When the issue of a possible downgrade of the South African Embassy in Tel Aviv was first mooted, there was an understanding that research into the implications would be conducted. With this in mind, the SA Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) held a number of symposia. The findings were revealing.
There is no indication that the international relations commission at the ANC policy conference considered any of them.
The motives behind this discriminatory decision prevent South Africa from playing any mediatory role in bringing about peace or dialogue between Israel and Palestine. The downgrade will do nothing for the Palestinian people, and will have a detrimental effect on South Africans. To achieve this peace, the parties need to negotiate their own deal. South Africa, with its historic and strong relationship with the Palestinians, could have urged them and the Israelis to come together. By taking such a partisan position, it has lost its unique chance to play a role.
Another casualty of the downgrade is the economy. The South African-Israel trade relationship was one of few where we enjoyed a healthy surplus. Endangering the relationship flies against the very notions of seeking economic growth, employment and business opportunities. It would also violate the rights of many South African businesses which trade with Israel.
At a recent symposium, Fani Titi, chairperson of Investec, warned that, “given the space in which the country currently finds itself, losing any level of foreign trade would be a disaster”. South Africa is also cutting itself off from much that Israel has to offer in the form of hi-tech, agriculture, water conservation and management and medical innovation.
Another consequence is psychological in that South African Jews feel betrayed. Jews were part of this country since its inception (one of only two countries where this is the case) and are an integral part of its fabric.
Psychologist Leonard Carr, in a submission to the ANC prior to the elective conference, said attachment to a place is one of the most fundamental human needs. "There is a personification of nations as parental figures. We speak of a motherland, fatherland, implying a kinship and sense of family that we derived from being part of a nation. Jewish South Africans are proud to call South Africa home, and are deeply attached to our country.
"And, for the overwhelming majority of Jews, Israel is an integral part of our religious and cultural identity. It is the Jewish homeland, and is tied up with our very being."
Speaking at the same symposium, the chairperson of the CRL Rights Commission, Thoko Mkhwanazi Xaluva, noted that “were South Africa to downgrade its embassy in Israel it would unfairly impact on the ability of South Africans Jews to practise and identify with their religious and cultural heritage. As such, it would probably be unconstitutional”.
Israel is also important to Christians. Weeks prior to the ANC conference, Inkosi Bishop Phakama Shembe wrote a letter, calling for South Africa to take a firm role in supporting Israel. Prophet Paseka Motsoeneng urged other Christian leaders to join him in praying and campaigning against the destruction of Israel from other quarters.
He is to launch the #HandsOff IsraelSA campaign to show the world that "we don’t support any initiatives aimed at undermining our Christian heritage and campaigning for the destruction of the State of Israel”.
Carr cautioned that a downgrade would “run very deep in the psyche of the average Jewish South African”. We are learning now that this is the case not only for our community but for many fellow citizens who feel as bereft as we do.
Since the announcement, we have been contacted by those pledging their support to us, to ensure we are not alone. Their friendship crosses culture, religion, race and politics.
They, too, realise that the decision that was taken at the ANC international relations commission was made by a handful of people who have no concern for promoting South Africa’s interests.
What we need is to foster a spirit of national unity. South Africa should belong to all who live in it, and when the ANC takes a decision that favours the rights of people who live in another country over the rights of its own citizens it is acting contrary to its own interests of nation-building.
* Zeifert is the head of communications at the SA Jewish Board of Deputies.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.