THE religious head of South Africa’s Jewish community entered an escalating argument between Pretoria and Israel on Thursday, telling Deputy International Relations and Co-operation Minister Ebrahim Ebrahim he was unfit to hold office and should resign.
The two governments have full diplomatic ties but relations nose-dived this month when Mr Ebrahim and Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi were prevented by Israel from holding a meeting in Ramallah under the auspices of the Non-Aligned Movement’s Palestine committee.
The stakes were raised on Tuesday when Mr Ebrahim said the government "discouraged" South Africans from travelling to Israel because of the treatment of Palestinians and the lack of progress in Middle East peace negotiations. His comments drew fire from Jewish and Christian groups.
"Your actions support the forces of extremism, hatred and violence, and undermine the forces of tolerance, freedom and peaceful negotiations," Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein said in an open letter to Mr Ebrahim.
Rabbi Goldstein leapt to Israel’s defence, saying it was a multiracial and multi-ethnic society where Christians, women, trade unionists and journalists enjoyed greater rights than anywhere else in the Middle East.
"You obviously have a ‘blind spot’ when it comes to Israel; you lose your sense of objectivity and rationality when dealing with the Jewish state," he told Mr Ebrahim, adding that more information and dialogue were needed between peoples, not less.
"You clearly do not believe so, and hence you are unfit to hold public office. Do the honourable thing: resign," Rabbi Goldstein said.
There was no response from Mr Ebrahim or the Department of International Relations and Co-operation on Thursday to requests for comment.
But the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) backed the policy of discouraging travel to Israel, which it called an apartheid regime.
"As a post-apartheid country, we must not be scared to name apartheid when we see it, and to call on Israel to end its illegal occupation of Palestine," Cosatu said on Thursday.
It commended KwaZulu-Natal municipal officials who recently cancelled a planned trip to Israel.
Among a host of organisations that yesterday backed the government’s call for a travel boycott to Israel was a group of South African Jews who said mainstream Jewish bodies did not represent their views. Their public letter was signed, "Shereen Usdin, Alan Horwitz, Robert Freeman and others".
The Israeli embassy in Pretoria repeated on Thursday that it was deeply disappointed by Mr Ebrahim’s statements but was not considering a formal protest such as withdrawing its ambassador for consultation.
Deputy ambassador Ya’akov Finkelstein said Israel wanted warm and constructive relations with South Africa.
He highlighted a meeting on Tuesday between King Goodwill Zwelithini and Israeli ambassador Dov Segev-Steinberg at the royal palace in KwaNongoma, KwaZulu-Natal.
The king accepted an invitation to visit Israel early next year, the embassy announced after the meeting.
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