Saturday 15 July 2017

Stretching the Limits of Self-Hatred

This was a statement issued on 6 July 2017 in South Africa.  My response follows below.

South African Jews welcome downgrading of SA Embassy in Israel

We as Jewish South Africans warmly welcome the ANC National Policy Conference resolution and recommendation to downgrade the South African Embassy in Tel Aviv. This is a concrete step beyond rhetoric. Israel must be held accountable for its crimes against the Palestinian people and a clear message must be sent that there are no normal relations with an abnormal regime.
The ANC National Policy Conference, which ended yesterday, has called for “the downgrading of the SA Embassy in Israel to send a strong message about Israel’s continued illegal occupation of Palestine and the continued human rights abuses against the peoples of Palestine”.
We would like to draw attention to the letter that our Jewish Israeli counterparts sent to the ANC ahead of its recent National Policy Conference. In their letter supporting the call for a downgrade of relations and support of the BDS boycott of Israel, our Israeli friends explained that:
“After many years of trying to change our society from within, we have come to the conclusion that an international campaign, such as the boycott against apartheid South Africa, is necessary to change the situation here. We believe that the time has come for further measures. Governments including the South African government should be downgrading diplomatic relations and their embassies in Israel, to send a clear message to Israel that its violations of international law are unacceptable. Ultimately we call on the ANC to strengthen its support for the BDS movement and Palestinian struggle.”
We welcome the fact that the ANC has heeded the call by Palestinians as well as those progressive Israelis who are working towards a just peace in Israel-Palestine.
Finally we would like to add that we stand against all forms of racism and antisemitism and for the freedom, dignity and full human rights of all. To boycott Israel today is not antisemitic, it is an affirmation of these principles.
For more information please contact:
Allan Horwitz 0825128188
*South African Jews for a Free Palestine (SAJFP) is an organisation of South African Jews wishing to see a just resolution to the conflict in Historic Palestine. We strongly believe in the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam, “Repairing the World” which embodies social action and the pursuit of social justice. Historically Jews have been involved struggles to achieve social justice and we are proud to continue this tradition. Furthermore, as Jews, we feel obliged to speak out against injustice purportedly carried out in our name.

Dear Allan and SAJFP members,

I was somewhat surprised to read your need to put out a statement, in which you expressed support for the resolution passed by the ANC National Policy Conference to downgrade the South African embassy in Tel Aviv.  This resolution was passed by the ANC conference "to send a strong message about Israel’s continued illegal occupation of Palestine and the continued human rights abuses against the peoples of Palestine".  According to your statement, "This is a concrete step beyond rhetoric. Israel must be held accountable for its crimes against the Palestinian people and a clear message must be sent that there are no normal relations with an abnormal regime".

There are a number of points in your statement that I feel need to be challenged.  Why do you consider Israel to be an "abnormal regime"?  Having lived in Israel for the past almost 20 years, and having travelled extensively to other countries during that time, I have no doubt that Israel is a perfectly normal regime forced to deal with an abnormal situation.  Israel is the only country in the world that constantly has its right to exist challenged unashamedly, and is frequently threatened with destruction.  This is abnormal.  Not only that, but the terror attacks and threats that Israel is subjected to on a daily basis can surely also not be considered normal.  Despite this patently abnormal situation, Israel has done a remarkable job of surviving and growing, even when compared to so-called normal regimes.  It seems unjust that Israel's actions to defend herself against the abnormal threats that she faces, are judged by normal countries according to scales that can only be relevant in their normal situations.  Surely the time has come for the international community, and Jews around the world like you, to recognise this fact and to give Israel the support that she needs to survive under the abnormal threat in which she finds herself?  It is disappointing that you choose not to recognise this in your statement, and fail to criticise those who have the audacity to threaten the existence of a sovereign nation.

I would like to pick up on your reference to "Israel’s continued illegal occupation of Palestine and the continued human rights abuses against the peoples of Palestine".  At the current time, Israel has ceded land in Judea and Samaria to be governed by the Palestinian Authority.  Additionally, Israel gave the entire Gaza Strip to the Palestinian Authority, which was later taken over by Hamas.  It is on record that Israel would have already given this to an internationally-recognised state of Palestine, as long as the Palestinians would recognise the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state along its border.  This recognition has been withheld, and no peace agreement has been reached as a result.  Why do I not see any recognition by you of the ongoing attempts by Muslims to take over the entire State of Israel?  This is in the charter of both Hamas and Fatah, and is plain for anybody to see.  Where is the recognition of the fact that Israel has ceded land to be governed by the Palestinians, only to find that this land has been turned into a launchpad for missile attacks against Israel?  If it was your family living under this constant missile barrage, how likely would you be to give more land to them to be used in this way?  So please would you explain what you mean by "illegal occupation" and "human rights abuses".  How can Israel be guilty of human rights abuses against Palestinians when their own authorities govern over them?  I think that it would be more accurate for you to accuse the Palestinians of human rights abuses against Israelis for the constant terror attacks that Israelis are forced to endure.

