S. African Jewish paper causes storm

The South African Jewish Report, published weekly in Johannesburg, is engaged in a heated public spat with the country’s Jewish minister of intelligence, Ronnie Kasrils, and the South African Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI), over the newspaper’s refusal to publish a letter by Kasrils that, the paper’s editor says, compares Israel’s actions in the Palestinian territories to those of the Nazis during WWII.

The Report last week refused to publish Kasrils’s reply to an article that questioned his stance on Israel.

SAJR editor Geoff Sifrin initially approved Kasrils’s request to reply to an article by Anthony Posner entitled “Some Pertinent Questions to Kasrils.”

Posner had concluded the article with the challenge: “So Mr Kasrils… now is your chance to engage in ‘civilized discussion.’ But perhaps this ‘kitchen’ is too hot for you? I am sure that the readers of the SAJR will be interested to see whether you have the ability to respond in a rational manner to all the points I have raised in this letter.”

Sifrin refused to print Kasrils’s reply, arguing in an editorial that it would not contribute to constructive debate and would offend the SAJR’s readers.

Kasrils told The Mail and Guardian newspaper he suspected Sifrin had been pressured not to publish his views.

Sifrin rejects that claim. In a telephone interview with The Jerusalem Post, Sifrin said he had initially agreed to publish Kasril’s letter but that “what he sent, in my estimation, was too offensive to publish. It referred to an analogy to Nazi action in the Warsaw ghetto and Nazi action after [SS leader Reinhard] Heydrich’s assassination after which the Nazis destroyed [the Czech village of] Lidice. He basically said the Israelis are doing the same, and that crossed a red line as far as we were concerned.”

Sifrin said he had “agonized” over whether to publish Kasril’s letter, and had consulted with the chair of the paper’s editorial committee. He rejected, however, Kasril’s claim that he had been pressured into not publishing the letter.

“It’s not true that I came under pressure by the [South African Jewish] Board of Deputies; nobody called me to threaten me. There is an ethos of a newspaper that one operates with, there was no order from anyone not to publish it. We don’t operate in a vacuum. We know our readership – some of which are Holocaust victims. The editorial committee head and I agreed we couldn’t publish the letter. Its effect would be unfair to our readers, and we could not give him a platform for this view, which basically crossed a red line,” Sifrin told the <>Post<>.

In an open letter to Sifrin, published by the <>South African Jewish Report<> on November 17, Kasrils accused the paper of “stifling his words” and said the editorial and Posner’s column had distorted what he had written.

“This is a shameful debasement of journalistic ethics, not to mention the questionable morality and crass intolerance that refuses to allow my right to reply to questions directly put to me in your columns,” wrote Kasrils.

“You reneged on an undertaking to publish my reply and yet have the temerity to claim that ‘the richness and creativity of Jewish life owes much to its acceptance of open debate, even if acrimonious.’

“Your utterances fly in the face of a cowardly action last personally experienced when anything I said or wrote was silenced by an apartheid government banning order in 1962,” Kasrils wrote.

He accused the newspaper of misleading readers into believing that he was calling for the annihilation of Israel and that he was a Holocaust denier.

“On the question of my invoking the Nazi parallel with Israel, you fail to acknowledge that I have consistently and pointedly referred to certain comparable measures being employed against the people of Palestine and Lebanon,” he said. “I am clearly referring to certain actions and not a total genocidal system such as the Holocaust,” Kasrils wrote.

“Mr. Editor, you and the cowardly cabal behind you can ban and vilify me, but as long as I have breath I will continue to protest against Israel’s fascist-style brutality and declare ‘Not in my name’ in the interest of the true values of Judaism and humanity and in support of justice and security for all Christians, Jews and Muslims in the Middle East and further afield.”

Kasrils said it was “absolutely dishonest” of the paper to publish Posner’s piece without his reply.

Despite his anti-Israel stance, it is thought that Kasrils has been providing protection from terrorist threats to South Africa’s Jewish community, several Jewish leaders, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter, told the Post.

“I can’t comment on that, because I don’t know, but it is certainly possible he uses his office to provide protection. Nobody is accusing him of being anti-Jewish. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was behind the scenes doing something like that,” Sifrin said.

Regarding the decision not to publish Kasril’s letter, Safrin said the minister’s words had the potential to promote anti-Jewish feelings in South Africa. “The general atmosphere here is pretty anti-Israel. Comments like these rub off on the Jewish community here. All the comparisons that are being made between apartheid and Israel are all over the place, and Kasrils is adding to this. But I wouldn’t accuse him of being anti-Jewish in any way,” Sifrin said.

“We are not excluding Kasrils from the paper, just his letter, which we couldn’t publish,” Sifrin said.

Kasrils, in an e-mail exchange with the Post, confirmed that he does use his office to protect South Africa’s 80,000-strong Jewish community, but would not go into specifics. Asked if he thought his comments could inflame anti-Jewish sentiment, he replied in the negative.

