South African Jews charge bias at Freedom of Expression Institute


CAPE TOWN, South Africa — South Africa’s Freedom of Expression Institute is biased against Israel, the Jewish community’s umbrella body says.

The South African Jewish Board of Deputies lambasted the institute, the FXI, in a letter sent to its director, Jane Duncan, and to the media, citing instances of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic bias. The role of the nongovernmental organization, created in 1994, is to safeguard the right to freedom of expression.

David Saks, the Board of Deputies’ associate director, wrote that the board has noted “with mounting concern the consistently partisan and selective statements” issued by the institute over the past five years.

“We believe that however noble the motives of its founders might have been, your organization has de facto evolved into a propaganda platform for those holding radical anti-Israel, anti-American and pro-Islamist viewpoints,” Saks wrote.

Accusing the organization of pursuing “a very definite political agenda” on Middle East issues, Saks said it was “especially deplorable” that Jewish communal institutions such as the board, the South African Zionist Federation and the South African Jewish Report have also come under attack from the institute.

“By contrast, the FXI’s silence on cases where Muslim organizations and activists have suppressed freedom of expression has been truly deafening,” he wrote.

In response, the FXI said Saks’ letter was “a thinly disguised attempt to intimidate the FXI into not taking a principled position against repression and censorship in relation to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Put more bluntly, we see this as an attempt to bully the FXI into submission for daring to criticize bodies like the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and the S.A. Jewish Report when they act in a censorious manner.”

The FXI added that it had taken a “strategic decision to support particularly the freedom of expression of poor communities and to prioritize marginalized communities who are resisting censorship, repression, colonial occupation, racism and sexism.”

Saks referred to one recent case in which a series of seminars on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was planned by Israeli Benjamin Pogrund, a former deputy editor of the now-defunct South African newspaper Rand Daily Mail, and Palestinian Walid Salem.

Saks said both men have strong human rights records and seek to promote Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. But the seminars were canceled after what Saks called “a concerted campaign by certain Palestinian activist groupings.”

What was “especially shocking” about the campaign, he wrote, was that its alleged ringleader, Salim Vally, is a former chairman of the FXI.

Even though the issue was reported on at length in the Mail and Guardian newspaper, the FXI failed to condemn this “blatant violation of the principle of freedom of expression,” Saks wrote.

The FXI also released a “grossly one-sided” statement after clashes between pro-Palestinian demonstrators, police and members of the Jewish community when Israel’s then-foreign minister, Shimon Peres, visited Johannesburg in 2002, Saks said.

“The statement unquestionably took the demonstrators’ line that a ‘peaceful’ protest had been violently broken up and various participants, including Vally, wrongfully arrested, all at the instigation of the S.A. Jewish Board of Deputies,” he wrote.

Saks said no attempt was made to reflect the other side of the story, namely the fact that members of the Jewish community who wished to attend Peres’ lecture had been “subjected to verbal abuse, threats and physical harassment.”

The FXI’s condemnation of the pro-Israel lobby after it prevented a controversial documentary by John Pilger, “Palestine is Still the Issue,” from being screened on television station constituted additional evidence of its bias, he said.

Saks stated that the FXI further compromised its impartiality by aligning itself with the views expressed in the documentary, referring to “pervasive Israeli atrocities in occupied Palestine and the deep humiliation and degradation to which the Zionist government has subjected innocent and defenseless Palestinians.”

The latest incident involved the FXI’s attack on the South African Jewish Report — the country’s national Jewish newspaper — for refusing to publish an opinion piece by Cabinet Minister Ronnie Kasrils, a Jew who is a prime mover behind the country’s “Not in my Name” campaign criticizing Israel.

The FXI described the newspaper as “a mere extension of Zionism’s repressive project,” while making no attempt to obtain a comment from the editor.

The FXI’s “lukewarm” approach to the “Mohamed cartoon furor” — when the Johannesburg High Court proscribed the local publication of cartoons that sparked Muslim riots when they were published in Europe — was “in glaring contrast… to the grossly partisan condemnations your organization has issued against Jewish communal institutions over the years. The inference would seem to be that propagating racist anti-Jewish conspiracy theories falls into the category of freedom of expression, but publishing material offensive to Muslim sensibilities does not.

“Every opportunity has been seized to denigrate the Jewish community and its institutions while pointedly avoiding acting in far more blatant cases of press intimidation conducted by members of the Muslim community,” the letter concluded.