In a scathing 4 page letter sent to the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) and CC'd to major newspapers around South Africa, the Jewish Board of Deputies denounced the FXI as prejudiced against Israel and the institutions of the South African Jewish community.
Echoing our criticism of the FXI last week, the Jewish Board’s letter states
|‘Over the past five years, the SA Jewish Board of Deputies has noted with mounting concern the consistently partisan and selective statements being issued by the Freedom of Expression Institute. We believe - and the evidence since at least 2002 bears us out - that however noble the motives of its founders might have been, your organisation has de facto evolved into a propaganda platform for those holding radical anti-Israel, anti-American and pro-Islamist viewpoints.’ |
‘An especially deplorable aspect of the FXI's anti-Israel campaign is how Jewish communal institutions, specifically the S A Jewish Board of Deputies, the SA Zionist Federation and, most recently, the S A Jewish Report, have been singled out for special attack. By contrast, the FXI's silence on cases where Muslim organisations and activists have suppressed freedom of expression has been truly deafening.’
The letter then details numerous instances over the past 5 years where Israel or the institutions of the South African Jewish community has been unfairly targeted by the FXI. From its response to the violent demonstration outside the Shimon Peres talk (a example raise previous by a reader on this blog); to the Broadcast Monitoring Compliance Commission hearing against ETV for its unashamed endorsement of John Pilger's documentary 'Palestine is still the Issue'; the South African Jewish Board’s legal battle against radio 786 for broadcasting blatant anti-Semitic hate speech and of course this latest SAJR-Kasrils saga, the FXI has constantly demonstrated its bias.
But even more telling is the FXI’s silence and even, at times support, for radical Islamist attempts to suppress views they find unpleasant. The letter cites the FXI’s hypocritical support for the censorship of the Mohammed cartoons in South Africa and its silence on the intimidation of Muslim moderates in South Africa (something that has since led to the emigration of such eminent clerics and academics as Ebrahim Moosa and Faried Esack). More recently, the FXI has failed to condemn the brazen attempt by its former chairman Salim Vally to prevent the Pogrund-Salem Palestinian-Israeli coexistence lecture tour.
This public condemnation from the umbrella body of the South African Jewish community has exposed the FXI for what they are—a propaganda vehicle for those with a transparently pro-Islamist and anti-Israel (as well as a general anti-Western) agenda.
Jane Duncan and the FXI have up until now have not responded to any of our criticism. We did and continue to extend to them an invitation to debate these issues with us on this blog.
Click Continue Reading to view the Jewish Board's letter.
A reader has pointed out an error we made. We incorrectly said that former Minister of Transport Dullah Omar had emigrated when in fact he passed away in 1999 after suffering from cancer. He held his Minister of Transport post until the day of his death.
Dear Ms Duncan
Over the past five years, the SA Jewish Board of Deputies has noted with mounting concern the consistently partisan and selective statements being issued by the Freedom of Expression Institute. We believe - and the evidence since at least 2002 bears us out - that however noble the motives of its founders might have been, your organisation has de facto evolved into a propaganda platform for those holding radical anti-Israel, anti-American and pro-Islamist viewpoints.
All of us agree that the right to freedom of expression is one of the pillars of our democracy, and that any institution genuinely committed to upholding it deserves public support. The FXI's overall record in this area is by no means a bad one, but this record has been seriously marred by the growing number of cases of ideological bias that represent a betrayal of your organisation's mandate.
The stated mission of the FXI is to "protect and foster the rights to freedom of expression and access to information and to oppose censorship". Nothing is said about the organisation also being committed to pushing a particular political viewpoint or ideology. On the contrary, as Jewish Report editor Geoff Sifrin puts it in his latest editorial, the FXI "was intended to be an impartial organisation whose sole concern was to safeguard the right to freedom of expression, from whatever quarter. Impartiality and thoroughness were fundamental things expected of it".
Unfortunately, the FXI has fallen very far short of these worthy goals. What a range of previous FXI statements on Middle East issues have clearly demonstrated is that in fact your organisation is indeed pursuing a very definite political agenda. Its pronouncements have not merely affirmed the right of anti-Israel lobbyists to express their opinions, but have consistently simultaneously endorsed those often radical and certainly questionable views.