“No, not anti-Jewish sentiment. The black population in general and the Muslim population in particular congratulate me on demonstrating that not all Jews support Israel’s inhumane treatment of the Palestinian and Lebanese people. My actions help them to understand that there is a distinction between Judaism, on the one hand, and Zionism and the Israeli government on the other,” Kasrils told the Post.

“I oppose the brutal treatment of the Palestinian people by successive Israeli goverments, and like your first agriculture minister, Aharon Cizling, who in 1948 said to the cabinet, ‘Now we too have behaved like Nazis,’ I do compare methods such as the indiscriminate bombings of civilians, collective punishment and ethnic cleansing as measures utilized by the Nazis and other fascist regimes.

“I feel it is necessary to remind your government, your military, and Jews everywhere what is being done by a people who should have learnt the dreadful lessons of the Holocaust,” Kasrils said.

The South African Jewish Report is also going head-to-head with the South African Freedom of Expression Institute. In a statement released to the media this week condemning the SAJR’s decision not to publish Kasril’s letter, Jane Duncan, director of the institute, wrote, “The newspaper is engaging in contradictory behavior by publishing an opinion piece posing questions and then denying the person to whom the questions are being put the right to answer them. The SAJR had the right to editorial independence, but this was qualified by normal editorial ethics, which included ‘the sacrosanct principle of the right to reply.’”

Duncan further wrote, “Likening certain policing or military measures that the Israeli state uses to Nazi measures does not meet the objective test [of hate speech].”

What really bothered Sifrin, however, were the following words in Duncan’s press release: The Jewish Report “comes out of this incident looking like a mere extension of Zionism’s repressive project… We wonder what chance ordinary members of the Jewish community have to be heard if they voice dissent against the Israeli state’s policies of forced colonial occupation of Palestinian land.”

Sifrin said he was writing an editorial for the SAJR’s Thursday edition calling into question the institute’s claim to be an independent, objective watchdog of freedom of information in South Africa, in light of Duncan’s statement.

“This is supposed to be an impartial organization set up for the freedom of information. What is this doing in their media release: “Extension of Zionism’s repressive project, and Israeli state’s policies of forced colonial occupation of Palestinian land,” Sifrin asked. “The FXI was set up several years ago by respected and well-intentioned editors, and this has what became of the organization. This is the organization that is tearing us to pieces. And I have to ask what their agenda is.”

Sifrin said he was never contacted by the FXI for comment before the institute published its statement.

“The first I knew was when I read the media release on the Internet. Which again calls into question their credentials. How can they, as a respected watchdog, insert words like that? It shows their bias. They have the audacity to then tear us apart for our editorial policy. Those two phrases are damning, they state it as fact. An impartial organization would never write anything like that,” Sifrin said.

Duncan sent a lengthy response to the Post outlining why, in her words, “The FXI has a bias towards poor people resisting colonial occupation.”

“We recognize that freedom of expression is heavily mediated by power and politics. So in interpreting this mandate, we have taken a strategic decision to adopt a pro-poor bias, prioritizing marginalized communities who are resisting censorship, repression, colonial occupation, racism and sexism. This is because it is in these communities or sections of our populations where the bulk of freedom of expression problems generally lie. Struggling for freedom of expression in South African in the past meant taking a principled position against apartheid, because it was apartheid that gave rise to the censorship of the media, the banning of gatherings, etc. Similarly, we cannot take a pro-freedom of expression position without taking a position against any ideology or power structure that is used to justify the denial of rights (including the right to freedom of expression) of people.

“Zionism is one such ideology in that it denies various rights of Palestinians and Arabs in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory,” the FXI statement said.

“Needless to say, the definition of Zionism is contested, but one constant thread is the assertion that Jews constitute a nation, and therefore have a right to national self-determination on what was Palestinian land.

“The Israeli nation is therefore not constituted by all those who live in that particular geographic area, or who have historic claim to the land in spite of the fact that they may have been rendered stateless. Israel, not being a state of its citizens but a Jewish state, is thus an exclusive, not an inclusive, form of nationalism, and therein lies the problem. In Israel, this has translated into policies that have denied many people the right to coexist and enjoy equal rights on the basis that they fall outside the definition of who should constitute the nation.

“While I am alive to the complexity of the debate about equating Zionism with apartheid, both share the common characteristic of having constructed a system of inclusion and exclusion, rights and privileges, based on ethnic exclusivity, and institutionalized this system through the state.

“Both have involved the dispossession of land and the repression of indigenous peoples. The policies can be compared credibly, and to the extent that they can, they should also be condemned as inherently censorious. To support freedom of expression is to support a democratic solution to the national question in Israel/Palestine; it therefore means opposing the exclusive nationalist solutions that Zionism has represented. We see no contradiction between calling ourselves independent, and espousing this position. Perhaps others do, but that is their problem, not ours,” the statement concluded.
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