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S. African Politician Says His Roots Have Turned Israel into National Issue

September 16, 2002
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The leader of South Africa’s opposition Democratic Alliance believes the fact that he is Jewish has contributed to “the huge elevation” of Israel in his country’s politics.

“The fact is that there is often a keenness on the part” of the ruling “African National Congress to link the D.A. into Israel and to paint it as a Jewish party — though I am the only D.A. member of Parliament who is Jewish,” party leader Tony Leon told JTA.

During the 2000 local government elections in the Western Cape, where the D.A. enjoys its strongest support, the brother of the ANC leader in the region was accused of printing posters depicting a Magen David with blood splashed across it, saying, “A vote for the D.A. is a vote for Israel.”

These were displayed in a predominantly Muslim-populated district.

The day before those elections, a three-hour debate on the Middle East was held in Parliament, the timing of which Leon regards as more than a coincidence.

“The preoccupation with Israel and Palestine is a peculiarity,” he says, “because the government goes to great lengths to avoid talking about the immediate human rights’ catastrophes on our borders, such as Zimbabwe, and tends to obsess about the Middle East. One of the explanations suggested for this is the religion of the leader of the opposition.

“It is quite extraordinary how, whenever I stand up and speak about” the abuse of human rights in “Zimbabwe in the national assembly, they shout out, ‘What about Israel,’ ” he told a recent meeting of Jewish community leaders.

The fact that Leon is married to an Israeli provides his detractors with an opportunity for a “free hit,” he says.

He cites the “extraordinary” behavior of a senior ANC politician who wrote a satirical play featuring one Tony Light and his wife, Israel, in an apparent reference to Leon and his wife, Michal.

The connection was later denied by the ANC.

Mervyn Smith, who is the past president of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and chairman of the D.A. in Sea Point, an area with a strong party presence, agrees that Leon’s Jewishness is “unquestionably” a factor which is often utilized by other political parties — but that Leon is no victim.

“There is no doubt that his high profile and his marriage to an Israeli have made the party a target for anti-Israel attacks, but he is a feisty leader and gives as good as he gets.”

Ben Turok, a member of Parliament from the ANC, was more forthright in his disagreement, scoffing at the idea that Leon’s Jewishness had a part to play in the prominent position Israel enjoyed in the national debate. “I think it’s a joke,” he said. “The man is inflated with his own sense of self-importance,” Turok said, referring to Leon.

“The whole question of Israel and Palestine is very high on the agenda because of the actual conflict on the ground and Tony Leon’s identity has absolutely nothing to do with it,” he insisted.

“He appears to be identifying with the previously advantaged population and not with the aspirations of the people as a whole — this is why they are slinging these things at him,” Turok said.

Ruth Rabinowitz, a member of Parliament from the Inkatha Freedom Party, believes Leon’s Jewishness is “definitely not” a factor in the elevation of the Middle East conflict onto South Africa’s national stage.

She said the issue was an important one to the ANC because of its large Muslim constituency but “they take it out on Tony — he suffers flak as a result of it.

“They are unequivocally sympathetic towards the Palestinians and are constantly out to discredit him for being concerned only with the interests of elite whites and the West,” she said.

Rabinowitz has herself been on the receiving end of partisan treatment in the national legislature when she attempts to put forward Israel’s side of the story.

“I often have difficulty getting the” ANC-appointed “speaker’s attention when she knows that I have something to say that will put the record straight — she avoids me because she knows that I am going to say something that will expose what is being said as lies,” Rabinowitz said.

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