BY DAVID SAKS
COMMUNAL MATTERS [TRENDS & PROSPECTS]:
In this article David Saks argues that the current surge of anti-zionism in South Africa has antisemitic influences.
PERHAPS the most fiendishly difficult question that Jewish rights groups must grapple with today is where the boundary lies between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. A perception has been created by anti-Israel activists that the Jewish community rushes willy-nilly to label as antisemitism that which is in fact legitimate criticism of Israel. This is untrue. Instead there is an acute awareness of the need to make a clear distinction between the two, and so far as the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) is concerned, the record shows that it has been scrupulously careful in this regard.
This being said, it is inevitable that attacks ostensibly only against Israel sometimes spill-over into hatred against Jews. No-one can reasonably accuse Jews of ‘crying antisemitism’ when they take action in such instances (although many do). And when anti-Israel sentiment takes on so extreme a form as to amount to inflammatory propaganda, it is understandable that the Jewish community should come to the defence of Israel. It is an attack on something that the great majority of Jews around the world passionately identify with.
"What purports simply to be anti-Zionism frequently turns out to be fuelled to a greater or lesser extent
Anti-Zionism does not mean measured criticism of Israel of the kind that in tone and content is similar to that which other countries are subjected (even when such criticism happens, objectively speaking, to be incorrect). The kind of anti-Zionism that mainstream Jewry is confronting are attacks on Israel that take such virulent, exaggerated and ultimately unreasonable forms so as to demonstrate outright animosity against the Jewish state, sometimes to the point that its very existence is portrayed as an aberration that should be eradicated.
Whether anti-Zionism constitutes a form of antisemitism in itself, or whether it is something essentially separate from it is a matter for debate. Very often, of course, there is a clear overlap between the two. What purports simply to be anti-Zionism frequently turns out to be fuelled to a greater or lesser extent by residual anti-Jewish feeling. Conversely purveyors of overtly antisemitic discourse routinely include anti-Zionist canards in the material they disseminate. A website devoted to pushing an anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian narrative might thus refer to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion while another primarily aimed at portraying Jews as intrinsically evil sub-humans will throw images of dead Palestinian babies into the mix.
What, however, is to be concluded about those who genuinely appear to have no animus against Jews per se but show a degree of antipathy towards Israel that objectively speaking is unjust and unreasonable? Indications of such an attitude would include:
-- Portraying Israel as being fundamentally illegitimate
Most of the above would find a place within what Natan Sharansky has called the ‘3D Test’ (Delegitimization, Demonization and Double standards) when distinguishing between legitimate criticism of Israel and antisemitism. But is this correct? Anyone who fails the 3D Test can certainly be said to be prejudiced against Israel, but is it necessarily antisemitic bigotry? Those who maintain that it is would argue that when the only country with a mainly Jewish population and with which most Jews identify (and indeed are broadly identified with) is persistently vilified, then how can this not – in practice, if not necessarily in intent – be anti-Jewish?
Against this position, it could be argued that the existence of anti-Zionists who also genuinely abhor antisemitism demonstrates how it is possible to separate anti-Zionism from antisemitism. This is considerably reinforced by the presence of Jews in the former camp.
It is also possible for Jews to reject the whole concept of a separate Jewish identity, whether defined by ethnicity, religion or nationality, and argue instead that Jews should choose to assimilate and eventually disappear among the nations without being considered guilty of hating their own kind. Did not even Theodor Herzl, after all, at one time believe that the answer to the ‘Jewish problem’ was mass conversion to Christianity?
"Whereas antisemitic incidents with an anti-Israel motive were rare prior to 1994, they have compromised around one in three such cases (including assault, verbal abuse and hate mail) since then".
These are some of the nuances that must be considered when addressing the question posed at the beginning of this article; where is the boundary between anti-Zionism and antisemitism? The best answer I can provide is that while anti-Zionism does not automatically constitute antisemitism, if antisemitism is taken solely to mean prejudice against Jews as a people and Judaism as a religion, radical antipathy towards Israel has the inevitable effect of being antithetical to the deeply-held beliefs, loyalties and identity of the vast majority of Jews in the world. As such, it is unavoidably ‘anti-Jewish’, and the existence of a small minority of anti-Zionist Jews does little to change this.
There has unquestionably been a steep rise in global antisemitism since the beginning of the century, and radical anti-Israel sentiment, fuelled by the collapse of the Oslo peace process and its violent aftermath, has been a major – if not the major - factor in this. South Africa has witnessed the same trends, albeit at a much lower level than in other Diaspora countries. Whereas antisemitic incidents with an anti-Israel motive were rare prior to 1994, they have compromised around one in three such cases (including assault, verbal abuse and hate mail) since then. This proportion, along with the overall number of incidents, tends to rise dramatically in times of heightened conflict in the Middle East. The highest annual totals of incidents logged since 1994 took place in 2006, 2009 and 2014, corresponding respectively to the war in Lebanon and the two main bouts of conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. The 2014 war also saw an unprecedented upsurge in virulent antisemitic rhetoric on social media, ranging from near-ubiquitous “Hitler was right” memes to explicit calls for the mass killing of Jews. Such threats have even emanated from senior leadership figures in South African civil society, a notorious instance being Facebook comments posted in August 2013 by Tony Ehrenreich, Provincial Secretary of the Congress of SA Trade Unions (Cosatu) Western Cape branch, in August 2013. Amongst other inflammatory statements, Ehrenreich wrote, “The time has come to say very clearly that if a woman or child is killed in Gaza, then the Jewish Board of Deputies, who are complicit, will feel the wrath of the People of SA with the age old biblical teaching of an eye for an eye. The time has come for the conflict to be waged everywhere the Zionist supporters fund and condone the war killing machine of Israel”.
