How Nelson Mandela helped me fight anti-Israel media
The moral authority of a great man like Mandela is not always contained in landmark speeches. Sometimes a few short words of encouragement can go a long way, as this South African writer remembers from personal experience
It began with a string of letters and emails, then continued that way until nearly three years later. I opened the process with a letter dropped off at the Nelson Mandela Foundation two blocks away in Houghton, Johannesburg.
23rd January 2002
Past President, Mr Nelson Mandela
Dear Mr. Mandela,
As an ordinary Jew in our country I appeal to you to do something about the anti-Jewish racism being whipped up by our mass circulation press.
Our society was at one time a model of harmony between the different faiths, before anti–Semites rose up to stir the pot.
I enclose proof of the racist propaganda being spread by a major newspaper group. It has reached the point where no less than the head of our Beth Din (Ecclesiastical Court), Rabbi Kurtstag, had to publicly call the Editor of The Star an anti-Semite.
My accompanying open letter to Rabbi Kurtstag details a sinister campaign by the press, a campaign far removed from journalism as we know it in a plural multi-faith democracy.
As born democrats and freedom lovers, Jewish people enjoy nothing better than to engage in vigorous debate. After all, Israel is the only state in the Middle East with a free press -- a very critical press at that. Dialogue and criticism are manifestations of a healthy society, but anti-Semitic racism poses a danger to peace and stability.
I had dismissed hope of a response before I found this in my letter box:
12th February 2002
Dear Mr. Apfel,
Thank you for writing to Mr Mandela.
I hope you will understand that Mr Mandela cannot involve himself in such a matter. However Mr Mandela extends warm greetings, and heartily wishes you success in your work on this important matter.
CEO, Nelson Mandela Foundation
Then the floodgates opened.
"Nelson Mandela encourages me to tackle
anti-Jewish racism by Independent group"
The header became a standard for a score of emails in a campaign lasting twenty eight months. The emails were addressed to every editor in the country, to some in London, to the CEOs of South African corporate groups, to religious leaders and (note this well) to the Nelson Mandela Foundation.
“Results and conclusions on questions put to the CEO of the Independent group” was the sub-header of an early email, which continued:
“The CEO, Ivan Fallon, had the opportunity to respond to questions arising from a report by his correspondent, Robert Fisk. Late news: The Independent is singled out by the authoritative and famous journal, The Economist, in a May 4th 2002 feature on Anti-Semitism in Europe:”
“Jews are horrified by … a tone of anti-Israeli hostility that has become so strident as to smell of anti-Semitism. Many are particularly upset by what they consider to be the editorial virulence and one-sided reporting of …The Guardian and the Independent.”
Not long after my opening salvos, the South African CEO of the group, Ivan Fallon, wrote an article in its flagship paper, the Star, titled, ‘Please don’t shoot the messenger.’
He wrote me off as an extremist, and continued:
“Fisk is doing what any good journalist would do…report accurately and professionally on Israeli policy, however uncomfortable that may be for supporters of Israel.”
I wrote to Ivan Fallon, protesting his personal attack on me. The tone of the reply was conciliatory.
Dear Mr. Apfel,
I have no desire to fight with you and have long retired from this
particular battle. I have other things to do with my life - such as running
a large business which has a very substantial operation in Tel Aviv, with
Israeli partners, and a plan to buy another company in Israel where there
are some excellent opportunities.
I go there all the time and grieve for what is happening. My partner in iTouch is an Israeli now living in London,
and I think I probably have more Jewish friends than I do Catholic - and certainly Muslim.
I don't believe that extremism, on whatever side, does anyone any good and my honest opinion is that you are probably doing more damage to your own religion by continuing your campaign in the way you do. Ray Ackerman (Jewish Chairman of the Pick n Pay supermarket group), who is my next door neighbour and good friend, is a little bit shocked by it, as is Jeff Liebesman, another good friend and fellow board member.
I and Independent are the wrong target for your anger, and outside observers would be baffled that you have picked on us.
So if you want a truce, let's have one. For my part I hold out the hand of
friendship and peace.
