exploring the concerns of the south african Jewish community
In this article Glen Heneck reflects on how an ideological impasse over Israel is preventing progressive South African Jews from finding a home in the broad left today.
Black & white? Anti-apartheid activism & the Z-word
UNTIL the 1990s progressivism came relatively easy. South Africa was still under dark white rule and getting that undone was a straightforward and compelling ideal. As Jewish activists we did not have to spend much time worrying (or arguing) about what we were for, because we were perfectly clear as to what we were against.
Would that things were so simple today.
"This is not to say that, at the time, the Palestinian struggle was a non-issue on the left ... it had long been a popular cause; it just could not match the battle against Apartheid in terms of either optics or popularity".
One of the Cape Town community highlights of the late 1980’s was a “Freedom Seder”, with Archbishop Desmond Tutu as the keynote speaker. His was a moving, stirring, funny and hope-filled sermon, laced with references to the Jewish experience of slavery in Egypt and the echoes of that story in modern day South Africa. The subtext was all about our common humanity and universal principles of fairness and justice. The audience at the Albow Centre loved it. If the archbishop did have strong feelings about contemporary Canaan, he was too gracious to bring them up. Or too politically astute.
This is not to say that, at the time, the Palestinian struggle was a non-issue on the left. To the contrary, it had long been a popular cause; it just could not match the battle against Apartheid in terms of either optics or popularity. Shamir’s Israel was a problem; Botha’s South Africa a pariah. Illustratively, while visiting the (still exiled) ANC in Lusaka in mid-1989, I felt no need to hide my dislike for Yasser Arafat. The then president of the ANC, Oliver Tambo, did not share that view – Third World solidarity was more important than losing some Jewish support. But the point is that the zeitgeist was nothing like today’s. In the progressive hatefulness hierarchy there was nothing that came near to Apartheid, and Zionism was distinctly mid-table.
None of us had any idea then, of course, how soon the world was to change, and how much.
Left or right? Lessons from Marx & Moses (Hess)
Not a year later, by Pesach 1990, the two standout social engineering projects of the post-war period were over. FW De Klerk sounded the official death knell of white rule in the south of Africa at pretty much the same time as Mikhail Gorbachev gave up on Soviet control in eastern and central Europe. Most thinking people were pleased – some, most famously Francis Fukuyama, even hailed the moment as “the end of history” – but I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.
I had bought seriously into Marxian class analysis as a student, so I couldn’t easily accept the final triumph of Western-style capitalist democracy. And even as I rejoiced at the end of Verwoerdian Separate Development, I couldn’t but notice that its underlying principles were being implicitly endorsed in the erstwhile Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. Apartheid Balkanization was renounced at the same time the actual Balkans were being re-Balkanized; without protest from the progressive academy.
As a South African I felt elated, liberated, vindicated; just a little anxious as to what would happen next. It felt wonderful to be done with minority rule - and all the pain and unfairness and ugliness its retention necessitated. But I had some concerns as to what was going to succeed it.
For that I blame Moses Hess.
"...what is challenging is the part where [Hess] invites us to accept that it is possible - and appropriate - to believe in both serious redistribution of wealth and proper ethnic self- determination."
I had stumbled on Hess’s Rome and Jerusalem while studying in the U.K. in the early 1980s. It unsettled me slightly, but not enough to divert me from my (avid, amateur) anti-racist activism. It was only when the constitutional negotiations began in earnest, around 1992, that I started to seriously consider the implications of his analysis.
Hess’s (much ignored) philosophy is usually reduced to the catchy aphorism “class is secondary, race is primary”, but I never found that especially useful. Instead what is challenging is the part where he invites us to accept that it is possible - and appropriate - to believe in both serious redistribution of wealth and proper ethnic self- determination. Despairing of the prospects for Jewish integration in Europe (decades before Herzl), he argues for equality and separateness; which in our modern political idiom is considered virtually oxymoronic.
