Hostility to Israel and Antisemitism in the New South Africa – Alana Pugh-Jones

Alana Pugh-Jones

Alana Pugh-Jones

The conflict in Gaza has seen a definite shift around the globe in the ways that criticism of Israeli policy is expressed. The lines between anti-Zionism and antisemitism have become significantly more blurred. In South Africa this phenomenon has been strikingly brought home in the unfolding events of 2009.

In what has been described as the first instance of public ‘Jew-baiting’ by a government minister since the 1930s, the South African Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Fatima Hajaig informed a mass rally held in solidarity for Gaza in Johannesburg in early January that the fate of the West is in the grip of ‘Jewish money power’. She said:

The control of America, just like the control of most Western countries, is in the hands of Jewish money and if Jewish money controls their country then you cannot expect anything else.’

Hajaig unleashed a media storm in South Africa and a debate on the distinction between criticizing Israel and leveling charges against Jews. Although many lauded her for speaking the ‘truth’ so openly, the vast majority of South Africans, from media news rooms and opposition

Fatima Hajaig

Fatima Hajaig

politicians, to the average Facebook groupies, came out strongly against such a statement of intolerance and aimed at a minority in the world’s ‘Rainbow Nation’.

Even a prominent group of Jewish and Muslim human rights activists, many members of the South African Human Rights Delegation that visited the Occupied Territories last year and returned very critical of Israeli policy, wrote publicly to Hajaig asking for her to confirm what she said and to apologize.

The South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), the communal umbrella organization representing the majority of Jewish South Africans, immediately laid a complaint of antisemitism again the Minister with the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) and flatly dismissed Hajaig’s first tardy and veiled apology which she made when she returned from an international visit. After spending an inordinate amount of time adopting the moral high ground, laying out both her ANC credentials and the horrors of the situation in Gaza, Hajaig stated:

At a singular point in my talk, and entirely unrelated to any South African community, I conflated Zionist pressure with Jewish influence. I regret the inference made by some that I am anti-Jewish.’

Hajaig had inverted the words ‘Zionist’ and ‘Jew’, clumsily slipping between the ‘acceptable’ language of anti-Zionism and the terminology of the longest hatred. After she was hauled before Cabinet and forced to apologize unequivocally to the President, the SAJBD and most of the South African public also accepted the apology. Given the fact that the apology was not directed to the Jewish community however, the case is still being reviewed by the SA Human Rights Commission.

Hot on the heels of the Hajaig fiasco, South Africa’s largest trade union, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), which had released several press statements during the Gaza crisis solely condemning Israel and expressing support exclusively for the Palestinian civilian population, cosatuannounced the creation of an Ad Hoc Palestinian Solidarity Coalition. This Coalition, run in conjunction with the leadership of the Palestinian Solidarity Committee (PSC), indicated that it would be holding a ‘Week of Action Against Apartheid Israel’. As well as the familiar rallies and vigils outside Parliament in Cape Town and the Israeli Embassy in Pretoria, COSATU announced their intention to prevent a scheduled Israeli ship from docking on South African shores.

On 6 February COSATU held an unauthorised march outside the Jewish communal leadership offices; the Jewish community held a solidarity event within the complex walls. Salim Vallie of the PSC explained the march in this way:

‘this is because the Zionist Federation and the SA Jewish Board of Deputies have supported the war crimes in Gaza and we are saying as South Africans we have to take sides and we need to choose the side of justice. We are not going to support the canard that says if you are opposed to the policies of Israel you are anti-Semitic, this does not intimidate us.’

The statement of a COSATU official at the march also slipped up on the problematic distinction between ‘Zionists’ versus ‘Jews’. Bongani Masuku, International Relations Secretary for COSATU, said,

“We want to convey a message to the Jews in SA that our 1.9-million workers who are affiliated to COSATU are fully behind the people of Palestine… Any business owned by Israel supporters will be a target of workers in South Africa.’

