African Jews ready to shout out
CAPE TOWN, June 23 (JTA) — The African Jewish Congress is looking to assert itself in a new pan-African group loosely modeled after the European Union.
The congress hopes it can influence the way the African Union, slated to be inaugurated in July, views Israel.
The congress’ member nations “will be speaking to their governments to see whether there is some role that the African Jewish Congress can play in the African Union, both in respect of its Jewish communities and in respect of a more fair-handed approach toward the Middle East position and promoting Israel’s side of the story, which often seems to be neglected,” said Mervyn Smith, chairman of the congress.
Delegates to the congress’ annual conference, held this year in Swaziland — Africa’s last traditional kingdom — reached a consensus on the issue earlier this month.
The congress, an affiliate of the World Jewish Congress, is the representative body of the small and far-flung Jewish communities of sub-Saharan Africa. The African Jewish Congress is committed to ensuring their future by linking them to each other and monitoring and combating anti-Semitism.
“We are the spiritual and Jewish link that these communities have, a kind of back-up system,” said Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, spiritual leader for the congress.
Addressing the conference, Israel’s ambassador to South Africa, Tova Herzl, said a primary cause of concern was the dichotomy between Israel’s relationship with individual sub-Saharan countries and what happens in multilateral forums.
“We have good relations with countries in Africa on a bilateral basis, but as a group, they condemn Israel strongly,” she noted.
She expressed the hope that one of the changes brought about by the African Union would be an end to “knee-jerk and very one-sided resolutions.”
Israeli ambassadors in African countries have made approaches to government ministries to alleviate the situation, she said.
“We would like to have a relationship with Africa; there probably isn’t any other country in the world that has the kind of experience which is so easily applicable here,” Herzl said. “We would like to be engaged directly through Jewish community projects like Tikkun,” a social service project of the South African Jewish community, “as well as indirectly through the United Nations and its agencies.”
Marlene Bethlehem, president of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, said the South African government have been under “huge” pressure from Muslim countries to break off ties with Israel.
But “President Thabo Mbeki has said categorically that this will not be done,” she assured the delegates.
Commenting on the “harsh language” on the Middle East in a joint communique issued after Mbeki’s visit to Libya this week, Bethlehem said one had to understand the historical ties between the African National Congress and the PLO.
“That is the reality, like it or not,” Bethlehem said. “They were helped during their years in exile by these people.”
South Africa has not experienced the levels of anti-Semitism seen in Europe because of the government’s tacit support for the Palestinian Authority, she said, adding that the government recently has become more even-handed.
Silberhaft gave the meeting a report on the various communities making up the African Jewish Congress.
In Mauritius, the Muslim president recently attended Israeli Independence Day celebrations, joking that he must be the only Muslim in the world to do so, Silberhaft said.
In Kenya, President Daniel arap Moi demonstrates his high regard for Israel by providing six of his personal security guards to secure synagogue grounds, and assists similarly at the Israeli Embassy, Silberhaft said.
In Zambia, a rabbi, a priest and an imam joined for an interfaith consecration of a cemetery, he added.