I am not sure who the "progressive Israelis" are that would have sent the letter to the ANC ahead of the policy conference.  Why did you not say who they are?  What are their names?  How many Israelis are really represented by the letter?  I believe that you will find that all Israelis, and not only "progressive Israelis", are eager to work towards supporting a just peace.  But it needs to be that - a just peace.  Just for both sides.  This means recognising the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state.  Failure to receive this formal recognition would be unjust.  And I cannot imagine any nation, that has its wits about them, that would agree to allow the formation of a country along its borders that has the intention of destroying it.  Why would you think that this ridiculous step would be OK for the Jewish state?

If you truly stand against all forms of racism and antisemitism, and for the freedom, dignity and full human rights of all, why is it that you do not support the rights of Jews and Israelis to live in freedom and with dignity?  Why do you choose to be self-hating and only find reasons to criticise Israel?  If you were not self-hating, I would expect you to call out acts of anti-Semitism and other abusers of human rights.  I did not notice you speaking out against anti-Semitism in Hungary and France and the UK?  Your silence on this is deafening.  And where is your criticism of human rights abuses in North Korea or Russia or China or Burma or Saudi Arabia or Zimbabwe or Soweto or Nkandla?  Why has Israel earned the special right to be singled out by you?  You claim to feel obliged to speak out against injustice purportedly carried out in your name.  I am sorry to burst your bubble, but none of this is carried out in your name.  It is carried out in the name of self-respecting Israelis who wish to survive as proud Jews.  You are just the fortunate beneficiary of these actions.  You are a just a lucky South African Jew, who has been gifted the opportunity to live in peace and security by virtue of the existence of a strong State of Israel, that is willing to defend and give power to Jews around the world, even the self-hating ones.

The anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli actions carried out by our enemies around the world, could be compared in many ways to the Shoah perpetrated against our people by the Nazis.  The fervour with which terrorists rise up to murder our people, with no qualms about risking their own lives in the process, surpasses anything that we saw during the Nazi regime.  The amount of money and the national resources of governments that are devoted to endeavours to murder Jews and destroy Israel as the Jewish state, are equivalent to those seen during the Nazi regime.  The national infrastructure that is being built in Gaza (and in other countries), with the sole purpose of destroying Israel, can be compared to the scale of the concentration camps, railway systems and crematoria built to destroy Jews in Europe.  There is only one key difference today, that makes all of what we are experiencing different from the terrible years of the Shoah.  That difference is the existence of the State of Israel and the Jewish army.  Without this, Jews would today be experiencing a Shoah of the proportions experienced during the time of the Nazis.  So you are extremely fortunate to benefit from this.  The State of Israel, that you so vociferously criticise, is exactly what gives you the freedom to live in safety in your comfortable existence South Africa and express your misguided opinions.  Where is your recognition of this fact?

I find it ironic that you choose to express your criticism of Israel, and your call for a boycott that is supposedly not anti-Semitic, by supporting the decision taken by the ANC National Policy Conference.  It is almost as if this is the body that represents the gold standard of upholding human rights.  We all know that nothing could be further from the truth, and the ANC representatives at the conference may be better advised to examine the situation nearer to home before choosing to criticise a country that only has the desire to defend itself to survive.  I would have thought that you, as a Jew in South Africa, would understand that.

I would like to conclude by recognising that the State of Israel is not beyond criticism, nor is every action that it takes worthy of support.  Like every country and every nation, Israel has its moments, both good and bad.  And she has a legal system and a judiciary that is designed to police this.  Feel free to say what you wish about that.  But please save your ill-considered criticisms of Israel's attempts to survive.  You place yourself firmly in the camp of those who are fighting for the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people.  Jews in the Shoah were forced to understand the hard way that criticising their fellow Jews would not save them from the hands of the Nazis, and from suffering the same fate as all the others.  You should learn from history, because you will not be saved from this fate either.

Anthony Reich

Thursday 13 July 2017

The Unifying Wall That Divides

Image from
A decision by the Israeli government not to approve the construction of an egalitarian prayer area at the Kotel, the Western Wall of the Temple Compound in Jerusalem and Judaism's holiest site, has opened wounds between the Israeli government and the American Jewish community.  It is ironic that, only weeks after celebrating the 50th anniversary of the return of the Kotel to Jewish hands, this iconic landmark and holy site is giving rise to huge divisions between different groups of Jews.  How differently the Kotel is being viewed now, as opposed to 50 years ago when Jews around the world were rejoicing in unison at the prospects of being able to visit and pray at this site.

Things have clearly changed over the past 50 years that we are fighting amongst ourselves over this matter.  Fifty years ago,  Jews would have been happy simply to be able to visit and pray at the Kotel. It would not have mattered if this would have been by a group of men or women on their own, or by mixed groups and families.  After so many years of having been denied the right to visit the site of the Temple, the details of how prayers would be offered there were unimportant.