In this statement, simply being Jewish makes one an ‘Israel supporter’ – and not just someone who believes in the right of Jewish self-determination, but someone who supports what is held to be as an evil apartheid state. The overwhelming majority of Jews in South Africa do support Israel, in one sense or another. An email which is currently widely circulating is listing Jewish owned companies as targets of boycott. Already, certain Jewish owned shops are noticing a significant drop in business.

Jewish opposition to the COSATU/ PSC march was seen by some as an attempt to limit the arena for free political expression and the right to political association. But the nature of where it was held sadly denotes a warning to the Jewish community that it will be targeted if it continues to support Israel. COSATU has every right to march outside the offices of an organization with whose policies it vehemently disagrees. When it does so outside a building which houses the institutions representing the majority of the Jewish community, and in a predominantly Jewish residential area, then many will feel that it has designated the Jewish community of South Africa itself, not Israel, as the enemy.

The following day the ship, owned by an Israeli company, carrying non-Israeli goods, was offloaded ahead of schedule at Durban harbour. The Port of Durban turned to non-union workers, and also unionised workers who were unconcerned with Middle Eastern politics. Despite attempts by the Histradut to appeal to the International Transport Workers Federation, South African trade unions objected to a cooperation agreement signed between the Palestinian and Israeli transport workers union. COSATU promised in their press release, declaring ‘worker victory’ in the face of Zionist ‘subterfuge’, to:

‘ intensify its efforts in support of the struggles of the Palestinian people … Other COSATU unions are currently in discussion about how they might also give effect to COSATU resolutions on boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel, including a refusal to handle Israeli goods, and continuing pressure on our government to sever diplomatic and trade relations with Israel.’

Sadly within the Jewish community, and in broader South African society, such a heightening of tensions between pro- and anti-Israel supporters has had the effect of reducing the space for nuanced discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some moderate voices which supported the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and which advocate an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, have been rendered much more cautious by the extremism and antisemitism of Israel’s most vocal critics. Many Jewish South Africans, even those who opposed the Israeli military action in Gaza, now feel that it is harder to voice vigorous dissent, as Jews in general are now coming under fire. They find themselves under pressure to pull together with the mainstream Zionist community in the face of a blurring of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment.

What Professor Milton Shain has identified as a ‘steady progression of hostility’ within the new generation of South Africans towards Israel has been starkly revealed in the events of 2009 thus far. He identifies the three major factors behind this ratcheting up of the hostility of the rhetoric: South Africa’s third world context; the apartheid resonances regarding Israel and South AfricaPalestine; and the ‘miracle’ of the new South Africa and its transition from apartheid to a democratic rainbow nation. What leads on from this premise is that South Africa’s negotiations in 1994, their outcome of one unified democratic state, may be transplanted to any troubled zone as the key to peace. This view is understandable, taking into consideration the ideological gulf between the two sides in South Africa at the beginning of the 1994 talks and the remarkable nature of the constitution which emerged from that settlement. However, the Israel-apartheid analogy also leads to the inevitable conclusion of that Israelis should be boycotted and the logic of this is to create, as David Hirsh writes,

‘a mass movement for the exclusion of Jews, even if not all Jews, from the academic, cultural, sporting and economic life of humanity, resonates with an altogether different memory from the boycott of white South Africa.’

In short, the lines between criticism of Israel and its demonization, between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, speaking about ‘Zionists’ rather than ‘Jews’, are being distorted.

Speaking out against Israeli policy is not only legitimate but essential – no nation state is perfect, and vigorous and robust debate about Israel is necessary for the future of that democratic state. However, when this critique is expressed through motifs reminiscent of classic anti-Semitic imagery; or when that disapproval holds Israel to higher standards than other states and employs conspiracy theory, the basic standards of political tolerance and antiracism for which South Africa stands are crossed. This kind of language not only jeopardizes the cause of the Palestinian people, overshadowing their legitimate grievances, but it also feeds intolerance and prejudice against a group of people, diminishing space for political discussion and nuanced debate.

Alana Pugh-Jones

UPDATE For more from Bongani Masuku, International relations Secretary for COSATU, see this astonishing post by Ben Cohen on Z Word.

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