An especially deplorable aspect of the FXI's anti-Israel campaign is how Jewish communal institutions, specifically the S A Jewish Board of Deputies, the SA Zionist Federation and, most recently, the S A Jewish Report, have been singled out for special attack. By contrast, the FXI's silence on cases where Muslim organisations and activists have suppressed freedom of expression has been truly deafening.
In this regard, before I delve into the more distant past to highlight previous examples of FXI bias, I would refer you to the recent case in which a series of seminars on the Middle East situation to be run by Benjamin Pogrund and Walid Salem was cancelled after a concerted campaign by certain Palestinian activist groupings. What is especially shocking about this campaign against Mr Pogrund and Mr Salem, both of whom have impeccable human rights records and are seeking to promote dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, is that its ringleader, Salim Vally, is a former chairman of the FXI. In his letter to Messrs Pogrund and Salem, Vally resorted to threats that the event would be disrupted by demonstrations if it went ahead. As he wrote to Salem, "we suggest that you would not appreciate the embarrassment of facing a demonstration or picket...Perhaps the best option would be for you to cancel this trip completely".
To date, and even after the above matter was reported on at length in last week's issue of the Mail & Guardian, no statement whatever has been issued by the FXI condemning the blatant violation of the principle of freedom of expression that this incident unquestionably represents. Nor can the FXI claim to have been unaware of it since one of its senior staff members, Naeem Jeenah, is closely associated with Mr Vally and his Palestinian Solidarity Committee and would certainly have learned about the anti-Pogrund/Salem campaign long before this.
It so happens that Mr Vally was at the centre of one of the most overt previous displays of FXI bias. In September 2002, the FXI released a grossly one-sided statement on the clashes that had taken place between pro-Palestinian demonstrators, police and members of the Jewish community outside the Linder Auditorium, Johannesburg, where Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres was speaking. The statement unquestioning took the demonstrators' line that a "peaceful" protest had been violently broken up and various participants, including Vally, wrongfully arrested, all at the instigation of the S A Jewish Board of Deputies. No attempt whatever was made by the FXI to reflect the other side of the issue, namely that far from the protest being peaceful, members of the Jewish community wanting to attend the lecture were subjected to verbal abuse, threats and physical harassment, including being jostled, having their vehicles blocked or parked in and even being pelted with bottles and other missiles. The message the FXI sent on that occasion was that the right of anti-Israel activists to demonstrate was sacrosanct but supporters of Israel had no corresponding right to attend a lecture of their choice free from harassment and intimidation.
A month after issuing this truly scandalous statement, the FXI (8 November, 2002) again exposed its lack of partiality when it condemned the alleged "aggressive attempts by the pro-Israeli lobby" to prevent the controversial John Pilger's documentary 'Palestine is still the Issue' from being screened on Etv. The FXI once more exceeded its mandate to promote freedom of expression without taking sides when it clearly aligned itself with the views expressed in Pilger documentary, stating that the latter "exposes pervasive Israeli atrocities in occupied Palestine and the deep humiliation and degradation to which the Zionist government has subjected innocent and defenseless Palestinians".
Mention should also be made of another FXI statement released in 2002, when the organisation decided to condemn the reputed death threats that Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry, Ronnie Kasrils had received because of his anti-Zionist views. Again, the FXI's overt support for those views was made all too apparent. Of course, if Mr Kasrils did receive death threats because of his views, that is unacceptable and it should be condemned. However, one finds no comparable statements of condemnation of the far more pervasive intimidation of Muslim moderates that has taken place in South Africa, something that has since led to the emigration of such eminent clerics and academics as Ebrahim Moosa, Faried Esack and Dullar Omar.
