing the Ehrenreichs, the Bongani Masukus, the Marius Fransmans, and others who believe they have a right to incite harm against us, to do so. The SAJBD has fought hard in this case and others to ensure that nobody gets away with antisemitism, come what may.

So, yes, there may be some people in our community who feel the SAJBD is too soft on antisemites and should rather indulge in thuggery to teach them a lesson.

I disagree vehemently with them. We aren’t those people. We aren’t thugs. We are people of the book. We are people who don’t stoop to those lengths. We play it smart, and through the criminal justice system.

Yes, it may take a long time, and yes it’s costly. And yes, having someone like Ehrenreich say “sorry” when you know he doesn’t mean it, may seem innocuous, but it isn’t. Kol Hakavod to the SAJBD!

On the flip side, we have Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, who has been bullied, maligned, and degraded by the Africa4Palestine anti-Israel lobby and its cronies. This is the same organisation that was expelled from the international Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement after it “failed to properly investigate serious allegations of sexual harassment” by its leadership, among other things.

Africa4Palestine put this esteemed judge under immense pressure to back down in statements he made about supporting peace between Israel and Palestine. It even laid a complaint with the Judicial Service Commission regarding his conduct. It so clearly took what he said out of context, and viciously targeted him as its enemy.

However, it underestimated the judge, who wouldn’t say sorry simply because they were harassing him. No, he wasn’t sorry and, as a person of such integrity, he won’t apologise for something he’s not sorry for.

Instead, he called the repulsive behaviour of Africa4Palestine what it is.

He said its behaviour was “hypocritical”, “unrestrained irrationality and vitriol”, using his citation of the bible as “lubricating material for the vilification or smear machinery”.

He accused them of “singling out a public figure to make an example of him or her almost as if to say to all, ‘You better watch out. If we can deal with this one so viciously, just imagine what would become of you if you were to disagree with us.’”

And that’s just it. The chief justice has grown in my and others’ esteem in not allowing himself to succumb to this organisation’s ugly tactics, and telling it like it is.

In this case, the judge’s lack of a “sorry” has spoken such volumes about integrity, justice, real freedom of speech, and the ability to embody the strength to stand out above the noise for what’s right.

Shabbat Shalom!

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