Through talking Jews, government can find common ground
Photograph: Ilan Ossendryver
Lauder was in Johannesburg to speak at the Board’s biennial national conference at Gold Reef City on November 22, where President Jacob Zuma delivered the keynote address.
The meetings kicked off with talks about football with former Minister Tokyo Sexwale, who is a candidate to replace suspended Fifa President Sepp Blatter. Discussions revolved around Sexwale’s role in mediating tensions between the Palestinian and Israeli football associations, including a campaign – unsuccessful, so far – to ban the latter from Fifa.
Krengel said the meeting was “to thank him for his efforts. As South Africans, we like to resolve conflicts around the table.”
Next up was the chairman of the African Union Commission, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, also attended by WJC CEO Robert Singer and Ann Harris, chairman of the African Jewish Congress. “This meeting reaffirmed the commitment of the Jewish world to the African continent, and explored how we can play a more meaningful role in Africa’s development and realising its potential,” said Krengel.
Then there was a more overtly political encounter. ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe and head of the ANC’s International Relations Committee and Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa, sat down with the Board’s senior leadership. The red carpet treatment that Hamas received on its visit to South Africa was squarely on the agenda.
“We explained why this hurt the community,” Krengel said. “The secretary-general noted this, and said that he felt Hamas would recognise Israel and do some deal based on the 1967 borders.
“When Ambassador Lauder asked if Hamas was a true peace partner, Mantashe said ‘yes’ and asked Lauder whether [Israeli Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu was one, to which Lauder also said ‘yes’.”
It became clear that both were sceptical of the other and Krengel added: “We agreed to disagree.”
After a courtesy meeting with Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe, the leadership met with Zuma himself. “He heard us loud and clear on the Hamas visit. He reiterated his personal commitment and that of the ANC and the government to genuine peace and a two-state solution for Israel/Palestine,” said Krengel, who emphasised the importance of these encounters, to overcome “misinformation and misinterpretation”.
When reminded that some community members only see futility in speaking to an increasingly anti-Israel and anti-Jewish ruling alliance, Krengel emphasised the ANC’s zero tolerance for anti-Semitism.
“We can’t try influencing them if we don’t talk to them, and we can’t understand if we don’t listen,” said Krengel. Without the SAJBD constantly engaging, he said, Jewish voices would not be heard.
While some slammed Zuma’s conference speech as uninspiring and predictable, Krengel said it was important that those brave Jews who actively fought apartheid, must be remembered and acknowledged. However, Krengel had to explain to Zuma the crowd’s audible objections to the president’s call for East Jerusalem to be the capital of Palestine.
Krengel was extremely encouraged at how the senior figures were prepared to give up their Sunday to meet Jewish leaders. He felt the SAJBD had good relationships with both future presidential front runners, Cyril Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma, “or anyone the ANC elects”.
He emphasised the need to maintain strong relationships with the country’s democratically elected leadership, with mutual trust and respect. “It was important for ANC leaders to hear the perspectives of local and international Jewry, and vice versa. Too often, issues are fought in the media without face-to-face dialogue.”