BDS South Africa: Esakov responds to antisemitism at Wits

Here’s an interesting response to recent events at Wits University, when a concert given by an Israeli musician, Daniel Zamir, was met with protests, including chants of ‘shoot the Jew’, echoing a well known anti-Boer song. The writer, Heidi-Jane Esakov, is a BDS activist.  In this piece she explains that her support for this policy is driven by her hopes for justice and equality for the Palestinian people, and ‘a just peace for Jewish Israelis’.  However much I disagree with BDS (particularly when it targets cultural and academic exchanges) I take her explanation at face value, as well as her repudiation of racism:

“Of course we recognise that there are those who use the Palestinian struggle as a way to camouflage their anti-Semitism, and this needs to be dealt with unequivocally. Not because it is bad for the movement, but because, fundamentally, anti-Semitism should never be tolerated.”

This seems quite a strong statement.  I have more than once felt that expressions of disapproval for antisemitism in Palestinian solidarity circles have been driven (primarily) by strategic motives – ‘bad for the movement’ as she puts it – so it is good that she addresses this possibility head on, although I am not sure she succeeds in dealing ‘unequivocally’ with the issue in the rest of the article.

The next bit is – from my perspective – not so good:

Those of us who support the struggle for Palestinian freedom and justice constantly find ourselves up against attempts to conflate challenges against Zionism and Israeli policies with anti-Semitism. These accusations are an attempt to silence criticism, and dangerously distract from real acts and expressions of anti-Semitism.

The Livingstone formulation.  With any kind of prejudice, it’s inevitable that people’s thresholds are going to be set slightly differently, and one can disagree about these without accusing people of speaking in bad faith.

Although Esakov condemns the ‘dubula e Juda’ song, she tries to (partially) excuse those responsible, by explaining that in the original ‘Boer’ song:

… the word ‘Boer’ [was] commonly understood as representing an oppressive system, not a particular ethnic group.  However the song has in fact been officially declared to be hate speech within South Africa, so this claim seems dubious.

There have been allegations by BDS supporters of ‘racial profiling’ against those who sought to ensure the concert would not be disrupted.  Esakov describes this background to the events with a confusing blend of honesty and prevarication:

 In order to prevent any disturbance of the concert by protesters, concert organisers, primarily, the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) and South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), had block-booked the venue to ensure control of who could – and, more accurately, who couldn’t – attend. Simply put, concert goers were racially profiled.

The Palestinian solidarity movement takes great pains to distinguish between Zionism and Judaism. This time, however, they got it very wrong, with various media statements asserting that they would be protesting a ‘Jewish only’ concert. This was an irresponsible oversimplification of the racial profiling that was indeed taking place. A more accurate description would have been a ‘Zionists only concert’. It is thus somewhat understandable that some of the protesters may have understood that they were protesting against Jews, and not the racism of ‘racial profiling’.

She begins by implicitly acknowledging that reports of racial profiling were misleading. But she then seems to suggest that it was in fact an instance of racial profiling – not of Jews but of Zionists.  What this really means is that people were trying to make sure the concert passed off smoothly – by Esakov’s logic any event staffed by the CST involves ‘racial profiling’.  Then in a particularly convoluted move she uses the fact the event was tendentiously described as ‘Jewish only’ to excuse the chanting – see the final bizarre sentence in bold.

But at the end of the article she returns to her starting point, and to the important fact that too many have remained silent over this issue:

Although a number of individuals and organisations linked to the Palestinian solidarity movement came out in strong condemnation of the use of the ‘shoot the Jew’ slogan, it was deeply concerning to see how many organisations aligned to the movement have remained silent. There seems to be a lack of awareness that you can only challenge racism from within a principled, anti-racist position. Challenging all expressions of racism also means challenging anti-Semitism. Not doing that severely undermines the movement and the principles it upholds.

Although it is true that she is not the only BDS activist to condemn the song, she glosses over the fact that Muhammed Desai, Chair of BDS South Africa, has not simply brushed aside criticism, but actively belittled people’s concerns about antisemitism:

He said there was no evidence of Jews being harmed because of anti-Semitic impulses, – “the whole idea anti-Semitism is blown out of proportion”.  He said if there were anti-Semitic sentiments they would flatly challenge it even if it came from within their protest