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The sweet sound of a BDS-free symphony



The Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra concluded its Summer Symphony Season 2022 last week at the Linder Auditorium at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). The season combined the cream of South African musical talent with the best international performers. Among them was Ilya Friedberg, an Israeli pianist of global renown.

By all accounts, concert-goers were treated to a stirring rendition of Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 4 in B flat major, op. 60, and went home satisfied by beautiful music and the opportunity to support the arts in a post-COVID-19 world.

The chance to listen to live music might not sound like something remarkable, but it is in our current environment. First, the concert happened during the annual so-called “Israel Apartheid Week” (IAW), an internationally supported anti-Israel hate fest that makes the targeting and boycotting of Israel a key part of its core mandate.

Moreover, the special focus of IAW 2022 was in fact the sphere of arts and culture, and what the organisers called “decolonising our minds against cultural appropriation and oppression”.

Yet the Wits-based concert commenced mercifully free of the normal tendentious open letters, protests, and disruptions that tend to occur during such events for the crime of an Israeli performing.

The same story has been found of late on the sports field. On Sunday, 26 March, an Israeli rugby team known as Tel Aviv Heat competed in a curtain raiser against the “Loftus 200”, which is part of the Blue Bulls franchise. Furthermore, a couple of weeks ago, the South African tennis team played in the Davis Cup in the Israeli town of Ashdod.

Both sports events elicited nothing more than a whimper from our local Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) crowd.

It’s positive to see open spaces for these events in South Africa, especially at places like Wits where there has been a long-running attempt to prevent Israeli cultural exchanges with South Africans, particularly for musicians.

In 2013, for example, BDS supporters stormed a concert at Wits being played by Israeli pianist Yossi Reshef. Later that year, BDS supporters chanted “shoot the Jew” outside the concert of an Israeli Jazz musician, Daniel Zamir.

The fact that we’re now experiencing a BDS-free symphony should be welcomed, yet we mustn’t be naïve. It surely won’t be long again before some unfortunate cultural figure, such as Miss South Africa Lalela Mswane, will be caught in a vicious BDS cancel campaign.

What it does tell us, however, is that after two decades of relentless BDS pressure against Israeli cultural exchange, the average South African simply doesn’t buy into the idea.

This is a notion borne out of social-science research. The (2017) University of Cape Town Kaplan Centre report noted that only 4% of all black South Africans living in major cities had even heard of the anti-Israel organisation. In spite of its pho-revolutionary rhetoric, the BDS campaign remains an elitist phenomenon with limited appeal to the majority of South Africans.

Additionally, it tells us that the pernicious influence of BDS on institutions that are important to our community and our country can be rolled back with careful and consistent action and the right support.

The South African Zionist Federation, along with our partners at the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, make the safety of campuses and our Jewish students a priority.

Working together with the South African Union of Jewish Students, hours of effort go into fighting anti-Israel sentiment on campuses. Our students have the right to express their identity and engage in open discussion without fear of harassment.

They should be applauded for their bravery in standing up for those rights in an often hostile environment. Likewise, the broader community of students and faculty should be able to engage with any cultural opportunity available to them.

It’s only through these kinds of exchanges that understanding can be developed, and ultimately, a proper space for real dialogue can be created. It’s by building bridges that we will find solutions not only to issues in the Middle East, but to the many challenges here in South Africa.

  • Benji Shulman is the director of public policy for the South African Zionist Federation.

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  1. Isabellah Fouche

    Apr 4, 2022 at 4:15 pm

    I am so greatful. As a South African I am honoring every Jew in our nation. As a Christian, I honor them too.

  2. Michael Golding

    Apr 6, 2022 at 6:53 pm

    Nice article Benji. And very heartening news.

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