Positive vibe at SAJBD conference

by SAJBD on 15 September 2014

in General

Despite a strong focus on the upsurge of antisemitism as a result of the Gaza conflict and the presence of anti-Israel demonstrators outside the venue, Sunday’s SAJBD Gauteng Council conference, with its theme of South African Jewry twenty years into democracy, had a largely positive focus. Speakers, including Michael Katz and Colin Coleman, emphasised how much the country had accomplished, despite the serious challenges it still faced, how much the Jewish community as a whole had benefited from this and what part Jews had played, and could still play, in building on those achievements. It was also stressed that while the recent rise of antisemitic activity was a cause for concern, South Africa’s robust democratic culture provided the necessary vehicles through which to address such threats and bring those responsible to book. The conference took place at Investec in Sandton.

Outgoing Gauteng Council Chairman Jeff Katz said that democracy was about more than just being able to vote every couple of years or so. What was even more important was that such basic democratic rights as freedom of expression, thought and religion and protection against unfair discrimination freedoms were respected.

“It is because these fundamental democratic values are so firmly upheld in our country that the Jewish way of life has been protected and indeed is thriving” he said.

SAJBD National Director Wendy Kahn gave an overview of antisemitic incidents recorded since the commencement of the Gaza war and how the Board had responded to them. Whereas only 52 incidents had been logged during the whole of 2013, 116 cases had been recorded in the July-August period alone. A high proportion of these had come about through what Kahn referred to as the anti-social media, that is, via Twitter and Facebook, as well as on other online forums. This, she pointed out, was an international phenomenon, as shown by the popularity of the “hitlerwasright” hashtag. Holocaust-themed antisemitism, whether framed in terms of wishing that Hitler had “finished the job” or saying that Jews were themselves acting like Nazis, typified the kind of invective directed against the community and Jews in general. In response, the Board had amongst other things laid criminal charges against four individuals, instituted proceedings on the basis of hate speech against four others at the SA Human Rights Commission and in several cases lodged complaints with the employers of those responsible. What made the task more difficult was that in numerous cases, threats and racist abuse against the community were made under false names and accounts, and sometimes via the wholesale identity of real individuals who were completely unaware that their profiles had been thus hijacked. The Board was working closely with local law enforcement and international Jewish organisations in tracing those responsible.

Charisse Zeifert, SAJBD Head of Communications, said that the coverage of the mainstream media of the Gaza conflict had been overtly biased, with the overwhelming emphasis being on Palestinian suffering and with references to military actions by Hamas being rare or omitted altogether. It had helped that Benjamin Pogrund was in the country during the latter stages of the war to promote his new book. He had worked tirelessly to bring a more reasoned perspective to the debate, through media interviews, meetings with academics and journalists and addressing various public forums. The Board had also been able to get a number of opinion pieces published. However, overall it had been a case of working in an environment where Israel’s guilt was assumed to be a given and where there was very little openness to hearing a different perspective.

About sixty people took part in a demonstration outside the venue under the auspices of the ANC Youth League. ANCYL provincial chairperson Matome Chiloane, whose call, “Down with SAJBD, down”, was greeted with loud cheers, said, “South Africa is not going to be free for them if the people of Palestine are not free.” By contrast Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi, deputising for Premier David Makhuru who had to be at the Union Buildings, Jewish South Africans for their role in the struggle against apartheid, saying that the Jewish community enjoyed a special place in the struggle for democracy and freedom.

Lesufi further called for citizens from all cultures needed to work together to fight high levels of poverty and inequality. With reference to the Jewish community, he said, “In the next twenty years, we hope you will assist us… in ensuring our economy is accessible to everyone.”

Colin Coleman, head of the South African office of Goldman Sachs and a former anti-apartheid activist, identified some of the major accomplishments of the past two decades, amongst them a GDP that had increased three-fold and a redistribution of public spending aimed at alleviating the poorest members of society. The most serious problems were unemployment, amounting to one-third of the potential workforce and including a high proportion of youth, and the enduring inequality along racial lines of wealth distribution.


Michael Katz said that while the community had declined somewhat in numbers, in terms of quality Jewish communal life had been strengthened in nearly every sphere. Antisemitism existed, but it was not state policy. The jewel in society’s crown was the Constitution, which not only protected individual human rights, but ensured that office bearers were consistently called to account. However, while South Africa had won the fight against legal inequality, the fight against social inequality and poverty still had to be overcome. For a society to move forward and achieve its potential, there had to be a unity of vision, and this could not be accomplished so long as it was divided between those who were affluent and looking to protect what they had and those fighting to obtain a fairer share of the pie.

For some media reporting on the conference, see links below.




