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South African Jewry erupts over Palestinian keffiyeh

After South African Jewish schoolboy Josh Broomberg donned a Palestinian keffiyeh in solidarity with Gazans at the opening of the World Debating Championships, the local Jewish community exploded in a torrent of vitriol against anyone who dared to deviate from the strict communal line of full support for Israel’s military operation in Gaza.

By Yoni Bass

When Josh Broomberg left for the World Debating Championships in Thailand last month, he left as one of the crowning products of South Africa’s Jewish community, which stands at a humble 60,000 people. He was the deputy head boy of King David Victory Park Jewish day school and he was off to represent his country. Perhaps it was his connection to Jewish history, which highlights the Jewish commitment to justice, or maybe it was being brought up as a child in post-apartheid South Africa, with its progressive constitution, that led Broomberg to publicly don a Palestinian keffiyeh for the opening ceremony of the debating championships in an act of solidarity with innocent Palestinians killed in Gaza in Israel’s Operation Protective Edge. Whatever it was, and despite his expressed public commitment to Zionism and Judaism, an anonymous petition was soon initiated to strip him of his title of deputy head student and his school honors. As the Jewish community raged, its leadership remained quiet.

A screenshot of a Facebook post in which Josh Broomberg is seen wearing a keffiyeh at the opening of the World Debating Championships in Thailand, August 6, 2014 (Facebook)

A screenshot of a Facebook post in which Josh Broomberg is seen wearing a keffiyeh at the opening of the World Debating Championships in Thailand, August 6, 2014 (Facebook)

This incident didn’t materialize out of nowhere; it was the current violence in Gaza that spurred it. Gaza has dominated the news in South Africa for the past month. Most South Africans, like many poor and working class people around the world, identify with the oppression and violence faced by Palestinians; they tend to view Israel through the prism of their experiences living under apartheid. Condemnation of Israeli military action in Gaza has been forthcoming from South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), and the largest trade union federation, Cosatu, with several pointed public statements issued. Simultaneously, the Palestinian solidarity movement has had a significant impact in getting ordinary South African’s onto the streets in protest. Last Saturday reportedly over 100,000 people marched on the streets of Cape Town against Israel’s actions in Gaza and called for the expulsion of Israeli Ambassador Arthur Lenk. Despite mass public pressure, and the ANC’s own statements (one of which praised Josh Broomberg), the South African government has ignored calls to diplomatically isolate Israel.

Meanwhile the institutions of the South African Jewish community have remained steadfast in their uncritical support of Israeli action in Gaza. Rallies around the country co-hosted and attended by all major Jewish communal bodies have drawn 15,000 people in total. The message of these rallies has echoed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office: military action in Gaza was unavoidable, the IDF acts at the apex of morality, and Hamas bears all responsibility for civilian casualties in Gaza.

The origins of the conservative Jewish communal structures are difficult to track. After a period of conspicuous silence during the apartheid era, the late 1980s and 90s saw a consolidation of Jews into South Africa’s major cities, and of Jewish children into Jewish schools. Over the same period, the numbers of Jews ‘returning’ to Orthodox Judaism increased and religious Orthodox Jews began to dominate communal positions; the schools being no exception.

South Africans march in solidarity with Gaza, in Cape Town, South Africa, on August 9, 2014. Some contend that this was the biggest protest in South African history with estimates ranging from 10,000s to 100,000 (photo: Marwaan Britow)

South Africans march in solidarity with Gaza, in Cape Town, South Africa, on August 9, 2014. Some contend that this was the biggest protest in South African history with estimates ranging from 10,000s to 100,000 (photo: Marwaan Britow)

An overtly nationalist and Orthodox approach to Jewish education, and a Zionist narrative that has long-since been dismissed by historians has generated a steady output of students with a homogenous view of Judaism and Zionism. This view sees itself as traditional, but is in fact a radical new conservatism, or fundamentalism, unlike the culture that dominated the Lithuanian Jewish milieu to which many South African Jews trace their ancestry. Tolerance towards those who deviate from the norm is seldom encouraged nor tolerated.

This conservative community sits uneasily alongside another tradition, that of radical Jews who played a storied role in helping to liberate South Africa from apartheid. Whilst more than 10,000 people recently rallied in support of Israel in Johannesburg, a small counter picket of Jewish Voices for a Just Peace grabbed media attention. A week later 500 “Proudly Jewish” South Africans under the moniker “South African Jews for Gaza” condemned Israel’s actions in the Strip in a letter published in the Sunday Times, South Africa’s largest weekend newspaper.

Within the Jewish community the response to those who’ve expressed dissent has been vitriolic. Anonymous smear campaigns have been launched against progressive Jewish voices and organizations. Death threats have been bandied about without shame or fear of censure. Personal invective has been levied at those who dare to speak off a different script to the common narrative. Leading intellectuals like Professor Steven Friedman have been uninvited from speaking at communal events on unrelated matters. Saul Musker, one of the debaters pictured with Broomberg in the now infamous Facebook picture, characterized this, perhaps only slightly too strongly, as “the unprecedented rise of right-wing fascism in the institutions of South African Jewry.”

South Africans gather at a pro-Israel rally organized by the South African Zionist Federation, Johannesburg, South Africa, August 3, 2014 (photo: Daily Maverick)

South Africans gather at a pro-Israel rally organized by the South African Zionist Federation, Johannesburg, South Africa, August 3, 2014 (photo: Daily Maverick)

These past few weeks of intra-communal fighting could very well mark a tipping point in the struggle for dissent within the South African Jewish community. The numbers of those with a more critical outlook on Israel’s actions in the West Bank and Gaza are steadily increasing, despite remaining small in comparison to the mainstream community. A small space is being pried open where criticism of Israel by South African Jews is heard. This has forced traditionally conservative structures to attempt to slightly moderate their positions.

