Victory as Ehrenreich finally makes acceptable apology

  • Tony Ehrenreich
Tony Ehrenreich, the former Western Cape provincial secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) has finally apologised, six years after his Facebook post that attacked the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) and the South African Jewish community, calling for violent revenge for the war in Gaza at the time.
by TALI FEINBERG | Jul 30, 2020

“After noisily holding himself up as the champion of human rights, [Ehrenreich] has now had to go on record as having violated the democratic rights of the very organisation – and by extension the community it represents – he has so consistently insulted. For the SAJBD, this is both a political and a precedent-setting legal victory,” says SAJBD President Mary Kluk.

Ehrenreich’s original post in August 2014 called for revenge attacks against the SAJBD and other “Zionist supporters” in retaliation for the deaths of Palestinian civilians. He wrote, “It’s time for an eye for an eye against Zionist aggression. The time has come to say very clearly that if a woman or child is killed in Gaza, then the Jewish Board of Deputies, who are complicit, will feel the wrath of the people of SA [South Africa] with the age old biblical teaching of an eye for an eye.” He also accused the SAJBD of being “complicit in the murder of the people in Gaza”.

The SAJBD laid a complaint with the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), and after a protracted legal process, the commission found him guilty of prohibited hate speech, harassment, and of violating the Jewish community’s right to dignity and equality. It ordered him to apologise in writing in August 2018.

Exactly a year ago, Ehrenreich “apologised”, but the SAJBD didn’t accept it, saying it reinforced the original intent. However, this time, both the SAJBD and the SAHRC have accepted his apology, made on 23 July 2020.

Kluk says the Board is satisfied with this apology because it “amounts to a public admission of guilt. The fact that Ehrenreich fought so hard and for so long to avoid having to make it indeed testifies to the significance he himself attributed to it. The wording of the apology itself is an unambiguous, unequivocal admission of fault without back-door attempts to somehow justify the impugned statements by rehashing the usual anti-Israel invective.”

In apologising, Ehrenreich said, among other things: “After due consideration of the findings and recommendations of the SAHRC, that I have violated certain sections of PEPUDA [The Promotion of Equality and Prohibition of Unfair Discrimination Act], I have come to the conclusion that in the interest of promoting national unity and setting a good example, it would be appropriate to tender an apology for my statements on Facebook on 13 August 2014. Whilst it was never my intention to promote violence, I understand how my statement can be construed to promote violence in this context.

“I further apologise to the Jewish community and all South Africans for the rash statements that I made, in relation to an ‘eye for an eye’. I commit myself to a more thoughtful and considered approach to my statements and utterances in future. I, however, remain committed to fighting oppression. I will strive to do this in a responsible manner which promotes the values of freedom, equality, and dignity. I am committed to the values of the Constitution. I thank the SAHRC for the manner in which this matter was handled, and for pointing out the error in this statement. The opportunity for honest reflection, which allows one to learn from past conduct, has been immeasurable.”

Kluk emphasises that the apology “didn’t just happen. It was arrived at and eventually accepted only after considerable three-way engagement involving ourselves, the SAHRC, and Ehrenreich.

“For six years, Ehrenreich tried everything he could to portray himself as the voice of justified moral outrage, and avoid having to apologise publicly to people he had persistently accused of being complicit in the cold-blooded murder of innocent Palestinians. For a long time, he tried to ignore the SAHRC’s directive that he apologise, then he refused to apologise unless the Board did so as well. When he could no longer get away with this, he then tried to water down his apology,” Kluk says.

“In the end, the Board wouldn’t budge, insisting on an unequivocal apology that fully acknowledged fault without at the same time qualifying it by repeating his previous anti-Israel invective. Whether Ehrenreich was sincere or not in doing so is almost beside the point. What is the point is that he was ultimately compelled to publicly back down and concede that he had been guilty of propagating hate speech against those who contest his views on Israel,” she says.

Rael Kaimowitz, the chairperson of the Cape SA Jewish Board of Deputies, says, “The Cape Board welcomes the apology. It’s indeed a shame and shows a lack of respect for the democratic mechanisms of complaint in our country that it has taken so long for an appropriate apology to be issued. However, it highlights that a prolonged legal battle won’t deter the SAJBD from pursuing justice and fighting hate speech. There’s no place for hate in the Western Cape and in South Africa, and Mr Ehrenreich’s apology shows that he, too, ultimately had to admit this in a public forum. We call on all leaders and commentators to act responsibly, and to weigh up the consequences of their actions and speech.”

Milton Shain, emeritus professor of history at the University of Cape Town and an expert on antisemitism, says he was pleased when the SAHRC found Ehrenreich guilty. “ I’m also pleased he has finally apologised,” says Shain. “He’s not the only opponent of Zionism who has declared open season on all Jews when disagreeing with Israeli actions. Many others have done so before him. It seems to me that hostility to the Jewish state is so deep among many South Africans that one has to ask if anti-Zionism is simply a fig leaf for Jew-hatred.”

Kluk says that the SAJBD has fulfilled its mandate of protecting the Jewish community’s rights in this case. “The outcome amounts to an admission of guilt that sets an important precedent, namely that antipathy towards Israel in no way justifies threatening or inciting harm against Jews,” she says. “While this particular case, for reasons beyond our control, took six years to conclude, it will make it considerably easier for the SAHRC and other judicial bodies to adjudicate on any similar cases that might arise in future.

“It’s significant that even though Ehrenreich denied wrongdoing and refused to apologise for so long, from the time that the Board lodged its complaint, he made no further threats against the Jewish community and its representative leadership. Our experience has been that once formal complaints are lodged against antisemitic agitators, they back down so as not to give the Board further ammunition in its case, no matter how much they insist that what they said was justified.”

The SAJBD hopes this will send a message to others who may make similar remarks that, “If they cross the line from simply bashing Israel to inciting harm against Jews who support Israel, there’s an organisation that will take them on and force them to publicly retract, regardless of political connections, and no matter how long it takes,” says Kluk. “Under the circumstances, we believe that most people so inclined will conclude that it’s simply not worth the price or the trouble.

“The SAJBD has zero tolerance towards antisemitism”, says Kluk. “The fact that levels of antisemitism in South Africa are relatively low isn’t only due to the culture of anti-racism in the country, but also because of the SAJBD’s determination to fight antisemites until the end. People read about the Ehrenreich case six years ago, and forgot about it. We have been fighting it every day, every month, and every year since then, eventually ensuring that he was properly called to account for his actions.”

1 Comment

  1. 1 Ian Goddard 31 Jul
    Delighted that through diligence and determination, the SAJBD has succeeded extracting an apology from Tony Ehrenreich which is now on record in the public domain.

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