Exploring the concerns of the south african jewish community
In this article, Charisse Zeifert shares her perspective on the advantages and disadvantages of the organised Jewish community engaging in debate with the BDS movement.
THERE are certain topics South African Jewish communal leaders will never debate. Holocaust Denial is an obvious example. But what about ‘Israel Denial’? Should Jewish communal organisations debate those who do not believe Israel has the right to exist? This is not a theoretical exercise. The South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) routinely engages in public debate with members of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement who argue that Israel is a racist, Apartheid and colonial state, and should not continue to exist as it has for the last 75 years.
There are different opinions present in the organised Jewish community on the merits of debating the BDS movement. On the one hand, there are those who would argue one should not engage in such debates. On the other hand, others see these debates as a necessary opportunity. When it comes to debating the BDS movement, communal organisations, such as the SAJBD and the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF), amongst others, are guided by their respective organisational mandates. As such, the SAJBD, as the “representative spokesbody and civil rights lobby of the South African Jewish community” , will engage in debates within the purview of its mandate.
Some communal organisations prefer not to engage in debate, and their reasons are compelling: by debating with the BDS movement, the argument is that you simply give them credence and legitimise their narrative on Israeli-Palestinian issue, as well as offer them a platform to spread their views. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the odds will always be against a pro-Israel lobbyist. It is hard to combat loaded terms such as “Apartheid”, and “colonial occupying force” with compact sound bites – sound bites being an important debating tactic. At best the moderator is neutral, at worst either unfamiliar with the conflict or biased against you. I recall a debate in which a pro-Palestinian lobbyist was asked to go first and explain the current situation. The presenter then turned to the pro-Israel representative, then SA Zionist Federation Chairman Avrom Krengel, and asked, “the conflict started in 1948 when Jews colonised Palestinian land. What is the solution?” In the five minutes allocated to him, Krengel had to decide whether to focus on “the solution” and discredit all the factual inaccuracies offered by the opposing debater, or, rather, use his five minutes to offer a deeper understanding of the conflict.
Further complicating the situation for pro-Israel lobbyists is that the BDS movement in South Africa strategically deploys the Apartheid analogy, and its attendant racial underpinnings, to frame the Israeli-Palestinian debate. They frequently reference Jews as ‘white’, and themselves as ‘black’ victims, or descendants of the victims of Apartheid. This is a deliberate tactical decision to garner emotional support and credibility for their argument. This was evidenced in another debate when a leader in the BDS movement said to SAJBD Director, Wendy Kahn, “You were on the wrong side of history during Apartheid, and are again on the wrong side of history with Palestine”.
Ad hominin attacks are also not uncommon.
"According to the Kaplan Centre’s 2017 study, A study of Attitudes towards Jews among Black South Africans, 72% of all respondents indicated that they had never heard of the conflict between Palestine and Israel. This suggests ... the majority of the audience are yet undecided on the issue."
Equally compelling, though, are the arguments for participating in such debates: Israel is a country like any other and should be open to legitimate criticism. If we have the facts on hand, there is no problem countering any untruths; we should defend what we believe in, and by not debating, we are giving the other side carte blanche to offer their narrative without even being given a chance to challenge it. While we may never win over those who deny Israel’s existence, ultimately they are not our target audience.
Often these debates can be ‘off-putting’ for the average viewer. In my capacity as head of communications for the SAJBD, I have personally seen participants on both sides of these debates lose their tempers, and lean into each other, threatening fisticuffs, while a bewildered hostess tries to maintain a semblance of order. From a communications perspective, these types of debates are likely to leave the majority of the audience disillusioned with or disengaged from either position offered. Watching one such debate, a non-Jewish friend of mine, who is not invested in either position, noted: “I wish I could have grabbed both their heads, knocked them together, and told them to behave.”
According to the Kaplan Centre’s 2017 study, A study of Attitudes towards Jews among Black South Africans, 72% of all respondents indicated that they had never heard of the conflict between Palestine and Israel. This suggests that when it comes to debates on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the majority of the audience are yet undecided on the issue. Ultimately, the aim of the debate should be to convince the broader audience of your ‘truth’. It is those who haven’t yet made up their minds as to the right or wrong of the conflict, to whom we should be appealing.
There are ‘the traditional rules of engagement’ that communal organisations such as the SAJBD follow to help ensure that we win the “undecided” vote. Our objective is to impart key messages to the audience in an unemotional and rational manner. We listen to the opposing side, wait our turn to talk and are respectful of all participants. That is, surely, how you win the hearts and minds of the people?