Transplanted to modern day South Africa, Hess would feel most at home in either the EFF or Orania. He would detest reactionary populists like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsanaro, but find much to admire in both Labour Zionism and Critical Race Theory.
Now I have to say that I am not actually a Hess fan myself. I am fully invested in the South African experiment and I really believe that a shared, cosmopolitan, fairly egalitarian future is achievable, one day. I am for much steeper taxation, immediately; a truly universal basic income, shortly; and a borderless world, eventually - and on that basis I still consider myself a progressive. Where I break with the leftist orthodoxy, however, is that I do not think that ethnicity can just be willed away (any more than wealth can just be willed into being).
I think, in short, that Hess’s hypothesis is overblown. That said though I believe the history of the last thirty years, and the last three thousand for that matter, make it hard to conclude, with Marx, that all forces other than class are the result of “false consciousness” (and, accordingly, highly malleable).
In or out? Individual vs Group rights
In 1992, I attended a meeting in the Marais Road shul hall which was addressed by a Jewish high-up in the ANC. The gentleman concerned rather liked my suggestion for a white person’s post-Apartheid credo, viz. “I’m sorry, I’m staying and I’m ready to share”. He was less excited though by the following question: “Suppose you have a country where, by accident of history, the populace is divisible into two fairly discernible (or self-identifying) groups, in proportion seventy to thirty. And suppose, further, that the first group comprises Arab speaking Muslims and the second group Hebrew speaking Jews. What would you say regarding the prospect of a single state democracy? Would you regard such an arrangement as a moral imperative?”
I thought that the answer was self-evident, and I assumed, further, that its implications would be the subject of endless debate at Kempton Park where apartheid’s end was negotiated. I was wrong on both counts though. The constitution we ended up with vouchsafed every manner of individual rights to all South Africa’s citizens, but its only concession to group rights was the Volkstaat Council (which didn’t really go anywhere).
Hess would have been appalled, but what was truly remarkable was that one of his intellectual descendants, Frederick van Zyl Slabbert, accepted the job as head of the first democratic Electoral Commission. This was the same Slabbert who, a decade or so prior, had stated, categorically, that “simple majoritarianism cannot bring democracy to divided societies” and that “a democratic system in South Africa must involve a minority veto in the legislative process”.
"What has exercised me more though, over the past few years, is the way that the story of our “rainbow miracle” has been parlayed into a weapon with which to attack Israel."
I was silent myself at the time, admittedly; partly because of the group rights taboo (a taboo which still prevails), and also because I had a lot of faith in the top echelon of the ANC, based on my encounter in Lusaka. I was slightly concerned, back then, that we might one day get to be led by a vengeful, anti-Western Marxist, but I didn’t for a moment foresee the party endorsing a venal, anti-intellectual jingoist.
Right or Wrong? The selfishness of virtue
I am still fairly bullish about South Africa, actually, now that we’ve been through a decade of world class mal-governance, and survived. I reckon the greater majority of the populace understand how quixotic a project it is that we are involved in - and how crucial it is to resist the blandishments of various kinds of populists (economic, ethnic, religious etc.). What has exercised me more though, over the past few years, is the way that the story of our “rainbow miracle” has been parlayed into a weapon with which to attack Israel. As though, firstly, South Africa is now the epitome of conceptual and practical excellence and as though, secondly, the only obstacle in the way of a similarly hallowed state in the Middle East is the racist intransigence of most Jewish Israelis.
That is the kind of intellectual dishonesty I would expect from the cynical, reflexive right, not from the principled, reflective left.
I appreciate the imbalance of power, and of pain. I recognize that impartiality cannot only cover for moral indifference but also serve the status quo. I get solidarity, really, even though I’m not much good at it. What I just cannot understand is how it serves the cause of justice and of (true) peace to reduce the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a simple morality play, with all the blame on one side.
