Religious tolerance and the Middle East conflict

Charisse Zeifert

In light of all the brouhaha around the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, the question arises whether it is possible to report on events surrounding it in a fair and balanced manner.

If every reporter brings his or her own bias to reporting on any event, would this be compounded by the religious observance of the said journalist? This was a question that the well-respected journalist Nausheena Mahomed had to answer when she found herself embroiled in heated discussions and having to defend herself for, in her mind, just doing her job.  

Last Wednesday, she was in Pretoria covering the somewhat festive march by thousands of Christians in support of Israel, in preparation of a news clip she would be doing on the topic for joburgtoday.tv. She posted some of the hymns, prayers and songs, that characterised the morning. The posts elicited some nasty responses. The comments were aimed at the Jewish community, the Christian marchers and indeed the journalist herself. The Jewish community is seemingly legitimate targets for attack, because, after all, South African Jews are overwhelmingly Zionistic, and therefore deserving of hate: "The fact that Israel has been killing Palestinians and stealing their land is more than enough for us to hate the Zionist Jew!" declared Yusuf Timol. Abubakr Osman fell back on posting a tried and trusted image of 'Hitler the Great' explaining that he had left some Jews alive in order to show the world why he had killed the rest.

As for the Christian marchers, they're singled out for either being stupid or for not knowing why they were there. Suraya Sarrahwitz had this to say: "A bunch of idiots may they burn in hell", while Nadeem Khan and Nazeem Sauls believed they "got paid" or were "rent-a-crowd" respectively. Yunus Omar suggested that Mahomed "interview one of these fools". (sic to all)

But, as is becoming an increasingly fun sport in our country, she was personally attacked (after all, if the death threats issued against Shashi Naidoo were so effective as to turn her from an Israeli sympathiser to BDS poster girl, then surely, they are worth a try on everyone else). But there was an additional vehemence against Mahomed, based on the fact that she herself was Muslim.

It was expected that, as a Muslim, "she should know better".  Mahomed was quick to call the comments out for being racist and anti-Semitic. She would not tolerate such behaviour on her Facebook page. And then she was told that she should "throw herself off the 15th floor".  It was evident that Mahomed was expected to take sides in the conflict, based on what other people believed the conflict to be about. She was continuously asked to state publicly where she stood on this issue. However, Mahomed fought back. She argued that a journalist's role is not to reinforce what people's perception of any given situation is, but to report on the facts.

She was not going to be intimidated. Mahomed called out the anti-Semites and racists for what they were and defended her profession:

"Why must any journalist be confronted when covering marches or bullied into taking one position and denying the rights of the freedom of others …. We have our work to do! And that is reporting fairly and allow people to be part to speak up and speak out and share perspective…. anyone in media who follows hardcore ethics in reporting without fear or favour offering every side an equal opportunity i guess will be hanged or subject to conspiracy theorists....as a journalist i will defend this right no matter what! VIVA FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION. VIVA FREE SPEECH VIVA TO THE COURAGE of ALL OF JOURNALISTS WHO REPORT FREELY WITHOUT FEAR OR FAVOUR." (sic) 

There are many distorted perceptions about what is happening in the Middle East, but the hysterical and factually inaccurate accusations that are made against Israel are worrying. More worrying is the willingness of some to use a foreign conflict (over which we have very little influence) to attack their fellow citizens.  

South Africa has traditionally been tolerant, indeed respectful, of religious diversity. While race has always been a painful sticking point, in my experience, people of different faith express goodwill and genuine interest in each other. Is this changing? Are those who are driven by a hate-filled agenda managing to import a conflict over which we have no influence, winning in the public arena?  The fact that a Muslim journalist will defend her right to give a voice to Christians and Jews is a good sign that this country has not been totally hijacked by those who hate. No doubt Mahomed received many messages of support from her co-religionists, as she did from the Jewish and Christian communities.

In her words, "The Christian and Jewish communities should not be isolated and discriminated against because of bullies who in a democratic SA will conjure up all kinds of excuses to ensure their voices are not heard. Long live Free speech in SA! Freedom to Palestinians and peace to both Israelis and Palestinians. May the almighty bring peace to both sides as he showered South Africa with his grace in peaceful resolution". (sic)

To which I can only say, Amen! 

- Charisse Zeifert is head of communications at the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.

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