22 April 2007

21 April 2007 - Beware of rulers

There is a line from Pirkei Avot (“Ethics of the Fathers”), a Jewish book of ethical maxims from the Mishna, which gives advice on dealing with politicians: “Beware of rulers, for they befriend someone only for their own benefit; they act friendly when it benefits them, but they do not stand by someone in his time of need.” (2:3) I have often wanted to remind South Africa’s Jewish leadership of this quote.

A controversy is brewing about whether, or why, the South African Jewish leadership has not protested vociferously against Ronnie Kasrils’s recent trip to Iran. Apparently even the local Jewish press ignored the story for the most part. The reason may be that the communal leadership wants to maintain relations with Kasrils: they resent his views on Israel, but feel they need his help with community security.

The safety of Jews is a constitutional right, not a special favor, but still the need is felt to tread softly. I should add that it seems that community leaders did actually criticize Kasrils’s trip when asked for comment by the Israeli press. Perhaps they criticized behind the scenes also: Kasrils seems to have felt the need to clarify his remarks on Iran, saying he did not endorse its nuclear program, as reported by Iranian news.

But in general, there is a reluctance to speak out too loudly. I feel that the community should maintain cordial and even close relations with the government, but also guard its independence and its pride. “Do not lust for the table of kings, for your table is greater than theirs, and your crown is greater than their crown, and your Employer is trustworthy to pay you remuneration for your deeds.” (6:5)

As a postscript, I should note that South Africa did eventually support sanctions against Iran in the UN Security Council. Peter Fabricius, who writes about foreign affairs for South Africa’s Independent newspaper group, theorized that South Africa could not afford the political cost of opposing sanctions while it was in the President’s chair; otherwise, he suggests, it would have voted against them.

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