Sunday’s address by Shimon Peres was undoubtedly one of the most uplifting communal events to have taken place in years, and I warmly congratulate the IUA-UCF for putting it all together. At least 1500 people packed into the Sandton Convention Centre to listen to this living legend amongst international statesmen, one who over the past four decades has been at the very centre of Israel’s efforts to achieve peace with its neighbours while at the same time maintaining its security. For us it was as much about showing solidarity with Israel and paying tribute to one of her greatest sons as about hearing what he had to say about current events. In addition to our own community, a wide array of religious and political leaders from across the spectrum were in attendance, including Christian friends of Israel who have supported us so loyally over the years in standing up for the Jewish state in good times and bad. There was also a substantial media presence, in which regard the SAJBD played a substantial role through advertising the event and setting up interviews.
If there was one key message that everyone can have taken away with them afterwards, it is that even in the most intractable of conflicts, we should never lose hope of achieving peace and must continually devote our efforts to achieving that goal. That message is a universal one, applying not just to Israel and its neighbours, but to everywhere in the world where there is division and conflict, our own country included. There are too many voices in our society seeking to drown out the voice of reason and moderation, people who see politics as a zero-sum, winner-take-all game in which anyone putting forward an alternative view is an enemy who must be silenced and side-lined. Sadly, one is seeing this manifesting particularly strongly on our university campuses, the very spaces where the give-and-take of free, fair debate must be taken as sacrosanct.
Shutting down debate, as we know, has emerged as a standard tactic by hard-line anti-Israel campaigners, both in this country and abroad. During the annual propaganda jamboree known as “Israel Apartheid Week”, it has become standard practice to disrupt Israel-related events, sometimes preventing them from going ahead altogether. We had a further taste of this in the lead-up to Mr Peres’ visit, with dire threats being made to have him arrested as a “war criminal”, as well as protest action being promised at the venue where he would be speaking. For this lobby, what Peres had to say was irrelevant – the very fact that he was speaking at all should not have been allowed.
Nothing, of course, came of any of this, beyond a rather bedraggled handful of protestors trying to make themselves heard and, for the most part, being ignored. Our country, for all its challenges, remains a democracy, and by and large, South Africans do not appreciate being told which views they are expected to endorse and which ones are off limits. I am extremely proud of all South Africans in the manner in which Shimon Peres was warmly welcomed and we as the Jewish community look forward to hosting him and other Israeli dignitaries in the near future.