Zionism Pushing Jews, Muslims Further Apart
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Zionism Pushing Jews, Muslims Further Apart

In post-apartheid South Africa, Jewish community under siege politically if not physically.

Cape Town — A few blocks from the craggy Atlantic shore, where early-morning joggers and strollers share a curving promenade, the minyan regulars head to Shacharit services in the synagogues and yeshivot of the Sea Point neighborhood, the heart of the city’s Jewish community.

Cape Town Jewry is small, only 14,000-16,000 by most estimates, but it supports three kosher restaurants, another three kosher delis at local supermarkets, and a full array of Jewish schools and cultural institutions. Like the rest of South Africa’s Jews, they are the descendants of Lithuanian immigrants.

A mile inland to the southeast, on the other side of a hilly park, it’s also time for morning worship services at the dozen mosques in the mountainside Bo-Kaap neighborhood. Cape Town, where the first European settlers in what is now the Republic of South Africa made their homes, is now the home of the country’s largest Muslim community — estimates of its size range from 350,000 to 900,000 — that has outgrown its slave-hood past to become a key part of what everyone calls the “new South Africa.”

In Bo-Kaap along Signal Hill, an area of narrow winding roads, cobble-stone streets and brightly colored pastel houses, and in heavily Islamic suburbs, it is common to see girls wearing the hijab, stores closed for mid-day prayers, signs advertising halal food and “Free Palestine” posters on automobile antennas.

These days, the mile between Sea Point and Bo-Kaap might as well be measured in light years.

Though Cape Town’s Jewish and Muslim residents inhabit different neighborhoods and social circles, and though many of the city’s influential Jews boast of peacefully employing and working with Muslims for decades, Middle East politics threatens to increasingly divide Jew from Muslim in post-apartheid South Africa.

“It would be an error to believe that Muslim-Jewish cordiality characterized the past,” scholars Milton Shain and Margo Bastos wrote in a recent academic paper on the country’s Islamic population. “It was rather the geography of apartheid, coupled with state repression and the rather insular and non-challenging character of the conservative Muslim elite that gave — for Jews at least — a false sense of harmony.”

Sixteen years after apartheid fell and the majority black population received full voting rights, everything is different here. Emboldened both by black equality in South Africa and growing Muslim strength abroad, the country’s Muslim population has become more assertive politically and theologically.

And, as happens elsewhere, one prominent Islamic target is Israel. Another is its supporters here.

Recent months saw boycotts of Israeli products, visits by propagandizing Palestinian delegations, and hostile op-ed pieces in newspapers.

And then there was the conference-bags boycott.

The latest example of local Muslims’ opposition to the Israeli cause was the order placed by the South African Zionist Federation for 249 disposable bags to be distributed at its biennial national gathering next March. The day after the SAZF placed the $1,200 order, it received a faxed invoice from Saley’s Travel Goods, a Muslim-owned firm, canceling the order.

“Order canceled by management! Sorry, we can not supply you with any of our goods as we don’t want or need your blood money!” a hand-written message on the invoice stated. “We don’t want to aid and abet organizations that are responsible for crimes against humanity. Please don’t pay! Don’t contaminate our account with your blood money.”

“It’s symbolic of the anger that many Muslims have towards Israel,” says Mervyn Smith, president of the African National Congress and former president of South Africa’s Jewish Board of Deputies, the community’s central umbrella organization. “This is the most pro-Palestinian country in the world, outside of Palestine.”

Numbering an estimated million-plus, South Africa’s Muslim community is steadily growing in size and influence, assuming a symbolic role inside and outside the country. Descriptions of Israel as an “apartheid state” are on the rise, and when people from South Africa make them, others listen.

“We must not underestimate the severity of that accusation,” says Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein.

For South African Jewry — whose population is down to about 70,000, from a high of 120,000 in the 1970s — it means a constant battle to lobby for Israel, though South African Jews say they are under no physical threat.

Several foreign Jewish publications, including the Jerusalem Post and the London Jewish Chronicle, recently covered the conference bags controversy, interpreting it as another sign of impending trouble for the Jewish community.

The South African government, led by the ruling African National Congress party since the first one-man/one-vote elections were held in 1994, usually takes a pro-Palestinian position, influenced in part by the PLO’s longtime support for black equality and the memory of Israel’s support for the Apartheid government. This fall, there were calls for the University of Johannesburg to break ties with Ben-Gurion University, and for the Cape Town Opera to postpone its visit to Tel Aviv.

“Due to the ANC’s close ties to the PLO, the post-apartheid government has favored the country’s large Muslim community and distanced itself from the Jews,” columnist Caroline Glick wrote in the Jerusalem Post earlier this month after her first visit to South Africa. Noting a still-high crime rate, she painted a gloomy picture of South Africa’s Jewish future — a prediction that community leaders dispute.

“Jewish life in South Africa will only get worse,” Glick wrote. “It can only be hoped that the Jews of South Africa will make their way to Israel before the ANC fails them even more spectacularly than it already has.”

Avrom Krengel, SAZF chairman, said the Saley’s incident, while causing “outrage” in the Jewish community, was an “isolated example” of open prejudice expressed by South African Muslims. Many Muslim leaders condemned the firm’s behavior, he said. “It shows the way the vast majority of South Africans of whatever race or religion or political affiliation feel about it. They are quite appalled.”

The government, adds Jeff Katz, chairman of the Johannesburg region of the Board of Deputies, “is absolutely not anti-Semitic in any way — period.”

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The Jews and Muslims of South Africa, divided by events in the Middle East, share 350 years of common history.

