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The two reluctant Mideast negotiators

Neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian side really wanted to be there; both were more or less compelled by international pressure

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David Saks

Having been virtually ignored by the international media, and even by the Jewish media to a surprising extent, the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks is now drawing to a close.

In contrast to the detailed reporting on previous such initiatives, with the accompanying ebb and flow of debate and speculation over how the complex issues on the table might be resolved, the media has generally been distinctly apathetic about the whole business. In part, no doubt, they are taking their cue from the parties themselves.

Neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian side really wanted to be there; both were more or less compelled by international pressure, spearheaded with the best of intentions by the Americans. The image that comes to mind is of two brawling schoolboys glowering at one another while their well-meaning but naïve teacher tells them to shake hands and be friends. 

When the talks finally have run their inevitably unsuccessful course, there will be the usual apportioning of blame. “Settlements” will be the Palestinians excuse; Israel will make much of the continuous, state-sponsored and apparently escalating incitement against it in the Palestinian territories.

The reality is that even the maximum concessions that Israel can safely make, fall well short of the minimum that the Palestinian Authority might be willing to settle for. I say “might”, since the latter have no real intention ever of abandoning its dream of Israel being eventually eradicated altogether, even if it does put its signature to a final status peace agreement. Nor do the Israelis by and large harbour any lingering illusions on that score.

Having been thoroughly double-crossed during the Oslo years, they know now that when their neighbours speak of “Palestine”, they do not just mean Ramallah, Jenin, Jericho and Nablus, but Haifa, Jerusalem and the Galilee as well. Hamas, of course, has never made any secret about this; it is the supposedly more moderate Fatah that engages in double-speak with an eye to keeping the world media on side, which makes it that much more dangerous.

So far as Israel’s oft-stated willingness to make territorial concessions for peace goes, how is one to interpret it in light of recent developments? In reality, there is a growing body of opinion that sees the “two-state solution” as being unachievable and the eventual annexation of most (or even all) of the West Bank as being the most realistic long-term solution.

Those who hold such a view, moreover, are not necessarily Meretz-type leftists but are often found on the religious right.

If the Palestinians want Jerusalem, the Jews want Hebron; if Haifa and Tel Aviv are in reality Arab (and Muslim) territories illegally occupied by Zionists, then Bethlehem and Shechem are Jewish historical centres not yet liberated from the Arab-Islamic colonial yoke.

Over the past decade or so, in the course of continually confronting in my professional life the brazen falsehoods and distortions about my history and heritage, I have (emotionally, at any rate) come to identify with this view. Now, I begrudge the Arab newcomers (which, in the broader sweep of Middle East history is what they are) every last square inch of the Holy Land.

At the same time, though, I realise that if an Arab resident of Hebron asked me how I could possibly deny him his moral right to call the land of his birth his own, I would have no coherent answer. Nor would I be able to convincingly assert my own intense feeling of ownership for the Land of Israel, living as I do in another continent with none of my recent forebears having come from there.

Ultimately, my identification with the land comes down to my religious convictions, which one can hardly expect non-Jewish Palestinians to dutifully accede to.

Over the past few weeks, the weekly Torah readings have primarily focused on events in Eretz Yisrael going back to the dawn of Jewish history. The six parshot from Lecha Lecha through to Vayishlach, are very largely about events that took place within the borders of the land, with only occasional ventures into Egypt and Aram (Syria).

On a number of occasions, all three patriarchs receive Divine assurances that the land will be given to them and their descendants as an eternal inheritance. Here’s the thing, though: of the 12 sons of Yaakov, who constituted the Jewish nation in embryo, all but Binyamin were born outside Israel. Even more striking is the fact that the time they actually spent living within Israel’s borders before leaving permanently for Egypt was very short – no more than 30 years.

Joseph was there for only eight. From Vayeishev onwards, the Torah increasingly deals with events taking place outside Israel, exclusively so in its last four books. Eventually, Jacob’s descendants did settle in the land, yet even then their actual possession thereof was seldom unchallenged and, of course, it all ended in mass expulsion by the dominant empires of the day.

Overall, one finds that in the 3 500 or so years of recorded history commencing with Jacob’s family, Jews have been in actual possession of the Promised Land for less than a quarter of that time.

The years 1948 and 1967 marked a partial return, but to this day we still must await the complete fulfilment of the promises made to our ancestors.

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David Saks

SA Jewry bucking the worldwide trend

The success of The Shabbos Project again showed how SA Jewry is bucking international trends in levels of religious observance and Jewish identity in general.

