Jewish declaration of conscience launched

Time of article published Dec 8, 2001

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By John Battersby and Jeremy Gordin

Against the backdrop of one of the most vigorous public debates ever held within the South African Jewish community about the role of Israel in the Middle East conflict, Ronnie Kasrils, the minister of water affairs and forestry, on Saturday launched the Jewish declaration of conscience, signed by some 220 South Africans of Jewish descent.

"We are all proud of our Jewish origins and feel compelled to speak out in the name of justice and as an act of conscience against Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territory and its cruel suppression of the Palestinians' struggle for self-determination," Kasrils said.

The declaration, which was launched at separate events in Cape Town and Johannesburg on Friday under the banner "Not in my name", places Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It also denounces the role of Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, in the current conflict and insists that Jewish survival and the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people are reconcilable goals.

"Measures to oppress the Palestinian struggle are an intolerable abuse of human rights, so we raise our voices as Jews and cry out, 'Not in my name'," said Kasrils.

The Johannesburg launch at Museum Africa was attended by the ambassadors of Palestine, Egypt and Libya, and Muslim leaders.

Salman el-Herfi, the Palestinian ambassador, and Dullah Omar, the South African minister of transport, joined Kasrils, provincial councillor Max Ozinsky and various Jewish signatories in making speeches.

The meeting opened with Christian, Jewish and Muslim prayers.

"It is the idea which is very important," said El-Herfi. "Every great idea starts with only a few people. I want to extend the congratulations of the Palestinian people for you raising your voice in solidarity with both the Palestinian and the Israeli people," he said, vowing to fight against the kind of "terrorism" that had led to the loss of Israeli lives in recent suicide bombings.

Omar said it was vital to understand that the central issue in the Middle East conflict was that of Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.

"The opposition is not because the occupying power is Jewish but because it denies Palestinians the right to self-determination," he said.

The signatories included some leading South African intellectuals, artists, politicians and professionals.

But the groundbreaking initiative was boycotted by the mainstream of the Jewish establishment.

Most of the criticism directed at Kasrils by the Jewish establishment has not been about the content of the declaration but at the fact that debate about Israel has been public.

Kasrils said the signatories were not ignoring the suffering of Israel and its sense of vulnerability.

"We unreservedly condemn terrorism in all its forms, be this the state terrorism of the Israeli government or the individual acts of suicide bombers or the killings carried out by Jewish settlers," he said.

Signatories included Nobel literature laureate Nadine Gordimer, veteran Rivonia trialists Arthur Goldreich and Denis Goldberg, retired anti-apartheid activists Max and Audrey Coleman, government officials Lael Bethlehem, Alan Hirsch, and Lisa Seftel, leading cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro (Zapiro), journalists Mark Gevisser, Alan Fine, Steven Friedman, Colin Legum, Joe Podbrey, Hugh Lewin, Nadia Levin and Anton Harber, leading professionals and academics, gender activist Ann Marie Wolpe, Joe Sherman, Robin Cohen, dean of the humanities faculty at Wits, Mark Orkin and Lorraine Chaskalson.

The list also included prominent ANC members such as Raymond Suttner and Sue Rabkin and MPs Ben Turok and John Jeffries.

But the initiative was condemned a week before its launch by the Jewish ecclesiastical court (Beth Din) and the chief rabbi, Cyril Harris. The rabbis "utterly repudiated" the statement of conscience.

Jewish community leaders called the declaration "biased" and selective but none took direct issue with its contents. Civil rights activist Helen Suzman has also made public her opposition to the document on the grounds that it does not take a balanced view of the Middle East conflict.

In recent weeks, the declaration has sparked unprecedented debate in the SA Jewish Report, a weekly community newspaper. Three weeks ago in an editorial, the editor of the publication, Geoff Sifrin, called for the Jewish community to engage in - rather than dismiss - the issues raised in the declaration.

Kasrils said a campaign would be rolled out to broaden the initiative by collecting more signatures. There are also plans to link the initiative to similar ones under way in Britain, the United States and Belgium, which have also received wide attention in the media of those countries.

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