Why Ramaphosa's address to the Jewish community is important

President Cyril Ramaphosa addressing a packed Gardens Synagogue in Cape Town on Wednesday night. (Jenna Etheridge, News24)
President Cyril Ramaphosa addressing a packed Gardens Synagogue in Cape Town on Wednesday night. (Jenna Etheridge, News24)

I had never met the guy who stood next to me in the synagogue, but I could tell that he was not local. His style was distinctively un-South African. He was young and cool, sported a tweed jacket, pale blue shirt, khaki chinos, horn-rimmed Armani spectacles and gave off a very Hugh Grant vibe. So much so that I pegged him as living in Notting Hill. 

I was wrong. He was from the Hendon suburb of London. Home to many Jews.

The service was long. I was bored. And so, we got talking. “What’s you feel about [the] leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn?” I asked. “Dangerous Anti-Semite!” he answered, without hesitation.

He is not alone in thinking this. A recent survey has indicated that 40% of UK Jews would seriously consider leaving if he were to become prime minister. Corbyn’s reluctance to adopt the international definition of anti-Semitism, his of past, his sympathy to Holocaust deniers and terrorists has been exposed in horrible detail in the media. But little real action has been taken by the Labour Party.

“UK Jews are nervous,” he concluded. “So are South African Jews,” I countered.

Recently, Julius Malema referred to Jews as being guilty of vigilante training, the anti-Israel bias – where Israel alone is singled out and held to a different standard, the rise in online Jew hatred is a worry for us.

He nodded sympathetically, but I could see he didn’t mean it. “It’s different,” he said. “In South Africa, racism is often borne out of ignorance about what a Jew is. I don’t believe that there is real Jew hatred. In the UK [it] is institutionalised and deeply embedded. That’s what makes it dangerous.”

I am no expert on the UK, but I believe that he is right with regards to South Africa. Following Malema’s comments about Jews, he acknowledged that he hadn’t meant to hurt the community. What followed was an EFF tweet wishing Jews a Happy New Year. 

The ANC too has been accused of alienating Jewish South Africans. In response to a request by Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein, President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the community on Wednesday evening from the Gardens Synagogue in Cape Town. 

“This is a time of renewal and new beginnings, of starting afresh – and after the political turmoil of the past few years, I think we could do with a new start,” says Goldstein. 

“I believe we are fortunate to have a president willing, and in fact eager, to engage with the South African Jewish community – to listen to our concerns. 

“President Ramaphosa has assured me on a number of occasions that an important part of his vision for South Africa is a vibrant, thriving Jewish community. This address is part of upholding that vision, and serves as a reminder that we are key stakeholders in the project of building this country.” 

For the Jewish community, the perceived hypocrisy of the ANC is of great concern: That the government continues to applaud and further its relationship with the genocidal government of Iran, where the human rights abuses against women, gays or anyone with an opposing voice is a major worry. That the ANC has continues to invite terror organisation Hamas to South Africa and continues to nurture that relationship, where Hamas in its own charter calls for the ethnic cleansing of Jews from Israel, is not a small worry. That the ANC continually votes alongside the world’s most notorious human rights abusers at the United Nations exacerbates the anxiety, and that the ANC seldom recognises the contribution of Jews to the anti-apartheid struggle, while focusing only on the fact that Israel and the Nationalist Party had a cosy relationship. It did. And it is not something to be proud of. But so did many Arab nations that quite literally fuelled apartheid. Something that the ANC conveniently forgets. 

Ramaphosa’s address to the community was a critical one. It is one thing to walk along the Sea Point Promenade and to provide selfie opportunities to the beautiful people of the region, but it is quite another to land a message that will convince a nervous and hyper vigilant community that they have a future in the country of their birth. Especially when the message that they have received is just the opposite. He did just that.

He noted the Jewish contribution to the anti-apartheid struggle and the value that Jews have added to every “crevice” of South African society. He addressed the ongoing tension in the Middle East but once again reinforced the role that South Africa could play. He committed to the concept of a two-state solution where a secure Israel lives alongside a Palestinian state. He acknowledged the pain of South Africa’s dark economic period and expressed gratitude to the community for the willingness to assist South Africa in job creation and business stimulus.

South African Jews are not homogenous. They vary greatly in terms of religious observance, political viewpoint, wealth and general opinion on anything. But the one thing that they generally will agree on is that, like their UK counterparts, they need to be aware of the environment in which they live. They need to decode the messages that they receive or face the consequences of not doing so. Jewish history has been a very cruel teacher. 

I applaud Ramaphosa for taking the first critical step to mend the relationship with the Jewish community. I applaud him for sending a message from within a synagogue to the Jews of his country. I applaud him for recognising that for Jews, the new year is a time for introspection and contemplation.

May he, and all South Africans be blessed with a “sweet new year”.

- Feldman is the author of Carry on Baggage and Tightrope and the afternoon drive show presenter on Chai FM.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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