Sunday 13 September 2015

The Pendulum Swings

It is noticeable how the relationships between Jews and their host countries fluctuate over the years.  Who would believe that the Jewish community in Germany would be increasing in numbers today after all that happened in the Holocaust, or that Jews would return to live in Spain and Portugal after the inquisition?  The wave of anti-Semitism that is currently being seen in Europe and around the world comes as something of a surprise to those who thought that the world has become  more tolerant towards Jews.  The rate of assimilation of Jews around the world shows that Jews continue to wish to be less identifiable in their host countries, partially as a result of the threat that they feel by being identifiably Jewish.  It is also noticeable that the relationship between Diaspora Jews and Israel goes through its ups and downs.  Israel had the unwavering support of Diaspora Jews at the time of independence, and during the Six Day and Yom Kippur Wars.  In more recent times, however, Jews from around the world have been some of Israel's fiercest critics.

The swing of the pendulum has been particularly noticeable in South Africa in recent times.  The Jews of South Africa have traditionally been regarded as loyal South African citizens, while also being considered strong Zionists and supporters of Israel.  This community has not been without its fair share of contradictions and controversies over the years.  The community was split during the apartheid era between those who supported the struggle for democracy, and those who preferred to maintain a lower profile and show loyalty to the regime of the day.  The community has also, at times, shown contradictory behaviour towards Israel over the years.  Despite being regarded as one of the most Zionist communities in the world, it is also true that the majority of Jewish South Africans who decided to leave South Africa over the years, did not choose to make Israel their home.  The highly regarded South African Jewish education system and Zionist youth movements have recently produced graduates who seem more concerned about criticising Israel for the plight of innocent Palestinians, while choosing to ignore the role played by the Palestinian leadership in getting their innocent citizens to this situation, and also ignoring the constant attacks by the same "innocent" Palestinians that Israel is continuously forced to protect herself against.  None of this detracts from the support that the South African community has shown to Israel over the years.

Since the release of Nelson Mandela and the ascendence of the African National Congress (ANC) to government, the existence by Jews in South Africa has been like walking a tightrope.  It is well understood that the ANC is a great friend of the PLO and the Palestinian Authority, and not a supporter of Israel.  This goes back to the days of the struggle against apartheid, when the ANC and PLO were "brothers-in-arms" supporting each other in fighting their respective "struggles".  This close relationship has been reinforced over the past 21 years since the ANC has been in government.  And while the ANC has not quite come out in an open revolt against the Jews living under its regime, it has used every possible opportunity to come out in opposition to Israel, its policies and its actions.  Although this opposition is directed against Israel, it is understood as an attack on the local Jewish community by the community, and intended as such by those launching the attack.  This has, in effect, been a slow but sure sign to the Jews in South Africa that its government is pursuing a policy that will ultimately cause them to question where their true allegiance lies.  It has been noticeable how the South African Jewish leadership, with Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein at the helm, has done all in its power to transmit the communication to the government that Jews are loyal to South Africa and its government.  While being careful always to emphasize that they are proud Jews (and supporters of Israel in the most part), the Jewish community has sent a message of "South African first".  The message from the government in return, has been one of tolerance of the Jews rather than one of welcome with open arms.

There are signs that this uneasy status quo may be on the verge of changing.  A recent announcement by an ANC official that the government may seek to review the dual nationality law, could represent the tipping point.  The reason given for the possible review of this law, is the fact that a number of South African Jews have joined the ranks of the Israel Defense Force (IDF) as lone soldiers.  The thinking seems to be that, by revoking the right to dual citizenship, Jews will be forced to choose between being a South African, or enlisting with the IDF.  In effect, the community will need to choose between its allegiance to South Africa and its allegiance to Israel (along with their Jewish identity).  In order to put this into its correct perspective, it is worth noting that the latest information I have for lone soldiers serving in the IDF reflects that there are fewer than 50 South Africans in this number.   While it is true that there are others serving in the IDF who also carry South African citizenship (largely as a result of their parents originating from South Africa), it is clear that we are talking about a tiny number of people who are in reality being targeted by this new provision.  The real, and perhaps hidden, target is the Jewish community in South Africa as a group.  The fact that many thousands of non-Jews of all creeds and cultures may be affected by a review of the dual citizenship laws in South Africa, seems to be completely lost.  It seems as though the action directed against the Jews is more important than the widespread consequences to others.  It is a classic case of the tail wagging the dog.

The matter of South African nationals serving in the IDF has been a bone of contention for some time.  The South African government has previously threatened to arrest South Africans who have served in conflicts fought by the IDF, with the intention of extraditing them to The Hague to answer accusations of war crimes.  There has been much discussion about the fact that it is illegal for South Africans to serve in the IDF at all.  Former Minister of Home Affairs, and serving member of parliament and leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party, Prince Mangusuthu Buthelezi MP, helped to clarify this point.  In response to the announcement by the ANC of the possible review of dual citizenship, Buthelezi put out a statement during a visit that he was making to Israel.  He said that the law makes it illegal for South Africans to serve in the army of a foreign country, only if this country is at war with South Africa.  With the countries having formal diplomatic relations, including the exchange of ambassadors, there can be no possible interpretation that Israel and South Africa are at war.  As such, there is nothing illegal about South Africans serving in the IDF,

Chief Rabbi Goldstein's forceful response to the announcement of a possible review, recognises the change that this announcement represents for the Jews of South Africa.  While his video still reinforces his traditional message of the loyalty of the Jews to South Africa, he emphasizes the deep insult and hurt that the announcement of this review is causing to the Jews of South Africa.  He also makes abundantly clear the close link that the Jews in South Africa have to the State of Israel.  Rather than attempting to play down the dual loyalty that Jews in South Africa feel, both to their host country and to the Jewish homeland, he plays this up.  The purpose of him reinforcing the dual loyalty seems to issue a warning to the ANC and the South African government that the Jews may ultimately choose to prefer their links to Israel over their loyalty to South Africa, if pressed to make a selection.  The underlying message being sent seems to be for the ANC not to test this loyalty.  Despite all of this, the writing appears to be on the wall.

South Africa is commonly held up as a shining example of a country that has succeeded in achieving a peaceful revolution, to transform a discriminatory society into a democracy.  Much credit must be given to those on all sides of society for the creation of the "rainbow nation".  It seems, however, that despite 21 years having passed since this landmark transformation, the revolution is not yet over.  It seems as though affirmative action is giving way to more open discrimination against Whites, with Jews at the front of the line.  While a review of the dual nationality laws may require the Jews to make their choices about which side of the fence that they prefer to choose, it is also likely to require a similar choice for many other South African citizens with dual nationality.  Even though a government official has attempted to calm the stormy waters by stating that the government has no current intention to change the dual nationality laws, it gives clear indication of some of the thoughts circulating within the ruling party.

Historically, Jews have been forced to pander to their host countries, even in the wake of extreme discrimination, for fear that they would have nowhere else to go.  This is no longer the case, thanks to the existence of the State of Israel.  And while Diaspora Jews don't necessarily always agree with the Israeli government, and frequently publicly criticise its actions, Israel will always be there to accept Jews.  This gives the Jews in South Africa a power and a strength to make their choice, when called upon to do so.  There can be no doubt that the pendulum continues to swing.

Shana tova.

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