Fast-forward fifty years, and the Kotel Plaza has been developed to allow and encourage Jews to visit the site for historical and religious reasons.  It was developed according to the tenets of Jewish religious law as befits a site of prayer.  This means that men and women have been provided with separate prayer areas.  This separation is not a new or alien concept amongst Orthodox and traditional Jews.  It is something that is expected at holy sites and areas of prayer.  And while Orthodox or traditional strands of Judaism are dominant in Israel amongst those who wish to identify with the Jewish religion, the same is not true outside of Israel.  There, the Reform and Conservative strands of Judaism are more popular.  These strands follow a somewhat less stringent interpretation of the Orthodox Jewish laws, either because followers have studied the laws and rejected some of the stringencies arising from Rabbinical interpretations and pronouncements over the years, or because it is simply easier to follow.  In a world where the rate of assimilation amongst Jewish communities around the world is running at alarmingly high levels, any form of identification with Judaism can be considered to be positive.  It is for this reason that the Reform and Conservative communities, particularly those in the USA, have gathered enormous power as they manage to stem some of the massive flows of Jews away from the faith.

The battle lines between Orthodox and Reform/Conservative Jews have long been drawn.  The Orthodox communities have done all that they can to reject the dilutions that are inherent with the Reform/Conservative view on the Jewish world.  They have worked to discredit and delegitimise them, even accusing them of not being Jews.  The Reform and Conservative communities, particularly those in the US that command power and have access to large sums of money, have used this to fight back against the Orthodox world view.  The battle over the Kotel is simply an extension of this power struggle between the different groups.  The Reform/Conservative strand believes that their followers (and other non-religious people) would prefer to visit and pray at the Kotel in an area that is mixed with men and women - an egalitarian area.  This would also allow families to enjoy this experience together.  The Orthodox are absolutely opposed to this, claiming that the Kotel is a religious place of prayer that requires separation of the sexes according to the traditional Jewish Law.

The State of Israel has set out not to distinguish between different groups of Jews.  In fact, the Law of Return that grants immediate Israeli citizenship to Jews, has chosen to use Hitler's definition of Jews rather than going by Jewish religious law.  Hitler decided that any person who had one Jewish grandparent would be eligible to be treated inhumanely by his regime, and to be part of his plan of extermination.  The Israeli government decided that if a person was good enough to be exterminated by Hitler, they would be good enough to be granted immediate Israeli citizenship.  This means that some of those who have been granted immediate citizenship under this law, are not Jewish according to Jewish Law.  This demonstrates the extent to which the State of Israel has opened its arms to many different groups of Jews - and even to some non-Jews.  Under the circumstances, it seems as though the government would be sympathetic to the claims of the non-Orthodox groups at the Kotel.

Even though the government would probably wish to be more accommodating to the demands of the non-Orthodox lobby, and even previously agreed to their demands for an egalitarian prayer area at the Kotel, politics always seems to come first.  The current government coalition can only exist with the support of the ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset.  Upon hearing of the government's plan to accommodate an egalitarian prayer area at the Kotel, the ultra-Orthodox parties flexed their muscles and threatened to bring the government down if the plan was implemented.  Prime Minister Netanyahu went into survival mode, even at the expense of his relationship with US Jews, and acquiesced to the demands of his coalition partners.  At least for now.  American Jews responded in disgust by withdrawing their support for the Israeli government.

Does the Reform/Conservative lobby have a valid case in declaring open warfare on the Israeli government as a result of this decision?  The Israeli government has said that an egalitarian prayer area does already exist, but it is just not in the premier Kotel Plaza area.  The non-Orthodox lobby claims that this is not good enough, and effectively treats some Jews as second-class.  Their demand is to have the egalitarian area front and centre alongside the other prayer areas in the Kotel Plaza.  The battle is one of power and of wills. This is a battle between different groups of Jews, each of whom demands that their way is accepted, and with the Israeli government being called upon to act as referee.

Is the Kotel a Jewish national asset that should be required to accommodate all groups of Jews in a way that is to their liking?  Or is it an asset that belongs to the religious, as the holiest religious site in Judaism?  Does creating an egalitarian prayer area alongside the other areas serve to dilute its importance and religious status?  Is this issue important enough to be worth creating a rift amongst different groups of Jews?

I don't have answers to any of these questions.  And even if I did, I feel sure that the warring parties would not consider my point of view in formulating their reactions to the situation.  Of course, the Israeli government will always act in way that promotes its own best interests.  At the moment, that requires it to take the side of the ultra-Orthodox parties and freeze the egalitarian prayer area.

In my opinion, the situation requires tolerance and understanding by all parties.  It is natural to expect that the holiest site in Judaism should have some of the most stringent rules attached to it, and that Orthodox Jewish law should apply.  We live at a time, however, when Jews around the world should find reasons to unite, and not reasons to be in conflict with each other, especially over a site as central as the Kotel.  The ultra-Orthodox parties are not generally known for making efforts to unify different strands of Judaism, but it is never too late.  They should know that no man is in a position to judge another one, nor judge his interpretation of the religion.  So they should be taking the moral high ground on this matter in an attempt to accommodate the requests of the non-Orthodox groups.  Surely accommodating an egalitarian space could be acceptable, as long as they continue to have their separated areas?  The situation now requires unity and not conflict.  It is incumbent upon the parties to sit down, and find a compromise that will be acceptable to all.  Is this too much to expect?