The Jerusalem Prize and Apartheid

The Thirteenth Jerusalem Prize for work defending “the freedom of individuals in society” will be awarded to the South African writer J. M. Coetzee by Teddy KoIlek on April 9th. Coetzee is the first South African to be awarded the prize and follows in the footsteps of such luminaries as Bertrand Russell, Eugene Ionesco, Ignazio Silone and Sir Isaiah Berlin. The judges, Professor Shlomo Avineri, Amos Elon and Yehuda Amichai, said that their choice had been made “in recognition of his staunch opposition to apartheid, violence and oppression in all its forms . . his writings are a cri de coeur for a multi-racial South Africa, based on freedom and equality for all and domination for none. We honour him as a true defender of freedom and as an example to us all”.

Coetzee’s novel Waiting for the Barbarians, which has been translated into Hebrew, depicts an imaginary country surrounded by enemies and in a permanent state of siege. The judges, commenting on this work, remarked that “in the cause of defending itself against this threat, the country brutalizes the lives of its own inhabitants and becomes in itself an epitome of barbarism. The real danger threatening the human fabric of that country is internal, the barbarian within ourselves”. Not simply an allusion to the tragedy of South Africa but also clearly a veiled warning for the future of the Jewish state as well.

In recent years, Diaspora organizations including those noted for their narrow perspective have become increasingly vocal in their opposition to apartheid. It has become fashionable and acceptable. Yet a number of Jewish leaders in the United States have felt that solemn testimonies and eloquent resolutions are simply not enough. Such an attitude was no doubt solidified by the ongoing dialogue within the Black-Jewish alliance in the United States.

Thus it was not surprising that the imposition of a state of emergency in South Africa in July 1985 prompted a number of organizations to support and promote a policy of disinvestment in South Africa, both within communal and national parameters. Jewish Federations in Boston, New York and Rhode Island decided to divest themselves of some $15 million in holdings in American companies which were not committed, neither in principle nor in practice, to the equality of non-white workers and their white employees. The combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, Beth Israel Hospital and Temple Israel all followed suit. Last summer, the Los Angeles Jewish Federation, the third largest in the United States, instructed its $60 million endowment branch to rid itself of all investments in companies doing business with South Africa. The Board of Directors of the National Council of Jewish Women which speaks for 100,000 members not only backed such moves, but, as far back as June 1985, urged the Reagan Administration to implement economic sanctions, refuse new loans, ban the sale of krugerrands and cease computer sales to South Africa.

Disinvestment and economic sanctions have found few supporters amongst South African Jews. For some, no doubt, it is a matter of self-interest but even liberals such as Helen Suzman have opposed sanctions on the basis that they are counterproductive. Some American Jews have listened to and heeded the private pleadings of South African Jewish leaders. Others have refuted such petitions and indicated the direction of the winds of change. The choice of Professor Coetzee as this year’s recipient of the Jerusalem Prize will act as a unifying symbol, for the time being, for the vast majority of Jews who abhor apartheid; but it is almost certain that as the situation in South Africa begins to deteriorate, there will be a sharp difference of views amongst those who make and implement Jewish policy towards South Africa.

Jewish Quarterly Spring 1987

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