The number one question that those present at Sunday’s SAJBD national conference will have wanted President Zuma to answer would doubtless have been why his party not only invited Hamas to South Africa, but bestowed upon it the legitimacy of a bona fide liberation movement little different from the ANC itself. Predictably, there was no hint in the president’s address that his government may have rethought its position, nor that a reciprocal invitation to an Israeli delegation was being envisaged. Zuma nevertheless departed briefly from his prepared script to concede that the manner in which Hamas had been received and the lack of consultation with the Jewish leadership in that regard had caused concern in the Jewish community and that this had been ‘noted’. This was evidently in response to what was conveyed to him by the SAJBD leadership a private meeting just prior to the event.
Zuma also confirmed that the country would continue to interact with both sides with a view to helping to get the peace process underway again.
“We believe that as SA we can play a role and we are in processes of trying to make stronger interaction on both sides and I hope we will work together as we did before with many from the Jewish community” he said. He stressed that in the view of his government, its support for a free Palestine was “in no way against the existence of the State of Israel and the safety of the Israeli nation”, but that on the contrary its establishment would “lay a solid foundation for lasting peace in the Middle East”. There was nevertheless a palpable rumble of dissent from the audience when Zuma said that East Jerusalem should become the capital of a future Palestinian state.
As has become standard in addresses by government spokespeople at SAJBD events, Zuma paid fulsome tribute to the many Jews who had taken part in the anti-apartheid struggle and urged the Jewish community to bring its skills and resources to bear in helping to address the pressing social and economic challenges that South Africa faced.
The garish décor of Gold Reef City’s Lyric Theatre, combined with the gaudy winking of the slot machines in the casino outside, may have had something to do with it, but the mood at the SAJBD conference was unusually uninhibited. Spontaneous outbursts of clapping and cheering erupted throughout the event, with guest speakers Ronald Lauder and Bernard-Henri Levy receiving standing ovations and even President Zuma eventually receiving a generous round of applause.
In her introductory address, outgoing SAJBD Chairman Mary Kluk pledged the Board’s commitment to helping ensure that South Africa remained a non-racial, multicultural democracy, where all minorities felt safe and accepted. She attributed the country’s relatively low rate of antisemitism to “the strong culture of antiracism” that underpinned it, as well as to “the fundamental decency, generosity and spirit of tolerance that characterises the South African people”. That being said, she noted that while antisemitism levels in South Africa remained relatively low, they were clearly on the rise.
Both Ronald Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress, and celebrity French intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy invoked South Africa’s success in achieving a negotiated, peaceful transition to multiracial democracy as a model for the international community at a time no-one could feel safe from the continued spread of radical Islam. South Africa, Lauder said, was “a beacon of hope in a very troubled world”. It represented one of the few cases where then warring parties had peacefully resolved their differences, and it had happened in the end because South Africans themselves had decided, “enough hatred, enough division, enough conflict”. By contrast, Hamas had “absolutely no intention of living alongside a Jewish state”, and the Jewish experience showed only too clearly that when murderous dictators said they wanted to kill you, they meant what they said. South Africa could play a role in advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace prospects by engaging with all the parties and explaining why violence had to be rejected.
Levy recalled how the fight against apartheid had been one of the great causes of his generation and how proud he had been when apartheid was overthrown, not least because so many Jews had been at the frontline of the struggle to defeat it. By contrast, today’s BDS movement only pretended to be conducted in the name of peace, democracy and human rights when in reality it was seeking Israel’s destruction through political means. Addressing Zuma directly, Levy asked how BDS activists dared to describe Israel, the most successful multi-ethnic society that he knew and where Arabs, Africans, Europeans, Kurds, Turks and so many other races and ethnicities co-existed in peace and equality, as the “new apartheid”. Today, he said, no-one was safe from the new terror of fascist Jihadism, and BDS were the useful idiots of this new fascist way.
At the SAJBD’s National Executive Committee meeting held in the morning prior to the conference, the following senior office-bearers were elected: National Chairman – Jeff Katz; National Vice-chairmen (respectively representing Gauteng, Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal) – Doron Joffe, Eric Marx and Ronnie Herr; National Treasurer – Raymond Goss; Chairman Country Communities – Marlene Bethlehem. Immediate past chairman Mary Kluk assumes the position of National President, while Zev Krengel remains on the executive committee in the capacity of National Vice-President.