According to South African tradition, the first Muslims arrived here about three and a half centuries ago. Slaves from parts of Dutch-controlled southeast Asia, they were, starting in the 1650s, bought to the Western Cape by the Dutch East India Company for work or political exile or imprisonment.

The modern Jewish history of the region began about the same time. A representative of the Dutch East India Company noted that “a number of non-professing Jews,” businessmen and traders, “were among the first settlers of Cape Town in 1652.” Emigres came from Lithuania and its neighboring lands in the 19th century, and from Europe after the Holocaust.

Both communities subsequently grew in size and influence, but the relationship typically was employer-employee or landlord-tenant; Jews were classified under apartheid nomenclature as white, while Muslims were considered black.

Overall, South Africa’s Jews were better off than its Muslims.

Today, with government-sanctioned racial/ethnic discrimination ended and discredited, the country’s Jewish and Muslim communities maintain a relationship that both describe as basically civil but increasingly tense.

“Historically, relations between Jews and Muslims locally have always been, if not ‘warm,’ ‘amicable,’” an article in the South African Jewish Report stated last year.

In recent years, political tension has increased. Here’s what took place in the last year alone: Durban dockworkers’ refusal to unload goods from an Israel-originated Zim ship; a boycott against a Cape Town store that sells Israel’s Ahava cosmetics; a “Breaking the Siege” visit this month by a Hamas-connected delegation from Gaza; death threats against a prominent Jewish editorial cartoonist — and against a newspaper editor — who depicted the prophet Mohammed; the ruling by South Africa’s version of the FCC that a broadcaster who stated Jews “could not be trusted” did not violate hate speech laws; a petition to boycott “Jewish-owned” businesses and institutions; and Anti-Israel comments on radio talk shows and in letters-to-the-editor columns.

“Islam is the fastest growing religion of conversion in the country,” Omaruddin don Mattera, a prominent South African convert to Islam told the Christian Science Monitor almost a decade ago. For blacks, say observers, Islam is a refuge from wanton sex and AIDS, alcoholism and domestic abuse, government corruption and the legacy of the dominant Dutch Reformed Church, which provided a theological justification for apartheid.

But while most South Africans, especially blacks, are sympathetic to Palestinians, that sympathy rarely spills over into overt anti-Semitism, leaders of South African Jewry say. They point to statistics that show fewer reported per-capita instances of anti-Semitism here each year than in any Western land.

In contemporary South Africa, says Smith, there is “zero tolerance for racism.”

This isn’t Paris, where Jews fear to wear a kipa or Magen David in public, South African Jews stress.

In a community with a major Orthodox and baal teshuvah presence, “Jews here wear yarmulkes all over. Jews feel totally comfortable,” says Rabbi Goldstein, who adds that “South Africa is not immune” from a “global Islamic threat.”

Jewish political intimidation and physical safety also is the case on campus, where Jewish students are outnumbered 15 percent by Muslims, says Benji Shulman, national media officer of the South African Union of Jewish Students. “You can be as Jewish as you want, but God help you if you’re a Zionist.”

Muslims are heavily represented at the highest levels of government, the media and academia, and, observers say, loose border control policies have allowed South Africa to become a center for recruitment and training of Islamic radicals. The media frequently carries reports of Islamic paramilitary camps in the country, and fund-raising for Islamist causes.

With a major Muslim population, “It’s easy to blend in here,” says Philip Krawitz, chairman of the Board of Deputies’ Cape Town region. “Increasingly, South Africa has become one of the bases of operation for the global [Islamic] terrorist network,” says Hussein Solomon, a Muslim professor of political science at the University of Pretoria and an expert on South African’s Islamic community.

But, experts say, few South African Muslims are interested in a radical brand of the religion.

“Local Muslims don’t want Islamists,” Zev Krengel says. “They don’t want Islamic terrorists to have a foothold in South Africa. They realize it will be counterproductive for them as an Islamic community.”

“The Muslims here are a lot more relaxed [than] Arab Muslims,” says A. Rashied Omar, imam of the Claremont Main Road Mosque in the Cape Town area. The imam, who earned a master’s degree in peace studies from Notre Dame University, has been a frequent participant in interfaith activities with the Jewish community, earning the support of “ordinary” Muslims and criticism from conservative leaders, he says.

Muslims with radical leanings are unlikely to strike here, says Solomon, an expert in conflict resolution. They don’t want to draw attention, he says. “They don’t want to rock the boat. They don’t want any attacks in South Africa. South Africa is too useful for them [as a safe base] to strike targets here.”

This doesn’t mean that many South African Muslims don’t have the same philosophy as Islamists, Solomon says.

They’re not more moderate here?

“That’s crap.”

Do Jews and other usual targets of Islamic radicals have reason to fear if there is a change in the political situation — if, for example, the Middle East heats up?

“Absolutely,” Solomon says. “There are people who have problems precisely because we are a pluralistic society.”

Last year a group of Muslims staged an illegal march, to protest Israel’s military action in Gaza, outside the central headquarters of the Jewish community in Johannesburg. While a few hundred Muslims massed in the street, under the watch of police, about 600 members of the Jewish community came together inside the gated building as a show of solidarity.

Such examples of public Jewish activism are rare in South Africa, which is less accustomed then the United States to dueling rallies, Zev Krengel says.

It was the latest sign of increased Jewish recognition of the need to address the country’s Muslim influence, he says. “It showed that we’re not scared. We have to stand up.”

Next week: Jews helping rebuild South African society; E-mail: steve@jewishweek.org

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