Arriving in South Africa for a lecture tour – the second in a year – I popped on the TV to watch President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation address. The address was comprehensive and delivered in a dry monotone, but not so boring as to omit the necessary dig against Israel that came, completely out of context and out of the blue, near the conclusion of the speech. “We stand with the people of Palestine as they strive to turn a new leaf in their struggle for their right to self-determination… The expansion of Israeli settlements into Palestinian territories is a serious stumbling block to the resolution of the conflict.”
I love South Africa and the South African people. They are among the friendliest and most forgiving on earth, which is why the growing animosity toward Israel is unfortunate coming from a country that has rightly earned the admiration of the world as a superlative laboratory of racial harmony. Many black South Africans draw parallels between their past struggle for freedom and the Palestinian’s war against Israel. In the mainstream South African media, Israel is depicted as a colonialist, apartheid state. Some of the worst offenders are Jewish journalists whose curious vitriol against the Jewish state long ago crossed a line. A stunning case in point is Jonathan Shapiro, aka Zapiro, the cartoonist for the Cape Times. Among his most memorable caricatures is one of Ariel Sharon as a Nazi SS commander standing on top of dead Palestinians in Jenin.
South African Jews traditionally are fierce Zionists but their voice is becoming increasingly muted. Faced as they are with a post-apartheid landscape that has changed dramatically in its posture toward Israel, they do not wish to be too out of the step with government and national sentiments.
I addressed this dilemma before hundreds of worshippers this past Friday night at South Africa’s largest congregation, the Sea Point Synagogue in Cape Town, under the able leadership of Rabbi Dovid Wineberg. Moses is an Egyptian prince who is also a Hebrew. The two identities co-exist without conflict until the day he witnesses an Egyptian taskmaster brutalizing a Jew. The Bible reads, “And Moses looked this way and that way and that there was no man. He then smote the Egyptian and buried his body in the sand.” Moses looked internally at his Egyptian identity and his Jewish identity. Feeling suddenly torn between them, he realized that so long as he could not choose between then he was not a man. A boy vacillates without conviction. A man affirms an identity based on inner belief. He rises above inward conflict and affirms unified purpose. Moses chose to stand with his people and do what was just. He resisted Egyptian oppression even if it made him deeply unpopular.
South Africa is a Jew’s home, just as America is my home. But there is only one Jewish homeland and we Jews must be involved in its protection and defense wherever we may live. But this involves finding the words that highlight the justice of Israel’s cause.
South African critics of Israel point to the close relationship that Israeli governments once had with the apartheid regime as proof that Israel puts expediency before morality.
To be sure, apartheid is one of the greatest moral abominations of modern times and directly contravenes the greatest of all Biblical teachings, that every human being is created equally in the image of Gd. Racism is not only disgusting. It is profoundly heretical, denying as it does a common heavenly father to the human family.
And yet, history is replete with examples of moral nations that have had unseemly relationships with immoral ones to overcome an existential threat. The clearest modern example is how the United States and Britain allied themselves with the second greatest murderer in all human history, Joseph Stalin and his rancid Soviet Union, in order to defeat the Nazis. Israel’s cooperation in certain areas with apartheid South Africa came at a time when the Arabs and the Soviet Union successfully ostracized the Jewish state by imposing a global boycott. Israel was fighting for its life against enemies surrounding it that were, and remain, sworn to its destruction.
No doubt this explains why the moral heroes of the ANC, like Nelson Mandela, arguably the single greatest human alive, allied themselves with repulsive killers like Yasser Arafat, feeling as they did that they too were utterly isolated and alone and would take whatever allies they could get.
This is not to excuse the prior relationships of either party. It is my sincere hope that Israel always be a light unto the nations and, Lord knows, a nation fighting for its very survival can make its mistakes. But it does explain why both parties may have been guilty of choosing unsavory allies.
For those South Africans who draw parallels between white colonialist oppression suffered by black Africans at the hands of white settlers and the Israeli-Arab conflict, there is indeed a direct parallel although we must be careful not to confuse the corresponding parties. Like black South Africans, Sephardic Jews who lived under Arab governments were treated as second-hand citizens that were denied basic human rights. In most countries where they dwelled, they were required to pay the jizyah, the Koran-obligated poll tax. My father often told me how humiliating it was to grow up in Iran and have Islamic shop keepers refuse to take money directly from his hand because, as a Jew, he was impure. Likewise, Ashkenazi Jews, like their black South African counterparts, were for centuries placed into ghettos and forced to live apart.
Hence, the Jews decided to leave the lands where they were foreign and return to their indigenous, ancestral homeland. In this respect, they could not have been more different to the white settlers who stemmed from Holland and England and colonized the southern tip of Africa. Jews originated from the Holy Land and had an uninterrupted presence there for more than three millennia. But we were displaced by a white European colonial power in the form of Rome who dispersed us throughout their empire in order to steal our land. But we never forgot the home of our fathers and prayed daily for our return. When many of our exiled number finally returned after millennia of powerlessness, the land was desolate from Ottoman mismanagement. The Jews did the laborious work of draining the swamps and making the desert bloom, thereby improving the lot of hundreds of thousands of Arabs who came in increasing number to a land whose standard of living had been significantly enhanced.
Far from being a white, colonial settlement, the establishment of the State of Israel is analogous to American blacks who had been forcibly removed from Africa returning to create the country of Liberia. The Jews too were forcibly removed from the Land of Israel by the Babylonians and then the Romans to be slaves and vassals. But they thirsted for freedom and therefore returned in great throngs, joining a smaller number of their people who had always remained in the Holy land. Together, they rebuilt their ruined country.
The obscene comparison of Israel with apartheid South Africa also ignores the fact that Israel is the first country in the history of the world to airlift tens of thousands of black men, women, and children to become free and full citizens in its borders, as Israel did with Ethiopian Jews.
Indeed, the comparison of the Palestinians, rather than the Jews, to black South Africans, is unfortunate and misdirected. Whereas Black South Africans inspired the world with their decency and humane capacity for peaceful coexistence with their white brethren even after having been so grievously wronged, our Palestinians brothers have tragically embraced hatred, terror, and racism. Arabs newspapers are filled with grotesque caricatures of ethnic characteristics of Jews. Innocent Palestinian youth are brainwashed by the likes of Hamas and Hezbollah to grow up and blow up Israeli buses. Nelson Mandela rose to become the foremost statesman of the world by preaching forgiveness and reconciliation. Yasser Arafat fathered international terrorism and then stole hundreds of millions of dollars from his own people who continue to live in abject poverty despite being the largest per capita recipients of international aid in the world.
The Jewish state is a tiny little sliver of land that is only the size of South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Still our Arab brothers, who surround Israel with 22 large states of their own, have a problem with Jews having that tiny morsel.
The Jewish community of South Africa must learn that if they’re not vocal and don’t defend Israel gallantly and publicly with the facts at their disposal, their de facto spokespeople will be journalists like Zapiro who malign Israel and trivialize the holocaust.
Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” has just published his newest best-seller, “The Fed-up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.