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Around the Jewish World As Racism Conference Approaches, South African Jews on the Defensive

With the U.N. conference against racism set to begin in Durban on Aug. 31, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies is concerned about rising expressions of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic views in the country.

The group’s 41st congress last weekend was dominated by reactions to such sentiments.

Yet government ministers and other high-ranking officials have “gone out of their way” to assure the Jewish community that the ruling African National Congress is not anti-Semitic, Russell Gaddin, the Board of Deputies’ national chairman, said at the opening of the board’s meeting in Johannesburg on Saturday night.

In a message read to the Jewish group, South African President Thabo Mbeki, a guest at the previous congress, expressed his deep concern about the situation in the Middle East.

“We are deeply concerned about the violence that has gripped this important part of the world for many months now,” Mbeki wrote. “We are firmly committed to contribute whatever we can to ensure that the violence ends and negotiations resume and a just and stable solution” is “found that addresses the interests of both the Israelis and the Palestinians.”

Mbeki added that he and his colleagues “value greatly what Jewish South Africans, including yourselves, are doing to ensure that our country truly belongs to all who live in it.”

The Board of Deputies adopted a resolution urging the South African government and the South African Non-Governmental Organizations Coalition to use their position as hosts of the racism conference — and the NGO conference that will precede it — “to prevent racist resolutions” with “language against the Jewish people and against their liberation movement, Zionism, and its fulfillment, the State of Israel.”

A proposal that denigrates Zionism as racism and criticizes Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians has prompted an American threat to boycott the conference, which is slated to begin Aug. 31.

Particularly worrying to the Board has been the drumbeat of anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian coverage in the South African press.

“The media onslaughts, the lies, the distortion of the truth, the total pro-Arab bias, the rewriting of Jewish and Israeli history have been very hard to deal with,” Gaddin said.

In all probability, until the conference is over, “it will get a lot worse,” he added.

In addition, several massive rallies — including one in Pretoria over the weekend by the influential Congress of South African Trade Unions and another Monday in Cape Town by some 10,000 local Muslims — have included virulently anti-Israel and anti-Semitic expressions.

Israel’s ambassador to South Africa, Tova Herzl, said the latest political and diplomatic onslaughts were “tinged with a fair amount of hypocrisy and, in some cases, anti-Semitism.”

They are intended to undermine the very legitimacy of the State of Israel, Herzl said.

Mendel Kaplan, a South African who chairs the executive of the World Jewish Congress, said South African Jewry had been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the Oslo peace process because it removed Israel’s dispute with the Palestinians as an issue between the Jewish community and the South African government.

With political tension again high in the Middle East, however, the Jewish community feels obliged to come to Israel’s defense, often putting it at odds with the South African establishment.

“Now that there are no negotiations, we are in play, because there has always been a long, close relationship between the ruling party in South Africa, the African National Congress, and the PLO, Kaplan said.

There is no need for South African Jewry to accept the denigration of Zionism as racism, Kaplan said.

“We do not have to apologize, and we are not expected to, because the nature of the new democratic South Africa allows us to protest, to make demands and to have our voice heard,” he said.

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