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The extraordinary success of The Shabbos Project again showed how much South African Jewry is bucking international trends when it comes to levels of religious observance and Jewish identity in general.

Whereas most Diaspora communities, outside of their strictly Orthodox enclaves, are experiencing a relentless downward trajectory, South Africa’s is just as consistently moving in the opposite direction. Religiosity here is growing and intensifying, particularly in Johannesburg but in the other centres as well.

By contrast, secularism is rampant in the Western world. For some time now, the countries that constitute it, have not maintained even a pretence of being Christian societies. The bulk of Jews outside of Israel now live in such countries, while of the remainder, nearly all are found in countries that once made up the Eastern Bloc and which have never recovered from the enforced secularism of the Soviet era.

Inevitably, the majority have been greatly affected by their environment, and accordingly have become secular too. In practical terms, this means that neither they nor their non-Jewish neighbours have any compelling reason not to marry one another, and indeed this is no longer the exception, but increasingly the norm.

The recently released Pew Survey on American Jewry found that well over 80 per cent of US Jews who profess no religion, “marry out”. (The rate in many European countries is over 90 per cent).

Moreover, even among those who identify as “Reform Jews” – by far, the largest group within the Jewish population – nearly six in 10 marry non-Jews without the latter undergoing any form of conversion to Judaism.

In 1983, the American Reform movement determined that henceforth, having one Jewish parent would suffice in order for the children to be recognised as Jews, thereby doing away with the matrilineal descent principle. As a result hundreds of thousands of American Jews today are considered Jewish by the Reform but not by the Orthodox nor, to my knowledge, Conservative movements.

This would particularly present problems when such individuals wished to marry within the Orthodox Jewish fold, but in practice the great majority of patrilineal Jews – not unpredictably – go on in their turn to marry non-Jews, so the question has arisen less often than had been feared.

Taking the Orthodox out of the equation – according to the Pew finding, intermarriage in this sector is only two per cent – one finds that more than seven American Jews out of 10 are marrying out of the faith.

This is despite the enormous sums that have been invested in “Jewish continuity” programmes following the results of the 1990 US National Population Survey, revealing that US intermarriage rates by then exceeded 50 per cent.

In South Africa, according to surveys conducted in 1998 and 2005, intermarriage remains well below 10 per cent. More than four out of five Jewish children attend a Jewish day school, strikingly high proportions compared with other Diaspora communities observe such basic practices as keeping Shabbat and kashrut and nearly all of the remainder are sufficiently connected to at least attend a seder and fast on Yom Kippur.

South African Jewry is, in fact, much more religious now than its pioneering ancestors were. What is more, the turnaround is largely youth-driven.

In what goes against all expectations and past experience, it has not been a case of the older generations striving (and usually failing) to keep the youth in the fold, but of the younger generations forging ahead while also raising the levels of their parents’ and grandparents’ involvement.

As a result of all of this, South African Jewry has exercised a disproportionate influence on the international Jewish stage, particularly through those of its members who have emigrated.

Among the many former South Africans who have risen to prominence is the new UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, a former Capetonian. It is hard to imagine that for most of its history, this community had to “import” its spiritual leaders.

Only from the late 1950s did local institutions begin turning out a “made in South Africa” product, commencing with the Minister’s Training College operating under the auspices of the old Federation of Synagogues and based at the Great Synagogue in Wolmarans Street Synagogue.

Since then, scores of young rabbonim have emerged from the multiple yeshivot and kollelim around the country, with a high proportion of these making a significant impact overseas.

As for the rank and file, one only has to witness the streets of the Greater Glenhazel area on any given Shabbos to see how remarkably the scrupulous piety of our Lithuanian (and other) ancestors has taken root, completely confounding the gloomy prediction of previous generations who believed such a thing to be impossible.

On a sobering note, while South African Jewry seems to be enjoying a genuine golden age, the reality is that it numbers little more than 75 000 souls and perhaps even less than that. Put another way, this community would have to grow eight-fold just to be as large as that of Miami and 50-fold if it is to match that of New York.

At the end of the day, we are only a little corner of the Diaspora, albeit a relatively healthy one, but elsewhere a vast proportion of the Jewish world is in the process of disappearing altogether. This alone should make one very hesitant to immigrate to anywhere other than Israel. 

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David Saks

Inevitable consequences of ‘sowing the dragon’s teeth’

BDS had to do damage control in the wake of the “Shoot the Jew” incident at Wits and Muhammed Desai’s ill-conceived attempt to invoke the “Malema Defence”

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BDS lobbyists countrywide were compelled to do some much-needed damage control in the wake of the “Shoot the Jew” incident at Wits last month. This was in part necessitated by National Co-ordinator Muhammed Desai’s disastrously ill-conceived attempt to invoke what might be termed the “Malema Defence” (namely that this is not to be taken literally, that it referred only to the actual perpetrators of injustice, that it was no more than part of South Africa’s “Struggle” heritage etc).

