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Limmud decision attracts widespread condemnation

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Limmud decision attracts widespread condemnation

Janet Smith

JONATHAN Shapiro says he is "sure that it is still really wrong" of Jewish cultural organisation Limmud to have invited controversial lawyer and former Israeli Defence Force legal adviser David Benjamin to its festival of learning this week in South Africa.

But after "a fair bit of soul-searching", Shapiro – better known as the cartoonist, Zapiro – decided he would still take part in the conference, where he is scheduled to speak about his award-winning work.

"The idea that Benjamin has been invited makes me a bit queasy. He himself makes me more than queasy. It’s important for people to consider the power inequity of having this sort of person there," Shapiro said.

"It’s not just a matter of having a different opinion. David Benjamin is deep in the heart of a particular power structure. It’s like inviting someone from the belly of the beast."

South African-born Benjamin, who earned his law degree at UCT, has been described as "a war criminal" by several organisations. He worked for Israel's defence force for close to 20 years, but it was his advice to the army to use white phosphorus during its brutal Operation Cast Lead, that has fired the controversy around him here. More than 1 000 Palestinians died in what is now known around the world as the Gaza Massacre.

Limmud invited Benjamin to participate at its festival with Israel-based human rights lawyer Shlomo Zachary on a panel mediated by Professor Dennis Davis to debate international humanitarian law.

Benjamin's role in the white phosphorus attacks has, however, detracted from this topic. As the Geneva Convention bars the use of white phosphorous against civilian targets, Amnesty International, the Red Cross and South African legal expert John Dugard were among the many voices condemning Israel's actions in Gaza as war crimes.

Operation Cast Lead began in December with a military attack on the Gaza Strip, which Israel claimed was to stop Hamas's rocket attacks on its territory. Its action not only resulted in death, but in the widespread destruction of property and infrastructure.

Human rights activist Zackie Achmat was in the forefront of calls last week for Limmud to rescind its invitation to Benjamin. Achmat described him as "an architect of the war on Palestinian people".

Cosatu said it, too, fully supports the boycott call against Benjamin for his role in "the savage attacks on the Palestinian people".

"He is … guilty of war crimes against humanity for defending Israel's apartheid policy," said the federation. "We must never allow any war criminal on South Africa soil, especially one who defends apartheid, which we spent our lifetime fighting."

In a statement, Limmud said it believes that "only through engaging individuals is it possible to understand and learn about the complexities of the issues… (we) will not utilise tactics of censorship".

But some believe the Benjamin incident will take Limmud a step backwards from its current, general position of progressive discussion.

The Muslim Judicial Council and the Media Review Network urged the Ministry of International Relations and Co-operation "to honour the South African Constitution" by denying Benjamin the right to visit.

It condemned what it called "the blatant Israeli public relations exercise by Limmud, which seeks to justify the massacre of some 1 400 people by inviting Benjamin, the mastermind behind the horror of the massacre".

Benjamin is among 100 delegates to the Limmud conference, which happened in Cape Town this weekend and continues in Durban tomorrow and Tuesday before moving to Joburg on August 9 and 10.

David Bilchitz, national co-chairman of Limmud South Africa, said his organisation regards itself as "part of the greater Jewish cultural renaissance", but acknowledged that Limmud had "taken a lot of criticism".

"In the past, we have allowed for many different views to be heard … We absolutely defend the right of people to disagree with us, as long as it is non-violent, but are disappointed that those who support Palestinian solidarity feel polarised."