Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Broomberg Affair

It's about time to christen the debacle of the clash between the kaffiya-clad vice head-boy and the over-the-top Joburg Jews with a name.  Let's call it the "Broomberg Affair".  The Broomberg Affair contains all the elements of an exciting communal drama:  juvenile not-very-well-thought-through acts of defiance, followed by white-hot emotional tirades, followed by smug and indignant ripostes, numerous on-line articles and blog posts by our local taking-heads and mavens offering their invaluable perspectives and the close of the affair leaving nobody entirely satisfied with its outcome.   

For those not aware of the in's and outs of the Broomberg the facts in a nutshell are as follows.  The deputy head-boy of KDVP,  Josh Broomberg donned the symbol of Palestinian resistance to Israel, the kaffiya, and posed with fellow debating- team members for a Facebook picture.   This went viral and led to a tsunami of Facebook posts, tweets, and letters from the local Jewish community decrying sometimes in vitriolic terms the actions of Broomberg and calling for his head.  Broomberg and Co defended themselves with equal passion and even the local mainstream media took notice of this spat, inevitably siding with the kaffiya-clad youngster. That is the current state-of play in the Broomberg Affair.  We await to see what steps if any KDVP will take to assuage the offended feelings of the community and the reputation of the school itself. 

It's probably a good idea round about now to lend some perspective to the Broomberg Affair.   It should go without saying, but doesn’t, that this little drama should not distract those of us concerned about Israel and it's people from the real and infinitely more significant drama which gave rise to this and which continues to play itself out in the south of Israel, in Jerusalem,  in Gaza and in Cairo.  In our righteous fury we occasionally tend to lose sight of the fact that this little drama is just that, a relatively minor issue and certainly not a matter of life-and-death.  When all is said and done the tweets and blog-posts will abate, Broomberg may or may not be disciplined and the Jews of Joburg will resume life as it was before the Broomberg Affair.  So let's keep some perspective here and not overcook something to far beyond the point of diminishing returns for all the parties involved.

That said, there are some consequential issues which arise from the Broomberg Affair which cannot be left unaddressed. The first is that of a deep and fundamental misunderstanding by those who rise up (now that it suits them) to claim the mantle of "Jews" and to argue and defend with vigor the actions of Broomberg and Co.  In actual fact this misunderstanding was initially made by two of the protagonists themselves, Joshua Broomberg and one of those who appear with him in the photograph, Mr Saul Musker.  They make the case in their respective articles that they have a moral obligation to stand up for human rights and against their violation by Israel and it's army, and it can be no other way.  For this they are lauded as moral heroes by the "progressive" "right-minded" Jews and their comrades-in-arms for taking such a courageous moral stand on such a vital issue of the day.  And of course the flip side of this is that those Jews who thunder against Broomberg and Co are said to be morally reprehensible "fascists" (to quote Musker in his Daily Maverick piece) who display a bloodlust for Palestinian deaths and impliedly revel in the deaths of innocent children.  

Admittedly the nature of the bitter debate on Israel and the Palestinians does not as a rule lend itself to a rational and reflective mind-set allowing for honest considerations.  But it nonetheless behoves those defending Broomberg and Co to expend at least some energy to understand why the Jewish community takes such umbrage at these actions.  Whilst it is surely true that some of these responses have been irrational vitriolic outbursts, there have been some very thoughtful and articulate responses by Jews both in South Africa and in Israel who are deeply offended by Broomberg's actions. To characterise all these responses as "fascist" and "right-wing" is to display no less a degree of anti-intellectual dishonesty.   

In the mind of most South African Jews there is currently a very real life-and-death battle going on in Israel right now. The missiles are real, the tunnels are real, the Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists are real and nothing is more real than the threat they pose to the people ( and yes the children!) in the cities and towns of the Jewish State.  It is puerile (and a display of utmost bad faith) to believe that the 90+ percent of Israeli Jews who support operation Protective Shield want to see the deaths of Palestinian children.  Amos Oz, the doyen of Israeli peaceniks, explains with pristine clarity the dilemma facing the Jews of Israel.  How would you respond, he puts it to his German interviewer, if your neighbour, sitting on his porch across the road from you with his child on his lap, opened up on your nursery with machine gun fire?  What would you do??  This is the very real dilemma faced by the people of Israel and those tasked with their defense on a daily basis.  It is often the heart-wrenching situation which presents the Hobson’s Choice of kill or be killed.  From six thousand kilometres away in the leafy suburbs of Johannesburg it may be easy to sit in judgment.  But at the same time it should be equally easy to understand why a smug seventeen year old wrapped up in the symbol of Palestinian anti-Israel resistance making vapid moral statements at a time of mortal danger to very many Jewish men women and children the width and breadth of Israel would generate an emotional and at times over-the-top response.  The Jews of Israel are embattled.  The close-knit Jewish community of South Africa many with family and friends in Israel feels similarly embattled.  Witness the unambiguous and virulent antisemitism displayed in South Africa over the last weeks.  Feelings are fragile and an understandable sensitivity prevails.  In the grand scheme of things such responses are quite forgivable and hardly warrant the screeching denunciations we have been hearing and reading for days now. 

Which leads me to my second point.  Within the stirring declarations from those of self-proclaimed "Jewish descent" who shout "NOT IN MY NAME!" (as if anyone could ever be bothered to act in their names) come the inevitable tired accusations of the stifling of free speech and the trampling of dissent.  As in other locales where the "progressives" bleat on and on about their lack of free speech (whilst enjoying monopolistic access to the op-ed pages of the NYT and the airwaves of most of the major broadcasters)  this claim is unadulterated nonsense.  People of "Jewish descent" are free to join their Muslim brethren to harangue and harass and decry the "Zionists" in Huddle Park or to march in lockstep with the Hamas supporters in District 6, and no-one calls for any action to be taken against them.  They are held in utter contempt by the Jewish community and it goes no further than that.  But the right to free speech and dissent does not, can not possibly extend to the right of someone standing there in his representative capacity of a Jewish communal institution to make public statements which run entirely against the proclaimed ethos and value systems of that institution which he has agreed to uphold, with impunity.  Surely that institution is entitled (if not obliged) to take steps to protect the values and principles which it holds dear? And surely members of the community are likewise entitled to have that expectation? To suggest otherwise would be to negate the very concept of voluntary institutions in civil society, a far cry one would hope from the high-minded politics and principles of at least some of those of "Jewish descent" who now sit in judgment on the Jewish community.