Jonathan Berger
Jonathan Berger

Gaza madness spreads south

Officially, at least, the war on Gaza is on hold, with one unilateral ceasefire following another. For now, a large number of Israeli troops remain on Palestinian territory, having been given a week by Hamas to retreat. World leaders have gathered in Egypt to pontificate. Obama becomes America’s next president later today. It’s anyone’s guess how the next few days, weeks and months will unfold.

At home, thousands of miles from the conflict, South Africans have weighed in with their views. Many have done their best to evaluate the facts in a principled manner, deeply concerned by the mounting civilian casualties. Others, unfortunately, have been unable to think beyond ideological and religious affiliations. Most disturbingly, some have used the crisis to further their agendas of hate.

Consider, for example, a recent email effectively calling for a boycott of Jewish-owned or Jewish-run businesses in South Africa. The “justification” for the call seems to go something like this:

(1) The Chief Rabbi, the religious head of the local Jewish community, has expressed his unconditional support for the Israeli government’s invasion of Gaza;
(2) The South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), the community’s representative structure, is similarly supportive of the war;
(3) Some members of the South African Jewish community have expressly distanced themselves from the position adopted by the Chief Rabbi and the SAJBD; and
(4) Jewish business leaders who have not similarly distanced themselves from these positions must be assumed to support them.

So, if this argument is to be believed, when you buy dishwashing liquid at Pick n Pay, toothpaste at Clicks, underwear at Woolworths, or a grilled bird at Nando’s, you “may be partly paying for the next bomb killing innocent children in Gaza.”

Nathan Geffen, one of the authors of the sign-on letter expressing an alternative view to that of the Chief Rabbi and the SAJBD, has rightly condemned this email as “reprehensibly anti-semitic” and “incredibly ignorant of the complexity and diversity of the Jewish community.” In his view, the call for a boycott “is naked discrimination on the basis of ethnic background.”

Other responses to the email, however, have been somewhat less rational. Take the weblog It’s Almost Supernatural, allegedly dedicated to “exposing anti-Israel bias in the South African media and promoting a balanced South African foreign policy towards the Middle East”. It has accused “the Muslim community” – as a whole – of supporting the call, because “[t]o date, no … Muslims of high conscience have signed and distributed dissident letters to the press distancing themselves from this boycott.”

Ironic, isn’t it, that this response to the anti-Semitic email employs the same twisted logic: one or more Muslims and/or Muslim groups have issued and/or supported a call to boycott Jewish businesses; unless and until certain Muslims – of “high conscience” – have expressly distanced themselves from this call, the entire Muslim community will be assumed to support the call.

The paranoid weblog also accuses local Muslim organisations of attempting “to pressure the Jewish community into denouncing Israel’s actions in Gaza.” It alleges that Geffen has taken direction from these organisations, which “have been coordinating with far left-wing Jewish groups to organise a petition against the mainstream South African Jewish response.” Unlike the community’s united leadership, Geffen and his fellow signatories – including yours truly – were hoodwinked.

The reality of the letter’s genesis is far less exciting than the alleged conspiracy theory suggests. Geffen explains: “I wrote the response shortly after receiving the [Jewish] Board of Deputies statement. I circulated it. Doron [Isaacs] and others improved it and the response to it has been fantastic.” In its defence, the weblog refers to a Voice of the Cape online article stating that “moves were afoot to produce a statement from within the community that would counter the SAJBD statement.”

Geffen is now under attack for having the chutzpah to speak his conscience. One prominent member of the Jewish community has gone so far as to describe Geffen’s – in my view justified – reference to the Chief Rabbi as a fundamentalist as amounting to incitement when communicated “with a member of the Muslim community who is clearly given to anti-Semitism”. In his view, Geffen has “set the demonisation of Jews, Jewish organisations and Jewish leaders at the very top of … [his] agenda.”

So it’s Geffen, and not the Chief Rabbi, or the SAJBD, or any of their unquestioning supporters, who is primarily responsible for fanning the flames of anti-Semitism. Does that mean then that verligte Afrikaners – such as Frederick van Zyl Slabbert, Beyers Naude and Carl Niehaus – were responsible for fostering anti-Afrikaner hatred in the 1980s, and not the elected leadership of the day? PW, FW, Vlok, Malan and the rest were each entitled to a free pass?

Oy vey! Has this country gone truly mad? Don’t we already have enough on our plates? Not only are we faced with a looming Zuma presidency, but also we are now expected to be vigilant and respond to each and every statement put out by a crazy purporting to act on behalf of any group to which we may belong. I couldn’t be bothered. I’m apparently too busy working to support the business leaders while they advise Jerusalem. For the record, I prefer my chicken hot and skinless.