This year, the FXI took the part of the Muslim community radio station Radio 786 in its ongoing court battle with the S A Jewish Board of Deputies. Following a ruling by the Broadcasting Monitoring and Complaints Committee of ICASA upholding the SAJBD's complaint of antisemitic broadcasting by Radio 786, the FXI released a statement strongly criticising the decision. The FXI was of course perfectly entitled to take issue with the BMCC's decision, but what was not acceptable was the highly selective and misleading manner in which it portrayed the essence of the SAJBD's case against Radio 786. The entire substance of the SAJBD's complaint was reduced to whether or not denial of the Holocaust constituted hate speech. In fact, as has since been pointed out to you, denial of the Holocaust was only one component of an extended series of anti-Jewish conspiracy theories, with Jews being portrayed as a malignant hidden hand in history, responsible for wars and economic upheavals the world over. The FXI's statement on this complex matter created the impression that the SAJBD's complaint revolved solely around a single comment querying the historical validity of the Holocaust, which had the effect of trivialising the seriousness of that complaint. The FXI, moreover, made no attempt to contact the SAJBD for its comments, as it had failed to do with regard to the Linder Auditorium incident as well.
The latest instance of the FXI weighing in against a Jewish organisation has been, of course, its intemperate attack on the S A Jewish Report for its refusal to publish an opinion piece by Minister Ronnie Kasrils. The FXI's statement was wholly unacceptable, both in tone and content. Yet again, no attempt was made to obtain a comment from the object of the institution's attack, namely the editor of the paper. Emotive references to "the Israeli state's policies of forced colonial occupation of Palestinian land" and charges that the Jewish Report represents "a mere extension of Zionism's repressive project" reveal all too starkly how far away the FXI has lurched towards the radical anti-Israel camp. As Jewish Report editor Geoff Sifrin puts it (24 November), "To an impartial observer it is obvious the FXI is not coming to this with impartiality, but rather with a malicious predisposition towards Israel".
The FXI could have salvaged much of its credibility had it taken an appropriately tough line in the matter of the Mohamed cartoon furore earlier this year. In this matter, as a direct result of an orchestrated campaign of intimidation by a section of the Muslim community, and even most seriously from a freedom of expression point of view of a court ruling embargoing publication, the cartoons were prevented from being disseminated in the mainstream media. Whether such material should be published at all is beside the point - it is the principle of free choice that was at stake, something the FXI is mandated to uphold.
If ever there was a case tailor-made for the FXI to take a strong, principled stand on, it was this one. However, in glaring contrast to the overheated and grossly partisan condemnations your organisation has issued against Jewish communal institutions over the years, the FXI was distinctly lukewarm in its approach to the matter. No official statement condemning the decision of the Johannesburg High Court proscribing the publication of the cartoons was issued by the FXI. It is true that Mr Jeenah was quoted as saying that editorial decision making should not be placed in the hands of the courts, but this fell short of saying that editors who chose to publish the cartoons had a right to do so. Moreover, in the Mail & Guardian of 10 February, Jeenah and Vally wrote that: "freedom of expression cannot be a carte blanche right to be used by racists and xenophobes to perpetrate violence". The inference would seem to be that propagating racist anti-Jewish conspiracy theories falls into the category of freedom of expression, but publishing material offensive to Muslim sensibilities does not. The inconsistency of this approach speaks for itself.
Taken as a whole, the FXI was inclined less to denounce the blatant censorship that was taking place than to instead take the line that the whole controversy should be seen as part of a global campaign of Islamophobia. I refer in this regard to the presentation you yourself made at the SA Human Rights Commission seminar of 14 March 2006, which was organised by the HRC in the wake of the cartoon controversy. Far from condemning the suppression of freedom expression that the cartoon controversy represented, you took obviously partisan, pro-Islamist lines throughout, claiming, for example, that the "ascendence of the Zionist interpretation of Judaism" was one of the main reasons for the alleged "denigration of other religious streams", in particular Islam, and that the jailing of the radical Muslim cleric Abu Hamza for racist incitement in Britain was a result of sinister US pressure.
The facts, as reflected in the FXI's own statements over the past five years, are all too self-evident. In short, an organisation established to uphold the crucial democratic values of freedom of expression has instead been consistently exploited as a propaganda vehicle by those with a transparently pro-Islamist and anti-Israel (as well as a general anti-Western) agenda. As such, every opportunity has been seized to denigrate the Jewish community and its institutions while pointedly avoiding acting in far more blatant cases of press intimidation conducted by members of the Muslim community.
In summary, we believe that the Freedom of Expression Institute has a genuine case to answer for. I look forward to receiving your response to the points raised in this letter. In the meantime, given the seriousness with which we regard this issue, we will be communicating the contents of this letter to various newspaper editors so as to make our concerns more widely known.