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South African Chief Rabbi Stirs Debate on Imposing Wealth Tax

The South African chief rabbi’s apparent support for a new tax on the wealthy has angered some local Jews.

Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris caused the stir with testimony last week before the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which has been attempting to resolve issues left over from the era of apartheid and heal the nation’s wounds from that period.

At issue was whether Harris, who was testifying on the role played by religious organizations under apartheid, had expressed support for a proposal put forward by an academic that an annual tax of 0.5 percent of assets be assessed on people with a net worth of more than $422,000.

Responding to a question from the commission after his prepared testimony, Harris said: “I am not an economist, only a preacher, but I have heard favorable comment” about the proposal.

Some Jewish businessmen responded with outrage over what they perceived as Harris’ support for the academic’s proposal.

Others said that while the question posed by the commission referred to the proposal, Harris’ reply referred in general terms only to “equalization” and redistribution via “some kind of wealth tax.”

They also pointed out that Harris had voiced fears about the proposal — the rabbi said that South Africa was already a heavily taxed country and that a wealth tax could be a disincentive for investment.

The critics, however, pointed to another statement from Harris: “I feel religious communities have to endorse practical programs for redistribution.”

Marlene Bethlehem, national chairwoman of the South Africa Jewish Board of Deputies, who was present at the hearing, said Harris “did not answer on behalf of all Jews in South Africa and he did not commit us to such a tax.

“The media, and especially the radio, highlighted this comment, which was only a response to a question.”

During his testimony, Harris acknowledged the “failings” of the Jewish community in the apartheid years, noting that although many Jews did not agree with the regime and had some kind of “awkward tension” about it, most members of the Jewish community benefited from it.

“In that the Jewish community benefited from apartheid, an apology must be given to this commission,” Harris said.

He added that many Jews had not been silent about the evils of apartheid and that some had suffered as a result.

He pointed to several possible reasons why the Jewish community as a whole had remained silent:

apartheid desensitized decent people to the suffering of millions;

it turned otherwise decent people into cowards;

fear, because the small Jewish population, too, was living under the oppressive apartheid regime; and

the post-Holocaust generation had a “hypersensitivity to survival” and feared anti-Semitism.

“The Jewish community in South Africa confesses to a collective failure to protest against apartheid,” Harris testified. “Distancing oneself from the anguished cry of the majority and myopically pursuing one’s own interests can never be morally justified.”

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