One of the most objectionable recurring themes in the flood of anti-Israel invective provoked by the Gaza conflict was the ready comparisons made between Israel’s actions and the crimes of the Nazis. It goes without saying that those resorting to such terminology were not attempting to present a reasoned, fact-based argument; rather, the aim was to demonize Israel as much as possible, depicting it as being so beyond the pale of basic human values as to render impossible any kind of defence on its behalf. Not only does such language seek to bludgeon people into dismissing out of hand any attempt at defending Israel, but results in those who do so being tarred with the Nazi brush and as apologists for genocide.

In its battle to counter this kind of ugly discourse, the SAJBD has time and again appealed to the public not to be swayed by such politically and emotionally charged hyperbole. We have pointed out the inappropriateness of misusing the Holocaust analogy when it comes to Israel, both because it is grossly untrue and because it is deeply hurtful and demeaning to Jewish people.   Comparisons between Israel and the Nazi regime are obscene, not only because they are so grossly defamatory towards the Jewish State but because they belittle the unspeakable crimes of Nazism itself. It is self-evident that casualties resulting from a necessary and unavoidable military operation – casualties that Israel goes to considerable lengths to minimise – cannot be remotely equated with the systematic mass murder of millions solely on account of their being Jewish.

It is not only with regard to Israel that inappropriate Holocaust imagery and terminology has been used. Earlier this year, for example, an animal rights activist was taken to task for likening the treatment of pigs awaiting slaughter to death camp victims. Such sensationalist shock tactics are deeply insensitive, and must be condemned in the strongest terms.   In light of these objections, and the efforts we are making to persuade people to be more sensitive in their choice of language, it is therefore particularly upsetting to see the very same misuse of the Holocaust/Nazi analogy coming from within our own community. I refer here to the article in the SAJR online headed ‘Arch no better than Hitler or Stalin’. The offensiveness of the piece itself was compounded by an accompanying image of Tutu with a Hitler-style moustache and Nazi officer’s cap.

Regardless of what one might think about Archbishop Tutu’s attitude and actions towards Israel, attacking him in such terms is puerile and wantonly insulting. It is also, of course, without basis. Does anyone really believe that Tutu is at bottom no better than Hitler and Stalin, two of the worst mass murderers in history? I doubt whether any sensible person would accept that view, and that includes the writer himself, whatever he may have written. What, then, was he hoping to achieve by attacking Tutu in such extreme terms?   It is one thing to take strong issue with someone’s views on Israel and if desired to express this in a robust manner. This, however, does not constitute a license to be crudely insulting, nor to make demeaning comparisons that are so obviously exaggerated as to constitute outright falsehoods. Accusing someone of being a Nazi when this is obviously not the case falls into that category, and is wrong, whether it comes from those aiming to wound and insult the Jewish state and Jews in general, or whether it emanates from those wishing to defend Israel against its detractors. It is a misuse of our history, and serves in  the end to undermine the work of those who seek to convey the truth of what occurred during the Holocaust and what humanity at large should learn from this.


Gauteng Premier, David Makhura, and Dr Zweli Mkhize, ANC Treasurer General, will be amongst those participating in the SA Jewish Board of Deputies Gauteng Council, to be held this Sunday, 14 September, at Investec from 14h30 – 15h15.

The focus of the conference will be to celebrate the 20th anniversary of South Africa’s democracy, reflect on the journey thus far and also engage in a topical discussion about pertinent issues in the development of South Africa and its citizenry. A panel discussion on ‘Journeys to Freedom’ will form part of the conference. Panellists are Dr Mkhize, Colin Coleman and Prof Michael Katz. Mr Coleman, who is head of the SA office of Goldman Sachs International and nominee for the World Economic Forum’s Global Leaders for Tomorrow award, will explore the economic transformation of our country. Prof Katz, a past president of SAJBD, Chairman of ENSafrica and former chairman of the Tax Commission, will focus on changes in the Jewish community over the past 20 years. Dr Mkhize will share his contribution to the establishment of a democratic government, specifically within the health sector.

In addition to this, there will be a session on Gaza during which the Jewish leadership will report back on issues affecting the Jewish community during Gaza, including anti-Semitism and media bias.

The SAJBD, through its conferences and other internal projects, engages actively on issues with the Jewish community and the broader South African citizenry. While its primary audience and constituency is the Jewish community, it creates platforms of dialogue and is the interface between the minority group and the broader South African population.

During the Apartheid years, although constituting a small minority of the population, the Jewish community played a disproportionate role in the struggle for democracy.  The book Jewish Memories of Mandela, which chronicles some of the stories from those dark years, will be available at the conference.

NB:  RSVP Essential:  Jenni@sajbd.org. or 011 645 2521






Charisse Zeifert will interview Bonaventure Kageruka on Chai FM this Friday from 12:20


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