Doron Isaacs, the organiser of the controversial South African ‘Human Rights’ Delegation to Israel, has written a passionate op-ed in this week’s South African Jewish Report (SAJR) imploring the community to adopt a more critical posture towards Israel in order to avert rising anti-Semitism. Although he condemns the mainstream Jewish leadership for not being nuanced enough, his approach is strikingly simplistic. He presents South African Jewry with a black or white, good or evil binary choice of what he calls the high or low road. Doron talks of Jewish unity but the self-righteousness that oozes from the piece makes it clear that this can only be achieved on his terms. Sticking to the road metaphor, my way or the high way would have been a far more accurate title.
The crux of Doron’s argument is that the Jewish community’s unwavering public support for Israel is augmenting anti-Jewish feelings among civil society in South Africa. Furthermore, he argues that our failure to publicly condemn Israel’s ‘discrimination against Palestinians’ weakens the credibility of our institutions in the fight against anti-Semitism. Thus, following this Orwellian logic, the only way for this community to be ‘saved’ is for it to publically denounce Zionism’s excesses. For that very reason, faced with the tsunami of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish hate in South Africa at the height of the Gaza war, he launched a petition condemning the community for its pro-Israel stance.
Although Doron thinks of himself as rather progressive, his solutions are nothing new. Various appeasement policies such as assimilation and even outright conversion have over the centuries been touted and adopted by many well meaning Jews as the solution to rising anti-Semitism. Even Theodore Herzl, the father of modern political Zionism, flirted with the idea of a mass Jewish conversion to Christianity or socialism to solve the Jewish question. But the extermination of 6 million of Europe’s Jews (many of whom were also fiercely progressive) has exposed the futility, if not the danger, of such a response. We have learnt at great human cost that appeasing anti-Semites in the long run does not secure our safety.
If there is to be a prosperous future for Jews in South Africa, it will not be brought about by accepting the immoral deal that is being imposed upon us. Rather we need to publicly expose and denounce those who would place us in such a position. Jonathan Freedland, the not exactly pro-Israel journalist from the not exactly pro-Israel Guardian newspaper, has recently written a brilliant piece, entitled “Sowing anti-Semitism”, challenging the hypocrisy of those who seek to force local Jewish communities into condemning the actions of Israel. As he points out ‘liberals rightly recoil from the pressure on Muslims to denounce jihadism or even Islamism. Yet they make the same demand when they suggest Jews are okay unless they are Zionists. The effect is to make Jews' place in society contingent on their distance from their fellow Jews, in this case, Israelis’.
There are some in this community who have questioned Doron’s motives for his campaign against Israel and now local Zionists. Some have privately argued to me that he is trying to use this issue to curry political favor within the ruling party. Others have argued that it is just for his own ego. I do not buy this. I believe Doron’s intentions are genuinely well meaning both for both Jews and Palestinians. What I object to are his tactics.
Does this mean I support oppressing all criticism of Israel or the local Jewish community? Of course not. Individuals have the right to condemn whatever actions they may find reprehensible. I myself have publicly disagreed with the past behavior of both the South African Jewish Board and the government of the Jewish state. But the difference is that I do not try impose my opinion on the rest of the community with threats that if they don’t follow my approach they will suffer increased anti-Semitism. I believe and have argued strongly on many occasions for a broad synagogue approach to unity in this community where all Jews no matter what their religiosity or political persuasion are made to feel welcome. But that requires a tolerance that Doron seems to lack. He needs to understand that his positions on Israel are not more valid than those of the more Zionist members of our community. Just because his 300 odd co-signatures happen to be artist, judges, writers and academics does not give their voices disproportional weight, or their argument automatic moral superiority.
Publically demonising the 70 000 odd other Jews who did not sign the petition as bad, racist and illiberal is not the way to secure the future of South African Jewry. Frog marching this community down high or low roads will not solve our problems. What we really need is to try build bridges of understanding to each other.