"The growing instances of antisemitism relating to Israel cannot wholly be regarded as spontaneous expression of anger against the actions of the Jewish state".
Jewish civil rights have also been infringed when individual community members and our representative institutions have been threatened, intimidated or otherwise discriminated against for their stance on Israel. In what may prove to be a landmark judgment in this regard, the Johannesburg High Court last year confirmed an earlier finding by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) that Cosatu international relations spokesperson Bongani Masuku had been guilty of antisemitic hate speech for threatening and abusive statements made against Jews who supported Israel. The case had its origins in a complaint of hate speech lodged by the SAJBD against Masuku in April 2009. The SAHRC upheld the complaint, and directed Masuku to apologise to the Jewish community. When Masuku, supported by Cosatu, refused to do so, the SAHRC applied to the Equality Court to get its ruling enforced. In contesting the application Cosatu (with Prof Steven Friedman acting as an expert witness on its behalf) argued that Masuku had been referring to ‘Zionists’ rather than Jews and charged the SAJBD with leveling false charges of antisemitism in an “attempt to silence and intimidate” those wishing to express their opposition to Israel’s actions. Rejecting this argument, Mr Justice Moshidi declared the impugned statements were “hurtful; harmful; incite harm and propagate hatred; and amount to hate speech as envisaged in section 10 of the Equality Act 4 of 2000”.
The growing instances of antisemitism relating to Israel cannot wholly be regarded as spontaneous expression of anger against the actions of the Jewish state. Certain radical anti-Israel actors, in particular BDS South Africa, have done their part by inciting ill-feeling not only against Israel but against Jews who support it. A local instance of such incitement was when BDS SA organised a protest rally against the 2014 SAJBD Gauteng Council conference and successfully exerted pressure on ANC leaders to boycott that event. This was despite this conference being focused entirely on local issues. BDS SA’s defamatory portrayal of mainstream Jewry as being inveterate supporters of apartheid, both in South Africa in bygone years and in ‘Palestine’ today has, not surprisingly, led directly to a host of antisemitic demonstrations. They include demands by the SRC at the Durban University of Technology that Jewish students be “deregistered”, the placing of a pig’s head in what was believed to be the kosher meat section of a Woolworths store in Cape Town and the notorious chanting of “Shoot the Jew” on at least two separate occasions at Wits University. These and other incidents show the regrettable extent to which the attitudes of young blacks towards Jews are effectively being poisoned by the BDS movement. It was not so long ago that such crude antisemitic attitudes were all but unknown within the black community. A great deal of the work of the SAJBD today is geared towards negating such perceptions.
It is a testimony to the strength of South African Zionism that all of this has thus far had minimal negative impact on the community’s traditionally strong Zionist affiliations. If anything, the virulence of the anti-Israel campaign has bolstered those loyalties. Yom Haatzmaut continues to be the most heavily supported communal event and in Johannesburg even Yom Hazikaron, which once drew attendances of no more than a hundred or so, now regularly attracts more than ten times that number. An estimated 7000 Johannesburg Jews (as well as some 5000 non-Jews) attended a pro-Israel rally held at the height of the 2014 Gaza conflict, with barely a score of protesters taking part in the South African Jews for a Free Palestine (SAJFP) counter demonstration. A similarly high proportion of Cape Town Jewry took part in a rally for Israel that year, despite multiple threats from within the Muslim community. At Wits and UCT campuses, meanwhile, the South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS) are progressively succeeding in blunting the impact of ‘Israel Apartheid Week’ through skilfully-planned and well thought-out counter programmes.
"On the whole, hostility against Israel is something that South African Jews have learned to live with."
Psychologically, the constant buffeting that Israel is receiving, whether in the mainstream media, social media, on university campuses or in the political arena, has inevitably taken its toll in Jewish circles. It has generated much anger and frustration, something that regularly surfaces from the floor at communal events and the Jewish media, and inevitably contributed to a sense of alienation from South African society over and above the sense of alienation that being part of the white minority engenders. South Africa’s relatively low rates of antisemitism and the general robustness of Jewish communal life has nevertheless helped to limit such feelings of disquiet, as has the emergence of a significant body of support for Israel amongst Christian Zionists. On the whole, hostility against Israel is something that South African Jews have learned to live with. The situation may well change should BDS-related pressure lead to South Africa taking definite steps to sever its ties with the Jewish state. Whether or not the resolution adopted at the last ANC electoral conference that the South African embassy in Tel Aviv be downgraded to a liaison office should be an indication of which direction the course of events is likely to take.
David Saks is Associate Director of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies and Editor of Jewish Affairs. He has published extensively on topics relating to South African Jewish, political and military history and Israel. He holds an M.A. in History from Rhodes University.