But what happens when you throw the debating rule book out the window, and use similar tactics to your debating opponent?
Yoseph Haddad and Klaas Magomola on Newzroom Afrika
This was the tactic recently employed by Arab-Israeli Yoseph Haddad, when he, together with Klaas Magomola (from Africa for Peace), was invited by Newzroom Afrika to debate the topic of the success of Israel-Apartheid Week (IAW). Haddad, an Israeli-Arab, joined the IDF at a time when few Arabs chose to do so. He fought in an elite unit of the IDF and served in Lebanon, where he was badly injured, nearly losing his foot. On full recovery, he started an NGO, Together – Vouch For Each Other; an organisation that aims to bring Arab society closer to Israeli society. Arguing in favour of IAW was Muhammed Desai and Dudu Masango-Mahlangu, a member of the SA Council of Churches and a board member of BDS.
The presenter directed her first question to Desai. Desai used his time to accuse Israel of withholding important information about COVID-19 from the Arab sector. Haddad immediately interjected, shouting that that was a lie. He promptly took out his phone, found the appropriate text notification and showed everyone. In that moment, he turned away from conventional debating methods and took hold of the narrative. He did not wait his turn to talk; he, unconventionally for standard debating protocol, interrupted the conversation, calling the BDS representative “a liar”.
Despite Haddad deviating from traditional debating practice, in so doing he exposed Desai on national TV. There was an element of truth in what Desai had said. The Israeli government had taken three days to send the COVID-19 text message in Arabic, an unacceptable delay. Had this been his point, Haddad would have undoubtedly agreed with him, and Desai would have scored an important point. Haddad further challenged Desai as to whether he would use a Covid-19 vaccination if it were discovered by Israel. Rather than answer the question, Desai used it as an opportunity to discuss science during the Apartheid era.
The reality is it didn’t matter what Desai said, after that. Haddad had exposed Desai’s distortion of the facts and as someone who deflects when faced with a seemingly straightforward question. Both of Haddad’s clips went viral. By the next morning, his social media-following had doubled. The Imam of Peace retweeted the clip urging his followers to watch it. Haddad had the backing of the Arab community who support Israel, and his clip was shown on one of Israel’s national TV stations as the good news story. Many Jews in the diaspora were also impressed, with Israelliycool blogging about the debate.
" I have always been of the opinion that to not participate in a debate is an opportunity wasted as it allows for only one narrative of the situation to be presented".
Back home, many South African Jews were divided. Some enjoyed every minute of the debate. Others were taken-aback by this apparent new way of debating. Arguably, Haddad’s aggression jarred with many audience members’ sensibilities. Was this an effective way of getting the message across? Was this the way to win an intellectual debate and appeal to the neutral observer? Irrespective, Haddad had a number of advantages. One, he is not South African and does not have to confine himself to the South African way of doing things. Two, as an Arab-Israeli he has authority to talk on conditions of his community; he is the real deal who cares about his community and country. Yet, he is part of the very same community that the BDS movement claims to represent. Haddad’s lived reality and BDS’s framing of that reality are very different. And then, maybe, just maybe, the only way to debate an organisation that denies the existence of your country is not through intellectual argument, but by unapologetically and vociferously challenging any untruths when they are made.
Confirmation of the effectiveness of Haddad’s strategy was BDS South Africa’s* attempt to claim victory. This they did in a press release issued over a week after the debate. BDS posted a select, and decontextualized, two-minute clip from the debate, and claimed that “[the] Israeli lobbyist [had been] ‘schooled’ and left embarrassed on Live TV”.
Israel is far from a perfect country and, like any other country, it should be held accountable for any wrong-doing. I have always been of the opinion that to not participate in a debate is an opportunity wasted as it allows for only one narrative of the situation to be presented. The job of the media is to offer the audience differing views, and allow them to “make up their own minds”. However, when the “playing field” isn’t equal, perhaps a less conventional debating approach is needed. Rather than providing detailed facts of the conflict, it might be more effective to expose any half-truths or untruths up-front and directly. But equally important, the messenger may be more significant than the message. Perhaps, it will take the younger generation -- unapologetic, articulate and not necessarily Jewish -- to take the debate forward.
*As of March 2020, BDS South Africa rebranded, and is now called Africa For Palestine (AFP).
Charisse Zeifert is head of communications at the SAJBD, where she interfaces between the mainstream media and the Jewish community. She holds an MA in Social Anthropology from Wits University, and another in Museology from the Reinwardt Academy in Amsterdam. She hosts a weekly show on the local Jewish community radio station, Chai FM.