United Jewish face presented against universal challenges

by Mary Kluk on 1 November 2012

in Above Board

Site where offensive billboard was removed

Members of the community were understandably outraged to see a large anti-Israel propaganda billboard placed in ‘can’t-miss’ position on the Empire Road off ramp near Wits University and the Board was soon inundated with complaints about it. This particular poster, which is being rolled out around the country by local anti-Israel activists, has already appeared in various localities in Pretoria and Johannesburg. Fortunately, it transpired that the senior management of the relevant PR company concerned had not been aware beforehand of the nature of this ‘advertisement’. On being approached by Fairplay SA, the CEO expressed his most “serious and sincere apologies” to the Jewish community and ensured that immediate steps were taken to remove it. As he told Fairplay SA chairman Ben Swartz, his company would never, in the normal course of company practice, have placed a billboard that carried so offensive a message.

As discussed in previous columns, Fairplay SA is a coordinating body that harnesses available resources within the Jewish community to oppose anti-Israel boycott action. The SAZF and Board took the lead in setting up the body, and are amongst its most important constituent organisations. Kol Hakavod to Ben Swartz and Shira Goldblum for their excellent work in dealing with this matter. It may prove to be only a temporary reprieve, but we can take heart from this small victory in our ongoing fight against the delegitimisation of Israel. There will be many further such issues to deal with, but at least we have seen that through constant vigilance and persistence, we can make a difference.

SA Jewry is not alone in having to operate within an increasingly hostile environment. Our UK counterparts, particularly in academia, have been engaged in an extended battle against radical anti-Israel prejudice that in turn has inevitably created a hostile environment against Jews in general. Last week, our National Director Wendy Kahn was in London to participate in what could prove to be a landmark court case on this issue. The case revolves around a suit brought by Ronnie Fraser, a Jewish academic, against the University and College Union on the grounds that the latter’s obsessive and negative focus on Israel had resulted in creating an “intimidating, hostile, degrading humiliating” environment for Jewish members. Part of the evidence for this is that in 2009 the UCU invited COSATU spokesperson Bongani Masuku to participate in an event calling for a boycott of Israeli academics, despite knowing that a complaint of anti-Jewish hate speech lodged by the SAJBD was pending with the SA Human Rights Commission. Even when the SAHRC upheld our complaint, the UCU went ahead with the invitation, and subsequently declined to condemn Masuku’s antisemitic and threatening statements.

On Monday, Wendy presented her ‘Witness Statement’ to the court, presenting in detail how the Masuku affair unfolded. Afterwards, she successfully withstood some sharp challenges from UCU’s defence counsel, inter alia reiterating that it was unacceptable to use the Israeli situation as an excuse for hate speech and threats against fellow South Africans. The whole process of finalizing our document and preparing to give evidence, working closely throughout with Fraser’s legal team, was a useful learning experience. It was also another encouraging example of how Jewish organisations across the world can pool their respective experiences and skills and work harmoniously together in confronting the challenges facing the Jewish people today.

  • Listen to Steven Gruzd on Jewish Board Talk on 101.9 ChaiFM every Friday 12:00-13:00. Repeats Sundays, 11:00-12:00.

This Above Board column first appeared in the South African Jewish Report on 2 November 2012

Mary Kluk
Mary Kluk is the Chairman of the SAJBD, and is based in Durban.

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