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December 13, 2015 1:29 pm

South Africa: Dark Clouds of Diaspora Dreams

avatar by Steve Apfel

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South African President Jacob Zuma accepts a gift from Hamas leader Khaled Mashal. Photo: Twitter.

South African President Jacob Zuma accepts a gift from Hamas leader Khaled Mashal. Photo: Twitter.

If the Jews do one thing well, it’s to imprint their mark on new lands. And if that imprint describes one pattern, it would be some black punishment for their trouble. As dark night follows bright day, this has been the law of exile. Only to deceive, many domiciles appeared to be the land of God’s promise. It would be hard for third or fourth generation Jews in South Africa not to have that kind of feeling about the country their grandparents adopted, warts and all.

“We built this country with heart and soul.” This slogan from South Africa’s 2015 “Annual Jewish Achiever Awards” was not mere trumpet blowing; there are records to support the blare. From the early mining magnates until today, South African businesses and the sciences have been led by Jews. But our community, far from shaping today’s events, finds itself the target.

Perhaps South African Jews were too occupied making their mark to get their hands dirty with government because, unlike American Jewry, they never cared to mix politics with business. The Apartheid era did bring activists out in droves, but more as communist ideologues than as Jews. When majority rule came in 1994, the transition was better than many had been right to fear — for by that time Jews in large numbers had skipped to greener pastures. Only their timing was bad. They skipped too early, and lost out on a golden age. Under the first black President, Nelson Mandela, a Jew could enjoy the old privileged life, now with a clear conscience.

The chief rabbi was the late Cyril Harris, a bonny Scotsman and Mandela’s bosom buddy. The Rabbi stood on the inauguration podium next to his president, and the world saw and heard his ringing words from Isaiah. Here was the moment when communal pride and the sense of belonging peaked. But under the law of exile, there would soon be a price to pay.

In fearing the worst, the émigrés may have been prescient. A decade later, a threatening cloud gathers over the Jewish community in South Africa. Jews fret that a heavyweight business clout can’t seem to buy any lobbying power. Muslim interests on the other hand are all over the government, like a rash. Jews perforce have had to fall back on the path of least resistance. Two feeble dictums have been the Jewish Board’s rule of thumb: 1) Do and say nothing that might close government doors on dialogue, and 2) Avoid offending the nation by offending its favorite son, Archbishop Tutu. It was soon made obvious that both sacred cows felt free to treat the Jewish community with disdain.

In quick succession, the ruling party hosted and feted a terrible trio: Leila Khalid the old matriarch of terror; Mahmoud Abbas, grand kleptomaniac, inciter, and diplomatic thorn in Israel’s body; but most horrendous of all, the political head of the terror group Hamas.

If the ruling party must be appeased, the nation’s icon, Desmond Tutu, must be worshiped. Without lifting a finger, the wily cleric can tie the Jewish community in knots. Tutu wins contests by grinning, while the Jews tear into one another over him. In 2011, a brave (or foolhardy) handful campaigned to get Tutu removed as Trustee of the Holocaust Centre, a quirky honor to bestow on a man given to naked anti-Jewish remarks. After a hue and cry, the petitioners ducked from sight, and their trial balloon popped before it could be truly floated. By standing off and grinning, Tutu has won every tussle with the community — and there have been many.

Further conflict in the Jewish community arose over another issue. There is nothing a liberal Jew likes more than to posture. Josh Broomberg, head of the debating team at King David school in Johannesburg, donned the Palestinian scarf at an inter-school debate. The image went viral. The community, tightly knit after a 12,000 strong pro-Israel rally, grappled with a national scandal. The boy apologized. The apology, like the keffiyeh, was a trademark posture, borrowing the wild claims and self-contradictions of Jews who are ashamed of Israel. Rather than tear the boy’s statement to pieces, parts of the community tore the boy, his family, and the school to pieces.

Israel-haters were quick to capitalize. Five hundred Jews found it in their capricious conscience to sign a letter in support of the boy. The ruling ANC party, which votes at the UN with Iran and other beacons of freedom, lionized the hero Jew of the day: “…We applaud the principled stance on the injustice of the Israeli aggression against the defenseless people of Palestine.” What could education heads do or say that would not inflame the big Jew-bash, other than issue a textbook statement.

Today it is difficult for a Jew not to feel the weight of living in South Africa. The problem is partly that President Jacob Zuma and his cronies act like Ali Baba and his 40 thieves. And economic and social indicators are heading to hell in a basket. But one development weighs above all: that old bogeyman has come back to haunt a Diaspora community. Baiting and banging away at the Jew among nations is a proven device for diverting anger or catching votes. Zuma — a clinger to power — is savvy: he knows to monitor the angry pulse of the electorate.

Meanwhile, his party members are under a travel ban. Those who want to go to Israel to see and judge for themselves, go at the cost of their party card. It’s a penalty not to be taken lightly; ANC members can live off the fat of the land without doing an honest day’s work. So comrades keep blinkers on, while knocking away at Zionists and that “illegal Apartheid state, Israel.”

