A South African Jewish politician has caused a storm in the community by calling for Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip — and disparaging Jews who disagree.
At a public meeting Dec. 7, Cabinet minister Ronnie Kasrils launched a petition calling for people “of Jewish descent” to support “justice for Palestine.”
Kasrils addressed a mixed group of around 50 supporters under the banner “Not In My Name” at the District Six Museum, which is named for an area subjected to forced removals under the apartheid government. He lashed out at those in the Jewish community who had been critical of his stance, labeling them “conservative” and “reactionary.”
“The Declaration is hardly a radical position, it’s a universally adopted one. Our argument is not dealt with by our detractors in South Africa, not even by the learned rabbis of the Beit Din,” or rabbinical court, he said. “Instead they denounce us in terms of personal vilification.”
Kasrils’ call, which attempts to link the suffering of the Palestinians to the treatment of black South Africans under apartheid, is creating public rifts in what normally is a united Jewish community.
Mervyn Smith, immediate past president of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, said he has no problem with the issue being aired publicly — and believes the controversy merely has united the community in opposition to Kasrils and his cause.
“I just question why, of all the issues that face South Africa, such massive public prevalence should be given in the media to the South African Jewish attitude toward the Middle East conflict,” Smith said. “The publicity has been relentlessly driven by Kasrils.”
Responding to the criticisms, Kasrils said at the rally, “The honest and critical debate which was once the hallmark of this Jewish community has withered away under the stifling leadership of conservatives and reactionaries.”
“We’re neither anti-Israeli nor anti-Jewish. We call for justice and fairness for both” Israelis and Palestinians, Kasrils continued. “We unreservedly condemn terrorism in all its forms, whether by the Israeli government, Palestinian suicide bombers or the merciless killings of people in mosques by Jewish settlers.”
Kasrils drew a parallel between his supporters and Jews who had participated in the struggle against apartheid.
“We may be a minority at present, but change is often started thus: South African history is proof of that,” Kasrils said. “The very tiny fraction of us who stood up” in the anti-apartheid struggle “well know how we were shunned by our Jewish community.”
Smith, however, expressed cynicism about Kasrils’ motives.
“What he has done is linked his current campaign simplistically to his years as an apartheid fighter, but the two issues are separate,” Smith said. “There’s little doubt amongst the community that it is an overt attempt to gain support amongst the Muslim community for Kasrils and his party.
“The debate on the role of the Jewish community during apartheid is a difficult one,” he continued. “Although the community, like most whites, really did fail the apartheid struggle, there were many Jews who did fight against apartheid.”
In the 1980s, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, particularly in Cape Town, spoke out very strongly against apartheid, Smith noted.
In addition, Smith said, Kasrils has misrepresented the Jewish community’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“It is preposterous to suggest that the Jewish community is against dialogue and debate on the Middle East issue,” Smith said. “Many South African Jews are not happy with some of the policies of the current government of Israel, but it is a far cry from criticizing those policies to declaring oneself hostile and anti-Zionist, as Kasrils has done.”
At the Dec. 7 event, however, it appeared that at least some in the Jewish community support Kasrils.
A yarmulke-clad Bradley Bordiss recited the Shehecheyanu prayer — which, he told the gathering, is recited on happy occasions.
“Given that this is a particularly joyous occasion” — presumably because Kasrils and supporters were bucking the Jewish establishment to speak their conscience on Israel — “I think it’s entirely appropriate,” Bordiss said.
Messages of support were read out from Physicians for Human Rights in Israel and far-left Israeli groups such as Gush Shalom and the Israeli Committee Against Housing Demolitions.
In a follow-up move, Kasrils organized countrywide demonstrations on Dec. 28 in solidarity with “Women in Black.” That Israeli group says Israeli-Palestinian violence is caused by Israel’s presence in parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Meanwhile, the debate continues to rage in both the editorial and letters pages of the mainstream and Jewish press. This unprecedented phenomenon is anathema to a community whose main goal until now was to present a united face.
A cartoon by Jewish cartoonist Zapiro, a Kasrils supporter, appeared in the mainstream media depicting Kasrils leading his supporters out of a Magen David-shaped fortress that represented the Jewish establishment.
The caption lampooning the Jewish community’s “unquestioning support for Israel” read, “Sound the alarm, dissidents are breaking out!”
Despite the uproar, Smith does not think the incident will change the face of South African Jewry.
In fact, he said, “I feel that the effect of the Kasrils campaign has been to unite the community in the face of unfair and blatantly hostile attacks on Israel, and on the community itself.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.