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Our right to be critical of government

  • Lindiwe (2)
The South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) this week came out strongly in defence of its right to express critical views of the country’s political leadership.
by NICOLA MILTZ | May 23, 2019

Last week, Zev Krengel, vice-president of the SAJBD, told the SA Jewish Report that International Relations and Cooperation Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, was the “single biggest enemy in government” to South African Jewry.

This stirred a political hornet’s nest, and was met with scathing attacks by those who galloped to defend the minister. Sisulu’s army of supporters, which included the African National Congress (ANC), South African Communist Party, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, and Boycott Divestment Sanctions South Africa (BDS-SA) rushed to her defence. So, too, did her full-time advisor, Zane Dangor, who wrote a blistering opinion piece in the Independent Online criticising Krengel and Israel.

Local media picked up on the story, with Daily Maverick pointing out that Sisulu’s coveted position at the department of international affairs and cooperation (Dirco) hung in the balance following her controversial handling of the downgrade of the South African embassy in Israel.

Sisulu has steadfastly maintained that her utterances on the downgrading of the SA embassy in Israel follow a resolution passed at the ANC’s 54th national conference in December 2017, where the controversial decision to downgrade was taken. She says she is merely acting on the resolution.

However, there have been inconsistencies – some have called them blatant contradictions – in what she has said publicly on the matter, and with President Cyril Ramaphosa’s repeated assurances that South Africa will continue to play a meaningful role in negotiations aimed at achieving a lasting peace agreement in the Middle East.

In April she announced that the downgrade was in progress, and suggested/implied that Israel would no longer have an ambassador in South Africa. In May, however, it was made clear that the cabinet had not yet approved the downgrade.

“In a genuinely democratic society, all citizens and organisations have an indisputable right to express their views, including views that might be strongly critical of the political leadership of the day,” the SAJBD said. “Accordingly, the SAJBD reaffirms the right of its elected leaders to criticise and where necessary condemn outright statements and actions of members of our government that we believe are problematic,” it said.

According to several insiders, Sisulu and most likely her advisors are too focused on the Israeli/Palestinian issue.

It has been a torrid time for local Jewry since the minister took office in February last year. During this short tenure, she recalled the South African Ambassador to Israel, Sisa Ngombane, following an outbreak of violence on the Gaza border, and she was instrumental behind the scenes when the ANC resolved at its policy conference to downgrade the SA embassy in Tel Aviv to a liaison office.

There was concern in the community when Sisulu took office after it emerged that she had met members of BDS-SA and other anti-Israel lobby groups on several occasions to discuss the matter.

One of the most telling stories about Sisulu was reported in the SA Jewish Report more than a year ago, shortly after her appointment as international-relations minister.

It emerged that Sisulu had undertaken shortly before Nasrec that she would help ensure that the “embassy of Israel packs up and goes to the Dead Sea”. She made these undertakings to a BDS-linked Muslim organisation called the Social Compact for Peace and Justice.

Sisulu was later invited by the same group to report back on the role she had played. A video of this gathering has been seen by the SA Jewish Report. In it, Sisulu addresses members of this organisation, along with the top leadership of BDS-SA and other members of the Muslim community, at the Jiswa Centre in Lenasia.

She discussed the dinner she had with Social Compact members before the conference took place at Nasrec.

“Two requests were made: first, there must be a downgrading of the embassy, and second, please make sure that tomorrow, the embassy of Israel packs up and goes to the Dead Sea. Am I correct?” she said to applause. “Fortunately, [the message] fell on very fertile soil.”

She said she thought it important “to come back and say thank you for making that very strong suggestion. It was taken up and today, you can say you were part of a very important decision that was taken by the ANC at the conference.

“Unfortunately, the embassy of Israel is not in the Dead Sea. It’s very much in Pretoria, and we still have to work very hard to make sure the final request that was made is carried through.”

There were several prominent speakers at the Lenasia event, including South Africa’s ambassador to Palestine, AY Suliman; the co-founder and director of BDS-SA, Muhammed Desai (currently embroiled in sexual-harassment allegations); and South Africa’s former ambassador to Libya, Syria and Saudi Arabia, Mohamed Dangor (the brother of Zane Dangor). Professor Farid Esack, the chairperson of BDS-SA, and members of the SA Council of Churches were also present.

Desai said at that gathering that when the embassy was downgraded, “we’re going to have a welcome party, comrade Sisulu, and we want you to be part of it”.

Darren Bergman, the Democratic Alliance’s (DA) shadow deputy minister of international relations and cooperation, told the SA Jewish Report that, “Lindiwe Sisulu has an obsession with Israel. She is playing to a gallery of lobbyists rather than consulting her own department that already has an appropriate international policy on the Middle East. She supports BDS, which has been outlawed in many countries as being anti-Semitic.”

Bergman said the topic of Palestine and Israel came up consistently. At a Dirco briefing to MPs held earlier this year in Pretoria, the Middle East was brought up by every director representing every branch of Dirco, with some mentions having absolutely no relation to the region whatsoever. “It’s as if the Middle East issue is a deflection of the real issues happening internally,” he said.

The SAJBD said in a statement this week that it had on many occasions explained how the proposed downgrade of the South African Embassy in Israel would not only be discriminatory and motivated by a clear political bias, it would do nothing for – and even be counterproductive to – peace building between Palestinians and Israelis.

It said it had appealed to the government to use its experience in peace building by using the South African model of resolving conflict through negotiation and dialogue.

The board said it remained committed to finding solutions to bring about a sustainable two-state solution in the Middle East.

“We will continue to hold dialogue with all political parties and the government of the day on all issues that affect us and contribute meaningfully to our democracy.”

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