Brazen BDS tactics are another poke in the community abdomen. If life for Jews on campus is not dangerous, it’s not comfortable either. Jewish events have been rudely disrupted by vandals. Physical attacks are bad enough. Token assaults on rules and values that Jews hold dear, have an equal power to shock. When activists contrived to snuck a pig’s head onto a kosher counter at a supermarket, the image cut deep to Jewish nerve roots. Though the culprits mistook the Halaal counter for the kosher one, the comedy was not so funny at a time of multi-pronged assaults on the normality of Jewish life. To make life still hotter, BDS has formed a triumvirate with the media. The development was inevitable after the premier newspaper group in the land was bought by a Muslim affiliated with the ruling party.

Melodrama upon melodrama: Jewish life on the tip of Africa taking on the flavors of a Bollywood production. If you look for a silver lining in the dark cloud, it peeks out tenderly and intermittently, as if not to give the Jews in exile, not even at the bottom of Africa, false hope.

Steve Apfel is Director of the School of Management Accounting in Johannesburg. He also directs The Writing Artists’ Room, offering creative ideas and content to corporate clients. His first book, Hadrian’s Echo: the whys and wherefores of Israel’s critics, was received with critical acclaim. His latest book, Enemies of Zion, is due out in 2016. His articles appear in several international journals.

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  • howard Joffe

    I applaud Steve Apfel for writing as he does. I openly and proudly supported David Hersch in his campaign to have Tutu removed (as our representative) on the grounds that if you represent us as Jews, you must support us. Tutu is a known anti-Semite and those who asked him to represent us as our Trustee are at fault. No credit to them.
    Foolish or brave, ours was the right action to take.
    We made front page news in the local press informing readers that Jews no longer enjoy being humiliated.

    Alan Dershovitz applauded Hersch and myself.

  • Leonard

    I’d say Steve is over melodramatic.

    2 observations:

    The pigs head put into Woolworths, does not have a kosher section or a halaal section. African students set up by BDS.

    When a certain minister said 2nd passports would not be allowed, on the grounds that Jewish boys were fighting in Israel for Tsahal, there was a storm. Never before has the government turned around so fast. Within the same week. So never so fast…I would venture that some SA Jewish muscle was applied and succeeded.

    This is unusual here except for this current week when Zuma tried to please his alleged ‘girlfriend’s’ plan to buy airbusses through a middle company answering to her. This lead to Nene the finance minister who said ‘no’ to her being fired, replaced by a Zuma flunky, leading to a 10% fall in the Rand, and then re-replaced within four days by a credible finance minister.

    So I’m not saying this President and cronies are not a f*!k up, but when they hit close to home this pathetic administration, genuflects.

  • Bruno

    How many of the most successful South Africans, Jews and others have taken their skills to foreigh lands. One can Google the lists of S.Africans who hold top positions in the U.S.A.

  • Monty Pogoda

    I fear for the Jews of South Africa and think that the Israeli government should make plans to bring them here to Israel.

  • danny kid

    South Africa is a dysfunctional mess and when the Jews leave, as they surely will, SA will be a complete basket case. Gezundheit.

  • Jules Feldman

    I left South Africa for Israel in 1971. I have no feeling that I missed a golden age. If anything my contemporaries who stayed on missed a golden lifetime elsewhere!

  • Benjamin Weiss

    Jewish peoples are coming under more and more pressure in foreign lands with many emigrating to Israel to find relief and a new life. Is this the coming of the Jewish Messianic age????

  • Yoel Nitzarim

    This well-written blog speaks volumes of the sad state of affairs for Jews living in South Africa. Since arriving in Israel two years ago, I have met a few South Africans. Their stories coincide in theme and thesis with the thrust of Steve Apfel’s prescription: the price to pay for living in the South African Diaspora for Jews can be dismaying, feelings of alienation, downright exploitation or some combination of the three. There seems to be a steady trickle of South African Jews leaving to country in the hopes of finding a more accepting venue and home in Israel. My personal experience with each and every one of those who came here has been very positive. I have found them empathic, kind-hearted, and decent in both mien and manner. Their stories need to be shared with the international Jewish community, for they present an intelligent, caring, resourceful history in a land which has been rather contrary to the majority of its inhabitants.

  • steven L

    South Africa is not so different from France. One main difference the color of the majority.
    Jews should take their belonging and get out before everything is stolen from them. Too bad. The country is great the majority of people is great but the corruption of the politicians and church is overwhelming.

    • I’ve never read so much bollocks in my life! Get a grip

  • Eric R.

    The radical Blacks of South Africa, like those acting up in Baltimore, Ferguson and in the BLM movement everywhere, are creating living hells-on-earth for their own people, all in the name of saving them.

    Jews and non-Jewish whites will be able to leave South Africa, or for that matter, Baltimore, or St. Louis, to safe pastures.

    Those who are poor and black will not be able to leave, and will live with the murderous consequences of supporting these hate-filled, racist, Jew-hating, Marxo-fascist thugs. Murder rates in Baltimore and St. Louis are way up, and I would venture a guess that they are in South Africa as well.

    This is whom they supported. Let them live with the consequences.