Above Board 25 November 2012
The Board’s extensive involvement in responding to the Russell Tribunal on Palestine has raised, not for the first time, questions as to why we devote so much effort to Israel issues. According to its mandate, the Board’s primary focus is to ensure the safety and well-being of the local Jewish community (and also to represent the community on international Jewish forums). Israel-related issues, by contrast, fall within the ambit of the SA Zionist Federation, and the various Zionist-focused organisations that fall under its umbrella. Why, then, has defending Israel become so much a Board concern?
Suffice it to say that this is one of the perennial questions we have to deal with, whether amongst our professional staff or at the lay leadership level. Is the matter on the table a ‘Board issue’ or is it a ‘Fed issue’? The reality is that often it is both. When Israel comes under unfair attack, it is unrealistic to simply take the view that it is not the Board’s business, given how very much our community is emotionally connected to Israel. The SAJBD’s mandate is to safeguard SA Jewry, not only against physical attack but also against emotional harm. When Israel is singled out for exclusive negative attention, and when such attacks are obviously based on false premises, prejudice and double standards, we can know for sure that our community comes under significant emotional stress.
In an ideal world, the Board would be happy to devote itself exclusively to promoting the well-being of SA Jewry while its sister organisation deals with all matters relating to the community’s relationship with Israel. However, for the past decade and more, Israel has been coming under attack in every conceivable forum. Whether in the media, the political arena, academia, arts and culture, trade relations or elsewhere, hardline anti-Israel activists have been pushing a relentless agenda of demonizing and delegitimizing the Jewish state. Nor has this only happened in South Africa; all other Diaspora communities are likewise continually struggling to find ways to effectively counter this menace.
The Board obviously cannot remain on the sidelines in this battle, but at the same time our involvement need not be a departure from our mandate to represent the community on specifically South African issues, but indeed can be an extension of it. Thus, when we involve ourselves in Israel-related matters, we always strive to do so from a local perspective. We emphasize the importance of engagement, of respecting opposing viewpoints and of looking back only to learn how best to go forward rather than allowing the weight of the past to drag us all down.
It was this message I sought to convey in my presentation last week at a symposium on the Middle East conflict hosted by Parliament’s International Relations and Co-operation portfolio committee. Other participants in this generally positive and constructive event included the SAZF and the Israeli Embassy. Inter alia, I said that we had seen the miracle of transformation in our own country and knew that situations that seem hopeless and desperate can indeed change and can result in parties coming together. The challenge for both parties in the Middle East was to understand the perspective of the other side through negotiating a solution that took into account everyone’s insecurities and aspirations. In contrast to the one-sided farce that was the Russell Tribunal, all had a fair chance to present their views. I commend our Cape Board for the key coordinating role they played, including in preparing presentations and information packs for Portfolio Committee members and in ensuring a strategically sound response from our side.
This Above Board column first appeared in the SA Jewish Report on 24 November 2011