Picture: Flag of Israel courtesy kudumomo/Flickr.
For every two Jewish people, there are three opinions. Contained in this quip is a proud Talmudic tradition that values and encourages debate and enquiry. Despite particularly contentious issues, such as the tensions between Orthodox and Progressive Judaism seeing eruptions of intolerance, the space for debate and enquiry are still vibrant. Yet this tradition is being suffocated by a prevailing Jewish community mentalité, given vitality and validity by community structures, of unquestioned support for Israel. Rather, when it comes to Israel, if there must be criticism, it needs to be moderated and fall within narrow bounds of sanctioned acceptability. Debate becomes, at best, a carefully controlled script of acceptable critique.
As outspoken Jews critical of Israel’s policies soon discover, when it comes to Israel and Zionism, for every two (or two hundred) Jewish people, there must be one opinion.
After a panel discussion given during last week’s Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW), Doron Isaacs, Deputy Secretary General of Equal Education, found himself the target of one of Cape Town’s most prominent rabbis. For daring to go against the normative communal position, and for Isaacs’ criticism of Israel’s policies against the Palestinian people and his call for a just and equitable solution for both Jewish Israelis and Palestinians, Rabbi Dovid Wineberg, in a community newsletter, accused Isaacs of being a “Jewish anti-semite”.
In December last year a prominent member of the South African Jewish community, Dr Ivor Blumenthal, the former station manager of Chai FM and current director of an online community website MyShtetl, wrote of Jews critical of Israel:
If we cannot have death squads because our Human Rights legislation forbids death squads, if we cannot stone these people to death because as South Africans we have sensitive stomachs, then we have to find other ways of closing them down...They are traitors and must be painted on as such... so that the next “humanitarian” will think four times before taking the same steps to attack the Jewish people, our values and our beliefs.
In response to Blumenthal’s incitement, and after considerable pressure was exerted on them, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), the organisation tasked with “protect[ing] the civil liberties of South African Jews”, finally came out with the following statement:
[The SAJBD] respect[s] the rights of individuals to express their opinions on matters, no matter how robust. However it is unacceptable for members of our community to threaten others, based on the beliefs that they hold. To this end, the comments made by Ivor Blumenthal are highly distasteful, potentially dangerous and divisive and contrary to the freedom of association that is enshrined in our constitution and embraced by the South African Jewish community.
Although a laudable statement and an important step, what became manifest in getting the SAJBD to defend the “civil liberties” of outspoken Jews, unless the repercussions, here the SAJBD seen as illiberal, of not protecting the rights of “dissenting” Jews outweighed condemning such behaviour, the SAJBD would have remained silent.
Considering the SAJBD’s refusal to take a stance against the apartheid government and its effective collusion with the apartheid regime, this current position is perhaps unsurprising: whiteness that privileged (and privileges) ‘whites’ in South Africa is qualitatively similar to Jewishness that privileges Jews in Israel. Power and privilege are not easily relinquished, and even harder to do so when they are considered the norm, which whiteness and Zionism are. In fact, in a similar manner to today, Jewish South Africans involved in the anti-apartheid movement were ostracised and marginalised by the community.
The relationship between the SAJBD and the apartheid government, however, cannot be read ahistorically. Tied into this position was a minority group whose historical experience of oppression and persecution was raw and fresh; most Jewish South Africans came to South Africa to escape some form or persecution – even extermination - in Europe. It was unlikely the organisation tasked with the protection of South African Jews would easily compromise their position even if it meant compromising on ethics and morality that would necessitate the speaking out against the oppression of ‘black’ South Africans.
Further, the economic and class status that whiteness conferred to the Jewish community cemented the organised community’s position. A potential consequence of this might be an organisational body shaped by an ideological mindset that continues to inform how it engages with community members who do not tow the line. With whiteness and Zionism fundamentally enmeshed in the psyche, it is unsurprising that Jews who speak out against Israeli policies premised on Jewish privilege are targeted.
However, despite Israel’s actions carried out on behalf of all Jews around the world, when Jews speak out, you don’t simply have to defend your argument. Rather, “dissenting” Jewish voices are forced to defend our very Jewishness. These attempts to instil fear, shame and delegitimise are deeply painful. Yet worse, in this the danger is that the attacks against Africans in Tel Aviv, the siege of Gaza, the occupation of the West Bank and its daily brutalities and humiliations are snuffed out of the debate. And in the attempts to stifle the debate, our collective tradition, and morality, as Jews, corrodes.