In the past few days both the head of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and the chief rabbi of South Africa, Warren Goldstein, have issued calls to respect differing opinions. These statements are new and unusual. Before the Broomberg incident there was no word from any formal structure on the right to a different opinion, the value of diverse views, or the need to maintain a civil discourse within the Jewish community. Instead, their unquestioning responses to the developments in Gaza bolstered contempt for those who dared to question their narrative.

The South African Jewish community is still saddled by an unimaginable deep sense of fear of internal difference. At its core sits the interaction of the challenge to a Zionist narrative that the community has spent years manufacturing and the unfounded belief that even the slightest demonstration of solidarity with Palestinian suffering could somehow motivate an anti-Semitic response from a South Africa that sees parallels between apartheid and the treatment of Palestinians at the hands of the Israelis. These fallacies have created a toxic climate resulting in vitriol being focused on those who dissent.

Whilst violence rages on in Israel and Palestine, South African Jewry is struggling for real leadership in the fight for a space within the community where alternative views can be heard.

Yoni Bass works for Equal Education, a social movement aimed at improving the quality of public education in South Africa. He tweets from @Yonibass.

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    1. bar

      “Team South Africa wearing Palestinian badges and Keffiyehs to show our opposition to the human rights violations carried out against the people of Palestine.”

      What human rights violations? The ones carried out by Hamas against its own people? If so, why the keffiyah?

      Reply to Comment
      • Ray

        I love it when reactionaries try to be funny.

        Reply to Comment
        • bar

          I’m a “reactionary?”

          Anyway, I was being completely serious. Would you like examples such as the 160 children killed digging tunnels for Hamas? Would you prefer to discuss the 600 rockets fired from within populated civilian areas by Hamas, each one consisting of two war crimes but also ensuring the civilians in the area of the firing are put at significant risk?

          Nothing funny here.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ray

            There are different shades of reactionary thinking and behavior. Hamas is one shade. From your callous, right-nationalist, occupation-loving comments on this website, you occupy a different shade, but are decidedly reactionary, from the soles of your feet to the top of your head. You aren’t a leftist any more than Guy Mollet or Tony Blair was, despite your claims.

            Reply to Comment
          • bar

            “There are different shades of reactionary thinking and behavior.”

            There are also different shades of idiotic commenting. You exemplify this.

            “Hamas is one shade.”

            Which you support.

            “From your callous, right-nationalist, occupation-loving comments on this website”

            Now you’re making stuff up. Remember, I’m one of the few people on this site who supports a two state solution. But since I’m curious, please provide examples of my “right-nationalist” comments and my “occupation-loving” comments.

            “you occupy a different shade, but are decidedly reactionary,”

            Yeah, the non-reactionary shade.

            “from the soles of your feet to the top of your head.”

            You meant to write, “from the soles of your manly feet to the top of your handsome head.” I forgive the oversight.

            “You aren’t a leftist any more than Guy Mollet or Tony Blair was,”

            My ears to head-size ratio, however, is vastly superior to Blair’s, though he was still able to charm Murdoch’s wife.

            You sure talk a lot and manage to say nothing.

            Reply to Comment
          • Pedro X

            Tony Blair was not a leftist? Is this because he stood up and opposed terrorism and tried to find a solution to the Arab Israeli conflict by improving the economic and social living conditions of the Palestinians and obtaining security for Israelis?

            Reply to Comment
    2. Steve

      Josh Broomberg and Saul Musker are remarkable young men, with the courage to speak out and defend their position with intelligence. Unfortunately, I have to take issue with one of Saul’s points – or at least recast it. Perhaps the intensity of right-wing fascism has grown, but this has been the character of the community (by and large) for decades. At the very first March of the Living from Auschwitz to Birkenau in 1988 (the height of apartheid) a group of South African Jews insisted on carrying the flag of the apartheid regime, despite multiple requests not do so. Rather than take the context into account, the group was enraged and told the organizing committe that they were ignorant of the truth of the situation.

      Reply to Comment
    3. The keffiyeh attracts a lot of irrational rage on the part of Palestine-phobic people who see it as a symbol of “terrorism” etc. The American neo-con shill Michelle Malkin is typical of this attitude. A few years back she went ballistic over a keffiyeh-like scarf worn by Rachael Ray in a Dunkin Donuts ad and appeared on Fox News warning of keffiyeh-inducing terror, fanaticism etc. Seriously unhinged stuff.

      The keffiyeh is a perfectly legitimate way to express solidarity with the people of Gaza. What isn’t kosher is the attempt by some Zionists to appropriate the keffiyeh as Israeli.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Jeff Blankfort

      After its years of supporting South African apartheid and suppressing criticism of that evil system within its ranks, one would think that South Africa’s Jewish community might have learned something, if not becoming more humane in its views of people outside of their community.

      I guess this the result of Nelson Mandela and ANC leaders having been too forgiving of the community’s collaboration with the apartheid regime while it and Israel were the closest of allies.

      Reply to Comment
      • bar

        Jews were at the forefront of the fight against apartheid in SA. You don’t have a clue.

        Richard Goldstone, for example, who served as a judge during the apartheid era was asked by Mandela to be SA’s representative to the UN to head the first UN war crimes tribunal.

        Reply to Comment