17 May 2007

17 May 2007 - Why appeasement doesn't work

South Africa is busy extending an official invitation to Hamas to visit the country, and it has emerged that Western Cape Premier Ebrahim Rasool has already met with Hamas officials to discuss the visit. Rasool is often described as a “moderate”—and certainly he gets his share of flak from Islamist radicals—but he is prepared to mouth the extremist line when he finds it politically expedient to do so.

The leaders of South Africa’s Jewish community, represented by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, have been touting Rasool as a beacon of tolerance. They even sponsored his visit to the United States a year ago to address the American Jewish Committee. The argument in favor of this cozy relationship has been that it will help influence Rasool in some positive way. The evidence suggests otherwise.

I wrote about the Board’s relationship with Rasool in my thesis last year:

On 21 March 2004, a rally of 1000 mostly Muslim protestors was held at the Watsonia sports ground in Athlone, Cape Town to protest against Israel’s “targeted killing” of Yassin. One of the featured speakers was Ebrahim Rasool, at that time the finance minister for the Western Cape and the provincial leader of the ANC in the province. Rasool’s speech was surprisingly militant. He described Yassin as “one of the greatest inspirations” to Muslims and quoted with approval Yassin’s teaching that “whoever dies, without having fought in the way of Allah or even having desire to fight in the way of Allah, dies on a twing of hypocrisy”. He also prayed that Palestinians “stand up to these enemies and never succumb, that they fight and they fight under a flag of Islam”, and he called on his audience to “face the enemies—they are all over the world”. [1]

Nothing in Rasool’s speech was explicitly antisemitic. Several of the speakers that followed Rasool, however, made remarks that were clearly and explicitly antisemitic. One Muslim cleric, for example, claimed that Jews had “murdered and killed most of the prophets of God”. Citing the
Protocols of the Elders of Zion, he claimed that Jews had established “cinemas, bioscopes around the world to corrupt the gentiles”. Another speaker referred to Israel as “the filthy Jewish nation” and instructed his audience: “Do not go into any agreements with Jews, they are a filthy people”. [2]

The Board did not respond immediately. Instead it raised the matter in a private meeting with Rasool. It had done the same during the controversy surrounding the “A vote for the DA is a vote for Israel” posters [which were linked to Rasool’s brother], as well as after the inflammatory April 2002 rally at Athlone stadium, where Rasool had shared the stage with Kasrils. In this instance, as in previous cases, the Board accepted Rasool’s assurances and took no public action. Most media outlets had failed to report the event in any case, save for the Islamic community radio station that had broadcast the proceedings.

In the wake of the incident, the Board continued to cultivate a close relationship with Rasool. He was invited to give an address at the Cape Council’s centenary celebrations in August 2004 in his new capacity as Premier of the Western Cape. No opposition politicians were present or invited. On that occasion, Rasool gave a speech advocating religious tolerance. “All of us”, he argued, “have to resolve to defeat and isolate fundamentalism as the worst expression of the uncertain among us as they strive to oppose us with violent methods and actions”. [3] No mention was made of the intolerant rally that Rasool had participated in exactly five months earlier.

In September 2004, an article by the author of this thesis appeared in the
South African Jewish Report taking the Board to task for its decision not to criticise Rasool in public: “It is entirely appropriate that the Board should seek to cultivate a close relationship with Rasool, not just because he governs the Western Cape but also because of his prominence within the Muslim community. Yet the price of that relationship should not be that the community forfeits its right to speak out openly against antisemitism or in favour of Zionism, which most South African Jews hold dear.” The article also referred to the behaviour of the Board during the apartheid era, and opined that “one cannot help but wonder whether the Board is playing the same game of former years, awed by the ANC’s apparently unassailable political strength and fearful of being listed among its domestic opponents. If so, then the Board is squandering the very freedom that the advent of a democratic South Africa has provided it, and to all South Africans”. [4]

The Board responded in an article of its own, signed by Bagraim, that ran on the same page. Bagraim did not attempt to defend Rasool, but argued that “the SAJBD is not a political party or body” and that “confrontation” was not always the best response to the government’s behaviour. “Had the Board chosen…to publicly confront Rasool regarding his participation at an anti-Semitic rally,” wrote Bagraim, “we might have scored a few short-term publicity points, but it would have been at the long-term expense of the good working relationship we need to be building with him.” [5]

I think it is clear what the end result of this “good working relationship” has been. Rasool has now lent his name and his office to the effort to welcome one of the world’s most notorious terrorist organizations to South Africa. He probably hopes to boost his own flagging political profile—he is essentially a lame duck, serving at the whim of a rival faction in his party—but appeasement won’t work for him, either.

Standing up for what you believe can be extremely difficult, especially in emerging democracies such as South Africa, where free speech in theory is not yet entirely free speech in practice. However, it is time for the Jewish community—and other communities and interest groups—to start learning to put their mouths and their votes where their hearts and their minds are. Appeasement simply doesn’t work.

[1] Rasool, Ebrahim. Speech at Watsonia Sports Ground, Athlone, Cape Town (21 Mar 2004). Voice of the Cape Radio broadcast. Unpublished transcript.
[2] Abrahams, Ebrahim. Speech at Watsonia Sports Ground, Athlone, Cape Town (21 Mar 2004). Voice of the Cape Radio broadcast. Unpublished transcript.
[3] Rasool, Ebrahim. Quoted in Bagraim, Michael. “Above Board: United in fighting fundamentalism.” South African Jewish Report (27 Aug 2004): 2.
[4] Pollak, Joel. “Confronting contradictions”. South African Jewish Report (3 Sep 2004): 10.
[5] Bagraim, Michael. “SAJBD’s difficult tightrope”. South African Jewish Report (3 Sep 2004): 10.


At 11:33 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

This is the blogger's father here, Rabbi David Hoffman, 17 years the rabbi at the Cape Town Progressive Jewish Congregation. If the SAJBOD is reading this Blog, I want you to know that I completely endorse Joel's analysis. We talk a lot about "denial" when it comes to the Shoah, but fail to realize how even those of us who strive to bear witness to the Shoah cannot help but let a measure of denial into our modus operandi.
In South Africa, where we have created an amazing Holocaust memorial and Jewry has earned tremendous respect among so many of SA's peoples, it is simply unconscionable to let any ostensibly liberal and sympathetic individual like Ebrahim Rasool get away with any association with antisemitic libel and thuggery. The secretive practices of the historic political culture will not serve us Jews who have a distinct advantage in rhetorical presentation of our case and the guts to confront the opposition. The tradition to rely upon is not the historic accomaditionist one of the Board, but the activist one of so many Jewish groupings that came to the fore in opposing apartheid.
If Rasool and the ANC are insisting on bringing out HAMAS it is incumbent upon SA Jewry to out every association of Comrades with Nazistic sentiment just as was done after the Durban Racism Conference.
This is not about the impact of the ANC on Middle Eastern events, but upon the future well being of SA Jewry and helping SA overcome racism and antisemitism.

At 5:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great point Rabbi. But I don’t see SA Jewry or its leadership doing anything of the sort. While anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism maybe topical shabbas table conversations, the community is extremely apathetic when it comes to taking action.

I think we should at the very least be bombarding the presidents office with letters explaining why Hamas should not be allowed to come here. But nothing… I would like to see a picket at the airport with banners ‘no racists welcome in the new South Africa ‘etc etc. But I will bet you the all the aid received by the Palestinians since 1948 that this will not be allowed by the powers that be.

In my opinion press statements, no matter how well worded, are not enough


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