Sunday 10 January 2010

Forced to Abandon the South African Connection?

Despite the fact that I have lived outside of South Africa for nearly half of my life, I have always retained a close affinity and connection with the land of my birth. This is not only because of my ongoing family connections with South Africa. I feel that South Africa has influenced many of the things that I still enjoy in life. I cannot escape my love for sport, sunshine, braais, boerewors and biltong all of which were cultivated in South Africa. For the first time since leaving Cape Town in 1990, however, I feel that I am being forced to reconsider my strong links to South Africa. Up until now, I have succeeded in balancing my South African roots with my allegiance towards my new home, the State of Israel and my Jewish heritage. Recent events are making this a great deal more difficult.

When the ANC government came into power in 1994, it was inevitable that there would be a clash between Israel and South Africa. The new South African government consisted of the former resistance fighters of the ANC. During its years of engaging in military opposition to the apartheid government, the ANC enjoyed support and close links with the PLO and other Palestinian factions. Even though the diplomatic relations between Israel and South Africa were retained by the ANC government, it was never likely that the relationship between the governments of the two countries would be close. Despite this fact, they did succeed in retaining relations in a way that made it relatively easy for former South Africans and Jews in South Africans to be in close contact.

Ironically, the events that are giving me difficulty in balancing my South African and Israeli/Jewish identities have been precipitated by Jews. First, it was Jewish ANC government minister Ronnie Kasrils who decided to put pen to paper in criticism of Israel's policies towards the Palestinians. His visit to Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in 2007 was not helpful in promoting closer Israel - South Africa relations or in helping the position of the Jews in South Africa. The damage by Kasrils is, however, insignificant when compared to that done by Judge Richard Goldstone.

The publication of Goldstone's report into the Gaza war (Operation Cast Lead) has done immense damage to the status of Jews in South Africa, as well as that of former South Africans in Israel. Goldstone presented a report which was highly unbalanced and critical of Israel's actions, with only passing references to the significant efforts made by Israel to attempt to behave fairly and proportionately under very difficult circumstances. If this was not bad enough, he went even further by accusing Israel of committing war crimes. This is translated into accusing Israelis who fought in the war, of being war criminals. It has been suggested that Israelis should be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague on charges of war crimes arising from the Goldstone report.

The ICC was brought into existence by the Rome Treaty signed in 2002. Israel was not a signatory to this treaty, which means that the ICC does not have any jurisdiction in Israel or over Israelis. This is currently the only issue saving Israelis from possible prosecution. Even this safety net appears not to be 100% secure as evidenced by the recent threat to arrest certain senior army officers and politicians in the UK. South Africa is, however, a signatory to the Rome Treaty. Two organisations, the Palestinian Solidarity Alliance and Media Review Network approached South Africa's National Prosecution Authority (NPA) a few weeks ago with a list of some 75 South Africans who allegedly fought in Gaza. These organisations had previously initiated action against Lt. Col. David Benjamin who was on a visit to South Africa during August 2009. Their approach to the NPA is based on the fact that these names are South Africans who are contravening the South African law forbidding South African citizens to serve in foreign armies. It is also based on Goldstone's recommendation that those fighting for the IDF in Operation Cast Lead be sent to the ICC for prosecution. Because many former South Africans have retained their South African citizenship, it seems as though they may be at risk of prosecution either under South African law or by the ICC.

For ex-South Africans living in Israel, it seems that there may be an easy answer. If they have decided to make Israel their home, why not give up their South African nationality? This will ensure that they cannot be accused of serving in a foreign army and this may also help to avoid arrest on war crimes charges under the Rome Treaty. Even though some may find this to be emotionally difficult given the strength of connection that still exists between members of the South African community in Israel and their former homeland, there is a more significant issue which comes in the way.

A few years ago, message was sent around the community of South Africans in Israel advising that the South African government had issued an instruction forcing all former South Africans living abroad to use only a South African passport when travelling to South Africa. There is nothing that I have found in writing that confirms this regulation, but subsequent enquiries at the South African consulate in Tel Aviv confirmed this to be true. Besides the cost and inconvenience of maintaining an additional passport, our family and others like us have no issue in adapting to this regulation in the interests of staying on the right side of the South African authorities. With many family members remaining in South Africa, the likelihood that we would want to visit South Africa from time to time is high. Being on the good terms with the South African authorities is certainly our preferred approach.

With the new threat of possible prosecutions and arrests on war crimes charges in South Africa, a great dilemma arises for the South African community. Many of us or our children have served in the Israeli army, or will be doing so in the future. I am personally proud of the fact that my children will be serving the Jewish state and the Jewish people via their service in the IDF. For people like my children and their contemporaries, they are faced with the choice of risking arrest in South Africa or giving up their South African citizenship. Whilst the implications with the South African government of choosing the second option are not entirely clear to me, it has come to my attention that at least one former South African due to enlist with the IDF soon has been asked to give up her South African citizenship by the IDF. It seems as though the decision as to what to choose may be made automatically for those who will be joining the IDF in the future.

While I clearly oppose the accusation of any war crimes having been committed by the IDF in any of the operations that it has been involved in, I would welcome the possibility of continued good relations between South Africa and Israel. The fact that one South African Jew can cause so much damage and is able to destabilise a relationship that has existed for so long seems to me to be inconceivable. I hope that these unjustified actions will not force our community to abandon our South African connection.

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