My theory, for what it’s worth, is that what drives this reductionist narrative is a peculiar form of Western imperialism. This time led not by power hungry industrialists or generals, but by well-meaning academics. They are still trying to atone for the depredations of their racist, expansionist, exploitative forbears, and that explains a lot of their world view. The Americans, especially, see all race relations through the prism of the Civil Rights Struggle and on that basis they cast any non-cosmopolitan, non-universalist enterprise, anywhere, as necessarily evil. Their politics is driven by justified guilt and genuine idealism, which makes them passionate about the cause of the underdog everywhere, and that blinds them to the significance of locality and context. Of what it is like to be in the working class in America or Britain, for example - or to be in the minority in Africa or the Levant. They would do well to read Hess.
One or two? The folly of analogies
Within a few years of the fall of Apartheid, anti-Zionism emerged as the primary focus of progressives, both in South Africa and internationally.
Like most in that community I think the occupation is indefensible, morally and practically. Like many, I struggle with the antiquity-based claims on the land. And like some I support the idea of reparations, as an alternative to restitution or return. Where I lose the sense though, and even the logic, is when it comes to the question of sovereignty and security guarantees.
"The reason people give for savaging Israel is because of the things it does ... My hunch though is that it is actually hated for what it is."
Does anyone genuinely believe that a single state can begin to do justice to the competing claims of the two communities, and their leaders? That there is any chance of them living in democratic harmony, given all the historic hatred, and the religious and cultural differences? And if the answer is no, then how can one begrudge them - either of them - demanding on-principle recognition of their claims on some exclusive piece of land? Some territory in which they will be assured of permanent majority status; and so at liberty to follow their own path (or paths) to collective redemption (or whatever)?
There’s little doubt that Israel has moved measurably to the right since the death of Yitzhak Rabin. So it is understandable that the level of antipathy from the international left has intensified. I cannot help thinking though that there is something more at play here, though I do not believe that it is all, or even mainly down to anti-Semitism.
The reason people give for savaging Israel is because of the things it does, like blockading Gaza, shooting at protestors, passing discriminatory laws and so on. My hunch though is that it is actually hated for what it is.
Zionism is, essentially, a Western, capitalist, liberal project, in a region of the world that isn’t well disposed to any of those forces, or tendencies. The hard left cut it some slack, initially, on account of the Holocaust, and the kibbutzim, but that was while they still had South Africa, as a whipping boy. Now that we here have ’normalized’, Israel has become the go-to cause for those needing moral affirmation. Expressing sympathy for Zionism today is regarded as the equivalent of backing Apartheid in its prime.
"There are people I shared platforms with in the 80s who wouldn’t have anything to do with me today, courtesy of my only criticizing Israel rather than vilifying it."
Three years ago I wrote an open letter to Archbishop Tutu about our respective views on Israel. I recalled introducing him a few times, on anti-Apartheid platforms, and questioned what it was that explained our now significant political differences. Had he changed or had I? Was it him and “the heavy weight of revered celebrity” or was it me and “the thick fog of bourgeois middle age”? Or had we never really been aligned to begin with? I like to think, obviously, that I’ve adapted my politics over the years based not on prejudice or privilege but on principle and changing circumstances. Whether that’s true or not is impossible for me to say - but what I do know for sure is that the broad left consensus is no more. There are people I shared platforms with in the 80s who wouldn’t have anything to do with me today, courtesy of my only criticizing Israel rather than vilifying it. They think I am an apologist for racist oppression - and, to be fair, I find their position naive, utopian, self-righteous and obsequious. I also believe, deeply, that their loud encouragement is a significant factor in retarding the peace process. I wish just one amongst them would break ranks. Not to say that “I was wrong”, but simply to allow, sotto voce, that “it’s complicated”. Your Grace?
Glen Heneck studied law in Cape Town and Cambridge before qualifying as an attorney. He was active in a range of anti-Apartheid organizations in the 1980’s and chaired the Open City Initiative. Married with two children, he is an executive director of a family trading business. Glen is also a serving member of the Cape Jewish Board of Deputies and a regular op-ed contributor to various newspapers, including The Daily Maverick & The Times of Israel.