Where is the compassion for Jewish people murdered and taken hostage?

Yocheved Lifshitz, an Israeli grandmother, 85, who was held hostage by Hamas in Gaza, speaks during a news conference held at Ichelov Hospital in Tel Aviv on Tuesday. Picture: Heidi Levine for The Washington Post.

Yocheved Lifshitz, an Israeli grandmother, 85, who was held hostage by Hamas in Gaza, speaks during a news conference held at Ichelov Hospital in Tel Aviv on Tuesday. Picture: Heidi Levine for The Washington Post.

Published Nov 4, 2023


By Wendy Kahn

We were sitting in synagogue on the October 7 on our holy Sabbath and the festival of Simchat Torah.

Suddenly the whispering started and congregants' eyes teared up as we started hearing of the unimaginable atrocities that were taking place in Israel. Hamas terrorists had parachuted into Israel and were systematically slaughtering civilians, killing 260 at a music festival and entering homes on the Kibbutzim in the South of Israel; murdering, torturing and burning families alive.

We heard with horror how 221 civilians were abducted and taken to Gaza as hostages, including a baby as young as 9 months, young children, women, numerous elderly people, a Holocaust survivor and a woman with Alzheimer’s Disease. As time went on, we learnt how women were brutally raped alongside corpses at the music festival, that a woman was paraded naked around the streets of Gaza and how Hamas members had entered a nursery in Kibbutz Aza and killed numerous babies.

We heard with horror how 221 civilians were abducted and taken to Gaza as hostages...

As we don’t watch television, listen to the radio or speak on phones on our Holy Days, I waited with bated breath for the holiday to end to hear my government’s statement on this horrific massacre.

I was hopeful that despite our government’s anti-Israel stances in the past, that they would show compassion for the Israeli civilians due to the heinous and brutal nature of these attacks and the enormity of this atrocity.

I could never have conceived that my government, with their self-professed adherence to human rights, would do anything other than condemn Hamas for perpetrating the murder of the highest number of Jews in one day since the Holocaust.

I was wrong.

In the days following October 7, neither our government nor the ANC condemned the attacks, and neither expressed sympathy for the victims. The initial ANC statement even implied that the attacks were justified. Even News24 understood it that way, before they were forced to change the headline.

In those initial days, SA Jewry was in a state of trauma. Most of us have friends and relatives in Israel, few of us do not know someone affected in some way by these atrocities; someone who died, was injured, or has been abducted.

For our community, this is not about politics, it is personal and we were grieving. SA Jewry was one of the only Jewish communities in the world where our government did not reach out to us in any way to offer support.

Most heads of state and governments have provided comfort to local Jewish communities, joining them at prayer services or communicating condolences in some way. Not the SA government. Our President chose rather to address our country clad in a Palestinian scarf on the sidelines of an ANC meeting, cementing the message that he, his party and his government had no sympathy for the Israeli civilians and were instead standing by Hamas who had perpetrated this mass killing.

The SAJBD has reiterated throughout this conflict that our deep sympathy goes out to all innocent lives lost, both in Israel and Gaza. In the days after the massacre, our government could not bring itself to express any empathy for the Israeli victims.

It was against this backdrop that President Ramaphosa offered on October 12 to “help mediate in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, drawing on its experience at conflict resolution”. How can you be a peace-broker when you have not even reached out to a country mourning the deaths of 1400 of its civilians and ignored that they have 221 civilian hostages being held by Hamas?

Despite our attempts to engage with our government, we were met with the standard rhetoric of “we stand with the Palestinians”. In an unprecedented move borne out of deep frustration with our government’s refusal to acknowledge the horror, we took out a one page advert in the Sunday Times to express our dismay and shock not only at their stance on the massacre but also our President’s refusal to acknowledge his own Jewish community’s pain.

Only then did President Ramaphosa condemn Hamas. Only then did a modicum of sympathy for the Israeli civilians get expressed, a full week after the massacre.

Hamas announced on its website that Minister of International Relations, Naledi Pandor, and its leader Ismael Haniyeh had spoken telephonically and that she had expressed her support. We find it hard to comprehend that Pandor decided to call and offer support to a terror organisation that had two weeks prior planned and systematically executed 1400 Israeli citizens in one day.

It was shattering to note that in her call she didn’t even think it worthy to call for the release of the 221 civilian hostages being held by Hamas. Also disconcerting is that the Minister chose to call Hamas, with whom SA does not even have bilateral relations according to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s spokesperson Vincent Magwenya, while not even taking a moment to call the State of Israel to express sympathies over their traumatic loss.

It speaks volumes that Minister Pandor reached out to Ismael Haniyeh but not to her counterpart Minster Eli Cohen or even the Israeli Embassy in Pretoria. South Africa still hasn’t even reached out to the families of the two South Africans who were among those murdered by Hamas on the October 7.

One was a South African grandmother going to visit her newborn grandson on a Kibbutz. How can our Department of International Relations justify not providing support to the families of its citizens killed in a foreign country?

It took Minister Pandor 18 days to at long last do what any humane person would have done on day one. In her speech at the United Nations Security Council on October 25, Minister Pandor for the very first time expressed sympathy for the Israeli victims alongside the victims in Gaza, and finally condemned Hamas atrocities against Israeli civilians on October 7. At long last she called for the release of the hostages.

At long last she called for the release of the hostages.

We have to question why it takes a Minister of International Relations 18 days to respond to a massacre and abduction of civilians.

Is it that she isn’t aware due to her dismantling of our embassy in Tel Aviv? Or more disturbingly, is it that she cannot bring herself to feel empathy or compassion for Jewish people who have been murdered, raped, beheaded, burned alive and taken hostage?

* Wendy Kahn is the National Director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.

** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of IOL or Independent Media.