Then the Star published my article, ‘How anti-Semitic is the media?’
I received an email from Nelson Mandela’s bosom buddy, South Africa’s Chief Rabbi, the late Cyril Harris:
I was so pleased to see your excellent article in Tuesday's edition of the Star.
It goes a long way towards clarifying the clear connection / possible difference between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.
Regarding your letter to me of 30 May 2002, I am quite sure that neither Nelson Mandela nor Raymond Ackerman considers you an extremist. When the opportunity presents itself I will mention to them that you are certainly not.
Due to my public support of Israel, I have been labelled an extremist, "supporter of Sharon", etc., and I am also awaiting an appropriate opportunity of correcting the distortion.
In the meantime all good wishes,
Chief Rabbi Harris
In the ensuing months and years I emailed a whole series on different journalists in the Independent group. The culmination was another long-shot letter, dropped off at the Oppenheimer family estate (De Beers and Anglo American) in Johannesburg.
Mr Nicky Oppenheimer
16 September 2003
Dear Mr. Oppenheimer,
Help with your influence in nation building
I appeal to you in the hope that you will employ your influence and standing as a nation builder to assist in dealing with the gravest of threats to our country’s peace and stability and future prosperity.
I also turn to you from connections of old. My late father as a founder member and parliamentary candidate of the Progressive Party, received sterling support from your late father. Both your parents and Anglo further lent unstinting support to my father in helping him develop Kupugani, the organisation he founded to deal with malnutrition and starvation at that time ravaging the black homelands.
Out of these old associations I hope that you will be able to support me in efforts to deal with the anti-Semitic propaganda being whipped up by one or two correspondents in our press. It was only a fortnight ago when President Thabo Mbeki declared that the Government was very concerned and would not tolerate anti-Semitism. Our society was at one time a model of harmony between the different faiths, before anti–Semites rose up to stir the pot.
I have copied for you below the sort of propaganda that is seeped into the minds of South Africans by a well-known pressman, John Battersby. It is the same John Battersby who lately wrote a feature article on the initiative of the Oppenheimer family to help empowerment along the road. I approach you in the hope that you will appeal to the employers of Mr Battersby.
Two years ago I made a similar appeal to Nelson Mandela, from which time the Independent group has made good progress rooting out anti-Semitic pressmen in its organisation.
Dialogue and criticism are manifestations of a healthy society, but propaganda against the Jews ever was and will continue to be the prelude to violence and ruin. I therefore appeal to you to bring whatever influence you can to bear upon this canker.
CC: Mr Nelson Mandela, Mr Tony Howard, CEO Independent, Chief Rabbi Harris
Weeks went by. Then a short item appeared in the Star. John Battersby, for many years the group’s Political Editor, was leaving journalism to take up an opportunity in Britain.
It seemed to be the last straw for editors, who would have followed developments with growing unease. Max Du Preez, a columnist for the Independent group, challenged my claim about Nelson Mandela’s support. In a column Du Preez attacked me as (what else) an extremist, and claimed that I was misusing the Mandela name for a cause to which the great man would never lend his name.
I thereupon sent the Foundation’s letter to the editor, demanding an apology and my right to publish a reply. Getting neither, I lodged complaint with the Press Ombudsman.
The outcome was bitter-sweet. The Ombudsman upheld my complaint. But the cat was out of the bag. The Nelson Mandela Foundation, shaken by all the unwanted publicity, wrote a letter demanding that I desist from using Mandela’s name. It was the outcome that the Independent through its mouthpiece, Max du Preez, had sought.
It did not unduly upset me, for I had already completed the campaign, and several journalists had already paid the price.
And that is how the great Nelson Mandela, for more than two years, helped me root out Jew-adverse media men and tone down anti-Israel propaganda in the guise of journalism.
Steve Apfel is director of the School of Management Accounting, Johannesburg. He is the author of the book,'Hadrian's Echo: The whys and wherefores of Israel's critics' (2012) and a contributor to, "War by other means." (Israel Affairs, 2012). His articles and blogs are published in several foreign journals and his new work, 'How the West was won' is due out next year
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