Other BDS activists knew very well this wouldn’t wash, neither in a legal sense (the Equality Court has long since declared “Shoot the Boer” to be prohibited hate speech) nor in the equally important court of public opinion.

Some sharp things have been said about Desai by his dismayed colleagues, as well as about those cadres whose enthusiasm for the cause had evidently eclipsed their basic common sense.

Within the various expressions of pious horror from (some elements of) the BDS lobby, one soon detects a pronounced sub-theme, namely that the Zionist lobby was sure to reap the propaganda benefits from the Wits fiasco. An astounding piece of hyperbole was provided by Doron Isaacs and Nathan Geffen, who lamented that the “own goal” had undermined what was already “an extremely difficult struggle waged against one of the most effective and dishonest propaganda campaigns in history”. (Yes, “in history!” Does one detect just a hint of frustration here?).

BDS SA board member Faried Esack, while providing the required strong words of denunciation, could not resist adding: “It is unfortunate but not unexpected that supporters of Israel will focus on the singing of this song.”

While damage control motives obviously exist, this need not imply that these and other statements distancing BDS from the offending slogan are necessarily insincere. In all likelihood, many BDS activists probably did find them grossly offensive. However, in presuming to disclaim all responsibility, they are unquestionably being disingenuous.

The singing of “Dubula iJuda” did not simply occur out of the blue, without any kind of context or preceding series of events. In reality, it was the logical – perhaps even inevitable – outcome of the direction anti-Israel campaigning has been taking, particularly over the course of this year.

It is quite obvious that BDS SA has decided to go all-out in exploiting the apartheid-era legacy and all the bitter racial tensions it continues to give rise to as a way of smearing not just Israel but also its Jewish supporters.

Just as Israel is the “new apartheid”, so are Zionist Jews the new Afrikaner Nationalists. Just as the hegemony of the latter was fought against and ultimately overthrown, so must the Zionists, as Ahmed Kathrada recently put it: “Our university students, supported by our trade unions and civil society organisations are making it abundantly clearer by the day that [Israeli] apologists are not welcome in our country.”

Kathrada is certainly correct that various trade union, student and civil society organisations have adopted an uncompromisingly rejectionist stance against the Jewish State. Moreover, this is now increasingly taking the form of intimidating others into acquiescing in that agenda along with vilifying the mainstream Jewish community for opposing it.

In March, Wits SRC members, cheered on by Desai and other BDS SA activists, violently disrupted a concert by Israeli-born pianist Yossi Reshef. The same Wits SRC had the previous year adopted a resolution endorsing an academic and cultural boycott against Israel, and its members were determined to enforce it, even if it meant flouting the rules of the university itself.

In its public statements, it had called for the liberation of Wits from “the tentacles of Zionist money”, and the subsequent disciplinary proceedings instituted against the perpetrators of the disruption have been attributed to the sinister forces of Jewish financial pressure. 

Next came Yom Ha’atzmaut at Gold Reef City. Protesters again invaded the premises and sought to disrupt, on this occasion unsuccessfully. Afterwards, BDS SA issued a slew of press statements levelling inflammatory and palpably false accusations of activists having been violently assaulted, at the direct instigation of the Jewish leadership.

In May, BDS SA even tried to pressurise the organisers of this year’s Gandhi Walk to exclude the SA Jewish Board of Deputies from participating, this despite the event having nothing whatever to do with Israel.

The above are just some of the more overt manifestations of what has become a persistent and systematic demonisation of South African Jewry for its support for the Jewish State. This is why the chanting of “Shoot the Jew” by BDS SA supporters and the manner in which their national co-ordinator attempted to defend it, was not an unfortunate departure from it but the logical culmination of the BDS SA campaign.

They have assiduously sown the dragon’s teeth, and we are starting to witness the inevitable consequences. If anything good is to come out of this latest assault on the integrity and right to dignity of South African Jewry, it is that South Africans as a whole will have had their eyes opened to the extremism of the boycott lobby and to the dangers that this poses to the well-being of society as a whole.

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David Saks

About David Saks & Barbaric Yawp

David Saks to write an introductory blog titled… “About David Saks and Barbaric Yawp”

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David Saks to write an introductory blog titled… “About David Saks and Barbaric Yawp”

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