Time to Leave South Africa?
by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen
Why is South Africa leading the outpouring of hatred towards Israel? Is the writing on the wall? Is it because of endemic anti-Semitism? Or is there something more to this than meets the eye?
In one way it is nothing new. You may recall the scandalous World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance that took place in Durban, South Africa in 2001. Initiated, funded, and promoted by the United Nations, it turned into an unabashed, orchestrated orgy of anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli hatred. There was no debate, no free exchange of ideas. Any attempt at an alternative viewpoint was howled down. As with most fanatics, abuse was the only tool of persuasion. An alliance of Muslim extremism and left-wing anti-colonial dogma sparked off the epidemic that has grown to infect many of the minds and institutions of the Western World today.
Durban II in 2009 took place in Geneva and despite assurances that it would not be allowed to turn into another example of racism itself, it was just that. And it only cemented South Africa’s association with hatred of Israel.
The Jewish community in South Africa was always divided between those who, out of self-interest, turned a blind eye to the Apartheid regime. As in the USA, both distinguished rabbis and lay leaders took up the cause of racism and black disenfranchisement. In South Africa among them was Louis Rabinowitz (1906-1984). He had been a Chaplain to the British Army in World War 2. In 1945 he became the head of the United Hebrew Congregation of Johannesburg, the de facto Chief Rabbi of South Africa, Head of the Johannesburg Beth Din, and professor of Hebrew at Witwatersrand University. He was an ardent supporter of Menachem Begin and publicly threw down his military decorations in protest of British policies in Palestine. And I might add, a close friend of my late father and a wonderful role model and mentor to me. He was a fearless powerful, brilliant orator, and constantly spoke out against the evils of apartheid. Eventually, he had to leave and move to Jerusalem.
My father had taken me to South Africa with him in 1955 on one of his lecture tours and while he was busy, I was taken around Johannesburg by some impressive ladies who were outspoken against the government and educated me in the evils of the apartheid regime.
Which is why I was always a member of the Anti-Apartheid movement in both Scotland and England. As in Britain the Jewish community who opposed apartheid was also divided between those who did what they could to ameliorate the suffering of the black community and those who ideologically joined the Marxist extremism that identified with the ANC. Men like the notorious Ronnie Kasrils, Marxist hater of Israel and then minister under the ANC.
In 1986, I was invited to South Africa by the then Chief Rabbi Casper to explore the possibilities of my succeeding him. Before I left, I was able to ask Benji Pogrund to put me in touch with the underground opposition to Apartheid. A South African-born journalist, he became the deputy editor of the Rand Daily Mail in Johannesburg, which was closed down because of its stand against apartheid and he had to flee to Britain.
Thanks to his contacts I was able to meet some of the most significant opponents of apartheid in the black community both from the ANC (African National Congress and COSATU (The Congress of South African Trades Union). They said it was pointless to come and as a major religious leader preach opposition to apartheid because I would simply be put on the next plane out. But they warned me against coming because at that stage they predicted there would be a bloodbath when the black community rose up against the regime.
But most disturbing of all they told me how antagonistic they were towards Israel because, although they had always voted against Apartheid in the UN, Israel had been sending military aid to the regimes and provided security experts and military aid. Regardless of whether it was official or rogue mercenaries, it was said that Hebrew was often heard in the jails of the opponents of the regime. And they sought revenge.
The dire predictions didn't work out as they predicted. Thanks to Nelson Mandela there was no blood bath and it appeared that the different races were going to be able to get on with each other through a process of reconciliation. Mandela had very good relations with the Jewish community. But at the same time, he made no secret of his support for Yasser Arafat.
And Bishop Tutu likewise, despite relations with the Jewish community, was an ardent supporter of the Palestinian cause.
Several corrupt presidents later, the ANC now is a byword for self-interest, corruption, and, alas, hatred toward Israel. Whereas the average indigenous South African is not anti-Semitic, the hatred comes from various groups. As elsewhere the Islamic Jihadi element is an influential minority in South African politics. Which of course manifests its hatred of Israel. The universities of South Africa are no different from those of the United States of America or Britain. The Palestinian narrative has now been accepted as the only one.
The leadership of the ANC was educated and supported by the Soviet Union. Many of them spent time in Moscow where they mixed with other rebels who were preaching violent opposition to the so-called Imperil, colonial oppressors. In the United Nations there always was an alliance of so-called non-aligned states who saw the Palestinian cause as a convenient tool to attack and undermine Western hegemony. And made use of anti-colonialism regardless of the extent to which they were often oppressors.
Anybody visiting South Africa will be aware of the banners greeting them at the airports supporting the Palestinian cause and calling for free Palestine. The current stance of the ANC is nothing new and the South African Jewish community has learned to live with it and largely ignore it. In fact, they have not been threatened in any significant way and the current chief rabbi of South Africa has been outspoken in his opposition to the present corrupt government even to the point of saying that he is no longer prepared to pray for the welfare of the South African government (though not of course its people).
I have heard it said that the reason why South Africa took the lead in bringing the case against Israel to the International Court. Rather than a Muslim or a Marxist country under the guise of genocide (when most of them have been guilty of greater genocide and South Africa itself has a disgusting record of mistreating people from other African states). The ANC has become so unpopular that it had run out of finance. It was not in a position to mount a serious campaign in the upcoming elections. Its empty coffers were all of a sudden filled with Iranian money on condition that they fronted the appeal to the international court.
Regardless, one may wonder what the future of the shrinking Jewish community of South Africa is. Is this a moment similar to the situation in Germany after Kristallnacht? The only comparison is the universal infection of the virus of anti-Semitism. Not yet the violence. The coming elections are going to be crucial. If a coalition can either replace the ANC or join it in government, they may well ameliorate the problem. But if extremists gain power, they will exacerbate the situation and it may then be time for the remnant to get out.
Let us hope that cooler, fairer, and more objective views will prevail.
Chodesh Tov Shabbat Shalom
Jeremy February 9 2024
Jeremy Rosen was born in Manchester, England, the eldest son of Rabbi Kopul Rosen and Bella Rosen. Rosen's thinking was strongly influenced by his father, who rejected fundamentalist and obscurantist approaches in favour of being open to the best the secular world has to offer while remaining committed to religious life. He was first educated at Carmel College, the school his father had founded based on this philosophical orientation. At his father's direction, Rosen also studied at Be'er Yaakov Yeshiva in Israel (1957–1958 and 1960). He then went on to Merkaz Harav Kook (1961), and Mir Yeshiva (1965–1968) in Jerusalem, where he received semicha from Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz in addition to Rabbi Dovid Povarsky of Ponevezh and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro of Yeshivat Be'er Ya'akov. In between Rosen attended Cambridge University (1962–1965), graduating with a degree in Moral Sciences.