The Tutu Israel tango


Practically everyone I know has an opinion about Israel. If you’re a progressive Jew like me, chances are you’ve condemned your own family for holding religious ideas about the Jewish state. Zionists are not exactly the easiest of people.  Belief in the nation-state is highly problematic when combined with an ideology which places a particular religion at the centre of an individual nation’s affairs. However much one rails against statehood and the fallability of religion, (as an anarchist) this single issue remains one of the most difficult chestnuts of our time.

The trouble I have with the non-debate occurring in our communities, this time in a strange tango between those who wish to rebuke South Africa’s Nobel Peace laureate, Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu for his criticism of Israel (demanding that he vacate his position at the South African Holocaust Centre) and those who have rushed to defend him by invoking  the sanctity of the Holocaust,  is that both sides appear to be affected by insincerity in a dance in which neither side is able to actually debate the other, except via a pious moralising about the self-righteousness of either position.

It is one thing to criticise Israel (while calling for a cultural boycott) but it is another thing entirely to invoke canon law in a struggle over the “End Times”. I am afraid that Tutu’s recent gesticulations over the “presence of Christ” which he maintains alongside Archbishop Bustros, “abolishes any claim by the Jewish people to the promised land”  have opened the door to those with a real axe to grind over the Nobel laureate’s avowed support of the Palestinian cause.

Unless people feel free to debate the issues, then we will lose any hope of common ground and fall into the kind of self-censorship which characterised our own democratic struggle as a nation. It is all too easy to equate Zionism with Judaism in any form, including Progressive Judaism which appeals to the contemporary world and post-modern sensibilities by dispensing with dogma. In fact while there are many Progressives who number amongst Zionists, there are few Zionists who are truly progressive. In a country in which the dominant religion is ironically Zionist Christianity, and in which the Jewish community now number less than 1% of the total population it is easy to see where this debate is heading. Holding the Jews collectively responsible for the actions of the State of Israel is a form of Anti-Semitism.

South Africa is slowly but surely turning into a nation of frog-marching anti-Semites. You can see it in the way black activists enthusiastically adopt the views of one Robert Mugabe on the “Jewish problem”, who when he is not berating British capitalism for the economic woes of Zimbabwe, finds the time to declaim about the Holocaust. Recently I made the mistake of comparing the fate of one of my fellow black South Africans to the fate of Jews in Europe. Having just read an excellent book by former ANC politician Andrew Feinstein, I deployed some of his political rhetoric by saying: “Jews were once the blacks of Europe, now blacks are the Jews of Africa.”

Perhaps I was naive, but the response I received was no less illuminating: “Germans did what they had to in order to preserve their nationality, if you compare us to Jews you are hugely mistaken,” fulminated the young man who was angry at me for speaking out about the spate of farm murders which have racked our country and then daring to equate these atrocities with the “xenophobic pogroms of 2008”. One can only presume his views are really the tip of the iceberg.

Now I am not (Heaven forbid) attempting to justify the Zionist cause, or to  join the fringe elements in the Zionist camp who believe that the only way our collective safety and security as Jews can be assured is by supporting Israel and the right to self-determination of the Jewish people, along with a blank cheque to murder and mayhem. That would be too easy. Besides, it would mean retracing my own political journey back to the day in 1987 when I refused to join fellow Jewish students in supporting the notion of a “just war”.

In debating the Middle East question rather, we  need to be cognisant of the problem of drawing borders in the sand, often alongside a sand dune and forgetting some uncomfortable truths like the fact that 70% of the British Mandate of Palestine was given over to “Arabs” in order to create Jordan, while the remaining 30% was divided unequally between Jews and the new nation of “Palestine”. Who exactly are the Palestinians? Asking such questions is liable to get a fist in ones face in the new South Africa, as I indeed received on the day Yasser Arafat died, from a Jordanian-Palestinian immigrant, who now sees South Africa as the promised land.

Borders of the British Mandate of Palestine before Partition

I have often said that the Middle East does not fit into a map, and to think otherwise is to create an absurdity. Well, this is what we have become. South Africa is just such an absurdity, an unequal country in which seperate laws for Jews are in the process of being promulgated. I write this as a person who has been resoundingly rebuked by a justice of the labour court, for daring to hold views other than those officially decreed by the Rabbinate and the Beth Din.

My labour discrimination case which has been ongoing  for the past five years involves my right to not be subjected to racist and anti-Semitic discrimination in the workplace. The judge in the matter, who is now the subject of an impeachment proceeding because of his business relationship with the respondent, delivered a judgment which certainly overstepped the bounds of human decency. My latest court papers allege persecution of belief and I am in the invidious position of being forced to consider an application for political asylum in a country in which I am not compelled to become a Christian in order to be a Jew.

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One comment

  1. John

    Fascinating read. Your article does a fine job of highlighting the complexities of the “Israel question”.

    I am a South African and a Christian and a firm supporter of Israel, whether Zionist or Jewish, whatever. I believe that Archbishop Desmond Tutu has lost the plot. In my opinion and in the opinion of many others, most of whom are cleverer than me, Tutu has shown himself to be an anti-Semite. History will not judge him kindly in this matter. The fact that he is not the first prominent Christian in history to have done so, is a source of great discomfort to me and many others. As a Christian I am ashamed to be associated with him by virtue of our common belief in Jesus Christ, who I am certain would not condone his views today.

    This shameful behavior is symptomatic of the anti-Western and pro-Muslim bias now found in the corridors of power of the New South Africa. In this new world even such pariahs as Yasser Arafat, and more recently Muammar Gaddafi and others, are courted like long lost lovers. Much like having sex without a condom, these dangerous liaisons will have unintended and unwelcome consequences down the line.

    I wish you every success with your labour discrimination case. It is the duty of every South African to fight racism and discrimination, including antisemitism, wherever it may raise it’s ugly head.

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